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In Downtown Crossing, The Hole In The Ground That’s Hard To Fill

At Downtown Crossing, there's now a gaping hole where Filene's Basement once stood. For nearby store owners, the hole is an eyesore and a drain on business. (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)

BOSTON — If you don’t know your way around Downtown Crossing, Archie’s New York Deli can be hard to find. The address is 101 Arch Street, but you’re probably better off following these directions, from Emilio Ruggeri, the deli manager: “Right across the street from the hole in the ground.”

The little sandwich shop may be hard to find, but the hole is impossible to miss. Where Filene’s flagship store once stood, there’s now a crater in the earth, surrounded on all sides by a chain-link fence. And Ruggeri’s not kidding when he says it’s right across the street. Looking out the deli window, all you can see is the fence — and the “No Parking” signs that hang from it, warning drivers they’re in a tow zone. Not exactly an invitation to potential lunchtime diners.

Mayor Thomas Menino has long made the revitalization of Downtown Crossing one of his top priorities. And nothing is more central to that project than the redevelopment of the old Filene’s site.

So it’s no shock that Menino has come out fighting after a surprising comment by the chairman of Vornado, Steven Roth. The New York businessman said he intentionally neglected a similar project in Manhattan to pressure money out of city officials.

At the Brattle Book Shop, proprietor Ken Gloss says business is good. He's selling a couple hundred books a day from his outdoor stands alone. (LGagnon/Flickr)

The mayor says he will consider revoking Vornado’s permits on the project. And he has an even bigger threat: He may try to take control of the property through eminent domain.

Ruggeri doesn’t really care how the city deals with Vornado. He just wants the project to get done. It’s hard to imagine now, but a few years ago, Filene’s more or less powered Ruggeri’s business.

“The people that were there used to come here all the time, ” he remembers. “They used to have so many people in that building. Because all their buying offices for Filene’s were in there, which nobody actually realizes that because they were in the back walls. Plus all the seven floors of shoppers. Plus the Filene’s Basement.”

Lines weren’t out the door, Ruggeri says, but only because his team was fast enough to keep the lines moving. “We don’t work as hard anymore,” he says, with a laugh. He grows serious, though, when he talks about the cutbacks he has been forced to make as a result. Ruggeri estimates he has laid off 40 percent of his staff.

Ultimately, Ruggeri says, responsibility for completing the project falls to the developer.

“The owner of the building, he’s the man in charge, he’s the one that needs to get it done,” Ruggeri says. “It should be on him. The city should be pushing him to get it done, but if he owns the building, how can you tell him what to do with it?”

Vornado has not responded to WBUR’s requests for comment.

Just around the corner, on Washington Street, is E.B. Horn Jewelers. Like Archie’s, the jewelry shop looks right out on the old Filene’s. Richard Finn, a manager at E.B. Horn, says Filene’s was a landmark, just like his store. And that was good for business.

Listen: Attorney Gideon Kanner
Explains Eminent Domain

http://audio.wbur.org/storage/2010/03/news_0312_eminent-domain.mp3

“We absolutely are a destination from all over New England,” Finn says. “But Filene’s Basement clearly was a destination, too, and our proximity to it was a benefit, as well. The fact that it’s an empty building, it reduces the amount of foot traffic and potential customers that are coming in. So there’s no question that there is an impact.”

Like Ruggeri over at Archie’s, Finn says he doesn’t really care how Menino and the City of Boston get the project finished. They’re the experts, he says. He just wants it done.

A couple of blocks away, at Brattle Book Shop on West Street, business is brisk. Kenneth Gloss, the proprietor of Brattle, one of the oldest used book stores in the country, says it will take a lot more than construction to drive away his customers.

“Sometimes I think I could hide the books in the basement, not tell anybody we’re here, and they’d still find us,” Gloss says.

His books aren’t collecting dust. Gloss says he’s selling at least a couple hundred books a day from his outdoor book stands alone. But as a longtime member of the Downtown Crossing community, he is still looking forward to the day the Filene’s project is complete.

“I think that that project will have a tremendous effect on perception,” Gloss says. “Once it’s done, people will say, ‘Oh, well, Downtown’s back.’ And they’ll come in. Just like 25 years ago, they wouldn’t go near the Combat Zone and now you barely hear about it because the opera house. It’s the theater district.”

It was that transformation of the city’s downtown back in the 1980s that makes Gloss nervous when he hears the mayor talk about eminent domain.

“I have issues with eminent domain,” he says. “Because we went through that back in the Scollay Square-era in time. Quite honestly, I think anything the city can do that is legal, above board and so on, that they can get that project moving, is a good thing. The city is going to solve this one way or the other, I have full confidence in that. It’s just — it will take time.”

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