BOSTON's downtown - once the hub of the Hub - is headed for a giant spruce-up. Private developers, working with a community task force, have hammered out plans that will erase the city's adult entertainment zone, toss up two sparkling multiple-use centers, and throw in a whole bucketfull of community benefits in the process. The $1.4 billion aim: to return downtown to the bustling center it once was.
The two projects, Boston Crossing (developed by the Campeau Corporation) and Commonwealth Center (by F.D. Rich and A.W. Perry), will produce five million square feet of new and rehabilitated space. There will be four office towers, a hotel, a new Bloomingdale's, and a Jordan Marsh department store renovated to look like the original one built on the site.
And in what may set some sort of precedent, a fortress-like shopping mall - completed just four years ago - will be completely dismantled. It was designed at a time when the streets were seen as dangerous. Its replacement will be far more open, with glass fronts.
City officials are delighted with the expected $23 million in annual property taxes, construction workers look forward to 12,600 new jobs, and ultimately the area will benefit from the creation of 11,600 permanent jobs.
Just as the design is very '80s, so are the rules the developers must live by.
In compliance with the Midtown Cultural District Plan, a redevelopment strategy for a 28-block area of downtown, the developers have agreed to provide 261 units of badly needed mixed-income housing, day-care centers for downtown and Chinatown workers, as well as theaters.
The Art Deco Paramount Theater will be restored and will house a 199-seat and a 499-seat dance theater; two 199-seat experimental theaters are also planned. One of the developers is restoring Evans House, the oldest commercial brownstone in the city.
``The inclusion of the theaters is terrific and really will make the area vibrant in a way that it might not have been, by making it alive at night,'' says Larry Murray, director of ArtsBoston, an arts services organization, and chairman of the Midtown Cultural District Task Force, a coalition of community groups,
This project began four years ago when arts groups appealed to Mayor Raymond Flynn for help. The economy was booming, rents were high, the groups were losing leases. At the same time, that boom wasn't reaching downtown; expanding suburban development had left the area underutilized. The Midtown Cultural District Plan was initiated by Mayor Flynn to solve both problems.
The 520-member task force and the developers held 210 meetings during the last year over such issues as design, parking, cultural facilities, and neighborhood concerns.
``Polite, optimistic, and frustrating,'' says Mr. Murray of the meetings. ``In addition to the theaters, we're trying to be cognizant of historical preservation issues, day-care issues, the homeless issue. Developers go cross-eyed over all the groups they have to meet with.''
But in many cases the concessions made by developers ended up helping them, says Carl Geupel, project director for the Campeau Corporation.
``We hope that some of the people who live in the affordable housing that will be created will take jobs in our department stores,'' he says. ``We're providing ESL [English as a second language] training as part of the jobs training for the same reason. And we have a Women in the Building Trades project, to help our contractors meet our goals of having women on the job sites.''
The new developments cut a great swath through the heart of the Combat Zone, an area that the city zoned in the early '70s to keep porno movies, peep shows, and adult bookstores in one spot. It's viewed as an experiment that didn't work.
Chinatown residents, who stand to be most affected by the increased traffic and rising rents the project will cause, nevertheless will benefit from $23 million in housing-linkage funds, $4.6 million in job linkage, job training, business opportunities, subway station improvements, and reduced evening parking.
But they're still looking for something else to complete the picture, says George Joe, executive director of the Chinatown/South Cove Neighborhood Council. ``The touchdown was getting the benefits; the extra point is making sure they're actually there. When we see the first check, we'll know that we did what we set out to do.''
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the new developments.
Robert Coard, executive director of Action for Boston City Development (ABCD), an umbrella for 85 antipoverty groups, says that he's concerned that the fledgling black-owned businesses in the area will be displaced because of high rents, and that those minorities thinking of opening businesses won't be able to ``because they've raised the ante to join the game.'' He's also concerned that poor people who kept downtown going when other shoppers fled to the suburbs will feel out of place with the gentrification.
``We want to make sure they will feel psychological access as well as physical access,'' says Mr. Coard. His organization has been working with the developers for two years about these concerns.
``It won't look like a traditional office development,'' says Murray. ``We look at it as opportunity to create a user-friendly neighborhood. What we want most is a place where families can come down, feel comfortable, run into street performers, take in a gallery, or to visit a theater and have it be affordable. The designers used state-of-the-art computer analyses to identify potential skyscraper problems such as wind and shadow.
The buildings were set back from the bases, so they wouldn't create wind tunnels for the frigid air masses that sweep down from Canada, says Homer Russell, director of urban design for the Boston Redevelopment Authority. One building was slimmed down and three stories were moved to the top of another to keep shadows off historic Boston Common.
``We feel very empowered by this whole process,'' Murray says. ``We've had a chance to shape our own future as a community and as artists.''