Ahead of his departure for Washington, D.C., Mayor Martin J. Walsh has been crossing off a list of his signature projects across the city.
Late last month, he joined school officials and construction workers at a topping-off ceremony for the rising Boston Arts Academy. A few weeks earlier, on a sunny Saturday, he joined neighborhood leaders in the North End, Dorchester, and South Boston for separate ribbon-cutting events to reopen three popular parks. And all along, his administration has been preparing a proposal for 67 projects, totaling over $25.5 million, for neighborhood revitalization efforts under the city’s Community Preservation Act.
They are public improvements that will carry Walsh’s mark long after he leaves office — the fruits of the historic economic success the city saw during his tenure before the coronavirus pandemic hit last year.
And yet, after seven years, Walsh also leaves the city with another list of projects — those not quite so resolved, including some barely begun and a couple, such as the city’s ill-starred Olympic games bid, scuttled.
After demolishing the Long Island Bridge in 2015, the city’s still looking for a green light to rebuild it and fulfill Walsh’s promise for a comprehensive recovery campus. The project is entangled in litigation. Meanwhile, homelessness and open-air drug abuse have set roots in the Newmarket Square neighborhood.
Even though the administration built tens of thousands of housing units, the city still faces an affordable housing crisis. Traffic was a nightmare before the pandemic, and could get worse. And the task of improving city schools, which has bedeviled a long string of Boston mayors, remains sadly incomplete, with many schools — including the city’s only vocational school — still badly underperforming.
Such is the narrative of the Walsh administration as he becomes President Biden’s labor secretary, according to community advocates and City Hall observers. In his time as mayor, Walsh oversaw a historic construction boom that transformed some city neighborhoods. He capitalized on the city’s economic success to usher in notable improvements. But still, the population growth the city saw in recent years — a byproduct of that renewed vitality — created problems of its own.
“There were some great opportunities, economically and financially, for the city, but the dynamic is that it came with some challenges,” said Pam Kocher, head of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a government watchdog. In many ways she said, “the city was a victim of its economic success during the mayor’s time.”
What was clear, though, was that Walsh was, from the start of his tenure to its end, an empathetic and likable mayor, a former state representative and labor leader who looked to build bridges among the city’s many stakeholders. He took full advantage of the city’s strong mayor form of government, even as he sought consensus with political opponents, including those who openly challenged him.
He was a labor leader who befriended the business community; a master of retail politics, who wanted to be a friend and savior of the middle class, even while others pushed him to be bolder in confronting the city’s bigger-picture challenges.
To be sure, most of the challenges that faced Walsh are true of other big cities in America, and by many measures Boston has done well in spite of them. The city has developed thriving life science and health care industries, sustained its reputation as an academic and research center, and built up its cultural image and revitalized neighborhoods. These are trends that pre-dated the mayor, were accelerated by his leadership, and will outlast him.
Under Walsh’s watch, the city created its first Cabinet-level Office of Arts and Culture in decades. Working with city councilors, the mayor secured voter approval of a Community Preservation Act that raises tens of millions of dollars in additional funds each year for community-based programs, open space, and historic preservation.
And nearly eight years after Walsh first proposed demolishing City Hall and its wind-swept, brick expanse of a plaza, he has instead reimagined it as an attractive downtown cultural and open space center in-the-making, under a multi-year Rethink City Hall initiative. Construction is underway.
The COVID pandemic effectively stalled the city’s economic progress a year ago, City Hall observers said. Walsh, whose leadership was widely praised, took early steps to mitigate the impact on city living and often pushed back against Governor Charlie Baker’s reopening schedules, setting the city on its own, more conservative timeline. As with other major cities, the devastating economic effects, especially on small businesses, and the forced closure of schools took their toll.
And yet relative to other cities, Boston remains financially sound with a healthy, balanced budget — a tribute to the city’s financial stewardship in recent years. The administration maintained consecutive “AAA” bond ratings, the highest possible credit rating, through Walsh’s tenure.
“A lot of good things were happening,” said James Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. “I think one of the dimensions of his legacy is that he was able to connect the dots on how the economy works.”
Rooney said Walsh, early in his tenure, was typecast by some as a pro-union mayor. But he quickly learned to bring together community, business, and labor groups for the common benefit.
“He did it Marty’s way,” Rooney added, and “Marty’s way, to me, was to listen first.”
Of course, along the way, there were a few political blunders and failures of the administration’s own making: the failed Olympics bid, a doomed plan for an IndyCar Grand Prix street race in South Boston that led to bankruptcy and litigation. Two federal criminal indictments crashed down on City Hall for the first time in decades: One case was overturned on appeal, and in the other, a top aide was sentenced to several years in prison for bribery. As a result of the bribery scandal, one of Walsh’s top aides and close friends, William “Buddy” Christopher, quietly stepped down from his post as special adviser to the mayor.
And in the last phase of the administration, several attempts at reform ended badly. After vowing to bring transparency to the Boston Police Department, amid a national reckoning over fairness and equality in policing, the mayor bungled the appointment of a new police commissioner in a scramble to name a successor before his departure.
