Should we aim for neighborhoods like the Seaport District or Boston Landing? Now more than ever, we need a clear vision for all city neighborhoods.
Boston’s diverse neighborhoods vary from trendy to traditional, embracing a range of languages and cultures. And while it’s great for neighborhoods to differ in character, they need equitable infrastructure and amenities.
Sadly, this isn’t currently the case in Boston. Some neighborhoods boast new pavement, shiny streetscapes, and spacious parks, while others reflect deferred maintenance, disrepair, and disinvestment. What is the mayor’s vision for neighborhoods like Four Corners and Bowdoin-Geneva?
COVID-19 has accelerated changes that were already underway, making business districts more unequal than before. People have extended their online activities far beyond shopping, adding education, banking, healthcare, work, dining, and even exercise. This has hit certain sectors hard. If we aren’t careful, we may lose the unique character of our local business districts as people do even more online. This all diminishes foot traffic, resulting in more commercial vacancies across Boston, from Newbury Street and Copley Place to neighborhood commercial centers.
The pandemic’s not the first threat to our business districts though. The rise of suburban shopping centers and indoor malls had a devastating impact on many downtown areas, leaving vacant storefronts and cutting city tax revenues. Walmart and big box stores put many mom-and-pop shops out of business, and national franchises edged out independent bookstores and coffee shops.
Furthermore, as we move to a digital economy, companies such as Amazon threaten the small retailers in our business districts again, no matter how much we promote shopping locally. But with the proper vision, we can guide neighborhood transformation in a more equitable direction. Without a vision, many neighborhoods will change in undesirable ways.
How do our neighborhoods become destinations like Chinatown or the North End? How do they become award-winning main streets? The city needs to work in partnership with neighborhood stakeholders to develop a vision for each local business district and then use the tools of government to implement those visions. Here are eight issues Mayor Michelle Wu must address as she works toward shaping the business districts of the future.
1 – Mitigate commercial gentrification
When commercial space becomes too expensive for local retailers or it’s more profitable for owners to convert their properties into condos, business districts disappear and lose their distinctive character. Newer areas, such as the Seaport District, don’t have the same look and feel as older Boston neighborhoods. Retail options there offer what can’t be sold online: personal care, immediate food and beverage needs, and health and wellness experiences. Some have proposed a form of commercial rent control to combat rising prices for retail space. Commercial gentrification also contributes to land banking, where landlords keep distressed commercial property vacant, anticipating that it will appreciate without investment. But vacant storefronts detract from vital business districts.
2 – Protect immigrant businesses
We must ensure that immigrant business owners know their rights and that ICE agents don’t hassle them or their employees. These businesses are critical to local residents and provide neighborhoods with local character. Also, language shouldn’t be a barrier to business owners who aren’t proficient in English. They must have the same access to city resources designed to help small businesses as their fluent English-speaking counterparts. Significant populations in Boston speak Russian, Somali, Portuguese, Arabic, Haitian Creole, Cabo Verdean Creole, Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish, and French in various Boston business districts, giving each one a distinctly local feel.
3 – Produce market profiles for all 20 main street districts
Lifestyle centers such as the Prudential Center and Legacy Place can curate a complementary business mix. Our local business districts don’t have the same power, so it’s hard for them to compete. We need to offer business mix incentives that encourage leasing to certain types of businesses, so we don’t end up with too many of some kinds and not enough of others. The market profile should include demographics, disposable income, primary trade area, expenditures, capture, shrinkage, non-store retail, foot traffic counts, and business mix. This valuable information will help attract brick-and-mortar businesses to our local main streets. The Boston Planning and Development Agency has plans for some neighborhoods but not others. The BPDA should talk with all neighborhoods about the future of their business districts.
4 – Support existing business owners
Just as a Starbucks often serves as an amenity for a building, local businesses often serve as amenities for the neighborhood. The ability to quickly grab something from a corner store or bodega or to pick up a prescription, a new dress, or a special cheese improves the quality of life in a neighborhood. That’s why we need to work to ensure their continued existence.
We should rethink ReStore Boston, the city’s program to help small business owners with signage and new facades. In today’s online world, local businesses need help with their digital storefronts too—websites, point-of-service and e-commerce systems, digital marketing, and social media presence. Many small businesses haven’t yet transitioned online, while the pandemic drive for contactless and curbside transactions has made doing so more urgent than ever.
There are over 300 business service organizations in Boston, all dedicated to helping small businesses, but there’s no complete list of them. Also, almost every city department provides some type of services for businesses, yet a comprehensive list of those services doesn’t exist either. The city should compile these lists and make them publicly available.
Finally, we need to ensure existing business owners know the basics of leasing and renting, so they aren’t so easily displaced with “at-will” leases as their neighborhoods gentrify.
5 – Focus on providing a sense of place
Neighborhood events such as family movie nights, street fairs, parades, and festivals help build foot traffic and community identity. Farmers markets, beer gardens, and similar venues offer the chance to mingle with neighbors outdoors. Bars, restaurants, gyms, and yoga studios serve as enjoyable stop-offs between home and work. And public art enhances the experience of walking through the neighborhood. All these combine to help business districts achieve a sense of place. In this way, they can become destinations that attract tourists from across town and across the state.
6 – Provide walking patrol officers
Local police officers walking a regular beat through neighborhood business districts can help reduce the incidence of crime and undesirable behavior. When patrol officers, business owners, and neighborhood associations become familiar with each other, they’re more likely to work hand-in-hand to deal with the issues of addiction, homelessness, panhandling, and armed robbery.
7 – Build Contact Database and Outreach
The city needs a better CRM database for all businesses, especially gig workers who have their own small business and micro businesses. These businesses never get important information from the city on city programs and resources that would be beneficial to them Many of these businesses communicate by text or What’s App. Not a tool the city uses, but needs to, to improve outreach,
This CRM database needs to be connected to a common application, similar to what is done when applying to some colleges or financial aid. This database could be used by city and state agencies when applying for services, and the private sector wanting to make grants available. This would save busy business owners from having to fill out multiple, similar applications for services.
8 – Work in partnership with Main Street directors
From East Boston to West Roxbury, Main Street directors help preserve and promote the unique characters of their neighborhoods. They work with city departments to improve neighborhood quality of life by securing infrastructure improvements, fostering placemaking activities, and obtaining economic development assistance. They make communities safer and more enjoyable while promoting them as destinations. Main Street directors have the luxury of being laser focused on relatively small geographic areas and can bring to bear the resources of the city, other nonprofits, neighborhood associations, community leaders, and the private sector to make context-appropriate improvements. For example, during the pandemic, they helped small businesses and residents by distributing Paycheck Protection Program information and providing technical assistance, forming mutual aid groups, providing food, supplying laundry gift cards, and setting up testing and vaccination sites.
Neighborhood business districts are also where locals go when locals go fewer places. We must work together to help local businesses transition to the digital economy and deal with challenges such as public health, public safety, environmental justice, affordable housing, and commercial space. We must assist immigrant-owned businesses and those who need help overcoming the language barrier. Doing so requires a citywide vision for the future that addresses these challenges in every local business district.
Ed Gaskin is Executive Director of Greater Grove Hall Main Streets and founder of Sunday Celebrations, a "Food as Medicine" company.