As Mayor Thomas M. Menino prepares to leave office, towering buildings are rising from Downtown Crossing to the Fenway, new companies, retailers, and residents are flocking to the city, and a new neighborhood is rising along the burgeoning South Boston Waterfront. Boston is a city transformed.
But the work of its reinvention is far from complete. The next administration faces the task of building on Menino
“We’re at a point where Boston is changing rapidly,” said Ronald Perry, head of brokerage at the real estate firm Colliers International. “It’s not just that office and residential buildings are under construction, we’re also getting new workers, companies, and amenities that are giving the city a different feel.”
Here are some of the crucial development issues facing Boston as it prepares to elect its first new leader in 20 years — a transition that coincides with a growing economy, an influx of young newcomers, and the introduction of new technologies that are not only making transformation possible, but also inevitable.
Family housing. Downtown Boston’s fastest growing demographic is not single professionals or empty nesters, but families with children. The population of children under 18 living downtown jumped 25 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the US Census.
While that growth is a sign of the city’s increasing safety and convenience, it is also exacerbating a shortage of family-sized housing. The hundreds of high-rise homes under construction are stratospherically priced — $3,000 a month or more for a one-bedroom apartment — and most are too small for families.
“The demand for family housing in Boston’s core neighborhoods is growing and it will continue to grow,” said Barry Bluestone, director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University. “But the supply of that housing is almost impossible to augment at prices that these families can afford.”
The high cost of construction downtown leaves developers with little choice but to build either luxury units or government subsidized low-income housing. Middle class families get left out.
Menino has launched an effort to moderate prices by building 30,000 new homes in Boston by 2020, but it will be up to his successor to ensure the city meets that target and begins to provide more affordable options for middle class families, as well as young newcomers and graduate students.
Detaching from the automobile. Boston’s transportation system is changing faster than it has since the invention of the automobile — a conveyance Menino has tried to chase off the city’s streets by building bike lanes, promoting mass transit, and making it harder and more expensive to park.
But the process Menino has initiated to detach Boston from the automobile is a long one, and his successor will have to navigate competing interests to address issues such as parking, expansion of public transit, and the rapid growth of car- and bike-sharing services.
Among the most outdated systems is Boston’s regulation of the cab industry, which tacitly allows cabs to block the introduction of easy-to-use upstarts such as Uber, a service that allows consumers to order cars using a cellphone app.
“The goal should be to allow people to get the services they want with a minimum amount of hassle,” said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. “We still have an 1890s system in the 21st century, and we’ve got to find a better way to do it.”
The next administration must also address the conflict between cars and the increasing number of bicycles. Draisen said the city should consider putting up barriers to protect bike lanes to make travel safer.
And then there’s public transit. Menino has successfully pressed for new bus and train services, and is now pursuing new ferry service to connect South Boston, East Boston, and Charlestown. But the city also faces the urgent need to expand and redesign South Station. While much of the decision-making is controlled by the state, the next mayor must be a strong voice to advance the project, and make sure it works for the city.
A rising downtown. After a long decline, Boston’s downtown is bursting with development again. Construction has resumed on the long-stalled Filene’s project of offices, homes, and stores, and developers are proposing residential, hotel, and on office high-rises near Government Center and the West End.
As new peaks hit the skyline, the next mayor should also focus on their connection to city streets, where new civic spaces and retail options are needed to bring people and life to Boston’s center.
“Downtown is the core of old Boston, and I don’t want it to become a bunch of glass towers,” said Pam Messenger, a member of the downtown Business Improvement District, which helps plan enhancements to the area. “It’s got a unique street pattern and mix of old and new architecture, and that should be celebrated.”
So far, the redevelopment looks promising in that regard. The developer of the Filene’s block, for example, is attempting to restore the original 1912 store, the last great work of the celebrated architect Daniel Burnham.
But much of the downtown’s success will hinge on its mix of retailers. The Menino administration has attracted new restaurants and shops, but has also faced criticism for some decisions, such as allowing an upscale version of Walgreens to open in a prime storefront at the corner of School and Washington streets.
Public art. Boston has many bronzed men on horseback and sports figures cast in their full glory. But it continues to lack a consistently funded program that would allow artists to enliven public spaces with new lighting, sculptures, and other works of art.
Cities such as Chicago and Seattle require property developers to contribute a percentage of their project costs to support public art, infusing those cities with fresh exhibits that capture public attention, if not adoration.
Despite support from Menino, Boston’s efforts to create a reliable mechanism to fund public art projects have fallen short, resulting in bland boulevards and parks that should be showcases for local artists.
New installations are being planned by the city and some developers in the Fort Point, Roxbury, and Back Bay neighborhoods, but arts commission members say the lack of a consistent focus on such projects has left the city unable to evolve beyond its mix of statues and fountains.
“Boston is still stuck somewhere between moving forward, and honoring the past,” said Lynne Kortenhaus, a member of the city’s arts commission.
Building on the water. Perhaps Menino’s most visible legacy will be the revitalization of the South Boston Waterfront. The former industrial enclave, renamed the Innovation District by Menino, is bursting with development and attracting companies from Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. to the branding and apparel company Life is good.
Developers and environmental advocates are now turning their attention to other sections of the waterfront that remain underused.
“East Boston and Dorchester are the undiscovered jewels along Boston Harbor,” said Vivien Li, president of the Boston Harbor Association, which lobbies for expanded public access to the water. “The next mayor could really make an impact by focusing on those parts of the waterfront.”
That means getting the ear of lenders, talking up investment opportunities, and investing in parks, transportation, and other public works that attract private dollars.
East Boston has long been touted as Boston’s next big real estate opportunity, but rebuilding efforts have languished, despite upgrades at Maverick Square, including a new MBTA station, and efforts to create a network of green space linking parks from Constitution Beach to Jeffries Point.
Dorchester is attracting new housing options around the water, but it still lacks retail establishments that could make it a more vibrant destination. A dramatic change could come if the University of Massachusetts Boston builds its first on-campus dormitories, which would create 24-hour foot traffic in the area.
A new economic engine: Dudley Square. Finally.
Dudley Square, the commercial heart of Roxbury, is beginning to see the transformation officials have talked about for years. The redevelopment of the long vacant Ferdinand Building is underway, with construction of new offices for the Boston School Department and retail space for new shops and a Tropical Foods supermarket.
Half a dozen other projects are on the drawing board, including a massive housing, retail, and cultural complex across from the Boston Police Headquarters that would link the South End and up-and-coming Dudley. But there is plenty left to do, including redeveloping largely vacant parcels along Melnea Cass Boulevard, and transforming the old Bartlett Yard bus lot into a housing and retail complex.
Neighborhood leaders say they will continue to push for development that brings a broad mix of amenities, from market-rate housing, to boutique hotels, to locally-owned shops and restaurants. But the key to advancing the area’s revitalization, they say, will be a mayor who promotes the opportunities in Dudley Square with the same enthusiasm as the South Boston Waterfront.
“We need to make sure Roxbury becomes a destination point for people,” said Darnell Williams, chief executive of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. “The next mayor needs to be just as supportive of that mix of uses coming to Roxbury.”Casey Ross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.