On October 27, 2022, the mayor of Boston, Massachusetts, Michelle Wu, released a report by the City and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) on the challenges facing Downtown Boston, and presenting a set of initiatives and recommendations to revitalize and reimagine the neighborhood.
The new report is a result of close coordination among the Mayor’s Office, the Office of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion, and the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA).
The release also marks the relaunch of PLAN: Downtown by the BPDA, a comprehensive City planning process for the neighborhood to help further develop and implement the vision in the report.
The report and plan are nicely timed to take advantage of the launch of the new revitalization and resilience-building tools by the RISING PLACES initiative, which can help avoid the fate suffered by over 90% of revitalization plans in the United States: being shelved without significant implementation, joining decades worth of previous plans.
“This report is another example of the seriousness with which this Administration is taking the issue of revitalizing one of the most important areas of our city: our Downtown,” said Segun Idowu, Chief of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion.
“I am grateful to our colleagues across City Hall and all of the stakeholders who provided valuable input on the work we can do together to strengthen local small businesses, attract visitors from across our neighborhoods and the world, and transform our commercial core into a vibrant, more inclusive community,” he continued.
Downtown will restart the community planning process that first began in 2018 and paused in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan will include a focus on creating more housing in Downtown and will result in new zoning to support housing, open space, and small businesses.
“We envision Downtown Boston as a space where people from all backgrounds come together,” said Mayor Wu.
“Together with the restart of PLAN: Downtown, this report presents a roadmap for a truly inclusive, round-the-clock neighborhood filled with new homes, diverse businesses, world-class public spaces, vibrant nightlife, and a thriving arts and culture scene,” she added.
Before COVID-19, Downtown Boston was the busiest neighborhood in the city, with heavy foot traffic driven by thousands of office workers. However, the shift to remote work is significantly, and likely permanently, reshaping the central business core.
The report confirms that downtown foot traffic remains at least 40 percent below pre-pandemic levels, and office vacancy rates are rising in the neighborhood.
The report found that foot traffic recovery remains faster on weekends, demonstrating that non-office uses of the Downtown are bouncing back to pre-pandemic levels more quickly.
Overall, the report presents the challenge of post-pandemic recovery as an opportunity for the City to reimagine Downtown Boston as a more diverse and vibrant neighborhood, less reliant on a weekday migration of office workers, and where current and new residents, business owners, workers, and visitors can come together to live, work, and connect in new ways.
“The BPDA is enthusiastically looking forward to relaunching PLAN: Downtown to address the unique needs of this area in a post-pandemic environment and support the effort to revitalize downtown Boston,” said Chief of Planning Arthur Jemison.
“Our planners are excited to work with the community to help them formulate a vision for the future of downtown that supports, among other things, livability, walkability, and access to open space,” he added.
The report outlines the City’s visions and primary policy goals for Downtown along with the high-impact actions the City is considering to revitalize the neighborhood. They are aimed at driving economic recovery for Downtown with a focus on equity, resilience, and new opportunity.
The BCG team looked globally to survey strategies cities are taking to respond to the new-normal for central business districts long reliant on office workers’ five-day-a-week routine. Five overarching strategies emerged, including expanding the residential focus of downtowns, refreshing office-focused neighborhoods for new industries, investing in tourism infrastructure, incentivizing and reducing barriers to small business growth, and growing the all-hours cultural footprint of central business districts.
To help build a new vision for a thriving downtown, the City hopes to adopt promising elements from each of these strategies.
To achieve this, the report lays out six key focus areas for the City to ensure a robust downtown:
- Ensuring the continued vibrancy of office space downtown;
- Expanding housing downtown;
- Growing the daily use of downtown by bolstering cultural, art, retail, services, and hospitality ecosystems;
- Supporting connectivity and mobility downtown via multi-modal transportation infrastructure and protected infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists;
- Enhancing economic opportunity downtown by supporting women, BIPOC, and other underserved populations, and by strengthening the small business and creative community;
- Growing Boston’s footprint as a global tourism hub.
The report lists over thirty policies the City can implement to achieve these six goals. Some are existing proposed initiatives already underway that can be built upon, while others are new proposals and pilots with the potential to be expanded Citywide. Priority actions to advance the City’s goals include:
- Supporting conversions of class B/C office space into new uses including residential housing;
- Creating new zoning incentives to allow increased zoning density for new housing (in PLAN: Downtown);
- Creating low-rent spaces for minority- and women- owned businesses;
- Re-imagining Faneuil Hall Marketplace and Quincy Market post-pandemic;
- Reopening City Hall Plaza as an anchor of public space with new programing and amenities;
- Piloting pedestrianization of certain streets; and
- Creating new spaces, events, and programs to expand nightlife downtown, ideally to attract new populations and demographic/socioeconomic groups.
The report also includes a detailed analytical baseline conducted by BCG to understand how the pandemic affected foot traffic and economic activity. Dozens of stakeholders from the neighborhood and the business community were consulted during the process including Chinatown Main Streets, BECMA, Amplify Latinx, Boston While Black, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, A Better City, hotel general managers, building owners, developers, and restaurant owners.
“A vibrant, inclusive, connected downtown is essential to ensuring that Boston continues to grow and to thrive,” said Rick Dimino, President and CEO of A Better City.
“Under Mayor Wu’s leadership and with the support of the business community through vehicles like the Greenway BID, the successful implementation of this report will position Boston as the economic engine of our region and location of preference for employers and employees alike,” he continued.
“The relaunch of Plan: Downtown is an exciting opportunity to shape how future planning and economic development decisions can ensure the long-term vibrancy of Downtown Boston,” said Michael Nichols, President of the Downtown BID.
“Generations of Bostonians and visitors have made treasured memories in the streets, shops, and special places of the neighborhood. We look forward to working together to foster equitable economic vitality for business owners of every size and a dynamic and accessible downtown for residents, workers, and visitors,” he continued.
Supporting a thriving Downtown environment that is responsive to the 21st century needs of residents, businesses, and visitors, especially in a post-pandemic world, is critical to Boston’s continued success. PLAN: Downtown will formally relaunch at a kick-off event on November 9th in Downtown Crossing.
At that event, community members and BPDA staff will review work to date and work to come. The relaunched process will include engagement with local stakeholders and community members to directly address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Downtown, including a market and feasibility study of converting underutilized office buildings to residential and other uses.
The release of the Downtown Revitalization Report and the announcement to relaunch PLAN: Downtown builds off Mayor Wu’s commitment to creating a welcoming and thriving neighborhood for residents, workers, and visitors alike.
In September, the City reopened the temporary beer garden at City Hall Plaza in partnership with 67 Degrees Brewing, a Black, woman, and veteran-owned craft brewery.
This summer, Mayor Wu launched Boston Together Again, a series of weekday cultural, food, and wellness events in Downtown that ran from mid-July to mid-October.
In April, in partnership with the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District, the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, and the Greenway BID, the City hosted Boston Blooms, a one-day block party stretching from South Station to Downtown Crossing that welcomed employees, residents, and visitors back to Downtown.
Featured image of Boston via Adobe Stock.