Editor’s Note: This story is from the Globe archives. It originally ran on Aug. 23, 2009.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino came across a newly renovated house in Roslindale a couple of years ago that wasn’t quite to his liking. So he snapped out his cellphone and barked at his chief development aide: “How could something so ugly get built?”
When the answer came back that the home fell within zoning code, Menino ordered the code rewritten. Now, homeowners in wide swaths of the city need City Hall permission to build additions.
A few years earlier, in Menino’s ceremonial conference room, the anxious developer of a Back Bay skyscraper was trying to win the mayor’s blessing. He placed a scale model of his proposed tower on the table. He had a line of a dozen possible tops for the building that he placed on the model one at a time, like hats.
Menino picked the one he liked best - it resembled a king’s crown - and with that, the project was as good as built.
Never before in Boston, and perhaps nowhere else in the nation, has a mayor obsessed so mightily, and wielded power so exhaustively, over the look, feel, and shape of the built city. Routine construction projects on remote streets need City Hall approval; prominent towers that climb the downtown skyline carry his mark; independent city boards bow to his will.
Interviews with numerous developers, neighborhood activists, residents, and current and former city workers, as well as a review of hundreds of Boston Redevelopment Authority records, reveal a common theme: The difference between success and failure - approval and denial - often depends on pleasing Menino.
Indeed, a small cadre of favored developers and consultants, most of whom have close personal, professional, or political ties to Menino, have routinely won approval for their buildings, all the while showering the mayor with the kinds of campaign contributions he once promised to reject.
Stories abound of developers who have seen proposals put on ice because of some perceived slight - often something as simple as not calling the mayor personally before a proposal first appears in the newspaper. As widespread are the tales of savvy - and successful - developers who live by two simple rules: Never surprise Menino, and always include him.
Menino’s unorthodox leadership has led to enormous successes for Boston - massive development during a roaring economy that brought gleaming towers, luxury hotels, and posh condominium projects, with thousands of new jobs and millions in local property taxes. The boom reaped neighborhood victories, including a new shopping center in a blighted section of Roxbury. Menino also slashed the red tape that had famously snarled developers for years.
His leadership also led to failures - bare parcels in prominent places, uneven progress on marquee stretches of the city, and criticism that Boston lacks a coherent vision for its future.
The mayor makes no excuses and offers no apologies.
“You get elected to make decisions,” he said in an interview. “If you’re only going to put your finger up in the air and figure out how the wind is blowing, you don’t deserve to be an elected official.”
For 16 years, development in Boston has been at the forefront of Menino’s mayoralty.
With commercial development alone, Boston has built more per square mile of land during the past decade than any one of the 10 most populous cities in the United States - triple the amount per square mile in New York, and six times more than in Los Angeles, according to Costar, a Maryland-based company that tracks commercial development. Boston also added millions more square feet of housing and modern additions to its universities and hospitals.
The boom benefited some more than others. Together, the six most prolific developers built 1 out of every 4 square feet constructed by private developers since 1996 - some 9 million square feet of glass and steel and concrete, the equivalent of five John Hancock towers. The developers are partners James G. Keefe and Patrick Lee; Anthony Pangaro; Joseph Fallon; Steven Samuels; Edward Linde; and Edward A. Fish.
Some have become Menino’s friends and political allies. Fallon helped bankroll Menino’s last inaugural ball. Lee is married to his former chief of staff. Linde serves on the board of a nonprofit business advocacy group founded by Menino. Fish ran a construction company that hired Menino’s son.
Menino lights up when talking about many of them, including Linde, and Norman Leventhal, another prominent developer.
“Norman Leventhal, whenever he comes into this office with an idea, I say, `Don’t explain it to me. Just go do it,’ because you know that what Norman Leventhal is going to do is good for Boston,” Menino said. “He has no ulterior motives. He doesn’t need anything from the city. Ed Linde is the same way.”
One of Menino’s close friends also prospered as a consultant hired to help developers win the mayor’s approval. Robert F. Walsh developed or consulted on projects totaling 8.5 million square feet - 10 percent of the square feet approved by the city since 1996.
Together, the six developers, Walsh, and employees of their firms have showered Menino with $61,025 in campaign donations since 2005 - a significant haul for most municipal candidates, but less so for Menino, who raised $4.2 million during those years.
“That’s all?” the mayor quipped. “Cheap bums.”
Menino took the money, despite pledging in 2000 that he would not accept any cash from developers who have business pending before the city. “What you’re talking about is my integrity, and there is absolutely no price on that, absolutely none,” Menino declared at the time.
But in the past four years alone, according to a Globe review, Menino violated the pledge at least 21 times with top developers, accepting $9,250 from them and their employees while they had projects pending.
In one case, Pangaro’s employees donated $3,000 to Menino’s campaign the day after submitting plans to the Boston Redevelopment Authority for a 250,000-square-foot office building near the Financial District.
Menino blamed campaign aides for failing to enforce his pledge.
