June 25th Boston mayoral forum transcript

This is a transcript of a June 25th Boston mayoral forum with Boston City Councilors John Connolly and Charles Yancey and state Rep. Martin Walsh. Candidate Charles Clemons did not show up. The forum was hosted by CommonWealth magazine, the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, A Better City, and the Chiofaro Cos. Questioners were Sam Tyler of the BMRB, Rick Dimino of ABC, and Paul McMorrow of CommonWealth. CommonWealth editor Bruce Mohl moderated.

To read a transcript of the other two forums in this series, click here: July 11th transcript | July 18th transcript  

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the next mayor of Boston and what would you do about it?

Connolly : I think the biggest challenge facing the next mayor of Boston is to transform our Boston public schools so that we can become the city that closes the achievement gap but also draws middle class families back into our public school system in unprecedented numbers. Our future starts with our schools. We want safer neighborhoods? We need better schools. If we want to have a strong economic future, we need to produce young people ready to take jobs in Boston’s economy. So it begins by cutting the bureaucracy at Court Street, our central department that spends over a billion dollars a year but can’t get every child art, music, science, physical education, and humanities on a regular basis. But that also extends to the Boston teachers contract. I’m a former teacher who has taught children from every neighborhood in this city. I believe teaching is sacred, but I have a lot of problems with a teachers’ contract that gives our children the shortest school day in urban American and has archaic hiring rules that are almost 100 percent seniority based. I’m the only city councilor who voted against that contract, took the battle on to reform it. If I’m mayor, I’ll win that battle because I’ll never sign a teachers’ contract that won’t perform the way we run our schools and lengthen our school day. I’ll direct the superintendent to implement the last best offer. If we do those two things, we open the door  to partner our schools with all of the resources across this city and give our city  the brightest future possible.

Walsh: I think the answer to that question isn’t simply one issue. There are three issues that we’re faced with here in our city that we need to make sure that we work on. One is, and not in this order. One is economic development. Another one is education, and a third is housing. If we don’t keep our business community strong, a vibrant business community, we can’t help reform our school system. We can’t build additional housing in our city. So I think it’s very important that we make sure that our economic downtown economy and the surrounding neighborhoods continue to thrive. As far as our education goes, it’s a very important fact. I am the only one in this race that actually voted for education reform in 2010, where we gave the powers to the city of Boston, to the mayor of Boston, to take a Level  4 underperforming schools and give them the tools they need to make the changes in Level 4 schools so they can be better performing. Those results  are happening right now in the city of Boston. As mayor of Boston I’m going to make sure we continue first I’ll do it through negotiation with the teachers union. And if they refuse to negotiate with me I will file legislation on Beacon Hill. Because of where I come from I will get that legislation passed to make the necessary changes and reforms that we need. Lastly housing. We have a major problem in this city in retaining our talent. We have kids that go to college, they graduate from college, and they can’t afford to live in the city of Boston so they move out. Our neighborhoods are changing because families can’t afford to stay here. I think it’s vital that we make sure that we come up with a plan, I will come up with a plan, to make sure we have good workforce housing as well as low-income house. The two most important decisions I have to make on my first day as mayor is who is going to be my superintendent of schools and who’s going to be my director of the BRA. Those two are going to drive my administration for the next four years.

Yancey: First of all I want to thank the sponsors of this morning’s debate. I’m sorry I’m a few minutes late. I believe that the primary issue facing the city of Boston for the next mayor is economic  and social infrastructure. Of course our schools top the list. We need to make sure that we’re producing high quality students from high quality schools, including investing in building new schools as well as improving the quality of education. I also believe that the city of Boston can play a critical role in building our economic infrastructure so that those today who are not participating in our economy can join. Those of you who are the leaders of our city, in the economic realm, that can be done by the city taking a more active role. Not just the BRA, but the Department of Neighborhood Development and other departments of city government to make sure that we invest in developing new businesses so that those communities in various neighborhoods can have a greater stake in the future of the city of Boston. I believe that would also contribute to providing a safer environment because if you have a job you’re not going to participate in crime. If you have a decent education, you’re going to continue to contribute to the growth and development of this city. Finally, as part of social infrastructure we need to invest more in our arts, not just to develop more well rounded citizens and students but to develop a greater sense of community. A shared art and culture can make a significant contribution to the growth and development of the city of Boston. So economic and social infrastructure investments is what I would be investing in as Mayor Yancey.

If you are elected mayor, when you take office on Jan. 6 you will inherit a city that is in relatively good financial health. Early on in your administration, you will have to make decisions regarding the funding of pension and retiree health insurance liabilities, employee levels, collective bargaining contracts, and capital spending. How will you manage these issues and sustain the city’s fiscal stability?

