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Globe Editorial

Downtown plan offers vitality for Quincy, lessons for others

January 23, 2011

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MEDIUM-SIZED cities in Massachusetts and across the country dream of revitalizing their flagging downtowns. But few have been as bold as Quincy, a city of 91,000 with a $1.3 billion plan to remake its downtown as a dense commercial and residential hub. While there is some risk to the city’s taxpayers, the potential rewards are greater. And as a bonus, the project will also yield lessons for other New England communities that hope to reinvent themselves.

Quincy’s downtown, like some others in the region that are burdened with aging infrastructure and poor traffic flow, contains an uneven mix of commercial and government uses. The area is “functionally obsolete and physically deteriorated,’’ according to Ken Narva, managing partner of Street-Works, a real estate developer based in White Plains, N.Y. He gets no argument from Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch or City Council members, who recently agreed to an innovative plan to upgrade the transportation network and add more than 700 housing units, more than 1 million square feet of offices, two hotels, and 575,000 square feet of new restaurants and stores.

To support the new construction, the city needs new downtown utilities, roadways, sidewalks, public spaces, and eight public parking garages. Street-Works will secure private financing for these improvements up front. Once revenues start flowing from new taxes and the public garages, Quincy would purchase the new infrastructure from Street-Works. The city has agreed to borrow $227 million for this purpose. By working together, the city and the developer can get financing for the public improvements sooner and more easily than either party could on its own.

While the financing structure is novel, its success still depends on old-fashioned notions of town centers as vibrant places to live, shop, and seek entertainment. While a belief in authentic, walkable downtown districts has become an article of faith in urban-planning circles, the developers at Street-Works are betting heavily that specific characteristics of Quincy make it an ideal spot. While the smart-growth vision for Massachusetts largely centers around commuter rail lines, downtown Quincy has something even better: direct access to the Red Line and close proximity to Boston. The city also has a stable middle-class tax base and a political leadership willing to take risks.

And because of its historic sites — most notably the homes of John Adams and John Quincy Adams — Quincy also has untapped potential to attract not just diners and shoppers but also tourists. The planned restructuring of the Adams visitor center and Adams National Park should help the city maximize its appeal.

A project of this magnitude contains many risks, but Quincy officials did their homework. That included a trip to West Hartford, Conn., where Street-Works and town officials struck a deal in 2004 to create Blue Back Square — a smaller mixed-use development that used the same financial structure the Quincy project will use. “You can be taken to the cleaners if you don’t write these things correctly,’’ warned West Hartford’s town manager, Ron Van Winkle. “You have to be as smart as the developers. And they are very smart.’’

Quincy placed dozens of conditions on the developers. Among other things, they must accept the up-front risk for permitting and building the public improvements, secure rights to all private land in the development area, guarantee a 4-to-1 ratio of private to public dollars in the overall project, and line up many tenants in advance. Real estate attorney Robert Fishman, who represented Quincy in the negotiation, called the deal the “most challenging and complex’’ he’d seen in 30 years.

There is no iron-clad guarantee that the project will succeed. And this won’t be a model for every struggling mid-sized city. But the Quincy project does reveal what can emerge when a city takes stock of what makes it unique and worthy of investment — and when it recognizes the enormous value of its historic downtown.