It may all seem like ancient history now — how many young people even know there was such a thing as the elevated Central Artery? — but in the mid-1990s, at the beginning of Mayor Menino’s tenure, Boston was ripe with change and promise. The population flight had clearly bottomed out, as young professionals and aging boomers clamored for cosmopolitan amenities. There was the Big Dig, the Silver Line, the burying of the Green Line in front of a new Boston Garden (anybody remember the elevated?), air rights proposals for the Mass Pike, a new or refurbished Fenway Park, a new downtown stadium proposed for the Patriots, a new convention center, proposals to reinvent urban renewal-era spaces like City Hall Plaza — and above all, the frontier of the South Boston Waterfront, now known as the Seaport. The Globe was sending reporters like myself all around to look at what other cities were doing to activate their industrial waterfronts. And in the middle of it all was Menino, who was continually asked, what's your vision? How is all of this going to come together? The urban mechanic was thought to be a natural at urban planning. "I'm into this. Really," he said after one meeting on the Seaport Public Realm Plan that covered sidewalk widths, parking, and terms like "water sheet" and "view corridors."
I don't think it ever truly inspired him, though — the physical planning of the city. At least not in the sense of a Robert Moses or a Kevin White, the latter with his talk of a New Boston. Now, he famously controlled lots of aspects of building and development in this city, from neighborhood building codes to close relationships with key builders. No development got done in Boston without the mayor's blessing. And yes, he required new sksycrapers to have more interesting tops. But the big-picture placemaking — somehow that just never seemed truly compelling to him. At a groundbreaking outside City Hall, the mayor ran into Doug Foy, who at that time served on the commission redesigning the lifeless plaza — and asked Foy what in the world he was doing there. Other mayors — Richard Daley of Chicago comes to mind — thought big and talked bigger, conjuring an inspiring vision that would make the metropolis like no other. When the urban design consultants showed their slides, Menino would just as likely look at his watch.
The big question, though, is whether any of that mattered. Menino didn't plan like Daniel Burnham or Baron Haussmann; the city simply transformed all around him. The success of the Seaport right now cannot be attributed to any plan (the public realm plan focused on Fan Pier; the smash hit is many blocks away up Northern Boulevard, where Jimmy's Harborside used to be). The city is fresh and new, from the Garden to the Gardner Museum addition. More is on the way, like the Government Center garage. Often he was surgical in his interventions, to great effect — ushering in the Millennium tower at lower Washington Street, for example, or making his support plain for the restoration of the Paramount and Opera House theaters. He was a little bit late to green building, but the city is now arguably a leader. His embrace of food trucks and the bike-share program is right there on the cutting edge of hipster planning. For the future, he has wisely insisted that future development take into account the impacts of climate change, most notably sea level rise. These are more subtle turns of knobs and dials.
Some, like the self-trained urbanist Jane Jacobs, argue that cities flourish best when they are allowed to be more self-organizing. In terms of the physical city, to a large degree, Menino let Boston happen. In not spending too much time on grand pronouncements or bold visions of metropolitan coherence, it is possible the mayor had it right all along.