In her first State of the City address, Mayor Michelle Wu pledged to overhaul the city’s urban planning process, challenging business and elected leaders to support her vision as she works to sustainably grow Boston back to its population peak of 800,000.
Wu’s speech, delivered Wednesday evening at the MGM Music Hall in Fenway to an audience of several thousand, included pledges to ensure academic excellence in every public school, speed the city’s transition from fossil fuels, and grant public land to builders for free to construct affordable housing.
“It’s thanks to the people of Boston that I can stand here tonight and say: The state of our city is strong. And we have the resources, the resolve, and the responsibility to make it even stronger,” Wu said. “As we look to the year ahead, our administration is focused on building a green and growing city for everyone.
“Together,” Wu added, “we can build a Boston that’s more green than concrete — where housing is a given, not a godsend, and mobility is the minimum, not a miracle. Where the things we build inspire, but don’t define us, and where each generation shines brighter than the last.”
The annual speech offers Wu one of her best opportunities all year to make the case for her agenda. She used the moment to make clear she is not shying away from the most ambitious plans she laid out as a candidate for mayor.
But the speech also underscored how she plans to translate many of those lofty goals into the slow, step-wise movements of city government. She outlined new climate requirements that support ambitious decarbonization goals that she had proposed as a candidate but has not yet codified as mayor. And she described in detail for the first time as mayor how she will try to uphold a campaign promise to “abolish” the Boston Planning & Development Agency, which is responsible for refereeing the city’s major real estate projects. The quasi-governmental body was created under state law, and is not funded by the city, though the mayor appoints four members of its five-member governing board.
Building on a 76-page plan she put out as a city councilor, Wu said that in the coming years, she would begin to shift BPDA employees to a new city department for planning and design, which would dilute the agency’s relative independence and bring it under City Council oversight. The mayor told reporters after the address that by splitting up the component parts within the BPDA’s “complex structure,” the city can better address historical disparities. She also intends to create a planning advisory council, led by Chief of Planning Arthur Jemison and including leaders on transportation, climate, housing, and the arts.
And Wu said that on Monday she will file legislation to end the city’s use of “urban renewal,” a powerful development tool that allows Boston to seize so-called blighted property by eminent domain. In Boston, urban renewal has an ugly history: The city deployed it in the mid-20th century to raze entire neighborhoods, including the West End and Scollay Square, as well as parts of the South End and Roxbury. Her administration said Wu intends to preserve the city’s ability to protect affordable housing, and also create new mechanisms that will allow Boston to build infrastructure that can stand up to climate change.
Taken together, those changes would restore planning as a “central function of city government” for the first time in decades, Wu said in her remarks Wednesday, drawing robust applause for the plans she outlined. The moves would course correct a painful past, she said, reforming a planning agency that has been focused on “building buildings rather than community.”
“Over the last decade, Boston saw the largest building boom in generations: cranes in the sky and jobs on the ground. But that growth wasn’t harnessed for the benefit of all our communities,” Wu said. The urgency of the climate crisis, the pinch of inflation, and the lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, have made it all the more important for the city to rethink how it plans.
“In this moment of need, we have an opportunity and an obligation to change how we plan for Boston’s future,” Wu said. “We are charting a new course for growth, with people as our compass.”
To power that growth, and build much-needed housing, Wu made a tempting new offer to local builders, telling them, “work with us to design high-quality, affordable homes that enhance the surrounding neighborhood, and we’ll give you the land for free.” Her administration has identified parcels of land that could accommodate thousands of units, she said.
On climate, Wu said she would soon require that all new city construction and major renovations be entirely fossil-fuel free — standards that will prove particularly critical in her $2 billion construction plan for Boston Public Schools, which is only getting underway. By 2030, she added, the city will end the use of fossil fuels in public housing developments, “ensuring that the families with the greatest need benefit first from healthier homes and lower energy costs.”
Wu also used Wednesday’s speech as an opportunity to highlight early achievements of her administration, as well as key figures within it. Among the members of her team she featured: Segun Idowu, the economic opportunity chief who as a baby, took his first steps while attending a day care center in City Hall; Superintendent Mary Skipper, the daughter of a school lunch lady who became a teacher; and Chief of Human Services José Massό, who started as a lifeguard in a city community center and now oversees them.
Wu touted the work her team has done to make three bus lines free for two years, prepare the city for the monthlong shutdown of the Orange Line, and house people who had been living on the streets in the troubled part of the city known as Mass. and Cass.
In a nod to one of her favorite promises — to get the big things right by getting the small things right — Wu highlighted another set of municipal achievements: 5,000 potholes filled, more than 500 tons of curbside compost collected, 53 inches of snow plowed last year.
Catherine Carlock of the Globe staff contributed to this report.