BOSTON’S NEXT mayor, whether Marty Walsh or John Connolly, will inherit a city that’s in the midst of a tremendous development boom. He’ll also inherit a growing city, but one beset by widening inequality, a city where height and parking issues still invite far too much blowback, and where the need to significantly ramp up housing construction resonates from the Mystic River to the Neponset. Whoever takes City Hall in today’s election will have to overhaul Boston’s development bureaucracy. Here’s where to take it.
Steer growth to transit. Boston is in the middle of a nearly unprecedented boom. More new Bostonians arrived in town between 2010 and 2012 than did in all of the 1990s. This is a welcome development — as long as the city can figure out a way to absorb all these new residents. Boston is far more car-centric than it was the last time it was growing like it is now. Boston’s roads can’t handle a massive influx of new residents, if they’re scattered into the wind.
Boston’s next mayor needs to be smart about where the city grows, and steer development to transit corridors that can absorb new residents without significantly increasing the number of automobiles jockeying for neighborhood parking spots. The city should seek out developments along the lines of the construction projects currently underway at Brighton Landing, at the car-free Lovejoy Wharf condominiums, and at Jackson Square in Jamaica Plain. The mayor should also work to improve transit service to places like Blue Hill Avenue: The avenue should be a growth corridor, but it lacks the transportation infrastructure to support new development.
Get real about housing affordability. Boston struggles to generate affordable housing. As a result, Boston is steadily becoming a city of the very rich and the very poor, with its middle-class and working-class residents vanishing.
The pool of direct housing subsidies is limited, so Boston’s next mayor will have to get creative about finding indirect ways to spur the creation of far more housing for moderate-income residents than it currently manages to produce. Boston could trade development height bonuses for aggressive affordable housing creation, and lower developers’ costs by leveraging municipal real estate and floating tax-exempt bonds for new housing construction, as New York City does.
Bring zoning into the real world. Development in Boston often turns contentious, because it’s rare that everyone involved in the development process — builders, residents, and City Hall officials — shares similar expectations for what belongs on a given site.
From Ashmont to North Station, the official zoned height and density are far lower than what development sites can reasonably accommodate. This isn’t because city officials are in the business of stifling development, but because low zoning lets city officials keep a heavy thumb on the scale, while extracting goodies from developers. The price of the city’s influence is uncertainty and conflict for both developers and residents; neither group knows whether four-story or eight-story buildings should go next to neighborhood subway stops, or how tall downtown towers can go, because the answers to these questions seem to change by the week.
Ramp up local transportation investment. Walsh’s answer to the Boston region’s transit funding shortfall involves lobbying his friends in the State House. Connolly has taken only tentative steps toward embracing local funding of transportation. Neither candidate has gone far enough.
A robust local economy depends on a robust MBTA, for residents and commuters alike. Boston’s next mayor needs to acknowledge the fact that most Beacon Hill lawmakers either don’t understand this link, or they don’t care. Then, they need do something about it.
Cities like Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and Quincy should be banding together to create new local revenue streams — through a regional payroll tax, property tax surcharge, or some other means — to fund key transit projects the state has punted on. Boston’s growth agenda can’t survive without a working, affordable transit system.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.