The Massachusetts Port Authority has been many things in its history — an airport operator, a patronage dumping ground, a bloated bureaucracy, an opaque, quasi-independent mystery to most of the people who depend on it.
One thing it had never been, until recently, was any kind of force for racial equity or social change. Through its ownership of big chunks of the Seaport District — and the vision to think about how to use its considerable clout — that has changed.
A Boston Globe Spotlight Team report on race last year devoted several thousand words to the neighborhood and the way people of color have been shut out of the boom it represents.
That may be beginning to change. And very high on the list of people who have championed and fought for that change is Tom Glynn, a bespectacled, septuagenarian white guy, who has made a point of opening up the insular world of Boston developers.
Under his leadership, Massport insisted on serious minority participation on a deal for a major new Seaport Hotel. Last week, the agency, through a similar process, awarded a deal to a diverse development team to build a 600,000-square-foot office building in the area, in a deal that could eventually be worth north of $400 million. No longer are people of color shut out of major development deals.
Glynn, 72, stepped down as Massport CEO on Friday. His departure ends one of the most consequential public careers in Massachusetts. Glynn has worked for governors, Democratic and Republican, dating back to Frank Sargent in the 1970s. He served in two presidential administrations. Twenty years before taking over Massport, Glynn ran the MBTA. Somewhere in between, he was chief operating officer of Partners HealthCare. Basically, Tom Glynn can run anything.
Glynn notes that he came of age in an era when politicians like John F. Kennedy had made public careers an attractive career option.
“I think it’s a little bit of a sad commentary that my career in public service is so noteworthy,” he said last week. “I’m from the generation of people who went to high school and went to college, and public service was what you were supposed to do. Now it’s less popular.”
The idea of using Massport’s power to diversify development didn’t originate with Glynn — it grew out of a discussion with L. Duane Jackson, the vice chair of the Massport board who is also African-American. The idea of reworking the way the agency chooses developers to give meaningful weight to diversity immediately struck a chord with Glynn.
“It should be the case that everybody benefits from the economic growth in the city,” Glynn said. “Second, the Seaport itself should be a neighborhood that is open to all. I think with diverse investors, there’s more creativity about how we might approach that.”
Both city and state government are now examining ways to more aggressively promote diversity in development. The details may be mind-numbing, but the potential effects of expanding opportunity could be dramatic.
Glynn’s departure from the $300,000 a year Massport post is certain to spark an intense succession battle. Potential candidates run the gamut from politicians with little relevant experience to experienced public-sector managers. This being Boston, you can also expect a robust debate over whether someone from beyond the state’s borders could possibly succeed in the job.
As for Glynn, he is headed to Harvard, for a second tour of teaching at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. He points to the expansion of international travel, fixing the Worcester Airport, and revitalizing the city’s port as accomplishments he’s proud of.
But Massport is now synonymous with the Seaport — whether it can become a welcoming home to all of Boston, whether it will be a beacon of aspiration for many or for the few. While others in power were content to look away, Glynn gladly embraced that challenge. That boldness may stand as his legacy.
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Or follow him on Twitter @adrian_walker.