One emerging theme at this week’s inaugural Globe Summit, a three-day virtual conference, was the future of Boston. Two online panel discussions highlighted the ways in which business leaders and policy makers can build a more equitable city.
Greg Minott, cofounder of Boston architecture firm Dream Collaborative and president of the Boston Society of Architecture, said he is still betting on cities, despite the rise of remote work and other behaviors that have changed during the pandemic.
“We are still social beings,” he said in a discussion on Wednesday. “We’ve realized how dependent we are on each other to survive.”
But the city’s resurgence has taken longer than once thought given the rise of the Delta variant of COVID-19. Meantime, businesses are struggling to survive. Bessie King, general manager of Villa Mexico Cafe on Water Street, said independently-owned restaurants are still figuring out how to adapt to the fact that most office workers likely won’t ever return five days a week.
There will need to be “honest conversations” about rents and accessibility to downtown markets moving forward, King said, or else business districts will primarily become home to chains like Sweetgreen or Starbucks.
Minott said “some building owners would rather have the storefront vacant than accept below market rents.” He agreed that there needs to be some kind of an intervention to ensure that small businesses have a fair shot at access to space.
Representative Seth Moulton said devoting resources to building a better transportation system should still be top of mind as Boston emerges from the pandemic, even though MBTA trains appear to be less crowded while remote work persists.
“We don’t know exactly how permanent these changes will be,” he said during a panel discussion on Thursday. “The fact that fewer people are using the T... gives the T a chance to take a breath, because it was completely over capacity for the last 10 or 20 years.”
Moulton, a proponent of a high-speed rail system, touted its potential to get more drivers off highways. He said the move could have an impact on the those that bear the cost of such systems, such as taxpayers or people who live in air-polluted towns.
There’s an economic incentive, too, he added. If Massachusetts can link Springfield to Boston via a 25-minute train ride, there would be a better connection between good-paying jobs and affordable housing.
Maria Belen Power, associate executive director at environmental justice organization GreenRoots, said she supports a state or federally funded program for or trains, rather than electric vehicles.
Moulton agreed, adding that with EVs, “we’ll have silent traffic jams, but we’ll all still be stuck in traffic, and that doesn’t solve our problem.”