Business leaders seem ready to embrace Marty Walsh’s vision of a “climate ready” Boston. Whether they’re ready to break out their checkbooks remains to be seen.
The mayor received a prolonged standing ovation Wednesday at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce after spelling out plans to gird the waterfront for the inevitable ravages of storms and sea level rise. He implored the crowd to go beyond fortifying their own properties, to contribute to a greater good.
Walsh pledged 10 percent of his capital budget toward the cause, or $16 million to $20 million a year. An important commitment, to be sure. But it’s a drop of rainwater in the proverbial bucket: Bolstering the South Boston shoreline alone could cost as much as $1 billion.
So Walsh is turning to the private sector. He’ll knock on the doors of philanthropic groups — starting, of course, with the Barr Foundation. (The Barr has already pledged $5 million to resiliency efforts in 2018, and plans to top that next year.) Donations could help fund new parks built with climate resiliency in mind. Case in point: Martin’s Park, set to open next spring, on the Fort Point Channel.
Then there are mitigation funds that city officials extract from developers. Consider the big piece of the Gillette campus in Fort Point hitting the market. Any buyer may be asked to help pay for a resiliency project, featuring a 2,000-foot-long berm, that would double as a waterside park being planned along the channel. Gillette parent Procter & Gamble and neighbor General Electric are already talking with the Walsh administration about the roles they can play.
But these funds, too, only go so far. City officials just hired real estate firm JLL to study how to fund resiliency measures in East Boston that could cost $160 million or more. Ideas could include a taxation district, in which property owners in a particular zone pay a surcharge. That concept was also floated in a recent UMass Boston report on the issue, alongside other possible sources such as water and sewer fees.
Walsh isn’t just asking for money. He wants creative ideas. And he wants big-name corporate endorsements when it comes time to seek state and federal funds. The mayor is seeking a $10 million FEMA grant for the Fort Point project, for example, and he’s eyeing a piece of the $500 million in resiliency funds authorized in the state’s recent environmental bond bill.
Walsh made it clear he won’t bet on one massive project — no giant harbor wall. Instead, it’s a block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach. This strategy should make it easier to finance his ambitions. No sticker shock from one giant bill. And it’s more likely Boston would have some defenses in place when the Big One finally hits.
Yes, we’ve avoided the catastrophes suffered in some other coastal cities. But when a dumpster floats down the street and a Blue Line station becomes a waterfall during a relatively routine winter storm, as Walsh reminded the chamber, it’s hard not to worry that our number could be next.