Walsh: I’ve done that as a state representative for the last 16 years. I’ve had to negotiate as a member of the Legislature with the public employee unions and the leadership of the House of Representatives to come up with some discussions and designs regarding GIC insurance or pension reform up on Beacon Hill. As the CEO of the city of Boston, I’m responsible to make sure that we bring the budget on time and balanced. I certainly won’t be giving the store away when it comes to negotiations. In the last administration, the current administration we’re in now, I think there have been some negotiations that have been very difficult that have gone too far. I would work to get those contracts resolved a lot sooner. Also, in my role as the head of a building trade, I’ve had the opportunity to negotiate with the city of Boston  for the Boston Housing Authority contract. And I was on the side of labor. The city of Boston has been under tough financial constraints for the last several years. When you negotiate a contract on 1.5 percent increase a year I was able to talk to the workers that work at the Boston Housing Authority to explain to them that we cannot get more, and we need to take this.

Yancey: First of all, I’d like to thank the Boston Municipal Research Bureau for their work for the city and their assistance to the Boston City Council. I believe the Menino administration has done a very respectable job in maintaining financial and fiscal stability in the city of Boston. I will continue that aspect of the Menino administration and I wholeheartedly support the approach that we’ve taken in terms of [unclear]. And I believe we must negotiate honestly with our unions and our partners in government to make sure that we have predictability and stability with regards to our pension program. With that partnership, a partnership between  the administration and its collective bargaining units, we can  continue to achieve through tough negotiations, but I also believe we must be fair  to the workers and retirees and also ensure that we are able to live up to our responsibilities in terms of [unclear]. And the city’s commitment to maintaining our pension funds.

Connolly:  We’re 71 percent funded on our unfunded pension liability right now and a lot of that work is due to the advocacy of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. We appreciate their good work on it. We’re going to have that paid down by 2025. We should stay on course on that but the bigger issue is the other post employment benefits. Underfunded health obligations have an actuarial value of $3 billion. We put $40 million in an irrevocable trust last year and $40 million this year. It’s not nearly enough. So as mayor one priority I’m going to have is to increase the amount that we’re putting into that irrevocable trust and we’re going to have to make sure it remains irrevocable. When we hit 2025 we’re not going to actually have more flexibility because we’re going to have to immediately shift the money that we pay into the pension over to pay down the OPEP. That’s the plan we’re going to have to do. On the capital side, we should all thank Mayor Menino for being focused on our bond rating  and being focused on having health reserves. If the interest rates are low, we should open up the capital budget a little bit to think about infrastructure investments we need to make to continue to have a strong economic engine in this city.

Businesses assess the quality of a city’s transportation system before they locate or build in that city. How would you assess Boston’s transportation needs? What is your vision for the city’s transportation system and what steps would you take to improve it?

Yancey: I will address the issue of transportation by saying we must work with the MBTA and help them provide improved service and infrastructure investment. I believe in a multi-modal approach. I’m a strong supporter of the Fairmount-Indigo line which does link many neighborhoods of the city of Boston that are not as well connected with Boston’s economy. Back in 1985 I advocated the establishment of stops all along that line, which runs from South Station down to Hyde Park. We were successful. In fact, Councilor Menino and I helped organize a coalition that led to stops on Morton, Morton Village, Uphams Corner, and, of course, today we’re completing the construction of four additional stops along that line. We must do more to convert that to a rapid transit line. But we also have to recognize that with success and prosperity comes traffic jams. So we have to come up with strategies to remove some of our vehicles from our roads.

Connolly: So this is vital to our economic development. If we’re not in the game to make sure that we’re investing in transportation we’re undermining our economic future and our ability to create jobs. So the first the mayor’s got to do is he can’t sit out the debate at the state level just because it’s messy. We have to get up there and we have to make the case that transportation investments in Boston actually pay off for the whole region. We’ve got to lean on the Boston delegation to carry the water up there and make sure that we have a progressive vision for transportation investment in the future. Let’s talk about  three key pieces we can do. One, while a lot of the expansion and big vision are great, we’ve got to focus on basics that we can get done, maintenance of the existing T fleet, swapping out the subway cars, getting new modal transportation on the commuter rail lines that can run the inner core and create more routes there. Two, let’s get focused on the urban ring and using rapid transit bus to get that done and truly focus on getting the city to buy in on bus as legitimate transportation and not just be subway snobs. The third piece is extending the T hours. That would go a long way toward enhancing the quality of life in the city. We ought to be focused on extending the T hours before we go for the notion of large capital projects that we’re probably not going to be able to get funding for.

WALSH: The first thing we need to do here is address the aging, old infrastructure we have here in the city of Boston. I would commit to a city-wide assessment of all of our infrastructure needs in the city of Boston to find out exactly what we have to do. As we being to move down this road, we have to look at the entryways into Boston. We have to look at new technologies for stop signs. We have to work with the MBTA and the MassDOT. We have the Casey Overpass, we have Rutherford Highway in Sullivan Square. We have places in Boston that are just falling apart, crumbling. It’s easy to say we’re going to go up and demand from the Legislature but the Legislature has a statewide problem here. There is legislation right now that is in conference committee that will address some of these concerns with the MBTA but we need to go further than that. We need a plan. We don’t have a plan in the city of Boston right now. Just to get to this restaurant this morning we were going up and down side streets just to beat traffic. It’s 7 o’clock 8 o’clock in the morning. We have a problem. We need to move people through our city and there’s a better way to do it.

To Councilor Connolly: How late would you keep the subway running, 2, 3, 4 a.m?