And, though the mayor has sought to put racial equality at the forefront of Boston’s agenda in recent years, this remains a city where the racial fault line between prosperity and poverty remains largely unmoved. One example: Several organizations representing Black and brown communities sued the administration earlier this month for enabling racial disparities in the way the city awards public contracts.
“He doesn’t get a pass on that,” said Priscilla Flint-Banks, cofounder of the Black Economic Justice Institute, who said the few programs the mayor enacted, including Building Pathways, did not go far enough.
“When he ran for office, he promised to bring the trades into the community, so there would be more jobs for people of color, Boston residents, and females, and I have yet to see that,” she said.
Walsh drew always on a deep personal well, and on his identification with those struggling to make it in this tough town. He is the mayor who invoked his own battles with alcoholism and his sobriety in connecting with people who suffered substance abuse disorders and needed to find treatment, and he created what is believed to be the first municipal office of recovery services in the country. When constituents talked of the need for job training, he directed them toward the unions that helped him through the years, before entering public service.
“I’m still that same son of immigrants from Dorchester, blessed with a loving family and second chances,” he said in his first State of the City speech, in 2015.
After an unprecedented two decades in office, Mayor Thomas M. Menino came to be known as “the urban mechanic” — focused intensely on incremental improvements. His predecessor, former mayor Raymond Flynn, was known for his focus on neighborhoods and on improving the city’s racial climate after the busing calamity.
In past interviews, Walsh said he never wanted to be defined by one particular action. “I don’t have a theme — my theme is everything,” the mayor told the Globe, in advance of his 2019 State of the City speech.
Horace Small, a longtime grass-roots advocate and executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, said Walsh’s legacy could be that of, “Mr. Nice Guy,” for his willingness to sit and listen — over coffee or breakfast at McKenna’s Café in Dorchester. “It’s the little stuff he did, people in the neighborhood liked him, he listened,” he said.
And yet, “Do I think he should have made more progress in [seven] years? I do, I just do,” he said.
The projects the mayor did accomplish, or set in motion with a $3 billion capital plan, could have lasting impacts for years, on educational programs, neighborhood revitalization efforts, climate resiliency, and expanding the city’s stock of affordable housing. New schools have sprung up in Fenway and Roxbury, with more to come, though Walsh has not nearly reached his lofty goals for school construction. New and renovated libraries appeared in several neighborhoods, and Boston saw its first new fire house in 30 years.
By some measures, the quality of life of life has improved, too. Through the end of 2020, crime during the Walsh administration was down by nearly 30 percent, arrests were down 33 percent, and police had taken 5,000 illegal guns off streets. The administration claims to have helped create 120,000 jobs since 2014. And nearly all city residents can say they live within a 10-minute walk of a park, some of which have seen improvements: The tot lot at Billings Field in West Roxbury, the soccer field at LoPresti Park in East Boston.
The investments were made amid a time of historic financial growth in Boston, with a population surge — of tens of thousands of new residents — not seen since the urban revitalization of the 1940s-50s, when the city ranked 10th in the country in total residents.
Boston’s total assessed property value grew to $190.7 billion last year, a $14.5 billion increase over the previous year, thanks to new construction and building renovations — mostly in residential properties. Since January 2014, a total of 86 million square feet of development has been approved in Boston, worth more than $43 billion; this led to 80,972 construction jobs, and 69,613 long-term jobs.
But the development of new housing hasn’t been able to keep pace with the influx of new residents, and that has led to a competitive housing market that has pushed many residents out of their homes — it stands, perhaps, as the gravest and most immediate challenge Boston faces, after the pandemic. Apartments, once affordable to working families, have been converted to condominiums. Neighborhoods have been gentrified.
Since Walsh took office in January 2014, more than 36,000 new units have been permitted under the administration’s housing plan — a huge number but not big enough. Displacement of residents, largely the poor and those of color, continues.
“The city could not build itself out of that,” said Kocher, of the Municipal Research Bureau, “and that continues to be a challenge.”
City Councilor Matthew O’Malley, the longest continuously serving member of the panel, who witnessed the transition from Menino to Walsh, said many of the challenges Boston faces now have naturally evolved and intensified in recent years, since Walsh took office, and they may not be of his making.
But O’Malley said Walsh has shown increasing willingness during the course of his two terms to take on these intractable problems, such as the rising sea levels driven by climate change that endanger a coastal city.
Walsh has since embraced a range of reforms he might have balked at eight years ago, O’Malley said, such as carbon neutral building and community choice energy. After the floods caused by the winter storms of 2017-2018, the mayor designated 10 percent of the city’s annual capital plan toward climate resiliency efforts.
“There’s a lot more work that needs to be done, and a lot more preparedness for it, but Marty deserves credit for recognizing the threat,” he said.
Overall, he called Walsh a “strong, compassionate leader, who helped this city grow.”
Lewis Finfer, a longtime advocate with Massachusetts Communities Action Network, agreed. He has pressed the mayor to do more to address the housing crunch and racial inequity but said they were problems that were years in the making.
“There’s always a lot more to be done, that’s the nature of the job, everybody’s watching,” he said. But, he added, “there was change, and change for the better.”
Finfer suggested Walsh will leave a legacy of “his empathy for hard-working people.”
Added Rooney, of the Chamber of Commerce: “He never stopped being Marty from Dorchester.’'