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Mayoral candidates differ sharply on development

Boston mayoral candidates have all promised they’ll help build a better city, and a look at their plans for housing, transit, and other issues reveals sharp contrasts

(Top, from left) Felix Arroyo; John Barros; Charles Clemons Jr.; Daniel Conley; and John Connolly. (Bottom, from left) Rob Consalvo;  Charlotte Golar Richie; Michael Ross; Bill Walczak; Marty Walsh; and Charles Yancey.

(Top, from left) Felix Arroyo; John Barros; Charles Clemons Jr.; Daniel Conley; and John Connolly. (Bottom, from left) Rob Consalvo; Charlotte Golar Richie; Michael Ross; Bill Walczak; Marty Walsh; and Charles Yancey.

The candidates to become Boston’s next mayor want to transform the physical city.

In daily campaign forums, they promise to spur development in outlying neighborhoods, build low- and middle-income housing, reform the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and make bicycling safer and public transit more accessible.

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But the candidates differ dramatically in how to accomplish those goals. Some want to dismantle the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the city’s development agency, while others want to keep it intact. On housing, some candidates would use tax incentives to spur construction of lower-priced units; others want to mandate that developers designate a larger percentage of projects to affordable housing or encourage construction of micro-sized units.

These and other sharp contrasts emerged in responses to a series of Globe questions on economic development, housing, building heights, and parking requirements. Here’s a breakdown of the candidates’ positions as they seek to become Boston’s first new leader in a generation. David James Wyatt wasn’t able to be reached for comment.

How tall should Boston’s skyline get? The next mayor will take office as developers pursue skyscrapers that would reshape the skyline from the Fenway to Downtown Crossing to the South Boston Innovation District.

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Developer Thomas N. O’Brien is proposing a massive cluster of buildings to replace the Government Center Garage, while Carpenter & Co. wants to build a residential and hotel tower of up 700 feet high near the signature Christian Science Plaza.

Dan Conley, the Suffolk district attorney, said the city should encourage dense development in areas where new stores and housing could bring more activity to commercial districts and neighborhoods. “Density can add immeasurably to the vibrancy of a city,” he said, adding that Boston could encourage housing with smaller units, or micro housing, to accommodate its surging population. “The city of Paris, for example, is roughly the same physical size as Boston but has three times our population.”

City Councilor Michael Ross cited the redevelopment of the Fenway neighborhood as a good example of how tall buildings can help revitalize a time-worn corner of the city. Several new buildings on Boylston Street have replaced gas stations and sub shops with modern homes and restaurants.

“Because we planned first and the community articulated what its vision was, the process of developing Boylston Street was faster and easier,” said Ross, whose district includes the Fenway. “We can and should do that in every neighborhood in the city, which will lead to increased height and density where it makes sense.”

John Barros, executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, said the city should be more aggressive in requiring developers to meet key conditions, such as creating affordable housing, if they want to build taller. “I support dense, high-rise development next to transportation nodes when the required 15 percent affordable units are produced,” Barros said. He added that mitigation money from developers should be devoted to neighborhoods surrounding new developments and more contracts should go to minority- and women-owned enterprises.

Change at the Boston Redevelopment Authority? Several candidates said they have repeatedly fielded campaign trail complaints about the BRA, with residents and developers saying that the review of building proposals is unpredictable and too easily swayed by politics.

The changes proposed by the candidates vary widely. Many want to dismantle or abolish the BRA, while others say it should be kept intact, but reformed to make decision-making more transparent.

Charlotte Golar Richie, a former director of Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s Department of Neighborhood Development, said she is in the latter camp. She praised the BRA’s work to spur construction of new homes and stores downtown. “Now I want to leverage that experience and bring transformational projects to our underserved neighborhoods,” she said, adding that she intends to streamline the permitting process.

State Representative Marty Walsh wants to get rid of the BRA. He proposed folding its responsibilities into a larger economic development agency whose director would be more insulated from politics. “Individual citizens and developers will find a process that is more open, less arbitrary, and far easier to navigate,” Walsh said.

Charles Clemons Jr., a local radio host, suggested more regular financial audits of the authority and giving greater oversight to the City Council through the creation of a community review board. City Councilor John Connolly raised concerns that developers have too much influence over the permitting process.

“We need a process where the community has real input, where we drive development from a plan, not the other way around,” he said.

The BRA’s leaders defend its performance, noting that $5.6 billion worth of projects are underway, revitalizing districts from Dudley Square to the East Boston waterfront. In the last two years, construction investment in Boston has increased by 74 percent, and more than 5,000 homes are now under construction, according to the BRA.

How can the city make housing affordable? Despite a residential building boom, Boston’s housing costs remain among the highest in the country. And with land costs increasing, it is becoming even more difficult to finance construction of homes that low- and middle-income workers can afford.

Bill Walczak, a former health care executive, said Boston can moderate prices by building more homes. He said the city must work closely with neighboring communities to boost production of a variety of housing types.

“It is absolutely necessary today to follow our region’s rapid transit lines and work to build new housing near transit stations — regardless of the existing political boundaries,” he said.

City Councilor Felix Arroyo said he would offer incentives for developers to build affordable housing, noting that pressure on the rental market is particularly severe. Boston’s average rents are about $1,850 per month, ranking among the highest in the country, behind San Francisco and the New York metropolitan area.

“It is necessary to take a broad approach that increases the supply of affordable rental housing, promotes opportunities for home ownership as well as providing supportive housing for the homeless,” Arroyo said.

City Councilor Rob Consalvo pledged to work with local companies to provide low-interest loans to fund housing construction and pursue other employer-assisted models. Conley said he would consider construction of micro-units to house young professionals, while also offering financial incentives to help middle-class families renovate old or dilapidated homes.

Menino has launched a plan to build 30,000 new homes in the city by 2020. During his tenure, he also established requirements that developers offer 15 percent of their units at below-market prices.

Charles Yancey, another city councilor, said the percentage should be increased to as much as 33 percent. “Too many people are being priced out of the housing market in Boston,” he said, adding that the city must prevent publicly subsidized units from being redeveloped into pricier homes.

Should Boston build more parking, or less? Under Menino, officials are discouraging construction of new parking spaces with development projects, citing the need to reduce reliance on automobiles and devote more land to housing and open spaces.

In many densely packed neighborhoods, that is proving controversial among residents who wage daily battles to find precious street spaces. Many candidates said they support weaning Boston off the automobile, but offered different solutions for achieving that goal.

Connolly said he would push for longer service hours at the MBTA, building safer bike lanes, and expanding the Hubway bike-sharing system to more neighborhoods. He also noted that requiring less parking cuts construction costs for developers and makes it easier to build lower-cost housing.

“This is not one-size-fits all,” he added. “In certain neighborhoods there is a real parking crisis that we must work to alleviate.”

Walsh said he would seek to tailor policies to individual neighborhoods by conducting something of a parking census, and trying to strike a delicate balance between supply and demand.

In the last five years, transportation preferences have changed rapidly, with number of registered vehicles in Boston dropping by 14 percent, even as the city’s population has swelled by tens of thousands of people.

Even with such evidence, many candidates are urging caution, especially given an aging and inconsistent public transit system.

“We cannot talk about reducing parking until we ensure that everyone has equitable and safe access to other forms of transportation. Arroyo said. “Our focus should be on funding long-term investments in Boston’s infrastructure in a progressive way.”

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.
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