After serving seven years as Boston’s economic chief sandwiched between two mayoral runs, John Barros is ready for his next chapter.
He is joining commercial real estate brokerage firm Cushman & Wakefield as managing principal for the Boston market. In that role, Barros will lead all market activities, such as driving growth and business performance throughout Boston and New England. He starts Nov. 29.
Barros, who is Black, will be the first person of color to run a major brokerage firm in Boston, bringing much-needed diversity to the clubby, white male world of commercial real estate.
Barros, 48, said he’s drawn to real estate because the city of Boston is dependent on property taxes to fund its budget and an outsized proportion comes from businesses.
“Commercial real estate carries the water for Boston and being able to invest in the things that we want to make the city great,” Barros said. “It’s a place that I’ve done a lot of work in as chief of economic development, attracting new businesses, attracting jobs to the city, working with different real estate firms in Boston.”
Cushman is one of the region’s biggest real estate brokerage firms, managing about 31 million square feet of office, retail, and industrial space in Massachusetts. Barros will oversee a Boston office with a staff of more than 180, including brokers, researchers, and marketers. He will be succeeding Carolyn Sidor,who will become Cushman’s senior managing director of New England Brokerage Operations.
Barros arrives in an industry in flux with major employers rethinking how much office space they need post-pandemic. Many employees enjoy the flexibility of remote work and a hybrid workplace, and don’t want to return to the office five days a week.
The office vacancy rate in Greater Boston has been slowly rising and stood at 14.1 percent in the second quarter, according to Cushman. That compares to 10.5 percent at the end of 2019.
The potential shift is already prompting developers to build less traditional office space and more life science and lab space, which has stronger demand. Meanwhile, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and other leaders are rethinking what downtown Boston should become if it is no longer first and foremost a commercial hub. Perhaps it’s an opportunity to convert some office space into housing, and fill empty storefronts with different kinds of tenants beyond banks, pharmacies, and other national chains.
The future of downtown is an issue that weighs heavily on Barros’s mind.
“You gotta be worried,” he said. “But I’m actually really excited about where we can go, and I think Boston’s in a really good place ... People continue to look to Boston as a place where they can invest and grow.”
He’s right. Despite the pandemic, developers are forging ahead. So far this year, the Boston Planning & Development Agency has approved about 12 million in square feet in new projects, which is more than it did in 2019.
Barros, who grew up in Roxbury and now lives in Dorchester, began his career in the private sector working at insurance giant Chubb Group. He then ran the nonprofit Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, and after an unsuccessful run for mayor, he joined the Walsh administration in 2014 as chief of economic development.
He resigned in February to launch another mayoral bid as Mayor Martin J. Walsh prepared to leave to become President Biden’s labor secretary. Barros finished fifth in the September preliminary election.
In an announcement about his hiring, Roberta Liss, president of the East Region at Cushman & Wakefield, called Barros “a dynamic leader” and highlighted his experience in both the public and private sectors.
“He possesses a unique ability to lead individuals with diverse backgrounds and perspectives at all levels to drive toward common goals,” Liss said. “His extensive experience with building relationships coupled with his passion for the city of Boston make him the ideal addition to our team.”
Chad Remis,an executive vice president at Oxford Properties in Boston, said Barros arrives at time when the private sector must work more closely with the public sector to achieve mutual goals such as building more affordable housing.
“He is going to bring a great perspective to Cushman and to our industry at large,” said Remis, who is also a friend. “I always admired his ability to see the bigger picture and his ability to understand the perfect is not usually an option. Progress is more important than stasis.”
Looking back at his time at City Hall, Barros said he is most proud of how the Walsh administration attracted 140,000 jobs to the city over two terms and how Boston became a destination for corporate headquarters. Barros said it was also important that the city completed a disparity study analyzing its contracting with businesses owned by women and people of color. The study, which found that Black and Latino-owned firms landed only 1.2 percent of some $2.1 billion in city contracts over a five-year period, provides a legal framework on how to set spending goals. He also is proud of the city’s work on supporting small businesses.
Barros acknowledged there’s a lot of unfinished business. The city, for example, will need to continue to invest in small businesses to help them make it through the pandemic. The new administration must also, he said, make good on promises to diversify contracting dollars.
“There’s so much that can be done in the next chapter that we’ve laid the foundation for,” he said.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.