Connolly: That’s not my job to determine the hours there. I’m not going to give you that. But we’ve got to go past midnight, and we’ve got to look at the notion of becoming a 24-hour city. Whether it’s 2 a.m. or 4 a.m., that’s a decision we can figure out as we move through the debate, but truly we are hurting the economic potential of this city with the limited hours. We don’t draw the talent here because they want to come to a city that’s vibrant with a social, cultural, and arts life. The city shuts down at midnight for the most part, and then we have the craziness with the bars that do shut at 2 a.m. there’s no way for people to get home other than to have a mass of cabs come in. I don’t think it’s just about liquor licenses. We could be cutting off the liquor service at midnight but continue to serve food until 4. It’s as much about having a WiFi network that works across the whole city. Having a public transportation system that is open as long as the city is alive is the key that we have to be focused on.

What would you do to get cars off the street?

Walsh: I didn’t say get cars off the street.  I think the way you get cars off the street is by trying to take more public transportation. That is a very important issue. One of the things I would talk to the MBTA about as mayor of Boston is for the first six or eight months reduce the fare or have people ride for free to get people in the mindset of taking the train. That’s one of the problems we have with the MBTA. People aren’t in that mindset. It’s too easy to hop in your car and drive. We’re a driving city. People aren’t used to that. We’ve got to give people some incentives to get people on to the train.

Yancey: I support investing in public transportation. The biggest problem I have with it is that the MBTA consider providing free transportation on the Fairmount Line. But I also believe we have to be environmentally conscious. We should establish increased investment in public transportation and I also advocate the use of Hubway and other bike-related effort for some of our commuters. I believe we should also work in cooperation with our suburban neighbors in establishing some sort of shuttle service. Those of you who may not live in the city of Boston but work here may find an easier way to get to and from our city without necessarily using your automobile. So I think you need to be creative and innovative, but it all begins with partnerships within the city of Boston as well as partnerships with regional agencies, including MAPC, which has a great transportation staff.

How would you address the shortage of affordable and workforce housing in the city?

Connolly: We’ve done a great job on affordable housing. Now the demand is still there. We never quite hit those demand points. But we’ve done a great job on affordable. We never seem to have a problem with luxury. I think the priorities ought to be put on the middle market that can bind the city together, those young artists, young professionals, and young families they come in their 20s but leave in their 30s. It’s for two reasons. One reason is housing that they can’t afford as they move from rental to ownership, or it’s that small condo they own needs to be increased in size and they can’t afford. Two are the schools. How do we actually get that done for middle market? We’ve got to find a way to create some subsidies for it, but the other piece is we’ve got to be able to embrace height in appropriate places. We’ve got to look at true transit-oriented development because what passes for transit oriented development in Boston wouldn’t even be up to muster in most other cities. We’ve got to focus on density, focus on raising height appropriately, open supply and  create a true middle market so we can keep our talent in this city and remain competitive.

Walsh: That is a big challenge for us. We’re talking a lot about microunits. The city of Boston, the BRA, has approved 190 microunits and saying that’s it, we’re going to see how they work. That’s not enough of a statement to see if that program is going to work. What I suggest we do is increase that number to a 1,000 units around the city of Boston, not in one area, to see if that idea can work. Also, we have to look at the idea of building housing on top of retail. In other cities, in New Orleans, and other places around the country, we build housing on top of retail. We have Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester where we have a floor of retail down the avenue we could create a corridor by putting housing on top of that, not necessarily low income but median income housing, housing that’s work-force housing. We have to be creative. Today, most people 50 percent of their salary goes to paying rent. We need to change that. We’re not going to keep people. We’re not retaining people in the city of Boston.  A lot of the construction going on in Boston now, I’m happy to see that happening, under the crane are luxury condominiums. We’re really not addressing the affordable piece of this to get people to stay in Boston. I think we need to be creative and we need a really solid plan.

Yancey: I think it was 1987 when I addressed the Greater Boston Real Estate Board and I called upon the developers to work with community developers to come up with affordable housing. And I suggested that process could begin at the Boston State Hospital site, 200 acres of land that was abandoned as a result of deinstitutionalization. Since that time, new partnerships have actually been created, hundreds of housing units have been created. I believe that’s a very useful model. I also believe we should take another look at our linkage program so that as we promote economic development in the city of Boston along with that development comes a greater commitment to invest in affordable housing outside of the particular development area, so that we can make sure that everyone can participate in the economy and so that our housing market is not pricing out our young college graduates, so they will be able to live in the city of Boston. We have thousands of strong families in the city of Boston who are struggling to pay their mortgage and their rent so I believe we need to take another look at the linkage program. Increasing the supply of housing would go a long way toward addressing the issue.

One point that nobody touched on, the inclusionary zoning set aside the city requires for affordable units. Are you happy where that is now or would you look to increase it and by how much?

Connolly: I’m comfortable with where it is right now but we need to look at how we’re doing it because you can look  at the new Charles Street development over in Brighton where we were calling it inclusionary but yet we separated the luxury from the affordable. A very clear delineation. While I understand developers will always think that’s what they need to do, it sends all the wrong signals to the people of Boston about what we’re all about. So I think we need to improve on that. I’m not sure that raising the set-aside is the place to go. I’m OK with it. I’m not opposed to, but, again, the focus has to be on creating the middle market.

