When I heard that Mayor Martin J. Walsh had announced the city’s first comprehensive plan process since 1965, I was surprised. After all, 18 years ago I was hired to coordinate the city’s first citywide planning process since 1965.
I don’t blame Walsh for slighting Boston 400, the process Mayor Thomas Menino launched in 1997. The initiative’s 250-page report never got released.
Despite his interest in downtown development and neighborhood projects like Main Streets, Menino was not a planner at heart. The Boston Redevelopment Authority’s planning director, Linda Haar, suggested the comprehensive plan as a way to demonstrate Menino’s “vision” for the city as he prepared to run for reelection. He took a flier on the idea. If it caught fire, he would embrace and promote it. If not, it would die a quiet death.
I worked full time, with one other planner, for two and a half years. We made community input the center of the process. We held more than 100 neighborhood meetings, in addition to seeking input from professionals on urban design, open space, transportation, and economic development. We also worked with planners at the BRA and at other city agencies.
Over time we compiled a detailed portrait of the city, with a modest set of proposals for improving neighborhood business districts, connecting green spaces, and promoting affordable housing. Our centerpiece proposal — to promote “transit-oriented development” — moved forward. So did a few other ideas.
But the mayor never showed much interest in Boston 400. He focused instead on separate projects for the South Boston Waterfront, Roxbury and East Boston, Harborwalk, and Downtown Crossing. One of his top aides pulled me aside one day to explain why.
The mayor will embrace the effort, he said, when community activists pepper him with praise for Boston 400. “Until then,” he said, “you’re on your own.”
That was, of course, a Catch-22. Neighborhood residents were skeptical until they knew Menino was committed. Well over a thousand residents showed up at meetings to share their ideas to improve their neighborhoods. But they doubted that the BRA would ever do anything with the plan. They were right.
When Menino ran opposed in 1997, the whole vision thing became unnecessary. Menino’s strategy as a politician was simple. First, he stayed visible in the neighborhoods, where people loved his “urban mechanic” persona. Second, he brokered big deals in development all over the city. For Menino, every parcel and project presented an opportunity for a transaction. To his credit, he appointed strong managers to run the schools, police, and parks departments. Along the way he raised campaign donations that scared away any plausible candidates for his job.
A successful citywide plan has three basic prerequisites:
Strong support from the mayor. The boss needs to make the plan central to all its planning processes. Everyone in City Hall needs to cooperate or else risk the mayor’s ire.
Clear definition of the plan. What is the desired result? Is it a set of principles? Passage of clear, binding rules for planning and development? The launch of major projects on the scale of the Big Dig or the “high spine” of skyscrapers from the waterfront to the Back Bay?
A rigorous process. Above all else, planning requires broad engagement and clear deadlines. What isn’t urgent doesn’t get done. Planning also requires extensive input from activists, ordinary residents, and professionals. Today that means not only meetings and committees, but also social media to keep conversations alive.
Lacking these essentials, Boston 400 became a BRA orphan. Toward the end, we drafted a report that offered a detailed portrait of the city’s planning issues with principles to guide planning. The BRA director and his chief of staff, Tom O’Brien and Matt O’Neil, gave us the go-ahead to publish our report. Then the mayor fired them.
We tried. I hope Walsh and his team fare better.
Charles Euchner is a case writer and editor at the Yale School of Management.