In her highest-profile speech focused on business since taking office last fall, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu made her case on Thursday morning to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce that her interests and goals were aligned with the executives in the room.
Speaking at the Sheraton hotel in the Back Bay, Wu focused on four issues that are priorities for local business leaders — transportation, affordable housing, downtown revitalization, and workforce development.
Some in the room — particularly those in construction and development — have been wary as the new mayor prioritizes affordability and climate resilience in the city’s permitting process, while many development proposals remain in limbo.
With that in mind, Wu chose to emphasize shared priorities instead of bringing up differences.
“The Boston business community has always been tough, willing to take on the odds ... believing in the possibility and the promise of our communities,” she said.
Chamber chief executive Jim Rooney later said the speech shows Wu wants to open up channels of communication with the business community on these issues. “That was clearly a strategic element of the speech,” Rooney said. “There’s likely to be bumps in the road in terms of how different communities think about the best approach, [but] in terms of the aspirations, and the focus, there is great alignment.”
To address workforce development, Wu pledged to build a new Madison Park Technical Vocational High School. On transportation, she said city officials would take a more aggressive role in advocating for major infrastructure proposals such as the realignment of the Massachusetts Turnpike in Allston and the Red Line-Blue Line connector.
She recognized the importance of reviving the downtown area, an issue that weighs heavily on many business leaders. Foot traffic remains at roughly half of what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic sent office workers home in early 2020, affecting stores and restaurants that relied on busy streets. Wu said office occupancy levels are still only around 30 percent in the city’s core because so many people work remotely or on a hybrid schedule.
As a result, the Wu administration has been working with Boston Consulting Group to plan a strategy for downtown’s future. That report will be released in the coming weeks, she said.
“That future is one where our downtown is an inclusive, round-the-clock neighborhood filled with new homes, diverse businesses, world-class public spaces, vibrant nightlife, and a thriving arts and culture scene,” Wu said.
Along those lines, Wu said she hopes to bring thousands of new residents to downtown through the conversion of unused office spaces into housing, and by redeveloping city-owned real estate. She said she plans to make City Hall Plaza “a new cultural and civic center of gravity” when it reopens after a lengthy renovation this fall. The city will invest millions of dollars in cultural events and “placemaking” across downtown, she added, and will offer support for dozens of new retail operations launched by diverse entrepreneurs to fill some of downtown’s many vacancies.
The administration also plans to launch a “commercial acquisition program” to help artists and entrepreneurs gain ownership of their spaces, working through the Boston Planning & Development Agency. The hope is to build wealth among small-business owners and to ensure they don’t get priced out of their respective neighborhoods.
The BPDA plans to do this by buying properties and then taking three possible paths: transferring them to new owners willing to accept certain lease restrictions to protect small businesses, continuing to own them outright to maintain affordable rents, or working to sell them to small-business owners for a reasonably priced occupancy. The program could also help with affordable housing, by spurring mixed use projects with apartments on upper floors.
Wu touched on other ways to spur affordable housing construction, such as an executive order she will soon sign to accelerate construction. She said her staff found it takes an average of 11 months to get approvals for affordable housing developments; her executive order will aim to cut that in half, and to make approval processes for these projects more predictable.
She noted that city officials are plowing $380 million from federal recovery funds and city funds to preserve existing affordable units, finance new housing, and boost homeownership.
But she steered clear of mentioning several of her more controversial housing policies, including her push to gain state approval to impose rent stabilization rules in the city and her review of how to increase affordable housing requirements tied to residential developments with at least 10 units.
“This was the first big speech for this mayor to the Greater Boston business community,” said Rooney, the chamber CEO. “It was tactically smart to lead with common concerns and places we can work together.”
Tamara Small, chief executive of development trade group NAIOP Massachusetts, said her group’s members believe there has never been a more challenging time to build multifamily housing, particularly with rising interest rates and escalating construction costs. At the same time, the BPDA is looking to fill many open positions so permitting has slowed. Small said she hopes the focus on expediting affordable projects doesn’t come at the expense of others in the pipeline.
“Expedited permitting is certainly a good thing — and we hope that this executive order will include projects that are a mix of market rate and affordable units — but we also have to make sure that expediting one sector does not slow another,” Small said.