Walsh: I’m in favor of keeping it in place where it is right now. There has to be some changes in that when you go up to the BRA. Certain developments have been able to move that. I also think we also have to go further than that in some cases and look for a plan. We talk about 15% affordable in the high rises. That’s all well and good for people, however I think there’s opportunities for us to take some of that money and leverage it for our community, take some of our vacant spaces to create more housing opportunities in our neighborhoods. People sometimes want to live in the neighborhoods. They don’t want to live in a downtown skyscraper and I think if we can reach that balance that would be a success.

Yancey: I certainly support inclusionary housing and I think it should be increased, maybe by another 10 percent. Some of the issues we have is a strong economy and economic development is the threat of gentrification where you lose long-term residents in a particular area. By increasing the percent of new units in these developments, we mitigate against at least some of the impact of gentrification in our neighborhoods. In Chinatown, many residents in this area are losing their ability to stay in an area where their ancestors and immediate family members have lived for so many years.

We know there’s a demand for affordable housing in the city and linkage payments have been directly involved in supporting enterprise as well as workforce development. Is it time to consider a change in the formula for linkage payments and also include transportation and open space improvements?

Walsh:   I think with some developments we have done that change. With Vertex Pharmaceuticals, if I’m not mistaken, there were some transportation improvements there through the I-cubed legislation which I supported up on Beacon Hill. I think with the new mayor everything is open to change, everything needs to be looked at. It’s hard to answer that question when you’re asked at a forum … to not fully understand what’s going on at the BRA and a lot of the stuff that the BRA and city departments do has been a closed shop. So I think that anything is open for discussion as we move forward. Putting together a transportation plan within my first 180 days. Once that plan is done, we have to find a way to pay for it. Some of that will be through collaborations with the state and federal government in trying to get more money to our Commonwealth here. Some of that will be through developers here, but you also don’t want to burden developers with having to put together a transportation plan around their building. The numbers are tight right now when you’re trying to put a deal together, and to throw in the hopper that we want you to build a new roadway for us in some cases might be a deal breaker.

Yancey:   It all begins with partnerships. We cannot kill the goose that lays the golden egg. We want to work with the development community, come up with a plan. Should we look at it again? Yes, we should. I believe the next mayor needs to sit down with all the stakeholders and come up with a fresh look at a number  of our policies and linkage should be part of it. Some would say we should do more. Others would say we should do less. Some would say we should utilize the 121A route more aggressively than perhaps we’re doing today. I believe that everything should be on the table with the goal that we have a city where everyone  can participate in and be proud of. That’s going to take a lot of hard work, and I’m willing to sit down with developers and advocates and come up with a formula that makes sense.

Connolly: Should we look at it? Absolutely. Because we have to adapt as a city to where the demands are and to where the needs are. Here’s my concern, and it really goes back to Paul’s question. When you look at changing linkage, you look at changing the percentage on inclusionary zoning, you have to be careful with what the result is. On the inclusionary piece, you may well raise the number of affordable units, but you’re also going to raise the number of luxury units at the same time. You’re going to kill yourself in terms of creating that middle market, and that’s what we need to be wary of there. And on the other piece, we have to look at getting more funding to preserve open space and get transportation upgrades. But what we don’t want to do is retreat on affordable housing. I put out a proposal two weeks ago called Building Blocks, in which we would offer any large-scale development a six-month fast track. Now they may get to the end of the six months  and not have the approval if they can’t get ultimate approval. But we’ll guarantee the process will take six months if the developer will agree to fund either new school construction or major reconstruction of BPS facilities. We have crumbling school infrastructure, $1.8 billion in identified new construction needs, $600 million in deferred maintenance, $600 million in needed renovations and repairs. We’re mortgaging our future on our children and we’re not paying attention to our school infrastructure. That’s got to be part of the debate, right along with transportation and open space.

Do you favor an appointed or elected school committee or a hybrid mix?

Yancey: Sam, I knew you were going to ask me that question. Sam Tyler and I have had an ongoing debate for many, many years. I respect his opinion. However, I challenge Sam Tyler and those here who support the appointed school committee to explain to me why, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, with 351 cities and towns, and only one has an appointed school committee. I challenge those advocates of an appointed school committee to explain why, in spite of that, other communities in Massachusetts can elect their school committee members. Sam Tyler goes back to his community and he votes for his school committee. Are the people in Boston less able to discern what education leaders should be?  I don’t think the appointed school committee has been the answer. We still have major challenges in our schools. We must keep our eye on the prize and fight for quality education whether it’s an elected body or appointed.  I don’t believe that the appointed body has significantly improved the quality of the Boston schools. We’ve made progress in a number but we have serious challenges today.

