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The Tower That Wants to Remake One of America's Oldest Neighborhoods

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Patricia Chang

On a chilly, damp afternoon in December, architect Blake Middleton stood diagonally across the street from his latest downtown Boston creation, the under-construction Millennium Tower, and explained the particular challenge the 685-foot skyscraper posed.

"How do you fit a tower of this complexity and magnitude into a very narrow and tight urban site?" Middleton, a partner in Manhattan-based Handel Architects, asked. "And particularly into an historic city center?"

The condo-and-retail tower, which should be completed this year and opened by the summer of 2016, looms large, even as a construction exoskeleton. It is rising in the neighborhood known as Downtown Crossing, which Middleton is correct in calling historic. In fact, that might be an understatement. The area is one of the oldest established neighborhoods in the United States, with roots in the 17th century and an identity as Boston's retail center stretching back to at least the late 19th. The 1912 opening of the Filene's department store flagship, designed in a grand Beaux Arts style by Daniel Burnham, cemented that reputation. (Burnham, an architect and urban planner, also designed New York's Flatiron Building and Washington's Union Station.)

For a time, Filene's was a Boston attraction on par with Fenway Park or Faneuil Hall. A plaque outside declared the store "the Hub of the universe," a spin off of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.'s nickname for the Massachusetts State House, a nickname that Bostonians eventually embraced for their entire city.

Filene's is gone now. Downtown Crossing as a neighborhood—densely built, frustratingly narrow in a lot of places, its street grid forever indentured to centuries of planning and re-planning—is mostly busy during the daytime business hours. Shoppers shop and commuters commute. At dusk, though, the noise quiets; the traffic on the streets and sidewalks thins; Downtown Crossing goes to bed.

The Millennium Tower, where contracts have started to go out to buyers, is supposed to change that, according to its champions in the real estate industry, City Hall, and the business community. The tower is the one gigantic—by Boston standards, its height is huge—catalyst that is supposed to remake one of America's oldest neighborhoods, while also, as Middleton pointed out, preserving its character. That such a remarkable challenge is even before him, as well as before developer Millennium Partners and the City of Boston, is itself remarkable.

A rendering of Millennium Tower's penthouse. Courtesy of Millennium Partners.

Steve Roth had a reputation for speaking his mind. There was little to stop him.

A self-made billionaire, Roth chaired one of the nation's largest real estate investment trusts, Vornado Realty, the owner and manager of more than 100 million square feet of commercial and retail space. This empire included most of the buildings around New York's Penn Station, such as the 1,700-room Hotel Pennsylvania and the Manhattan Mall; Chicago's Merchandise Mart, at 3.6 million square feet one of the world's largest buildings; and San Francisco's three-tower Bank of America Center. (Vornado was also slated to take over the lease of the original World Trade Center in lower Manhattan in early 2001, but balked at the terms.)

On this particular occasion, one evening in early March 2010, Roth was speaking to Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. The appearance was billed as a lecture, but turned into what the New York Observer described as a "sprawling, two-hour talk" that included Roth's management mantra ("Shit goes downhill") and his sole regret during the real estate boom that had recently passed ("I bought cheap as opposed to buying the best—the cheap got to be expensive, but the best got to be ridiculously, stupidly expensive").

Roth also mused on his firm's development of the Bloomberg LP headquarters, a sleekly horse-shoe-shaped tower at Lexington Avenue and 59th Street that housed not only the eponymous media conglomerate but luxury condos as well. Vornado had built the tower in the early 2000s atop the site of the old Alexander's department store, a site that Roth bragged about letting lay fallow for years.

"My mother called me," Roth told the Columbia crowd, "and said, 'It's dirty. There are bums sleeping in the sidewalks of this now-closed, decrepit building. They're urinating in the corners. It's terrible. You have to fix it.' And what did I do? Nothing. Why did I do nothing? Because I was thinking in my own awkward way, that the more the building was a blight, the more the governments would want this to be redeveloped; the more help they would give us when the time came. And they did."

