Emerson Campus to Expand
Move to Tremont Street
Viewed as Plus for Zone
July 16, 1995
By Robert O'Malley
Chinatown - When Emerson College opens a new dormitory on Boylston Street in September, residents and business owners here hope it will be one more blow to the tawdry adult entertainment district on its doorstep.
In addition to buying the former Little Building at 80 Boylston for a dorm, Emerson has leased the former Union Savings Bank Building at 216 Tremont St., across from the dorm and the college's Emerson Majestic Theatre.
The college has also purchased the former Edison Electric Building at 180 Tremont St., which will become the college's new Center for Communication and Technology.
Emerson president Jacqueline W. Liebergott is confident that the college's presence in the Mid-Town Cultural District will have a positive influence on the area. "There are 700 students moving into the Little Building," said Liebergott. "There are a couple of hundred faculty and staff working in this area...That kind of input certainly changes the nature of the environment."
Chinatown leaders and businessmen agree, suggesting that a strong student presence will speed the demise of the fast-fading Combat Zone, the city's only district zoned for adult entertainment.
"People are pretty happy about it," said Wilson Lee, president of the Chinatown Business Association. "Hopefully they (students) will come into Chinatown to spend some money."
"They [Emerson] have been a very good neighbor so far," said Lee, whose family runs the Dynasty Restaurant. "They're always interested in how their students can get involved in community activities."
For the first time in its history, Emerson has created a "walking" campus that will allow students to move easily from the college's west campus in Back Bay near the Public Garden to its east campus along Boston Common, according to Bill Daly, Emerson's assistant director of college communications.
The college also has in place a 24-hour security force, which includes car and foot patrols at both ends of its campus and shuttle service for students traveling in between.
"I think it's definitely a plus if it adds diversity to our surroundings," said Mary Chin, co-president of the Asian American Civic Association. "I think it adds an ingredient we've never had before." Chin said she hoped the Emerson presence would change the public perception that Chinatown is on "the outskirts of the Combat Zone" and also inspire Chinatown merchants to create businesses to cater to the students.
In an address last month before the Chinatown/South Cove Neighborhood Council, Brian Delorey, former assistant director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, said Emerson's move onto Tremont Street combined with changes planned for the Combat Zone a block away have the potential to create an environment more like Harvard Square.
The BRA's long-term plan for the Combat Zone, said BRA spokesperson Kelly Quinn, is the development of an around-the-clock community through the creation of a "stronger residential presence." Creating housing would also help Chinatown, which has long suffered a housing shortage.
In a move that would further reduce adult entertainment in the district, businessman W. Kevin Fitzgerald plans to demolish a row of buildings he owns along Washington and Beach streets, including the Pilgrim Theater and a building housing the Naked I club. Only a few such businesses and few rental spaces for such businesses would remain.
Fitzgerald, who has argued that it would not be cost effective to restore the buildings, has reached an agreement with the city to use the area as a parking lot until he finds a developer. The city will charge him an annual fee for each year the site is used for parking. Fitzgerald also has agreed to renovate the facade of the Liberty Tree building at the corner of Washington and Essex streets. The building is owned by Fitzgerald and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Fitzgerald's plan to demolish the buildings has drawn the ire of preservationists, who say that the buildings are worth saving and are being blamed for their uses.
Chinatown officials, however, have largely supported the demolition, believing that it will change the character of the surrounding streets and also lead to a more inviting environment for customers frequenting the many Asian businesses already in the Combat Zone.
While Lee said he appreciates the concerns of the preservationists, he pointed out that it's the Asian community that must contend with the prostitutes, pimps and drug dealers who are drawn to the adult entertainment district. Without a cost-effective way to preserve the buildings, demolition becomes the "lesser of two evils," he said.
In addition to the demolition, Delorey said the BRA has also been trying to buy the former Royal Hotel at 640 Washington St., which is the site of an X-rated bookstore and peepshow that recently moved from space slated for demolition.
Delorey said the BRA has so far been unable to reach an agreement with Codel Realty Trust, the building's owner. He said it was likely the BRA would move to take the building by eminent domain under the Park Square Urban Renewal Plan if it could not be purchased.
While Chinatown leaders welcome Emerson's move into the area, they say the Combat Zone continues to present problems. William Moy, co-moderator of the Chinatown Neighborhood Council, said the priority now is "to clean up lower Washington Street." Moy and others have expressed concern about continued drug dealing along Essex Street, in front of the Chinatown MBTA station, and outside the China Trade Center.
The sometimes unsavory street life of the Combat Zone has also affected Historic Boston Incorporated's effort to lease its newly renovated Hayden Building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While Stanley Smith, the organization's chief executive director, noted that the Zone "is a mere shadow of its former self," he finds it's still "a very tough job to market the area." He recently tried to lure a restaurant to the Hayden Building but believes the retailer was put off by the street life. "Retail merchants tend not to be pioneers," he said.
Smith, however, is enthusiastic about Emerson's new presence a block away, and believes that the Combat Zone could be transformed soon if business people have the foresight to recognize its potential.
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