Connolly : This may be the one issue in education where I’m undecided. I’ve been having a real debate internally about where to go with this. I must say I lean toward keeping the appointed school committee. Let me tell you why I don’t think it’s not the easiest issue in the world. What we really want, whether it’s elected or appointed, is a school committee that should be independent, demand transparency, and push the superintendent and the mayor to do the absolutely best that they can with the schools. My worry on the elected is that we’re going to have the union come in and spend a lot of money to elect members and we’re going to have other special interest groups come in and spend a lot of money to elect members. So it’s just going to be beholden to an agenda that puts something other than our children first. My concern with the appointed is that I’ve watched it in action in my six years on the City Council and it’s a rubber stamp for the mayor. No real critical element. No real ability to demand that we do better. No real ability to stand up and say no when you get a teacher’s contract that doesn’t add a minute on to one of the shortest school days in the country. And doesn’t press to make sure we’ve got an achievement gap plan in place. So I lean toward keeping it as an appointed because I don’t want to see those special interests come in. But whoever inext mayor is they’ve got to make sure that the school committee they’ve got to be unafraid to let the school committee criticize the mayor, criticize the superintendent and push us to do the best we can for our children.

Walsh: This is probably the only question that the three of us have different answers on, which is good. I am for the appointed school committee. I think the appointed school committee can work and I think we can make it stronger. The people of this city of Boston voted twice for an appointed school committee and they overwhelming voted for an appointed school committee. That’s a statement in and of itself. Secondly, I think we want to keep elected politics out of education. I say that, and John touched upon it briefly, about having people who run for this seat not to better our schools but as a launching pad for their own careers. That’s the biggest concern I have if we go back to an elected school committee. Third, I think there’s an opportunity here for the new mayor. Look to the school committee and the way it’s made up and restructure the school committee so that every community, every zone that’s out there today, will have an opportunity to have representation. The problem with the appointed school committee today is that there is now very little back and forth between the school committee and parents to have input other than the meetings. So I think there’s a better way to do it.

There are several specific areas of Boston where there is significant potential for economic growth. Examples include Allston, Allston Landing, Back Bay, South Boston waterfront, East Boston, Dudley, lower Roxbury, the Longwood medical area, Columbia Point, and even this Greenway corridor. Should we just be waiting for development proposals or should we just be kind of counting on economic cycles? Could you explain how you would catalyze and best shape the future growth in these  areas?

Walsh:   Thank you for that question. It appears we have waited for development to come into our city  and when they come in we get on top of it. As a legislator, I’ve worked on passing legislation to try to entice the biotech community to come into Boston and that legislation has worked. We’ve done some legislation regarding streamlining permitting. But I think it’s important for us to have an almost bullpen idea of ideas. What do I mean by that? Having a business development office to go out and get businesses to look at Boston, so  that when we have an opportunity in a neighborhood, the neighborhood can go to the BRA and say what kind of business are we looking for. For example, I represent Dorchester right now. We have many empty storefronts. We have a lot of opportunity potential in our neighborhoods. We have a spot out on Gallivan Boulevard behind the Ryder store that’s 10,000 square feet and we’re trying to find a use for that spot. We have no central location as a neighborhood to go and try to attract business., so what we’re looking at right now is we’re looking at a Dollar Store. We’re looking at a Dollar Store coming into an area that’s a very highly walked and driven area in the city of Boston. I think we can do better. The city of Boston should be out there working with the neighborhoods so when they have an opportunity to do some development that we assist in that development with good proposals.

Yancey: I believe the city can play a very dynamic role in promoting economic development. Prior to my 30-year stint  on the Boston City Council, I worked in the area of economic development. I assisted in the development of a 91-acre industrial park as part of a satellite of the Research Triangle Park in Durham, N.C. Why can’ t the city of Boston have a real planning department coupled with some incentives for economic development, including equity investment if it’s necessary or at least long-term debt to promote economic development? We have many untapped resources in the city of Boston, primarily human resources that I believe can be put to work if the city becomes more aggressive in promoting economic development, particularly in those areas that have seen little economic development to date. I think the work on the waterfront is a fine example of what can happen when there’s an aggressive vision for the city of Boston in promoting economic development and we should do that in other areas of the city as well.

Connolly: We need to have real planning. That’s something we don’t  do enough of. We develop on an ad hoc basis, the same way we run zoning by variance. We need to take a real look at this and change this. We need to get the business community and our civic groups at the same table and talk about how we can change this process. But it starts with planning and transparency at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. And that’s not anti-development talk. Let’s talk about shifting to a culture where we’re going to judge our projects based on their merit tied to a plan and not simply on having the best reach and ability to navigate the corridors of City Hall. People think that’s unthinkable in Boston, but you go to other cities and they do that. We ought to be able to do it. It’s more than that, though. It’s an economic development strategy. Fairfax, Va., is up here trying to recruit our businesses away. Why aren’t we in other cities trying to do the same? But more than that, for Boston it’s less about trying to bring other businesses here as it is about trying to keep the businesses we have and growing businesses. We ought to be competing in advanced manufacturing, robotics, software, clean energy, green tech, and the creative economy and not let a Facebook, Dropbox, Reddit, or My Energy get away. They’re born here but they end up growing up some place else. I want to rival the West Coast with a startup eco-system.