The New York media reported the remarks and drove them up the East Coast to Boston. There, Vornado had since January 2007 controlled the Filene's site in Downtown Crossing. In early 2008, Vornado demolished much of the store, leaving only the Burnham-designed building in place (Filene's had grown from that building to include four different properties). Then, together with a local developer, Vornado set about planning a tower of hotel rooms, offices, and retail meant to serve the same psychological purpose as Millennium Tower today: to help make the surrounding Downtown Crossing more vibrant.

The Great Recession soon intervened and, by the end of 2008, the old Filene's site, as Bostonians began to call it, gaped empty, a particular eyesore at night, when all but tourists generally abandoned the surrounding streets. Bostonians assumed that the economic downturn was holding up Vornado's plans, and therefore the key piece of Downtown Crossing's rejuvenation—until Roth opened his mouth at Columbia in 2010.

"The quotes attributed to you on this subject are simply outrageous," Boston Mayor Tom Menino thundered in an open letter to Roth barely a week after the Columbia appearance. "Admitting that you embraced a deliberate policy of long-term blight, at a major commercial location in New York City, exhibits a callous disregard for the well-being of the city and its people."

Photo of Millennium Place courtesy Millennium Partners.

Menino was a civic god at that point, a year into his fifth consecutive term, the longest-serving mayor in Boston's history and the boss of a formidable political apparatus. Since becoming mayor in 1993, Menino had presided over a remarkable renaissance. Developers, with the city's backing, had added thousands of luxury condos and apartments; hot new restaurants placed Boston on the foodie-culture map; crime dropped; parks and plazas opened; and the city's population, which had dropped below 600,000 in the late 1990s, started to swell again toward 700,000.

Gone were areas such as the mob-infested South Boston waterfront of Whitey Bulger fame (think of the movie The Departed) and a slice of the South End so dangerous police nicknamed it the Combat Zone. In were Menino-mandated swathes such as the Innovation District, a technology and biotechnology hub in South Boston, and the Rose Kennedy Greenway, a 1.5-mile ribbon of parkland through the city's heart.

Menino wanted the old Downtown Crossing gone, too, and replaced with a more vibrant community. The old Filene's site, gaping empty for years now, seemed to mock His Honor's plans. That could not stand, especially now that Roth, its owner, had laid his cards on the table. Menino ended his letter with a warning: "I am directing the Boston Redevelopment Authority to examine eminent domain options … This development is too important to Downtown Crossing and to the entire City of Boston to be used as a bargaining chip to improve your bottom line."

Within two years, Vornado sold control of the old Filene's site to Millennium Partners.

An interior photo of Millennium Place, courtesy of Millennium Partners.

Menino led the chorus praising the early 2012 trade. "We have long dreamed of what Downtown Crossing could become," the mayor said in a statement, "and we will soon realize that potential with Millennium stepping up to the plate and making this deal happen.

Yet the deal seemed odd given the hopes and dreams for the neighborhood. The developer had more of a reputation locally for carving niches of exclusivity out of streetscapes, not for integrating its condo buyers into them.

Manhattan-based Millennium was best known in Boston for having built the Ritz-Carlton, the city's first condo-hotel hybrid. The project, which is visible from the Washington Street sidewalk opposite the under-construction Millennium Tower, delivered hotel service to condos that might each sell for $1,000 or more a square foot. These were scandalously high sums for Boston, and all the more so because the Ritz-Carlton sat on the edge of what until recently had been the Combat Zone.

The firm was preparing to construct what it would call Millennium Place, also in Downtown Crossing. The 256 units in that project, which opened its sales office in October 2012 and sold out by February 2014, would routinely trade for north of the $1,000-a-square-foot benchmark the Ritz-Carlton had set a decade before. More importantly, Millennium Place provided an all-in-one living arrangement for owners, including a private club and restaurant as well as a children's playroom. It was a kind of gated community within a dense urban environment.

