Photograph by Peter Ross/Corbis Outline
THE MOST ABSURD thing about the absurd, city-block-size hole in the ground in Downtown Crossing isn’t actually the hole.
[sidebar]It’s not the century-old building with its backside ripped off that stands next to it. It’s not even the tattered white tarps that, in an effort to make downtown Boston look slightly less like downtown Sarajevo, have been pinned onto that building and another bombed-out-looking structure to hide their crumbling guts.
No, the most absurd part of the now three-year-old hole in the heart of our city is the signage that still adorns it. Plastered on the walls and wire fences surrounding the site from Summer to Washington to Franklin streets, the signs announce the coming of something great. “One Franklin,” they proclaim, referring to the name of the $700 million, 39-story development that was planned for the spot where Filene’s used to stand. “Exceptional Offices, Stylish Residences, Fashionable Shopping, Luxury Hotel.” The seal of the City of Boston and Mayor Tom Menino’s imprimatur are hung up all around, too.
If you didn’t know better, you’d think a luxury building was going to sprout up any minute. But, of course, it’s not. Construction on One Franklin officially stopped in June 2008. James Michael Curley has a better chance of rising from the ground than does that particular building with that particular design, dreamed up, as it was, at the peak of America’s real estate wave. You know this for sure when you walk all the way around to Hawley Street, where the banners covering the wire fence run out. There you can peer through the fence directly into the hole, big enough to host at least three swim meets at once. It’s not pretty: twisted metal, wood scraps, empty bottles, and not a construction worker in sight.
When New York developer Steven Roth and his Vornado Realty Trust announced the project five years ago, the news was met with universal acclaim. The classic though dated buildings that used to be Filene’s would be replaced by an awesome tower, the linchpin of a reborn Downtown Crossing. But long after the department store came down, nothing has gone up to replace it. Instead, there’s a hole that projects a kind of shadow across the neighborhood, casting everything nearby in its squalor.
‘“It’s right outside my window,” says Dean Stratouly, a developer who works on the 11th floor of 33 Arch Street, a high-rise he built. “I call it Beirut.” He says traffic at his Arch Street garage has been off since Filene’s closed, a fact that’s rippled through businesses in the rest of Downtown Crossing. “The neighborhood without that retail isn’t as vibrant,” he says.
The damage hasn’t been limited to just that section of Boston, either. John Fish, the chairman and CEO of Suffolk Construction, the firm contracted to knock down the Filene’s buildings and put up the new one, tells me that the hole has turned all of Boston into a national joke. “We hear about that in every city we go to,” he says. “People in California, people in Virginia, people down in other parts of the country — Florida — will ask, ‘What about that big hole in the ground?’”
Menino has been asking that same question — very loudly. Powerless to force Roth and his company to do anything, he has taken to trying to browbeat them into action, alternately calling them “arrogant,” “stubborn,” and, most damningly, “those New Yorkers.” But the famously unyielding Roth has not budged. After all, he’s more used to playing the bully himself. A person forced to negotiate against him once put it this way to the New York Times: “Steve liked to begin by saying, ‘Your worst nightmare just walked into the room.’”
Now our worst nightmare sits in the middle of Downtown Crossing. Plodding through there not too long ago, I couldn’t stop asking myself, How could this have happened? The Central Artery has come down, green space is up, the Seaport is booming. Boston has never looked better. How could the most important project in the city have become such a disaster?