Mayor Menino recently announced a goal of adding 30,000 new housing units to the city by the year 2020. Do you believe that goal is achievable and, if so, where do they all go? What are the consequences for the way the neighborhoods evolve and develop?

Connolly: Whoever the next mayor is we need to make that achievable because we’re falling far behind on this. We’re 47th nationally in housing production. Boston itself lags behind the pace that it needs to maintain, so we have to find a way to open up supply. Again, I’ll say that we need to look at embracing the notion of going taller in appropriate places, looking at true transit-oriented development, focusing on density, which is both good economic development policy but also strong sustainability policy. And we need to look at that and, again, focus on how we’re going to create a middle market that’s going to allow us to keep our talent. Look at that recent report from the Fed, which shows that we’re losing all of this young talent here. But it’s not just because of housing. It’s also because the jobs aren’t here. We’ve got to link together that smart economic development plan, that smart ability to compete across all industries, and keep our businesses here with a smart housing policy that’s going to allow us to keep that middle market here. It goes to density, height, and transit-oriented development.

Walsh: I think the question should be: It has to happen. It’s important for us to make sure that we have different types of housing: market rate, affordable, subsidized. We also have a homeless population that people often seem to forget about and don’t talk about. We have to look at our city and map out our rent districts, so we don’t overburden one neighborhood with one type of housing and not have enough. We also have to address the middle class and keep them in the city of Boston. We talked a little about micro-units a little earlier, but that’s not the answer. That’s one of the suggested solutions that we can look at, but we really have to take a comprehensive approach at making sure that we can build more housing. We also have to make it easier in some cases as far as permitting. I was talking to someone the other day to someone from East Boston and they want to put a deck on their house and they got bogged down with ISD, dba, and BRA. And that’s a problem in the city as far as building. And I think we need to look at that to say how do we streamline somebody who wants to build a deck on the back of their house. That cannot be happening, and that is also slowing down some of the progress we’ve been making.

Yancey: I believe it is a very achievable goal. In fact, as mayor I will accelerate the pace. When I was born, there were 800,000 people living in the city of Boston. Today, according to the most recent Census, it’s down to 617,194. There’s ample room for growth in the city of Boston but we have to be careful that we protect the quality of life in every neighborhood of Boston. I would propose looking at sites in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, but other neighborhoods as well. We have to make the investment in the social and economic infrastructure so it’s doable. People, all people, want to live in a safe environment. All people want their children to receive a great education. All people want to be able to afford the home they live in, preferably a home that they own. So I will be working very hard with all of you to make sure we achieve those goals.

New development is a key factor in the city’s fiscal health and its ability to balance the budget and finance new programs and initiatives each year. How would you use existing tax incentives and the city’s capital fund to attract new development and jobs to Boston?

Walsh: I think we see a lot of that development going on in Boston right now, particularly to start, to get the ball rolling on the  economy. The waterfront, for example, is one of those, where we have Vertex Pharmaceuticals that was worked on by the city and the state and private funds. We also have the convention center right now, which is talking about expanding, where we have a public entity that’s looking to expand. The first time we did it it was paid for by tax dollars. We had a hotel that was funded privately, the Westin Hotel, that was built there. Now we have a similar situation at the convention center, where the second phase of that potentially, if it’s expanded, will be paid for by itself. And we’re going out to private developers to work with us as far as the hotels go. So I think it’s vitally important in certain cases – not all cases but in certain cases – that we work as partners here to kind of get the growth going in certain neighborhoods. We can go on to the city of Boston, Dudley street, you look at the Ferdinand Building. That’s a city of Boston building. The infrastructure that will be built around it will be city of Boston. It’s being done to try to get other economic opportunities in those neighborhoods. So I think, where needed, we actually have to do that partnership.

Yancey: I believe the city is in a position to promote economic development. Working with the state and other partners, we can improve our roles. We should support the governor’s transportation bill even though it has an indirect impact on the city at this time. I believe that we can set the stage for the conditions that promote economic development. When I was first elected to the City Council the first thing I did was advocate the construction of a new police station to replace a trailer that existed at the intersection of Morton and Blue. After that happened, we saw a significant number of new retail businesses opening up, promoting economic development in that part of town. And I believe that when we invest in building public structures like the Ferdinand Building, like the new high school that’s being constructed on the grounds of the Boston State Hospital we’re going to promote further economic development by producing high quality education and providing for a safe environment for business to be conducted.

Connolly: For starters, I think we have to use tax increment financing far more than we use it currently. I think I’ve voted on TIFs five times maximum in six years on the City Council. Look at other cities and they’ll do it 40 times in a year. So we have to look at a TIF as a key instrument to help us foster smart growth throughout the city. The next piece on the capital budget is again, Mayor Menino has done a great job as a fiscal hawk, focused on the bond rating and keeping our reserves healthy. And that’s really smart policy and puts us in a better position than most municipalities. But we’ve got these low interest rates and you have to take advantage of it by opening up the capital budget a little bit more to make smart infrastrucute investments that are going to help support smart development but that leads to a better ability reach those who are most underserved in this city and make a real difference in people’s live. So we’ve got to look at changing our approach on the capital budget overall. If the interest rates are high, we don’t do it. But if you’ve got low interest rates, take advantage of our bond rating to make investments for the future.

