Every time the dozen candidates jockeying to become Boston’s next mayor glance over a shoulder, they see Mayor Tom Menino. It isn’t just that the man has become so intertwined with the office he’s held for the past 20 years that most of the policy disagreements on the campaign trail involve differences in how the candidates would further the Menino legacy. Every move Menino makes to cement his legacy heaps constraints on the type of city his successor will be tasked with shaping.
Menino is tying Boston’s next mayor in an especially nasty knot when it comes to housing. He recently announced an ambitious goal of constructing 30,000 new housing units by 2020. The goal itself is dead-on: Boston has struggled for years to build enough housing to keep up with demand, and the resulting housing crunch has driven up prices and chased away prospective residents. Setting the housing goal, and basking in the glow that comes with it, is the easy part. Actually meeting it is something altogether different. The city’s broken, politically oriented zoning code isn’t built to handle Menino’s new housing ambitions.
The housing goal isn’t just a sign that Menino won’t coast into the end of his record fifth term in office; it’s a chance for the legendary micromanager to continue shaping his city long after he’s retired to Readville. Most of the mayoral candidates have embraced the notion of building 30,000 new housing units. The problem is that Menino’s zoning regime does not foster new construction.
Zoning in Boston is artificially restrictive. It got this way before Menino took office, as a reaction to the downtown building spree Kevin White oversaw. Virtually every imaginable construction project, from a residential building on a vacant lot in Dorchester to a condominium tower in the Back Bay, runs afoul of the code. It’s especially tough on building heights. Most construction projects in Boston need some form of relief from the city’s artificially restrictive zoning. Big projects — the kind New York or Chicago would sneeze at — need lots of help. Menino has fully embraced this system, which he inherited, for his own purposes.
Boston’s decades-old down-zoning didn’t halt development, but it did create a system of development by gut check. There’s no real objective set of metrics or performance standards that city regulators judge projects by; they treat building sites like snowflakes, each one precious and unique.
This is not a system that’s designed to get buildings off a developer’s spreadsheet and into the ground. It’s designed to give City Hall maximum political coverage in the neighborhoods. When proposed developments prove unpopular, artificially low zoning allows the mayor’s office to knuckle developers under, delaying or killing projects, or winning costly concessions on the way to an approval; even for favored developments, winning permits means paying a toll to City Hall.
The city’s zoning doesn’t allow developers to build as tall and dense as they need to build to push Boston toward Menino’s housing goal, and the process for awarding permits that exceed the zoning baseline produces severely uneven results. Some developments sail through City Hall, while others, like the snakebitten apartment tower on the “sausage parcel” in the Seaport, languish for years. (That project received development permits last week, after a rancorous, years-long standoff with City Hall.)
Over the last three-and-a-half years, Census Bureau data shows that Denver has handed out nearly three times as many building permits as Boston; Seattle is building at more than four times Boston’s pace. Boston is lagging behind these similarly sized cities because its zoning doesn’t allow for the type of construction it needs. The city can’t get to 30,000 new homes with downtown towers alone. It’s going to have to allow for more substantial development along main neighborhood thoroughfares, and especially around transit. It’s going to have to make its zoning fit its ambitions. That task will be significantly more difficult than setting a construction goal. And when it rolls around, Menino will be long gone.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.