The old hub, spoke, and wheel system that shaped Boston development for half a century is dead. It used to be that the businesses nestled into the staid suburban office parks along Route 128 mattered at least as much as the ones filling up towers in Boston and Cambridge. That’s no longer true. The business and social life of the region increasingly revolves around the tightly packed urban core.
Beacon Hill chose this moment — when new companies, residents, and billions upon billions of dollars in private investment are flowing into the city — to cripple the transit system that makes it all possible.
Much of the debate over Governor Deval Patrick’s $1.9 billion tax plan has centered on the proposal’s cost. Those fears are overblown. The latest issue of CommonWealth Magazine (where I work) shows that tax burdens in Massachusetts have tracked at or below the national average for the past 30 years, and that even if Patrick got all the taxes he asked for, Massachusetts residents would still face lower tax bills than residents in solidly conservative states like Indiana.
Less has been said about the consequences of letting the MBTA crumble. But those consequences loom large, since the financial viability of the MBTA is far more important now than it was even a decade ago.
Cities that once fell victim to crippling suburban flight are booming, thanks to a surge in residents who value walkable streets and lively neighborhoods over large suburban home lots. Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville are growing more quickly than the state as a whole; they’re also young and getting younger, even as the rest of Massachusetts ages. And employers are following them into the urban core, paying huge markups to operate in Boston and Cambridge, rather than in a low-slung building at the bottom of a highway off-ramp.
This shift has come to a head as Massachusetts moves out of recession. Post-recession booms usually start in the suburbs, where builders stalk cheap land and bargain-hunting corporations. But that isn’t the case this time around. Instead, companies are seizing the city center. Biogen has ended its flirtation with the suburbs and is expanding in Cambridge instead. Pfizer, Novartis, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, the Broad Institute, Amazon, and Google are all growing around Kendall Square. Vertex Pharmaceuticals is headlining the buildout of Boston’s Seaport. Converse is swapping its North Andover headquarters for Causeway Street. State Street is giving up a series of suburban properties to construct an expensive new complex along the Fort Point Channel.
And as companies chase young talent in the urban core, the region is making moves to grow even younger and denser. Builders are lining up thousands of new housing units for Downtown Crossing and the Fenway. Cambridge’s Central Square, Somerville’s Brickbottom and Union Square, and Boston’s Fairmount corridor are all being up-zoned to accommodate new development. New residences are clustering around Alewife and Wellington Circle. Entirely new neighborhoods are springing up in Quincy Center and Somerville’s Assembly Square.
The common element in all of this is mass transit access. Residents and companies crowd into Boston and Cambridge to feed off the cities’ connectivity; continued transit access is at the heart of the business plans allowing these places to grow denser still. It’s not reasonable to expect that all of State Street’s employees are going to rent apartments on A Street. But it is reasonable to expect that if State Street is recruiting young, mobile, urban employees, a decent chunk of them are going to be riding subway cars and buses to Fort Point from the Fenway or Somerville or Charlestown.
The MBTA is already straining to keep up with its current users. Its core stations — Kendall, Park Street, Downtown Crossing, and Copley Square — are above capacity now, even before accounting for the tens of millions of square feet currently in the construction pipeline. At the same time that the system is being pushed toward its breaking point, it’s being starved financially.
Forget about running the Green Line to Somerville: The Legislature is now poised to advance a $500 million transportation tax plan that would leave basic maintenance for the aging transit system, like new buses and subway cars, unfunded. Just as infrastructure investments enable private investment, so too will public disinvestment put pressure on the huge sums firms are now sinking into the city. The biggest potential drag on the region’s economy isn’t developers’ ability to find customers for all the apartment towers and office buildings they’re erecting; the constraint is their ability to move around town.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.