A first-term Boston mayor unveiled what he called a "sweeping blueprint for the city's future," launching the first citywide planning effort since 1965. He promised that the initiative would embody residents' aspirations for what the city should become by 2030, the year Boston celebrates its 400th birthday.
Sound like Mayor Martin J. Walsh's new campaign, Imagine Boston 2030? Wrong.
It was the work of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who launched a nearly identical effort in 1997 called Boston 400. The endeavor cost at least $540,000 and included more than 150 community meetings, a lecture series, neighborhood tours, and more.
But after three years, Boston 400 died short of completion. It was, according to planners involved in the effort, a casualty of mayoral neglect and upheaval at the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
When officials in the Walsh administration announced Imagine 2030, they were unaware of Boston 400, which produced a thick draft document but never synthesized a final report. But Boston 400 and other major planning exercises from the past can offer important insights as Walsh tries to build a vision for the future.
A long-term master plan could usher in taller residential buildings near subway stations, designate land for parks in the midst of a building boom, or identify a fallow industrial corridor as the site for a potential sports stadium.
But even the best plans can become academic exercises, sitting unused on a dusty shelf.
As the Walsh administration embarks on its planning initiative, the most fundamental lesson is that the fifth floor of City Hall must be fully invested, according to Charles Euchner, a consultant hired to work full time for three years on Boston 400.
"If you're going to do a citywide plan and the mayor is not waking up and thinking about it and caring about it, forget it," said Euchner, who is now a case writer and editor at the Yale School of Management. "If [Mayor Walsh] really, really cares about this, then already they have a much better chance than we did."
Euchner worked on Boston 400 with Linda Haar, the city's former director of planning and zoning. They both expressed enthusiasm about Walsh once again setting the city's sights on 2030. "We need to understand where we are going as a city," Haar said. "It's not just new buildings."
But it can be hard to foresee economic crashes. Technological advances — think of the advent of the automobile — can reshape a landscape. A change to federal law, for example, can upend immigration patterns and remake neighborhoods.
"I love cities," said Tunney Lee, a longtime Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who worked at the Boston Redevelopment Authority on the 1965 citywide plan. "They are complex, changing, and unpredictable as hell."
Boston can be particularly difficult to plan. Unlike the contiguous expanse of New York and Chicago, Boston's urban core is carved into pieces that are separate cities and towns — Brookline, Cambridge, Somerville, and Chelsea.
Boston's 1965 effort was a technical document defined by urban renewal and the dominance of the automobile. It envisioned a web of new highways, many of which were never built. There was no mention of the Big Dig, which buried an expressway downtown.
But the 1965 plan also included what came to be known as the High Spine of tall buildings in Back Bay that now form a signature part of Boston's skyline. Ultimately, the function of a citywide plan, Lee said, is to guide public investment.
"It's not the plan that's the important part, it's the process," Lee said. "I think doing it is a good thing. Expecting it to produce miracles? Probably not."
The 1965 plan included sweeping changes to the downtown waterfront, a swath of 100 acres of blight dominated by parking lots, derelict warehouses, rotting piers, and a sprawling wholesale food market. The urban renewal project ultimately produced the New England Aquarium, transformed Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market into tourist magnets, and reconnected the city to the sea with projects such as Christopher Columbus Park in the North End.
The effort was spearheaded by architect Samuel "Sy" Mintz, who in an interview said that listening to the public was key.
"But it's not just soliciting ideas. It's having staff capable of listening to people, talking to people, and being able to expand people's vision," Mintz said. "Most people don't like change. You have to bring them along."
A well-thought-out plan can be used as leverage to upend the traditional development process. A community could identify its needs — a park, a theater, a school — and push developers to produce. Want to construct a taller building? Include a community center. Planning on building fewer parking spaces? Pay for improvements to the nearby subway stop.
Boston 400 began with aspirations. The lecture series included Robert Reich, who served as President Clinton's labor secretary, and Richard Moe, then president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Beyond the meetings and working groups, staff took neighborhood tours.
Residents told them they wanted a cultural trail in Roxbury and showed off a burgeoning park along the Neponset River. In an artists' co-op in the Fenway, staff learned about concerns that light would be blotted out by a development over the Turnpike.
"There [is] so much more of a city to think about than just bricks and mortar," said Haar, the city planner.
In 1997, Menino was reelected without an opponent. The need for a citywide vision lost urgency, according to the planning consultant, Euchner. Menino lost interest, he said.
Still, the people leading Boston 400 plowed forward. They compiled a 250-page draft with maps and pictures. But then scandal engulfed the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
The agency had allowed its chief of staff, Matthew O'Neil, to buy a condominium owned by the BRA that had been reserved for low-income families. A Globe Spotlight Team investigation exposed the purchase, which led to the forced resignation of O'Neil and BRA director Thomas N. O'Brien.
With the change in leadership, Boston 400 died. The draft was posted for a time on the BRA's website, but was taken down. This month at City Hall, officials could not find a copy of the document.
"We need to make sure we're not just making short-term decisions," Haar said. "That's why you need to look at a plan that allows for change but also understands change and understands culturally how we're involving. That's no small task. You can't just move blindly into the future."