The race to succeed Thomas Menino as mayor is getting underway in a Boston that is steadily banishing most of the demons of its 20th-century history. The curse of the Bambino is over. Whitey Bulger is on trial. And Menino’s genuine commitment to inclusion has taken many of the ethnic and racial antagonisms of the 1970s off the table. Suddenly, a city that lost population for decades after World War II is growing faster than the state as a whole. In this hopeful new environment, even a gruesome terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon, one of the city’s signature public events, ended up unifying rather than dividing the populace.
The candidates seeking to lead today’s Boston ought to acknowledge how much it differs from the city that Menino inherited in 1993. Each owes the voters an account of how he or she would open Boston up to the challenges and possibilities of this next stage in the city’s history — and let go of the baggage of the last one.
In recent months, the Globe’s editorial page has described a number of ways in which standoffish civic attitudes make Boston seem forbidding to newcomers. The bias against late-night commerce. A tendency among established leaders to keep the region’s innovation economy at arm’s length. Parking and square-footage requirements that add to high housing prices. A baroque liquor-licensing system that defeats would-be restaurateurs and keeps neighborhood business districts from thriving.
Each of these problems grew out of an earlier era, when most changes looked like threats. When all movement seemed to be downward; when longtime residents were fleeing by the hundreds of thousands; when the city’s famous brownstones seemed destined to become symbols of urban squalor — these were reasons to distrust strangers and to lock the doors tight.
Those conditions no longer apply. By failing to acknowledge that the city has changed, Boston risks walling out workers seeking a lively, diverse, accommodating climate — and the businesses that depend upon, and are founded by, these workers. The next mayor can set a new tone, because of the office’s influence over planning and licensing matters, and also because of its broader role as chief advocate for Boston on Beacon Hill and in the public eye.
These issues call out for attention:
Encouraging late-night business. Even before all the recent attention on tech workers with 24-hour schedules, people in many long-established occupations — late-shift cops, medical residents, emergency-room nurses — needed places to eat, shop, and work out after the city rolls up its sidewalks at night. But they’ve run up against the view that nothing good happens after midnight — a view buttressed by memories of the seedy Combat Zone, where crime and prostitution once dominated. Public policy should recognize how much those concerns have abated, especially as gleaming residential buildings replace the Combat Zone.
Working through parking anxieties. When Boston was hemorrhaging residents to its suburbs, the city bent over backwards to provide something suburbanites take for granted: free, convenient parking. In addition to launching resident-only sticker programs for street parking in neighborhoods, the city also required developers of new housing to build spaces for cars. Yet minimum-parking rules push up housing costs significantly and squeeze out other amenities, such as outdoor space or extra storage, that tenants might value more. The rules also send an odd message: that Boston won’t accept newcomers if they make it harder for current residents to park for free.
These rules are being overtaken by events. Once-utopian ideas like car- and bike-sharing have become part of the local transportation system. Even as the population grows, the number of vehicles being registered in the city keeps falling. Recognizing all this, the Boston Redevelopment Authority has wisely eased up on parking requirements. Will the next mayor go further, or reverse course amid criticism from some neighborhood groups?
Using the market to make housing affordable. In theory, minimum-square-footage rules keep unscrupulous landlords from keeping tenants in Dickensian squalor. In practice, fears that smaller apartments will turn into flophouses aren’t warranted, especially in a city where soaring housing costs pose a far greater danger than urban blight. Allowing smaller units onto the market cuts costs by squeezing more units into the same pricey lots.
Giving restaurants room to thrive. Aspiring restaurateurs set up shop in Cambridge because an artificial scarcity makes liquor licenses in Boston outrageously expensive. Main Streets in all but the wealthiest neighborhoods lose energy as a result. An obvious question for candidates is whether they support City Councilor Ayanna Pressley’s effort to allow Boston, rather than the state Legislature, to control the number of liquor licenses in the city. It’s also crucial to understand how much political capital a mayoral candidate would invest in making that happen. Beacon Hill power brokers need to be persuaded to give up their power to meddle in city affairs. Pressley, who’s running for reelection to the council, has made the issue a personal crusade. Boston needs a mayor who will do the same.
Reinventing civic life. In the 1960s, when urban planning meant bulldozing some parts of town and blasting highways through others, Boston’s historic neighborhoods had much to fear from grand schemes from on high. The city learned from that, and now gives neighbors and neighborhood associations a strong voice in decisions that might affect them.
But fending off ill-conceived planning schemes is only a small part of what keeps a neighborhood vital; filling it with a varied mix of people, businesses, buildings, and attractions is the bigger part. Yet in discussions of business licenses, proposals for new housing, and other ideas, neighbors often wield their veto reflexively, and it’s easier for authorities to say no to unusual proposals than to say yes. Weekday Licensing Board meetings or early-evening planning meetings don’t draw in the full range of public opinion; would-be mayors should seek out additional ways — from online forums to social media — to gather input from a broader range of Bostonians.
To longtime Bostonians who lived through the city’s worst, a bright-eyed focus on micro-units and bike sharing and restaurant-driven redevelopment might seem overly idealistic — a distraction from the realities of many neighborhoods. The city’s problems haven’t all disappeared; gang violence holds some areas hostage, and the city still struggles to upgrade its school system.
Boston’s prosperity depends on openness to new possibilities.
Even so, taking on all of those problems is immensely easier because of Boston’s revival over the last generation. The city avoided the fate of hollowed-out Rust Belt cities in large measure because of its renowned hospitals and universities, which flourished, and spun off new industries, as Americans spent heavily on health care and higher education. Yet especially as pressures mount to cut costs in both of those sectors, Boston’s prosperity depends on openness to new possibilities. A core issue of this mayoral race is how to make sure Boston is a place where new residents, new businesses, and new ideas can take root.