Market signal: Roche Bros. arrival a welcome sign

Downtown Boston is morphing into a full-fledged city neighborhood

THE RECENT OPENING of Roche Bros. supermarket in what most of us still refer to as the “Filene’s building” was not only a great day for downtown Boston, but also for the entire city.  If ever there were a moment that brought people together from every corner of Boston and the Greater Boston region, it was the opening day of this beautiful store in the Burnham Building. This transformative moment is indicative of the strength of Downtown Crossing, not only as a hub of commerce, but also as a residential neighborhood.  The opening of new businesses, including Roche Bros., is a true game changer and in many ways Boston has become a new city compared to the place we knew while serving on the City Council when Kevin White was mayor.

In those days, it was almost a religious obligation to stand in front of Roche Bros. in voter-rich Ward 20 to secure nomination paper signatures from the residents of West Roxbury and Roslindale and others who went to Roche Bros. to shop. Pat and Bud Roche were not only great grocers but also great citizens: loyal to West Roxbury, Sacred Heart Church, Boston Latin School, and many other institutions which they held dearly. They were model citizens and respected businessmen. Their motto when they opened in 1958 was “treat every customer as you would want to be treated,” a philosophy still embodied by the Roche family in their stores today.

The brothers certainly would appreciate modern-day Boston, an ever-changing city where professionals working at global marketing companies such as Havas Media and Digitas now visit “Rochies” to pick up lunch, enjoy the outdoor seating, or pick up groceries on the way to the T. Many have commented that the new Roche Bros. store has both an urban and European feel. We’re told Roche Bros. wanted to get it right, spending countless hours in focus groups looking at successful models in European cities to best understand urban shopping needs.

A few years ago Bostonians were lamenting downtown’s loss of the Borders bookstore, as well as a giant hole in the ground where a section of the Filene’s building once stood. Today, the hole is gone, and Millennium Tower, a 60-story residential luxury tower is reaching for the clouds. Nowadays food is driving retail, such as Roche Bros. and the Walgreens Emporium, which served as a de facto grocery store for the area before Roche Bros. opened. Walgreens is at the site of the once beloved Borders bookstore, an industry altered by online purchases and handheld devices. Downtown Boston is now a destination for food with new restaurants such as Legal Crossing, The Merchant, and international brands such as Caffe Nero, PAUL and Ogawa Coffee.

IMG_0177The opening of Roche Bros. is also indicative of the dramatic demographic changes in the city. After 60 or 70 years of Bostonians moving south from dense neighborhoods, that population trend is reversing.  Today, both empty nesters and young professionals alike are seeking out an urban environment. It’s estimated that by the next federal census five years from now more people will reside in Downtown Crossing than Charlestown. This demonstrates why it’s a smart business move for Roche Bros. to open in Downtown Crossing and for Millennium Partners to recognize why a local brand with a loyal Boston-based following made sense.

The revitalization this neighborhood has undergone is the result of an activist city government that provided incentives to rehabilitate the area and the private sector, which organized a Business Improvement District and is successfully supporting the district to be the thriving place it is today.

The new Roche Bros. has not only attracted attention for being the first full-scale grocery store downtown, but it’s also shined a light on other business developments in the neighborhood. There is a symbiotic relationship among area businesses as more positive attention draws others to get in on the ground floor of downtown Boston, including Irish-based clothing retailer Primark, which will open its doors in September on four floors, including street level, within the Burnham Building that is now home to Roche Bros. In addition to drawing Primark, the area is regarded as one of the hottest neighborhoods for tech companies. Established businesses such as Carbonite and Rapid7 relocated their headquarters to downtown Boston, and prospering startups such as a peerTransfer and Localytics now reside in the area.

Meet the Author

Meet the Author

The true heart of any neighborhood is the people, and downtown Boston is thrilled to have so many new options in the works for current and prospective residents and visitors. Not so many years ago, the future of Downtown Crossing was uncertain. But today, from existing residences at the Ritz and the Devonshire to the construction of the Millennium Tower and the opening of Roche Bros. and more, downtown Boston is truly is a place to work, play, and live.

Lawrence S. DiCara is a partner at Nixon Peabody LLP in Boston. Rosemarie Sansone is president of the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District. They served together on the Boston City Council from 1978-1981.