Millennium Partners seems to be going for the same vibe with Millennium Tower. The 685-foot spire, destined to be Boston's tallest residential building when it opens in mid-2016 (a status it will quickly cede to one in the city's Back Bay neighborhood), is due to contain a 24-hour concierge, a library, a game room, the largest residential fitness center in Boston, an outdoor terrace, an indoor junior Olympic lap pool, a private ballroom, a bar, and exclusive restaurant services overseen by star chef Michael Mina.

Then there's the $37,500,000 penthouse. Millennium announced that asking price in October 2014. Should the 13,000-square-foot floor-through 60 stories above Boston command anywhere near that tag, it would represent the biggest home sale in the city's history. The current record-holder is a $13,200,000 condo at the Mandarin-Oriental that sold in June 2011.

"I doubt anyone local will be willing to take a crack at it, so the buyer would likely have to come from overseas," said Nick Warren, president of Boston brokerage Warren Residential, in an e-mail. His firm is not affiliated with Millennium Tower, which is handling its sales in-house. "While we are seeing a lot of overseas-buyer transactions, I'm not sure if they have the confidence or need to purchase something of that size in Boston.

"I obviously hope it happens because it will help blaze a trail for other ultra-luxury buildings coming down the pipe," Warren added, citing the under-construction Four Seasons-branded hotel and condo in Back Bay that will reach about 15 feet higher than Millennium Tower, "but my guess is that it will ultimately be cut into a couple units."

While the $37.5 million penthouse awaits its fate, other Millennium Tower units have gone to contract for amounts uncharacteristic of Boston, including a trio of other penthouses that went for north of $9,000,000 each. Such sales, none of which have closed yet, have prompted comparisons to Manhattan real estate. In that case, Millennium Tower may very well be Boston's 15 Central Park West.

That condo development, which was completed in 2008 at the southwest corner of the iconic park, kicked off New York's modern era of eight-figure apartment sales and quickly became the highest-grossing residential building in U.S. history, with more than $2,000,000,000 in trades. It's unclear, of course, whether Millennium Tower will scale such fiduciary heights, though it seems poised at the least to upend the residential market in Boston.

As for its other goal, the revitalization of the surrounding Downtown Crossing neighborhood, that, too, seems uncertain. Even the developer is unsure. "We felt very comfortable and confident in the pricing," said Richard Baumert, a principal at Millennium Partners. (He declined to discuss sales specifics, such as buyers.) "When we got to [the] mid-point of our grand residences, once we went from the 45th floor up to the 60th, we were in uncharted waters. There's nothing [like this] that exists in the city at that height."

The design by architect Blake Middleton, who also designed the Ritz-Carlton and Millennium Place for Handel, will fit the tower into the streetscape—as well as one can fit a 685-foot spire into a dense shopping district dating back centuries. It will consume most of the old Filene's site, but leave room for a public plaza out front. The trapezoidal shape, including staggered facets like creases in paper, will not only provide more views for residents, but will also blend the tower better with the original Filene's building next-door.

As for that building, called the Burnham after its architect, its exterior has been largely preserved and the interior is now a bustling office hive with retail on the way.

Still, Millennium Tower is a giant of a building, with giant prices and a giant amenities package crafted to keep residents inside and the riffraff out. Mayor Tom Menino, who showered nearly $8 million in tax credits on the project, imagined whatever got built at the old Filene's site would be the animating force in finally turning around Downtown Crossing's fortunes. It was a familiar refrain for Menino, who died in October, about 10 months after leaving office.

As Millennium Partners was readying the Ritz-Carlton in late 1999, the Boston Globe trumpeted the luxury complex in language that sounds eerily familiar. "[T]he promise is greater than it's been since the days when Downtown Crossing was chockablock with department stores and specialty shops, piano merchants stretched down Boylston, and a row of theaters drew thousands nightly to Washington Street. … In sum, this is a project that seems designed to pass the failed tests of the past. Which is why it is hard to disagree with Menino's conclusion when he says that the long-neglected neighborhood now faces 'a much brighter future than it has had for many, many years.'"

Tom Acitelli is the editor of Curbed Boston.

· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]
· Millennium Tower coverage [Curbed Boston]