While the Seaport District is a success in many ways, like so much in American life, that success is almost exclusively for people of certain racial and socioeconomic backgrounds — with some communities of color and lesser economic means almost totally excluded. Although steps have been taken to mitigate this failure of planning and execution, no systemic solution has ever been proposed. And as the Globe observed in a 2017 article, the problem is systemic: “The Seaport’s whiteness is not the result of overt prejudice … but rather a symptom that indicates Boston has not addressed systemic issues involving race.”
The Civic Action Project resolved to try to address this issue at the structural level, promising “to develop policy initiatives that will seek to remedy the lack of diversity and racial equity in the Seaport District, and serve as a development template that assures our future neighborhoods — Suffolk Downs, Fort Point Channel, Midtown, Allston — meet our highest aspirations for diverse companies, employees and cultural activities, and share the economic value of the development equitably with people of all races and backgrounds.”
The CAP team recruited 19 institutional partners, including developers, major corporate employers, community development corporations, and nonprofits, and studied similar initiatives across the country as well as successful diversity strategies already in place in Massachusetts.
From this work, one thing became clear: Only strong, decisive public action could create the pressure to break the systemic impediments to diversity and equity, and to manage the inherent tension between the highest and best use of land for social good and the highest and best economic use that drives developers. It also became clear that our recommendations had to be simple, big, and doable. Convoluted, multidimensional solutions would probably lead only to more debate and dithering. And the simplest big solution was right in front of us: the “Massport Model”— in which Massport includes a 25 percent diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) criteria in government development requests for proposals (RFPs), specifying that the diversity efforts should include equity participation; workplace and supplier diversity; wrap-around services to enhance the effectiveness of workforce and supplier diversity efforts; and/or other strategies as the bidder chooses; and a strong performance metrics and accountability system. This model was used with remarkable success in the development of the new Omni Hotel in the Seaport.
To their great credit, Massport and the Boston Planning and Development Agency have decided to include the 25 percent diversity provision in all of the development RFPs they issue.
This requirement should be included in every state and municipal development RFP. With this simple change — which doesn’t require legislation, regulatory approval, public hearings (though they may be a good idea), or any other process — Massachusetts could ensure diversity in our neighborhoods and begin to build generational wealth across communities from development investment.
But this solution reaches only public development projects in Boston. The same DEI principles from the Massport Model should be embedded in the private development process. This is more challenging than changing the RFP process, but it can be done.
At this point, the BPDA’s Article 80 review process controls virtually all private development in Boston by establishing review and approval standards for transportation, environmental protection, urban design, historic resources, and green building. From our research, the Article 80 process — and similar processes at state and other municipal agencies — could be amended to include review criteria for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Harvard’s recent success winning DEI commitments from Tishman Speyer for its development in Allston demonstrates that this can work in private development as well as public.
We are aware that there are now few people of color who are employed as contractors, architects, and laborers or who own such businesses. Yet, over time, demand will increase supply. In the meantime, we urge policy makers to design tools to build the pipeline to enable developers, operating in good faith, to satisfy these requirements. These changes need to be implemented in a way that makes them a means of more inclusive growth — not an impediment to that growth.
In the near term, the principal impact of these initiatives will be on parties involved in the development process rather than on subsequent businesses and residences. But rising minority wealth will affect these metrics as well. Furthermore, both the RFP and Article 80-type criteria will encourage developers to be creative to demonstrate their commitment to DEI — including strategies like reserving small low-rent space for diverse retail; including neighborhood amenities like grocery stores and day care; or keeping linkage investments for housing near the new development.
These simple solutions represent an assertion of our community values — just like mass transit, sustainability, design, and financial feasibility — that put our regulatory and procurement muscle where previously our mouths have mostly been. Taken together across the Commonwealth, they will assure diversity in our development and our neighborhoods, and that the economic benefits will be shared equitably across all communities. If we are truly serious about addressing structural and systemic inequities, this sweeping statewide approach to development is urgently required.
Stephen P. Crosby, former Massachusetts secretary of administration and finance and founding dean of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at UMass Boston, is cofounder of the Civic Action Project. Jason Desrosier is manager of Community Action at Allston Brighton CDC. Richard Taylor, former Massachusetts secretary of transportation, is director of the Center for Real Estate at Suffolk University.