He initially said he would not return donations that violated the pledge, but his campaign later said they were reviewing them and planned to return at least $2,000. Menino insisted such contributions do not affect his decisions or grant developers access or special treatment.
But some who have worked for Menino say his friends are treated with extra care.
“It was common knowledge to everyone at the BRA you didn’t mess with anyone who was a friend of the mayor,” said Greg Selkoe, a former assistant planner at the BRA who has donated to City Councilor Michael F. Flaherty’s mayoral campaign . “Whatever you wanted to do, it could be made legal - even if the whole neighborhood didn’t want it and it was totally against what we were trying to do as a plan.”
Involved with BRA
No matter is too small to command the attention of a man famous for obsessing over every last pothole and broken street light - a man who calls himself a “nut for aesthetics.”
“Tom loves roofs and loves front doors,” said Kevin C. Phelan, president of Colliers, Meredith & Grew, a Boston real estate firm.
Linde, chief executive of Boston Properties Inc., learned as much when he proposed building a 36-story tower in the Back Bay. Menino took one look at the design and shook his head.
“I said, `Guys, flat roofs don’t make it,”‘ Menino said.
Linde and his architect returned to City Hall, armed with the miniature tops. When Menino came into the Eagle Room, a wood-paneled hall near his office, they placed each top on the model, until they reached the regal crown.
“He said, `I think this one would be great,”‘ Linde recalled.
And so it was built.
From the moment he took office, Menino made clear that the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which oversees planning and development in the city, would lose much of the autonomy it enjoyed under previous mayors. In 1994, he forced out the director, who refused to accept his authority, and installed his own appointee, whom he made a direct subordinate in his Cabinet.
“I have a different style from the previous mayor,” Menino declared in January 1994, soon after taking office. “I like to be involved in these issues.”
He cut regulations, dropping the time that developers had to wait for city approvals from an average of 18 months for projects greater than 100,000 square feet in the 1990s to an average of seven months today, city records show.
The trick, developers say, is to make sure the mayor is the first to know about your plans.
“You don’t want to surprise him,” said Samuels, who has built more than 1 million square feet of retail and residential property since 1996.
When the mayor likes a project, he has been known to tell developers whom to call to begin building grass-roots support.
“He gives you names of key players in the neighborhood,” Samuels said.
Menino’s backing virtually guarantees that a project will clear other hurdles as well, some say, such as the Zoning Board of Appeals, an independent panel that receives recommendations from the BRA and then decides whether to grant exceptions to the zoning code.
If the mayor’s office got involved, “We never went on the merits of the case,” Selkoe said. “The call would come in that the mayor doesn’t want this to happen. The board is supposed to make independent decisions. It’s just common knowledge that the mayor anoints it.”
By the same token, going against the mayor’s friends, even unwittingly, could get Menino’s hackles up, Selkoe said. He recalled stepping into a conference room one day in 1998 and onto an unforeseen minefield.
Visiting that day were developers of a proposed Brooks Pharmacy in Roslindale. Selkoe showed them the zoning map and informed them their plans generally met requirements. Then Selkoe got a call from the BRA’s chief of staff: The mayor was furious.
Menino didn’t want a Brooks there, Selkoe said. One of his close friends owned the local pharmacy nearby.
“The directive is: `You don’t talk to them. You don’t help them. You don’t do anything,”‘ Selkoe said. “I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I could not talk to Brooks Pharmacy.”
Menino defended his actions in the case, saying he does not like chain pharmacies in the neighborhoods.
“They hurt small business,” he said. “I’m trying to help small business.”
There’s now a Staples on the site.
Some developers, too, have found themselves on the wrong side of the mayor. One of them, Donald J. Chiofaro, wants to invest millions of dollars to build two high-rises that would radically alter the waterfront. Chiofaro has been unable to get an audience with the mayor, however, and their rift deepened after Chiofaro launched the approval process without Menino’s sign-off.
“The chances of Don Chiofaro building is about as likely as an 80-degree day in January,” Menino was quoted as saying earlier this year.
He still hopes to build, though.
“We think that this project ought to be judged on its merit and advanced on its merit,” Chiofaro said.
Menino denied that he shuns any developers.
“I don’t shut anybody out,” he said. “If it’s good for my city, do it.”
No master development plan
Menino’s strong hand contrasts with the development approach in some other cities, where developers, if their projects meet zoning codes and adhere to city master plans, tend to be able to build within the guidelines, or “as of right.”
“That’s one of the distinctive features about Boston,” said Linde, who has developed projects in Washington, D.C., midtown Manhattan, San Francisco, and Princeton, N.J.
“There’s really no such thing as `as of right,”‘ Samuels added. “It may happen in other states, but it doesn’t happen here.”
In one case, Samuels wanted to build a supermarket in the Fenway. After dealing with the mayor, the BRA, and neighbors, he ended up constructing a mostly residential project. In another case, Dr. C. Ronald Kahn, a former president of Joslin Diabetes Center, came to the mayor several years ago with plans for a new biomedical research facility. Before long, that research facility included housing.
