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BPDA adopts PLAN: Downtown planning initiative

Dec 14, 2023

The BPDA Board of Directors formally adopted the PLAN: Downtown planning initiative at their board meeting today. The community planning process, which originally began in 2018, establishes a new framework for the growth, enhancement, and preservation of Downtown Boston as a 24-hour neighborhood, balancing livability, affordability, walkability, climate change preparedness, access to open space, and a dynamic mix of uses. The adopted plan focuses on increasing housing and takes into account the effects of the pandemic on the Downtown neighborhood, such as the change in patterns to foot traffic and office work.

“Downtown Boston is the job center and transportation hub of our City and region, and I’m excited by the opportunity we have to shape this area for years to come, in a way that is thoughtful and adaptive to our new ways of working and commuting in 2023 and beyond,” said Chief of Planning Arthur Jemison. “I am hopeful this plan will provide the necessary blueprint to bring new housing, entertainment options, and improved transportation options to Downtown.”

“We are very pleased to see the continued progress of PLAN: Downtown, and particularly thrilled about the work to chart a course for growth for the Downtown neighborhood that is centered on improvements to our streets and public realm, smoothing the process of converting underutilized building assets, modernizing our transportation system, catalyzing new and more equitable opportunities for economic success, and ensuring a cleaner and greener environment for future generations,” said Downtown Boston Business Improvement District President Michael J. Nichols.

Over the last several years, Boston’s Downtown has transformed from primarily a business district into a vibrant mixed-use neighborhood. Associated with this transformation, the critical need for new housing, and the lasting effects of the pandemic on Downtown and office culture is a clear need to comprehensively plan for the future of Downtown. PLAN: Downtown provides that guide for the future of the neighborhood, regarding growth and preservation, mobility, open space, and climate change resiliency.

In terms of growth and historic preservation, the plan prioritizes increasing housing options, affordability, and mixed-use development alongside preserving Downtown’s distinct cultural heritage and historic building fabric. The plan identifies areas Downtown that can best accommodate new growth and density and areas that should be enhanced due to their historic buildings and cultural uses or preserved through the adaptive reuse of property. The office to residential conversion program, which launched in October, was the result of the office conversion study that was conducted as part of PLAN: Downtown. Analysis shows an initial 62 offices that could be candidates for downtown conversions. BPDA staff have been in touch with more than 50 of those prospects and many others outside of downtown who were not considered in the analysis. Just two or three of these office buildings converting to housing would be a significant step in creating a more active and revitalized Downtown.

Another key aspect of the plan is to enhance mobility Downtown by creating more open space and public realm connections and supporting transit and bike and pedestrian infrastructure projects to improve connectivity. The plan focuses on making biking, walking, and using public transportation safer and easier for all residents, visitors, and workers. This includes widening sidewalks, creating new bike lanes where possible, as well as improving access to train stations.

The plan identifies new opportunities for public space, and key improvements needed for existing ones to knit together a public realm network Downtown that welcomes everyone year-round. The plan also advocates for more green infrastructure and the repair of damaged and inaccessible sidewalks and pedestrian pathways, especially for areas that experience high foot traffic, like Chinatown. These recommendations are paired with resilience recommendations and policies to address climate change impacts, including increasing green surfaces and plantings to reduce heat and the risk of flooding and supporting building upgrades that lower carbon emissions.

In terms of next steps, future zoning changes to put the plan into motion will come in three phases over the coming year. In the near term, zoning changes that are slated to be proposed this winter will focus on modernizing uses Downtown to encourage new and diverse businesses and entertainment uses to thrive. This spring, planners will work to create new zoning that will enable more density where appropriate to unlock new opportunities for housing Downtown. Staff will also work on new zoning for Chinatown that addresses the neighborhood’s needs as a vital cultural and community hub. In the long term, staff will focus on streamlining project mitigation through the ongoing Article 80 modernization process to reduce unpredictable project by project negotiation, and ensure new development projects support the longstanding needs of the community.

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