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This blog is a place for dialogue on issues and actions relating to Boston's unique built environment and the preservation and continuing evolution of historic resources within it. My goal, as the Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, is to post timely, relevant and thought-provoking intelligence, ideas, and insights that will engage conversations, inform our actions, and broaden perspectives on preservation.

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Greg Galer, Executive Director, Boston Preservation Alliance

GREG GALER
Executive Director

AllianceViews Blog

The Future of Downtown Boston Is …. Its Past!

June 22nd, 2016  |  Posted by: Greg Galer

A remarkable thing happened to me yesterday. I attended Bisnow’s morning gathering on “The Future of Downtown Boston.” Bisnow is a company that facilitates online and in-person discussions about real estate. Their morning meetings are typically healthy networking among, maybe, a few hundred real estate and development professionals followed by presentations and panel discussions for folks in this professional space.

While the Alliance holds good relationships with many people in development and real estate I wouldn’t say that they are necessarily a crowd I would characterize as inherently pro-preservation. In conversations, I typically have to remind them why Boston’s character is so important to the city’s continued success. With a little poke like that, they usually come around.

However, yesterday was different. Panelists time and again, really from out of the gate, extolled the benefits of the historic building stock in downtown:

Scott Pollak, Arrowstreet Architecture and Design, and working on Congress Square’s redevelopment of the 1906 Shawmut National Bank in addition to six other early 20th Century buildings, commented on the importance of “context and authenticity” that come from the historic buildings, and a character of these buildings that is enticing to the creative-economy businesses and their employees. Given the ecology of these businesses, many starting very small and growing, the variety of office spaces in the downtown neighborhood provides healthy support for growth within the same neighborhood.

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The Godfrey Hotel.

Projects such as the Godfrey Hotel–1904 and 1908 office buildings recently converted into a thriving boutique hotel within the historic building envelope–were noted as indications that, as Larry DiCara of Nixon Peabody noted, Downtown Boston now has “cache.” It’s a place with more lattés and craft beer and fewer suits and ties.

Maura Moffitt, Synergy Investments, who own several historic buildings Downtown, noted that smaller, historic buildings provide branding and self-identity to small start-ups moving from incubator space into their own offices and that the retail of the neighborhood is changing to reflect their influx. The employees of these businesses value opportunities to “collide and collaborate” and that means first floor retail of lunch and happy hour opportunities, which are popping up in many older buildings. Rosemarie Sansone, , Downtown BID, said the young people flowing into the neighborhood embrace its historic vibe.

Placemaking in Downtown is an evolution driven by efforts of schools like Emerson College, noted Lee Pelton, Emerson’s President. Pelton discussed how the college helped drive and continue to push with their projects, what he described as “people development” as much as “real estate development.” Emerson continues to invest in its historic properties including plans to restore and rejuvenate the Little Building (1917) on the corner of Boylston and Tremont.

Over and over again we heard about the fact that the historic buildings in Downtown have good bones that provide flexibility and desirability in today’s market. Scott Pollak even reiterated a point preservationists have been making for years: renovating existing buildings is far more environmentally responsible than demolishing and building new ones. And he noted that Boston isn’t a museum, but a living, breathing ecology in which the buildings that exist form a central component.

When asked about the introduction of new construction and significant height, the group agreed that there is a delicate balance, an ecosystem that we need to monitor and foster. New construction and some height could be ok but in the right places and right doses. Historic fabric shouldn’t be destroyed without very careful consideration of its impact on that balanced urban ecosystem.

Even John Usdan, President of Midwood Development who is proposing a 700′ tower at Bromfield and Washington Streets, a project which we have opposed due to its impact on the historic Ladder District, and in particular Bromfield Street, noted that design is so important to Boston and why Bostonian’s feel so passionate about the city. He said the sense of place and history anchors the city and is “integral to its vitality.” Usdan acknowledged a challenge in Downtown is how to integrate the demands of a modern city with the historic context “of an almost sacred place.” How to engage and enliven the street without overwhelming pedestrians … how to make sense of a large tower only a few hundred feet from the Old South Meeting House.

Usdan concluded by noting that figuring out how to manage these challenges of balancing old and new are “essential to what makes Boston, Boston,” a phrase we often use at the Alliance.

See our video on that very topic!

Even the preservation regulatory process was portrayed in the positive light we try to shed. Steve Faber of Related Beal said as clear as day something I should put on a bumper sticker, “Don’t be afraid of historic preservation and development.”  He shared a story about their project at Congress Square and their initial concern when they learned that the Boston Landmarks Commission planned to Landmark the building:  “We thought the process would be stifling to rejuvenation and exactly the opposite took place.”

The Boston Business Journal (Catherine Carlock, 6/20/16) recently noted that the desirability for office space high in towers has weakened, with people wanting to move from the clouds “back into the fabric of the city.”  In May Carlock similarly wrote “Why tech companies have left the Innovation District for downtown Boston” (5/6/16) quoting Carbonite’s VP and General Council Danielle Sheer, “I really hope that Downtown Crossing doesn’t lose any of its grit anytime soon. That’s a huge part of why we want to be here. We need to make sure landlords understand that if it becomes commercial, I think you’ll see companies like us find another space.”

It’s always nice when a position for which you’ve been advocating for years makes its way into the dialog and lexicon of others in the community, particularly a group that isn’t always the first to support what they believe to be your cause. I’m glad they’ve seen the light and we look forward to working together to make Boston shine.

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