A determined and jovial Mayor Thomas M. Menino described Boston Monday as a city on the rise, with construction expected to triple this year, sky-high bond ratings, and more parents forsaking the suburbs to live downtown and choosing to send their children to city schools.
In a major speech before 500 business and civic leaders, the mayor announced that Wegmans Food Market will open its first Boston store, in the Landmark Center in the Fenway. Menino also unveiled plans to put 10,000 more tablet computers in the hands of public school students in the next two years. And he proposed creating 30,000 housing units by 2020 to meet the surging demand to live in the city.
“I have never been more confident about Boston,” Menino said at the annual luncheon of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a government watchdog funded by businesses and nonprofits. “Look around and you see that Boston’s many successes are only half the story. It’s the pace of our progress that sets us apart.”
Menino made no mention of whether he will seek a sixth term, a decision he must make in the next eight weeks. He also avoided any direct reference to Councilor John R. Connolly, who is running for mayor and who during his kickoff rally last week took aim at Menino, referring to the 20-year incumbent as the “comfortable status quo” that hampers progress.
Instead, Menino laid out a forward-looking agenda, some of which seemed to be a shot back at Connolly. He announced an $11 million overhaul to Millennium Park on Connolly’s home turf in West Roxbury. Menino highlighted the recent purchase of a building for a school near downtown as he dedicated a significant portion of the speech to education, an issue Connolly has made the centerpiece of his campaign. The mayor also seemed to answer Connolly’s refrain from his kickoff rally about the status quo.
“I have always said that the status quo is moving backward,” Menino said. “Just moving forward isn’t enough. We have to move ahead aggressively and relentlessly.”
As a city councilor, Connolly sat in the audience with a “John Connolly for mayor” button on his lapel. Connolly said he agreed with most of the proposals in Menino’s speech, but wanted to know what took so long. Connolly also said some of the mayor’s proposals echoed initiatives he is pushing for in his own campaign.
“We could have had a downtown school 10 years ago,” Connolly said. “We could have had a housing policy aimed at retaining young families and young talent for the past decade. We’re in react mode when we should be thinking about a vision for the next 10 years.”
The audience included other mayoral hopefuls who may run if Menino does not seek reelection, including state Representative Martin J. Walsh and Councilors Rob Consalvo and Tito Jackson.
At the podium, Menino appeared happy and at ease, frequently drifting off his prepared remarks to make a joke or an editorial quip. He made one reference to his time at City Hall, noting that Samuel R. Tyler had been head of the Research Bureau for 30 years but, “everybody worries about Tom Menino being mayor for 20 years.”
Menino said construction at the long dormant Filene’s site at Downtown Crossing would begin this spring. He also described a new online program for permits that debuts next month that is designed to cut through red tape and reduce waiting time.
Menino thanked Tyler and the Research Bureau for its opposition to a plan pending in the City Council that would create a hybrid School Committee with some elected members. All members of the school committee are currently appointed by the mayor.
Menino said the Research Bureau advocates for good ideas and “rightfully push[es] back against bad ones, like re-politicizing the Boston School Committee. This proposal would only put the special interests ahead of our kids’ interests.”
The School Department will launch a $30 million Quality Advisory Panel, Menino said, that will be led by Hardin Coleman, dean of the Boston University School of Education, and Meg Campbell, a school committee member and the founder and executive director of the Codman Academy Charter Public School.
The money, half of which must be spent on facility improvements, will be spent over three years, with some of it being used to reward effective teachers and school leaders. The money will also support 21 schools that the district deemed in need of additional support in September.
Menino also touted the new school assignment plan, a new “in-district” charter school at the Marshall School in Dorchester, and the expectation that school enrollment will hit an eight-year high.
“When you have young families who want to live in your downtown and want to send their kids to your public schools, it says a lot about your city,” Menino said. “And it says a lot about your schools.”
After the speech, Tyler, of the Research Bureau, said the mayor laid out “an ambitious agenda for himself and the administration.”
“He hasn’t announced [he is running for reelection],” Tyler said. “But if he had, I’d say it was a good campaign speech.”
Speaking to reporters, Menino dismissed questions about another campaign. Several times he said, “Boston is on the move,” and he seemed wistful about his political standing.
“I’m at peace about where the city is going,” Menino said. “Everybody is raising these issues out there, I know the real numbers. I know how people feel about the city. I’m real relaxed about it.”