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A mural offered a vision of Downtown Crossing’s future to fast-food customers waiting in line on Franklin Street yesterday.
A mural offered a vision of Downtown Crossing’s future to fast-food customers waiting in line on Franklin Street yesterday. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)

A downtown crossroad

City tries not to let overhaul drive shoppers away

With Filene's Basement set to shutter its flagship store in several weeks, Downtown Crossing is facing its biggest challenge since the area was transformed into a pedestrian mall 30 years ago.

Five big development projects are getting underway within several blocks of each other in the struggling retail district. The most visible, and potentially disruptive, is the $625 million redevelopment of the historic Filene's department store, a block-long complex that is being turned into a 38-story tower of condominiums and hotel, office, and retail space.

In total, more than $1.2 billion in private funds is being poured into Downtown Crossing -- an unprecedented investment for the district -- to create 350,000 square feet of retail space, dormitories for 600 students, 350 hotel rooms, 550 residential units, and 700 parking spaces. If successful, these projects could bring about the long-awaited metamorphosis of Downtown Crossing, which for years has been saddled with a reputation as an unkempt, unsafe shop ping district lined with discount stores, fast-food restaurants, and vacant storefronts. To ease the pain of construction, city officials hope to spend more than $250,000 to help promote Downtown Crossing and host events there as a way to draw shoppers into the area.

"We have real concerns about the neighborhood and the hole in retail with the loss of Filene's Basement," Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said. "We have to make sure the construction doesn't inhibit people from coming, and we need to help retailers to make sure people have reasons to go to Downtown Crossing."

But for the immediate future, Downtown Crossing remains more vulnerable than ever. Already, some shoppers are vowing to avoid the district, causing merchants near the development to worry they will not survive the next few years. Others are being forced out. To start clearing the way for construction at the Filene's site, expected to start in September, developers have ordered local vendors on the site, including Lambert's Market Place, to shut down at the end of the month. The Downtown Crossing Association, which runs a pushcart program with more than 40 vendors in the area, will lose 23 spots around the Filene's building and in the adjacent Shoppers' Park and is requiring owners with multiple pushcarts to abandon at least one by September.

Henry Herrera , who serves burritos from two pushcarts in Downtown Crossing, has to give up half his business. And because vendors have received no assurances that they will be allowed to stay once the Filene's redevelopment is completed, Herrera is looking for space outside of Downtown Crossing for his second pushcart. He also is considering moving his restaurant, Herrera's Mexican Grill on Temple Place, to the suburbs because he doubts that Downtown Crossing will remain busy enough to support the business through the next few years. "This is my livelihood," Herrera said. "And I'm pretty concerned that I can't make it here after 17 years in Downtown Crossing."

It's a critical time for the district, which already lost one of its prime retail attractions last year, after Macy's purchased the Filene's chain and shuttered the flagship Filene's department store in the center of Downtown Crossing. Now, Filene's Basement, a separate company that occupies three basement floors in the former Filene's building, is preparing to close at least until 2009. One of the city's top tourist attractions, Filene's Basement failed to find a temporary site after being told it would not be safe to stay open in its current location. The closing leaves another gaping hole in the neighborhood, through which more than 100,000 people pass daily. Diane Tilton , who works in the Financial District, usually visits Downtown Crossing at least twice a week to shop at Filene's Basement and grab a quick lunch. Now, she's rethinking her routine with her favorite store set to close and construction about to start.

The Filene's plan calls for fencing off most of Shoppers' Park, closing and narrowing sidewalks, and potentially shutting down surrounding streets at times. The subway entrance between the project and Franklin Street will be closed, but the exit on Summer Street will remain open. Trucks will set up for construction and demolition at Franklin and Hawley streets. A full construction management report that provides specific details has yet to be filed with the city.

The Filene's project is expected to wrap up by 2010. Construction on all of the other major developments in the area will be underway by the end of the year and should be finished by 2009. Those projects are Emerson College's 145,000-square-foot mixed-use project to include dorms, classrooms, and cultural uses at Paramount Center on Washington Street; Suffolk University's plan for a 274-bed dormitory at 10 West St.; a 31-story retail and residential project at 45 Province St.; and a 14-story mixed-use building at Hayward Place.

"It's going to faze a lot of people," Tilton said of the various construction projects. "Trying to contain all the noise, mess, and dust -- it'll be a big deal, and people aren't going to go there as much."

To persuade people to continue to visit the district, the city is considering setting up "pop-up" stores, or temporary retail outlets built around the perimeter of the Filene's site, according to Randi Lathrop of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Other ideas include creating an on-site information center for passersby, wrapping the entire building site in cloth graphics and advertisements, and designing a website with video showing progress of the projects in the district.

"We need to go beyond the chain-link fence. That's fine in some neighborhoods but that's not going to be fine for Downtown Crossing," said Lathrop. "It's critical that Downtown Crossing is kept vital in these next few years and people still feel comfortable coming down here. This is really the heart and soul of the city."

Meanwhile, Macy's, which sits next to the Filene's site, also is stepping up its programs this fall with plans to hold a Halloween pet costume contest and host fashion shows, celebrity appearances, and cooking demonstrations.

Gale International president John B. Hynes III, one of the developers for the Filene's project, said a very large sign and graphics program is planned for the site that will try to conceal and contain all of the activity. The colorful signs will promote new commercial and retail tenants as deals are signed.

"We recognize that the site is in the heart of Downtown Crossing. There are a lot of abutting businesses that depend on the success of the project," Hynes said. "We're trying to offset the inconveniences of the construction with the promise of what will soon be realized -- a better Downtown Crossing."

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

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