The New Filennium

Last week’s news from Downtown Crossing couldn’t be better for Boston. Not only has the long-dormant Filene’s project been reborn, but Millennium Partners and Handel Architects, the team that’s now in charge of the site, has a proven track record at precisely this kind of ambitious, complex, mixed-use, elegant district-defining project. We’re going from a train wreck to a celebration in one move.

I have often written about the sclerotic approvals process in this, and other so-called “contested cities” (cities where the demand for land is greater than the supply, most of the time). I have been involved in various ways with many excellent projects that either didn’t get built or were dramatically and negatively altered by a public review process that is too reactive and doesn’t involve enough real planning. But Mayor Menino and the BRA are to be congratulated for saving us from what could have been a much longer and more frustrating period of years with a hole at the center of the city.

I was very concerned that simply getting anything built on the Filene’s site would soon become the default position. After almost four years of emptiness, I could see the city approving of something much less interesting than the bold original, though stalled, Vornado/ Elkus Manfredi project, whose renderings have adorned the Daniel Burnham-designed portion of the old Filene’s all this time. But this new team of Millennium Partners and Handel Architects is a fabulous alternative. As has been reported, this group has worked together on many excellent urban mixed-use towers in the past and has excellent relations with City Hall, which certainly doesn’t hurt in this town.

The Millennium/ Handel team has actually created an interesting new, market-driven building type. Boston’s new Ritz-Carlton towers are only one of several such projects developed by Millennium and designed by Handel during the past 15 years. They have done other towers in New York, San Francisco, and Miami as well. What makes this work unique, however, is that it has bound together a mix of building programs (public amenities at the base, long-term and hotel space, apartments, and condominiums) that each have different identities and entrances, and that work on the balance sheet and in terms of architecture and urbanism. The buildings have active street frontage; they aren’t internalized like malls; they often have varying massing moving up, so they don’t create excessive wind on the sidewalk; and they are well designed and built with quality materials. This new type is a perfect hybrid of real estate development and design.

And the location is perfect, too. Boston needs a tower at Downtown Crossing more than it needs one anywhere else. It is a more important location than the also stopped 1,000-foot tower proposed for Federal Street on the site of the city parking garage at Winthrop Square because it visually marks the heart of the city, where major transit lines interconnect at what one hopes will again be an important retail center as well.

And there are no longstanding residential neighbors to say that the building is too tall. This is also important when we hear that the proposed building will be 500-600 feet tall. Maybe this project will nudge Boston a step closer toward building at the scale of our age, in ways that add to — rather than detract from — the character of this city.

In 1909, just about as far into the last century as we are now into this one, Edward A. Filene, Louis Brandeis, and others organized the Boston-1915 campaign as part of the City Beautiful Movement in Boston. And according to Lawrence W. Kennedy, author of Planning the City on the Hill: Boston Since 1630, many cynics derided the founder of Filene’s and the builder of the Burnham building still on the site, for dreaming of the Filennium. Perhaps his timing was just a century off.