“He really seemed to have a clear vision in his mind,” Kahn said.
Menino does not want to create zoning codes that would allow developers to simply build within them without prior City Hall approval. He said he wants the flexibility and discretion to govern Boston’s diverse and changing neighborhoods as he sees fit.
“If you have hard-and-fast rules,” he said, “it’s not going to work.”
Menino once had visions of creating an all-encompassing plan for development citywide. In 1997, he hired Charles Euchner, a planning consultant, to spearhead the initiative, declaring that his blueprint would establish “the bold long-range goals we plan to accomplish together.”
But after three years and 100 community meetings, the plan died. A draft report, briefly posted on the city’s website, was removed.
Euchner, an instructor at Yale and the author of books and articles about city planning, said Menino was unable to commit to one broad vision and follow it through.
“That, to me, is kind of the issue,” Euchner said. “He flits from thing to thing.”
Menino has, during his tenure, backed plans for a monorail from the Back Bay to Fenway Park, and conjured grand visions for a $3 million footbridge from City Hall Plaza to Faneuil Hall, the relocation of City Hall to the South Boston Waterfront, and construction of the city’s largest skyscraper, a 1,000-foot tower that he said would be “a stunning statement of our belief in Boston’s bright future.”
None has materialized.
“At least he’s open to ideas,” Euchner said. “I guess the frustration that a lot of people have is these ideas don’t get folded into a larger vision.”
The city does have plans outlining broad visions for certain areas - three for the South Boston Waterfront alone. But Boston, in part because Menino says each neighborhood is unique, lacks an overarching, citywide blueprint for the future.
“You just think about how Boston might have done really great things during the boom years,” Euchner said.
While the city’s building boom brought tax revenue and jobs, gaping holes and drab swaths of asphalt speak to the mayor’s failures, at times, to capitalize on Boston’s potential.
The mayor in 2001 wanted to redevelop a city-owned parking lot just off Boston Common and raise $13 million for a new school in Chinatown. The BRA chose Pangaro’s firm, Millennium Partners, over seven other developers, even though Millennium was not initially the highest bidder.
Though the city could still reap millions from the deal in future years, today there’s no building on the lot, known as Hayward Place. There’s no new school in Chinatown. And Pangaro’s team, which was granted a lease for the land, is collecting the parking proceeds.
Boston is losing about $2.3 million annually on parking, estimates Jeffrey W. Conley, the director of the Boston Finance Commission, a city watchdog agency. If a condo high-rise had been built on the parking lot as planned, it could have brought in just as much in annual property taxes.
“In essence, they’re not giving the taxpayers anything. Nothing,” Conley said.
In Downtown Crossing, BRA officials, following the mayor’s directive, allowed developers to partially demolish the former home of one of the city’s iconic department stores, Filene’s, before they had the funding in place to complete a hotel and office tower, known as One Franklin. Now, the city has what looks like a bombed-out block in the heart of a downtown shopping district.
“That’s one, if I had a magic wand that I could use, I’d love to see that happen,” Menino said. “Just imagine if One Franklin is where it should be today. Wow.”
Menino says his greatest disappointment has been the failure to develop more of the South Boston Waterfront, which he hoped would be a legacy of his administration. Parking lots still dominate much of the area and, now that the economy has chilled, key projects could remain stalled for some time.
“I thought we’d be much further along than we are,” Menino said.
When Menino and his allies have flexed their muscles, residents and activists who oppose their plans have found themselves in fierce fights.
When Walsh, Menino’s friend, wanted to build senior housing in West Roxbury in 1995 and the mayor appeared poised to sign off on it, neighbors took their case to Beacon Hill.
After a long, arduous campaign - fueled by bake sales and many late-night strategy sessions - they persuaded the governor at the time, William F. Weld, to sign a law to preserve the woods as conservation land.
“The BRA isn’t for citizens,” said Bob Gaudet, a West Roxbury resident who helped lead the fight against Walsh’s project. “It’s for developers.”
In the Back Bay, where Ronald M. Druker, a longtime Menino campaign donor, wanted to build a 25-story luxury apartment tower next to the Colonnade Hotel in 1996, neighbors sued, arguing that it would tower over their brownstones.
Nancy Restuccia, who fought the project as president of the St. Botolph Neighborhood Association, said BRA officials told the group the mayor “would like to see it built.” In the end, Druker built a shorter tower than initially proposed.
Menino has routinely dismissed criticism of his control over development, saying, “There will always be folks who sit on the sidelines and want to throw rocks.”
But the critics are getting louder. All three mayoral challengers say the development process in Boston has become corrupted. Flaherty says Menino “has let developers steamroll through our neighborhoods without community support.”
“Worst of all, there is no vision,” City Councilor Sam Yoon said in June.
Landscape architect and neighborhood activist Shirley Kressel, who chairs the campaign of South End businessman Kevin McCrea, said, “The mayor promises things in a breakfast handshake, and the BRA carries it out.”
“They do what he wants to do,” Kressel said, “and that’s build, baby, build.”