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Walsh focuses on education, housing in State of City address

Mayor Martin J. Walsh, in his first State of the City speech, staked out education and housing as areas of focus for his young administration, promising Tuesday to build new schools and use city-owned land to spur construction of affordable homes.

Addressing an audience of 2,500 in Symphony Hall, Walsh presided over an event infused with pomp and an air of formality more typically seen in speeches by statewide officeholders. He highlighted the nuts and bolts of modern government, with news of a larger discount on water bills for seniors and the launch of a previously announced mobile app that allows drivers to use their phones to pay parking meters.


But the mayor, who just last week marked his first year in office, also talked about the look and feel of the city, describing an effort “to reimagine City Hall Plaza as the thriving, healthy, innovative space that it should be.”

City officials intend to issue a call for proposals to rejuvenate the plaza, an often barren, wind-whipped expanse in the heart of the city. Other big cities, such as New York, have used such arrangements to introduce restaurants and other amenities to underused public spaces.

Walsh gazed far into the future as he outlined his vision for the city, tying his policy goals to Boston’s 400th anniversary in 2030. “It’s a year when we’ll take pride in Boston’s revolutionary history,” Walsh said. “But to match that pride with an even greater hope for our future, we must make serious progress now.”

RELATED: A transcript of Walsh’s speech

The address lacked the announcement of a major new initiative, but Walsh, was frequently interrupted by applause as he emphasized accomplishments from his first year in office, including a deal with the teachers union to extend the school day by 40 minutes for 23,000 students.


The speech made only a passing reference — which drew especially robust applause — to Boston’s bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics. There was no mention of the Games until midway through, with only 128 words dedicated to the topic in a speech of about 3,200 words.

RELATED: A look at the words used in Walsh’s speech

The message from the fleeting mention seemed clear: The push for the Olympics will not hijack Walsh’s administration. Even when the Games were brought up, Walsh put them in the context of his long-term goals for Boston.

“We’ll take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to talk about our city’s future: in education, in housing, in transportation, and more,” Walsh said. “That’s why the public process is the ultimate benefit. It’s why I commit to you that we will hold transparent conversations on every impact in every neighborhood.”

The mayor pledged to make good on a component of his housing plan. Boston will make 250 parcels of city-owned land available with potential subsidies to developers who build homes for low- and middle-income families.

RELATED: Baker doesn’t attend speech because of illness

Walsh unveiled a partnership with a global software company that will let students at Charlestown High School earn college credit toward a technology degree. And he announced a pilot program that will give 1,500 students $100 each in seed money for a bank account to encourage savings.

The mayor also introduced an initiative to cut through entrenched bureaucracy and leverage more state money to build new schools.


The speech paid homage to the two firefighters killed in a March inferno in the Back Bay, to a youth worker slain by an errant bullet, and to Walsh’s predecessor, Thomas M. Menino, who died in October.

Walsh revealed that the Boston Water and Sewer Commission will give some 10,000 seniors and disabled customers a slightly greater discount on their bills, to offset the impact of a rate increase. Walsh called on other utilities to follow suit, noting that “seniors face special challenges making ends meet.”

In calling for proposals to reimagine City Hall Plaza, the city could create a public-private partnership.

“We have a prime space in the middle of the city that is our welcome mat to City Hall that is not being utilized to its potential,” Walsh’s chief of staff, Daniel Koh, said in an interview before the speech. “In our minds, all options are on the table.”

Walsh also announced that the city was changing its longstanding telephone hotline from 617-635-4500 to a 311, a number used by many other big cities. The administration will also launch StartHub, a regional effort to nurture budding entrepreneurs. Walsh said he will appoint a full-time “start-up czar” to help innovators nurture businesses in Boston.

The speech drew protesters who objected to Walsh’s handling of the closing of a bridge to Long Island, the site of the city’s largest homeless shelter and addiction treatment facilities. As Walsh walked on stage, a large banner was unfurled that read: “People are dying. Long Island. Where’s Marty?”


About 40 peaceful protesters gathered outside Symphony Hall, representing groups and causes including school bus drivers and advocates for the homeless.

Walsh said in his speech that closing the bridge “hit me hard” because, he said, Long Island has played an important role in his life and struggle with alcoholism.

“Nothing is more important to me than protecting our most vulnerable neighbors, whether the addicted or the homeless,” Walsh said.

Inside the hall, the response to the speech was positive. The mayor seemed confident and in charge, said Brenda Folkes, a 59-year-old Hyde Park resident who was heartened by the effort to expand the school day.

“He looked excellent,’’ Folkes said. “The speech had a little bit of everything.”

Walsh, like his predecessor, is not known for his oratory skills. As he stood alone on stage, he noted that the 115-year-old Symphony Hall was renowned for its acoustics. The magnificent hall symbolized Boston, Walsh said, because it brimmed with history but also represented innovation.

“But I have to admit, sharing a stage with the greatest orchestra in the world,” Walsh said, making a scripted joke that drew laughter, “let’s just say I’m not here for my singing ability.”

More coverage:

Transcript of Walsh’s speech

Comparison words used in Walsh’s speech, and in Menino’s first State of City

Baker doesn’t attend speech because of illness

About 2,500 people attended at Symphony Hall.The Boston Globe

Meghan E. Irons of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed to this report. Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com .