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Wu’s obstructionism is a losing strategy

The Boston city councilor's big stall on zoning appointees — causing delays on hundreds of small construction projects — isn't progressive.

Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu speaking at a YWCA YWomenVote 2020 panel discussion in January in Manchester, N.H.
Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu speaking at a YWCA YWomenVote 2020 panel discussion in January in Manchester, N.H.Mary Altaffer/Associated Press/File

Naked political ambition is rarely a pretty sight. It’s worse when it masquerades as progressive politics.

But it’s really ugly when it victimizes some poor guy in Eastie who just wants to build a mother-in-law apartment in his basement or a couple who needs the income from the two-family they hope to create from their single-family house in Charlestown.

Way to go, Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu. That won’t win you votes if you decide to run for mayor — holding up hundreds of small and mid-size construction projects at the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals by digging in your heels over Mayor Martin Walsh’s nominees to the board.


“This is not about the individuals,” Wu insisted at Wednesday’s City Council meeting. “These are all extremely dedicated Boston residents, hard-working people who would add a lot to the ZBA. This is about the larger structural issues in this moment we are in.”

Nevertheless Wu led an effort — with most of her so-called progressive colleagues following in lock-step — to reject those “extremely dedicated” individuals on a 7-5 Council vote.

No doubt the hundreds of Bostonians waiting months for small construction projects that will make their lives a little easier — like a roof deck or an income-producing apartment — will be ever-so grateful for Wu’s focus on those “larger” issues. And for a rising political star, is there anything “larger” than a possible mayoral run against Walsh?

The problem now being exacerbated by Wu is that the already dysfunctional — and, yes, scandal-plagued —Zoning Board of Appeals has a backlog of some 600 projects, in large part due to the coronavirus pandemic. The board essentially shut down for four months when it couldn’t hold public hearings.

It resumed remote meetings with a shorter agenda in July and is trying to work its way through the backlog. However, it’s still down at least four appointees from what ought to be a full complement of seven members and seven alternates.


It takes five for the board to have a quorum. But at the July 28 meeting, approval of zoning variances for a 144-unit subsidized elderly housing complex (already approved by the city’s planning agency last February) had to be put off because one of the five members present had to recuse herself. It’s probably off now until early October because of the backlog.

Meanwhile the candidates rejected at the last meeting have been held up by Wu for months. First because she said she wanted more information about the scandal that sent one City Hall aide to federal prison for taking bribes from a developer with business before the ZBA. Now Wu says she wants new appointees to have expertise in climate change, environmental protection, and urban planning — something called for in a home rule petition approved by the council and Walsh.

There’s no dispute about the merits of the case for adding such expertise — except for the one Wu is trying desperately to create. But until that home rule petition passes on Beacon Hill — which could take months or may not happen at all — Walsh is obliged to abide by existing law. The now rejected nominees, recommended by the Boston Society of Architects, the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, and the Building Trades Employers Association, have that expertise.


While Wu plays politics with these appointments, everything from driveway curb cuts to installing garage doors to that elderly housing complex and its medical clinic, await action. All this comes at a time when construction workers are looking for work after months of forced idleness.

If Wu really wants to think big, she ought to focus on the antiquated zoning city laws that force everyday home fix-ups into this clogged pipeline.

It would sure make a better electoral strategy than her bout of pointless obstructionism.

Rachelle Cohen can be reached at rachelle.cohen@globe.com.

Rachelle G. Cohen is a Globe opinion writer. She can be reached at rachelle.cohen@globe.com.