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I-Team: Downtown Boston struggling to rebound after COVID pandemic

I-Team: Downtown Boston struggling to rebound after COVID pandemic
I-Team: Downtown Boston struggling to rebound after COVID pandemic 05:10

BOSTON - The sign in the window of Advantage Hair Stylists says open. But the shop has few customers these days. The manager of the salon, Maryann Gioia said, "business hasn't been great because unfortunately nobody wants to come back to work in this area."

Hair Salons and restaurants in the Financial District were among some of the hardest hit by the pandemic. "It's a struggle, we survive but it is not easy," Gioia said. "Our loyal customers they still come, but it is hard to attract new clients."

Meantime, just across the street, the co-owner of Better Bagels is starting to see better days. James Grimes says he's definitely seeing more signs of life. Relatively new to the area, Better Bagels got a deal from the landlord to take over the space after a previous bagel shop went out of business. "Our landlord was creative and flexible with a good lease," Grimes said. "We are happy to grow back with Downtown Boston as it opens back up."

Reviving Downtown Boston is proving to be challenging. According to a joint study by the University of Toronto and the University of California Berkley, Boston's growth is lagging behind other cities.

Dr. Karen Chapple, a professor at UC Berkley and the Director of the Urban Displacement Project, led a team of researchers that compared recent mobile phone activity to pre-pandemic numbers and found in Boston's downtown cell phone usage is at about 50% of what it was before COVID.

"Boston I would have expected to do better," Chapple said. "I grouped them in the slow comeback group. I don't think they are stuck in the same way that San Francisco is because they are actually more diverse. They have more tourism going on, they have more arts going on, they have residential and a lot of new residential going up."

"That said they are a tech center," Chapple continued. "Boston should be suffering because of what's going on in the tech sector not just the pandemic and hybrid work but the layoffs."

So, what's being done to bring businesses and people into Boston? With 80-90 vacant storefronts downtown, city leaders admit there is no quick fix.

Segun Idowu is the Chief of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion. He says it is not about going back, it is about moving forward. "For me it's not about enticing workers back to their physical locations, their offices," Idowu said. "Part of our downtown revitalization plan is how we are reimagining who the main audience of our downtown area should be. So in addition to employees it's also how we bring residents back to their downtown. How we are stimulating growth in the tourism sector where we are seeing huge leaps and bounds in getting heads back in beds."

Boston's strategy to revitalize downtown includes converting office space into housing, using city owned public space for events, creating pedestrian streets and working to attract new diverse small businesses with grants, opportunity, and easier permitting.

Chief Idowu says he is looking for more diversity and not just race and ethnicity. 

With windows looking out at Macy's on Downtown Crossing, a pop-up storefront was a vacant sandwich shop. It is now a public space with an art gallery that is available for live performances and events, run by the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District. The organization created the temporary space to attract a new tenant.

Michael Nichols is the president of the BID. "We are hoping to constantly put ourselves out of business," Nichols said. 

As for attracting and enticing people to come back to downtown, Nichols says the city is casting a wide net. "You want to have things to do. You want destination programming. We're excited about what's coming in Downtown Boston right now," he said. "We have Hamilton downtown right now, it's bringing a lot of crowds in. A lot of those folks that want to come to restaurants and bars ahead of the show. There is a change in the way that people are going to interact with Downtown Boston."

Some of that reimagining is already taking shape. February's Valentine experience in Downtown Crossing drew locals and tourists to the area and gave Maryann Gioia hope that similar events will make their way to the Financial District. She sees that as a sign that things will get better for businesses like hers.

The city ultimately plans to turn Boston into a 24-hour neighborhood and admits many of the strategies to do that will likely take years.   

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