To Walsh and Yancey; Be a little more specific on use of 128A tax increment financing, and more use of capital funds in the city budget to encourage development. There’s been a reluctance to do that because it means, in most cases, foregoing property tax for a period of time until development is completed. Would you use these incentives more to encourage development?

Walsh: I absolutely would, as long as we have a plan for what’s going to happen, as long it’s not the first step in a particular area, as far as development. You have to be very careful as far as how we spend tax dollars, and as tax credits go. But if we’re able to revitalize or jumpstart an area of Boston. For example, downtown Boston, we’re talking about the Filene’s place that is going to be developed, and today there’s an announcement in the paper that Roche Brothers is going to come to the first floor. There are other buildings in downtown Boston that have been sitting there a long time and haven’t been renovated. That is an area of our city that we often overlook. When I was growing up I worked construction. The second job I worked on was right here in this building. I was in this room having coffee. This was during the building boom in the city of Boston. There was a lot of activity happening in downtown Boston. Since that boom ended, we never really went back to where we belong.

Yancey: I support the use of tax incentives if they are necessary to make a deal work. I don’t support an approach where the city is giving away the store without understanding the true impact of those 121A and other tax incentives. I think tax incentives are useful in some areas. In other areas I think they are only marginal once you  consider long-term development. So I support tax incentives but we have to do it in a smart way, in a way that leads to the goal of furtherng economic development that benefits the residents of the city of Boston. I don’t believe that all tax incentives work. I think there are other factors that promote economic development, including strengthening our infrastructure to make it easier for development to take place. I was here when we built a ramp to service International Place because we wanted to promote development in this particular area at that time. I thought that made a lot of sense, so maybe other things, like roadway improvement, can have far more significant impact on promoting economic development than even tax incentives.

There’s a climate action plan in Boston. There are many regulations that will have a significant impact on business as we look at this issue. These include disclosure requirements, building code revisions, and many others. Do these make sense? What would you to do to protect Boston from climate change and prepare the city for its future impact. And how can all these be implemented while at the same time making sure that the city remains economically competitive and we don’t put undue burden on property owners and builders.

Yancey: I actually convened a public hearing on climate change in December last year. I heard from a number of experts who didbn’t say we may be hurt by a Sandy-like storm but that it’s inevitable. So the question is how can we ignore the potential impact of climate change as we move forward in terms of economic development. So I think it makes sense to take steps now. I think we have to be concerned about the water levels and the sea levels, but I also believe that we should take extraordinary steps to streamline the process. We live in the 21st century. I don’t think it should take as much time to promote economic development in 2013 as it may have taken in 1913 or 1953. I think we have to be sensitive to the impact of climate change and that needs to be incorporated in our planning process. I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be onerous, but what’s the alternative? If our entire infrastructure is wiped out, if we are subjected to the type of impact that Sandy had on New York City we’d be kicking ourselves not taking the steps before the catastrophe.

Connolly: I served on the mayor’s climate change leadership committee. I also authored the resolution in the city council that made us eligible to work with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council on a climate change mitigation plan. This is real. The next mayor has got to be ready for this. If a super storm hits Boston, and we’re not ready, we’re going to have billions of dollars of damage. If it hits it and we’re ready, we may still have billions of dollars of damage. So we can think about escalating costs and all the problems that come with that, but the worst thing we can do is nothing. 83 million square feet of damage that we would have had if it was high tide and Sandy had hit Boston, 83 million square feet of damage. Think of what that would do to the tunnel. Think of what that would do to the Aquarium T stop. So first we’ve got to focus on emergency preparedness and we’ve got to go parcel to parcel through the city and think about what we are going to do and how we are going to prepare. The second piece is we’ve got to look at the building code and think about how we’re going to protect property in the future and new development comes to climate change. But this is real.

Walsh: First of all I want to agree with my friend John Connolly when he talked about preparing parcel by parcel across the city. I think it’s very important to look at it that way. We can do all the preparation for super storm Sandy but if we have what happened in New York, the North End, and, as John mentioned, the Aquarium station, and the tunnels there’s not much we can prepare for that. We can, however, prepare for in the future on how we’re going to design our buildings and build our buildings to prepare them. A lot of our buildings that we’re building now on the waterfront in south Boston and that we will be building on the East Boston waterfront are on the waterfront, and they have to be prepared in the design for what happens when super storm Sandy comes. I also think that we have to give incentives for green construction in the city of Boston for some of the developers that are building in our city. I know that we have the LEED certified, but we need to do a little more on that. We also need to work with homeowners. Right now we have next step living going on in the city of Boston, kind of bopping in different neighborhoods as far as energy efficiency. We need to be more precise on a plan, like when cable came into Boston in the 80s, they went neighborhood by neighborhood to bring up people’s homes as far as cable. We need to look at that. We also need to look at more green technology. Our recycling contract is up next year. We need to look at our recycling contract. And we need not to just look at our recycling, but to expand our recycling. We might want to go to compost recycling that other cities and states in this country do. So I think it’s important for us not simply when we’re talking about climate change, but we have to look at the whole issue. It’s easy to say downtown Boston. We want the developer to do this and this and this, but we also have communities that we need to make sure. The highest rate of asthma is in Roxbury and we need to address that.

