Keohane: Lipstick on a Pig

1196096399Last Wednesday (blame the holidays for my tardiness) the Globe ran a piece on how Downtown Crossing is completely and utterly screwed this holiday season. Filene’s Basement shut its doors in September, and people have stopped coming to the Crossing to do their holiday shopping.

“Downtown Crossing,” ventures the piece, “once a retail mecca that attracted families every weekend, has struggled for years to reinvent itself amidst the departure of department stores, persistent vacancies, and suburban competition.”

In order to stanch the bleeding, the mayor has invested a boatload of money in a campaign to bring people back.

The city said yesterday that it’s planning to spend $100,000 on new marketing and programs to help lure shoppers during the holiday season to Downtown Crossing. A temporary market selling wreaths and Christmas trees will open in December on Summer Street, along with a petting zoo nearby. The city also is bringing Santa to the area on the weekends and offering free candy canes and hot cocoa.

Additionally, the BRA is running ads in local papers to market Downtown Crossing, and the mayor is set to weigh in on his broader, longterm ideas on how to market the Crossing tomorrow. This is part of another costly marketing effort by the city, which I lampooned here and here.

But one key thing is missing from the push to save what was once the city’s retail heart: a semblance of reality. Shuttered department stores have indeed hurt the Crossing, but it’s folly to think that suburban competition is at fault here. Think of the reasons one would come to Downtown Crossing. What does the district offer that can’t be gotten anywhere else, at least anywhere close by?

1. Filene’s Basement

2. H&M

3. Borders

Yet when the old New England Bell (I think) building on Newbury and Boylston was renovated into what is now known as “The Newbry” (puke), and the bottom floor was turned into retail space and filled with, you guessed it, Filene’s Basement, H&M and Borders, the mayor cheered.

“The Newbry is continuing to invigorate that area of Boylston Street with these premier retailers. It’s becoming a real beacon for retail,” Menino told the Globe in July of 2006. Only later did it occur to him that he had effectively hailed the death knell of his beloved Downtown Crossing.

And now we’re going to spend a hundred Gs on a marketing push—on top of the hundreds of thousands more we were already spending to “rebrand” the Crossing? I appreciate we live in a branding-obsessed world, where there’s no problem that can’t be solved by using different words to describe it, but isn’t this missing the point?

The reason Downtown Crossing is failing is because there’s no reason to go there anymore. Save for, I’d say, the Brattle Bookstore, there’s nothing there that can’t be had in a more pleasant part of town. And a petting zoo? I hardly think loosing a bunch of wild, filthy goats into Washington Street is going to bring the upscale crowd back in. I don’t know about you people, but I live in the city so I don’t have to touch animals.

The only option now is the most unpleasant. Let it die, so we can rebuild anew from scratch, ideally with more interesting indie businesses, and good music venues, bars and cafes, preferably with outdoor seating and good public art.

Boston already has one major upscale retail district in the Back Bay, and to try and develop another so close by—which is what they’re going to try to do— is foolish. Let’s get some street-level city culture in there. Lord knows our increasingly sterile boutique city needs it at badly this point.

PHOTO from