Could Car Traffic Revitalize Downtown Crossing?

To revitalize this once-bustling district, maybe we should kick pedestrians to the curb.

Consider Philly.

In 1976, city planners in Philadelphia, prompted a fuel crisis and an influx of middle-class residents, blocked off 12 blocks of Chestnut Street, one of the city’s busiest shopping streets. Their goal was to recreate the suburban shopping experience, in the spirit of Barcelona or Paris, in the heart of downtown Philadelphia for a paltry $7.4 million (roughly $30.4 million today). Within a few years, it would become apparent just how egregious a mistake this was: The once-thriving department store district became a ghost-town.

Foot traffic dwindled. Exhaust-belching SEPTA buses lumbered up and down the “Transitway,” as stipulated by the federal grant funding the project. High-end retailers either folded or fled to adjacent Walnut Street. Transitway designer Edmund Bacon (father of Kevin) later admitted that Chestnut Street was “not a pedestrian walkway and not a street,” but something ignominiously devoid of character or purpose.

Frank Lewis, writing for City Paper in a 1997 cover story, describes what became of Chestnut Street before one lane of car traffic was reintroduced:

…Chestnut seems to suffer from a multiple personality disorder, not knowing what it wants to be from one block to the next…Young men wear sandwich boards advertising check-cashing stores, and others stand outside electronics dealers and sneaker-and-jeans retailers to shout about today’s sales. Weary homeless men and women plop down on the few available benches with a half-dozen or so bulging plastic bags piled around them, their overflowing shopping carts parked nearby. Together they create the atmosphere of a noisy, run-down urban boardwalk, the kind of place people tolerate rather than enjoy.

On Chestnut Street, from the sublime to the ridiculous truly is but a step.

Sound familiar?

Two years after Philly shut down Chestnut Street, Boston’s city planners—encouraged by the successful redevelopment of Faneuil Hall—set their sights on Washington Street, home of Filene’s and Jordan Marsh. In 1978, the city blocked off the area between Summer and Winter Streets to vehicular traffic and distributed thousands of fliers announcing the creation of “Downtown Crossing,” a pedestrian-only shopping district. You know the rest of the story.

Should we scrap the plan?

Reopening Downtown Crossing to car traffic is hardly a new idea. In 2008, the Globe reported that the BRA had found that “people weren’t slowing down, they weren’t pausing, they were walking through.” The following year, the late Mayor Tom Menino drew criticism when, on his way to a Boloco ribbon-cutting, he circumnavigated the pedestrian mall altogether while still advocating its usefulness. “Having traffic there doesn’t help the flow of pedestrians as you move forward,” Menino told the media.

Now the nearly completed Millennium Tower, heralded as the long-awaited linchpin in Downtown Crossing’s revitalization, stands in the hole left in Filene’s wake. Is it time to bring the cars back? Philly gave up on the Transitway, and Chestnut Street has slowly rebounded.

“Why would anybody want to do that? Have you ever been down there and seen it’s packed with people?” says Peter G. Furth, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University. “People love the energy they get from seeing other people, being with other people. Having a large pedestrian area helps make that possible. If anything, the pedestrian area should be expanded. One of its weaknesses is that it’s a little bit too crowded with people. The number of people walking up and down Winter Street is like an exit from a football game or something. We need more pedestrian areas.”

Rosemarie Sansone, president of the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District (BID), was equally skeptical of change.

“Based on everything we’re experiencing—new businesses opening, major residential properties being added to the neighborhood bringing in more residents and the growing number of people on public transit, there is nothing that we have seen or heard that would indicate the Pedestrian Zone in Downtown Crossing should be open to vehicles,” she says.

Sansone adds that local businesses like Primark, Roche Bros., and Legal Crossing have “incorporated the streetscape into their business model,” finding success. Furth says it’s wrong to think street parking will bolster high-end retail.

“If you’re somebody who wants to travel in your expensive Mercedes, we’ve got a parking garage for you. And then, when you get out of your fine car, we’ve got a beautiful pedestrian environment for you to go in,” Furth says. “Sometimes, people think these high-end clients want to be able to drive their car right to the door of the store and then go in. That is a dream, because if you allow parking on the street, it’s going to be full! All the time! Chances that you are going to be able to drive and park in front of your store are next to none!”

Boston City Council President Bill Linehan, whose district includes Downtown Crossing, could not be reached for comment for this piece.

The comparison between Philly and Boston’s pedestrian malls is a flawed one, Furth says, despite their implementation within two years of one another. This is due to Boston’s downtown being insulated by thriving neighborhoods in the North End, Back Bay, and South End.

“America only has four or five cities where people with means, people with money, are choosing to live near downtown in large enough numbers that the downtown is still alive at night,” Furth says. “Typical American city, downtown is busy busy busy while the banks are open, and at 6 o’clock at night, the sidewalks roll up and it’s desolate, and then people don’t feel safe and it’s kind of empty. Boston doesn’t have any high crime areas right next to downtown. We’re one of the very few cities in America that can say that.”

Furth, who has studied the Hague’s wildly successful push for more pedestrian zones downtown, would love to see Newbury Street go carless, along with a larger portion of Washington Street. “They want it to be safe and they want there to be other people there. Not many cities have the ingredients that they could put that together. Boston does,” he says.