Boston – Downtown Crossing has been in the news a lot lately. The Filene’s building recently got a developer, in the past few years the Paramount and Modern theaters and the Boston Opera House have been rehabilitated, Scholars American Bistro and Cocktail Lounge opened a few months ago, and the vacant Modernist building that used to contain Borders Bookstore has an opportunity to do something great for the neighborhood depending on its next tenant.
In addition, there is now a team of “ambassadors” on Downtown Crossing that stroll the streets picking up trash and giving directions to lost visitors as a way of bettering the public perception of the place. But the area has a ways to go to achieve the vibrancy of its potential. So what’s missing?
I think that Boston should consider implementing a strategy similar to the one that New York City deployed in Times Square during the 1990s. I recently stumbled upon a documentary about Robert AM Stern, famed architect and Dean of the Yale School of Architecture that discussed his accomplishments thus far and asked him what he thought of the state of design in the United States today. Stern was commissioned to create a master plan for Times Square in 1992 that would restore the neighborhood to its former Broadway-centered glory, putting an end to its seedier reputation. A key factor in his approach was creating a detailed signage and lighting policy. He set minimums instead of maximums for the size of signs, brightness of billboards, and degree to which they extended into the sidewalk area.
I think the plan was enormously successful. The facades of the buildings are very engaging and seem to inspire the same buzz of activity on the street. It’s exciting and it’s unlike any other neighborhood in the city, and that’s the kind of energy that Downtown Crossing should strive for. Downtown Crossing is the most urban neighborhood in the city in that it has corporate offices, Suffolk University and Emerson College, theaters, a mall, residences, churches, some of Boston’s oldest buildings, and a stop on the Orange and Red lines. It’s a major through way for people moving from the Boston Common/Garden and Back Bay to the Financial District, so it will always have a stream of people bustling through. The signage and light requirements set forth by Stern in Times Square will make Downtown Crossing more of a destination to spend time and enjoy rather than quickly pass through, and it will make it a great asset to the city.
Photo Times Square courtesy Dennis Mojado under Creative Commons license.