What a difference a year makes.
That’s how one prominent executive summed it up as the crowd dissipated following Mayor Michelle Wu’s address to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday.
It went without saying what he meant: The Mayor Wu that Boston’s power brokers saw at the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel this week was quite different from the one they watched a year ago, at the then-new mayor’s first annual chamber speech. It’s quite possible Wu saw the crowd in a different way, too.
Business leaders knew they had a friend in Marty Walsh. That was not the case with Wu. In particular, she took careful aim at reforming the city’s construction and development industry by backing increases in affordable housing requirements for new buildings, a new luxury tax on high-end real estate sales, and even caps on rent increases, among other changes. And so when she stood before the Chamber crowd a year ago, you could sense tension in the room — or, at least, wariness. The prevailing talk at the time was that Wu, who was swept into office championing a range of progressive policies, wouldn’t even take calls from corporate executives, let alone take their concerns seriously. So much for the old way of doing business with City Hall, when bigwigs had the mayor on speed dial.
Wu told attendees last year that her interests were aligned with theirs. The crowd applauded dutifully. But did Wu really mean it?
Flash forward a year, and fewer doubts remain.
Wu seemed more confident on the stage, more eager to connect. This is a community, she said, that she “really appreciated and valued in getting to know” over the last 18 months. She name-checked businesses left and right: Lego (for deciding to relocate to the Back Bay from Connecticut), Fidelity (for adding hundreds of local jobs, and helping people of color pay for college), Bank of America (for taking over sponsorship of the Boston Marathon), Eastern Bank (for creating a loan program to help underrepresented entrepreneurs) — to name but a few. She gave shout-outs to John Hancock president Brooks Tingle, referring to a symposium about longevity that the life insurer hosted and she kicked off on Tuesday, and to Suffolk Construction owner John Fish for taking a chance on the Newmarket industrial area, where he opened his headquarters many years ago. And she thanked a long list of business partners for helping bring the NAACP’s national convention to Boston in July, and the National Association of Asian American Professionals in August.
The applause was not perfunctory this time. It didn’t take much to get people going. The crowd, for example, erupted into rapturous cheers as Wu simply rattled off stats showing how our commuter rail system gained more passengers year-over-year than peer cities (though maybe all the claps had more to do with relief that the MBTA has at least one thing to brag about amid its troubles).
As has come to be expected for the annual mayor’s speech to the Chamber, Wu tucked in a few policy announcements. Perhaps most intriguing of these: Wu said her administration is “strongly considering” a tax incentive program to help actually build some of the 23,000-plus housing units that have received city permits but not yet begun construction, in part because of the sharp runup in interest rates over the last year or so. She also promised a long-awaited zoning revamp, and a fast-track permitting process at the Inspectional Services Department. She described her vision of turning the “Mass and Cass.” area in Newmarket, now synonymous with homelessness and illicit drugs, into a new climate-tech district. And she highlighted a few initiatives that are already underway — rolling out tax breaks for landlords who convert offices to housing, for example, and working on zoning changes for day care centers to open anywhere in the city, including downtown.
Chamber chief executive Jim Rooney said the speech reflected the work the mayor has done in the past year to connect, including through meetings she has held with CEOs and other business leaders. Wu, he said, has been intentional about developing relationships that she simply did not have as a city councilor or a first-year mayor. Some business leaders feared Wu might intentionally keep them at bay to play to her progressive base. But Wu made it clear on Wednesday, he said, that City Hall and Corporate Boston can work together for the greater good.
It’s not to say everything is copacetic. The chill that’s dampening new construction in Boston is quite real: While Wu can’t control rising interest rates, developers still complain about her housing policies. The Mass and Cass. situation remains unsolved. Foot traffic in downtown Boston is bouncing back from the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s still not even two-thirds of what it was in 2019. And downtown office vacancies recently reached a new record high, with no improvement in sight; the long-term implications for the city’s tax base, and thus its budget, remain worrisome.
Coming from a union background, Walsh also had to win over the business community when he became mayor in early 2014. Now, it’s Wu’s turn. She is well aware of the challenges she faces, even if she chose to emphasize the positives in her speech on Wednesday. The policy changes she highlighted could take years before they have an impact, if they even materialize in a meaningful way.
But Wu did accomplish something important with her speech. If doubts still persisted that she cares about business interests in Boston, the mayor made a good case on Wednesday that the door to her office is open after all.