Rockefeller Center Photo: Rink at Rockefeller

Some say it’s going away.

Some say it’s online.

Others say it’s changing so fast that it’s impossible to know.

While the role retail plays is changing, it remains a critical component of both the real estate industry and our public places.  Even if it’s more convenient to buy certain things online, the social act of going downtown (or to the mall), window-shopping, and maybe stopping at a café cannot be replicated on-line; interaction has been, and will remain as a basic human need.

I’ve been going to Rockefeller Center for almost 50 years, but recently I went with my wife who’d never been there before. No matter how much both New York and shopping have changed (and boy have they), seeing someone experience that place for the first time reminded me of how important the retail is to the place, and how important the place is to the retail. The stores have changed, but the unique, universally recognizable environment, the sense of place that it creates, and retail spaces flexible enough to have once served Pan Am and now house Lego, show how great design is universal and ever-lasting. Rockefeller Center is a living example of the impact retail environments have on the places we create, and those spaces should be a primary consideration in the making of cities.

When retail is thoughtfully planned and designed, like at Rockefeller Center, it brings the entire development to life; but when it isn’t, the user experience suffers. In Boston, only two blocks separate Faneuil Hall, a world famous market and tourist destination, from Post Office Square, an urban park that improved the quality and value of the real estate around it. Yet those two short blocks between might as well be two miles. The narrow sidewalks and lack of street retail make you forget that those two great places are just blocks apart and at the intersection of three of the major transit lines in Boston.

We’ve recently been working with Related Beal to transform those two blocks by bringing the street back to life. Taking inspiration from places like Rockefeller Center, our Congress Square development will bring activity back to the street level. An existing service alley will become a gathering place, with food, outdoor seating, and amazing views of the historic architecture. We also discovered an old, two-story banking hall in the building. Closed to the public for decades, it will become an indoor walkway that links the alley to the streets, creating even more lively public space.

Flanked by new housing in old buildings, a hotel, and a revitalized office building, the alleyway experience will unite with new retail spaces fitted into the existing buildings on all sides of the site. We expect the project to create a continuous retail experience, reestablishing a connection between Post Office Square and Faneuil Hall. The benefits of this connection make the new office space more attractive to the innovative, new economy tenants and employees who want to be in urban cores. The unique spaces we are creating, including a modern, glass addition on top of the historic building, will combine the character of the old with the requirements of the new.

Congress Square is a lesson in how you can successfully create value and enhance the fabric of a city at the same time by embracing history and highlighting the best of historically significant buildings and the authentic character they provide. This transformational project will revitalize the atmosphere of Boston’s Financial District by offering users a complete experience, and providing the amenities and retail atmosphere that people want today.

Topics: Design, commercial real estate, Urban Design, Retail, Planning, Culture