I’d like to hear your plan for creating economic activity in the neighborhoods. Or, in the alternative, what’s the role of the neighborhoods in the city’s economy. Are they mainly bedroom communities for downtown, or are they centers of activity.

Connolly: They have to be vital pieces of our economic engine. Obviously, the downtown is going to play a critical role, the most critical role. But our neighborhoods have to be vital parts of our economic engine. I don’t think we ought to restrict innovation to a district and I also don’t think we ought to be giving high fives to each other when we bring Vertex over from Cambridge. It’s great to have Vertex there but we’re not competing with Cambridge although we act like it. We need a metro economic plan that’s going to recognize that Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville need to be on the same page as to how we compete for business. I’m getting to your question because here’s where it counts. We’ve got to compete across all industries, as I mentioned, but it shouldn’t be just restricted to an innovation district. I don’t need to be an expert in advanced manufacturing to know that what matters to CEOs is rent and taxes. And if we can work on incentives there throughout the city, we can locate businesses that will grow in Grove Hall, in Roslindale, in Mattapan, in Allston, as well as in the Innovation District. That’s the type of vision we’ve got to have for our neighborhoods.

Walsh: It’s interesting the development in our neighborhoods. As a state rep and as a candidate for mayor, I’ve been able to look around the city and travel in different neighborhoods. You see some neighborhoods that are tired of being over developed and at one point they had no development. There are other neighborhoods in our city that have nothing and are crying out for something. One of the first things I would like to do as mayor of Boston is take our Main Streets program that when it began was effective and now it’s effective in certain neighborhoods but not in every neighborhood. We need to strengthen the Main Streets program because that’s the heart and soul of a lot of communities. We also have to look at the housing issue. I mentioned it earlier, as far as mixed housing opportunities and upper level housing. This works in other communities. In Cambridge they are doing it right now. They’re doing upper level housing. They’re doing retail on the first floor. MIT’s on the first floor and housing’s on the second floor. We need to have a better plan for our neighborhoods. Every single neighborhood in the city of Boston at one time had a telephone building or an Edison building. Those buildings sit empty today. Fifty years ago, thirty years ago, those buildings provided opportunities for families in the community to go to work. Today they sit vacant. We need to put some opportunities back in there so people that live in these communities can work in these communities.

Yancey: We have beautiful neighborhoods throughout the city of Boston. I would like to say each neighborhood should have its won character and niche to attract visitors. So I believe that the critical role of city government in promoting our neighborhoods, No. 1 we have to make sure that the streets are clean. I know it’s mundane. As Kevin White used to say I’m going to be a dirty street fighter. Rosemary probably remembers that. We have to ensure that the city services are being provided. And yes, it is appropriate not only to promote the various town roles that we have around the city of Boston. One of the largest community events that we have in the city of Boston takes place in my district. It’s called the Caribbean Carnival. More than 500,000 people come to that community to revel in the Caribbean culture while we should attract people from all over Boston to participate in that, just as we do in the North End, just as we do for the south Boston parade on St. Patrick’s day. We must revitalize every neighborhood in the city of Boston so we can benefit  from the more than 140 cultures that we have in our great city.

LIGHTENING ROUND – NO LONG SPEECHES.

Tom Menino has been called the urban mechanic. If you’re elected mayor, what  are you going to be called?

Connolly: The school transformer

Walsh: The visionary

Yancey: The great uniter

Should the city of Boston join the state Group Insurance Commission to help control employee health care costs?

Walsh: If it saves costs.

Yancey: Yes

Connolly: Maybe, if it saves costs.

Would you expedite the relocation of the South Boston postal annex to allow for South Station expansion?

Yancey: Yes, it’s a great economic development opportunity.

Connolly: Yes

Walsh: Absolutely, I’d make it a priority.

Would you keep or abolish the BRA?

Connolly: Keep and change

Walsh: Keep

Yancey: I would change the BRA, probably rename it. We need a planning agency…

Who is your favorite all-time Boston mayor?

Walsh: Tom Menino?

Mohl: Very revealing.

Yancey: Tom Menino is the best mayor we have in the city of Boston today.

Connolly: I was running against the guy. I love Tom Menino. He’s been a great mayor. (No speeches). Kevin White.

Should the charter school cap for Boston be eliminated, raised, or remain the same?

Yancey: I think the charter school movement has been very successful (No speeches). I would not raise the cap. I think that takes resources away from Boston public schools.

Connolly: Raise the cap, better partnerships with Boston public schools.

Walsh: Not raise the cap. [Walsh says he misspoke at the forum and actually believes the cap should be lifted.]

So the legislators are gearing up to raise the gas tax by 3 cents, that’s not going to go as far as we’d like. Would you lead as mayor an initiative to raise the gas tax by another 12 cents to support transportation in Boston?

Connolly: A shortsighted solution.

Walsh: Try to have a different solution.

Yancey: I don’t support raising the gas tax.

Which is the worst public space? Boston City Hall or City Hall plaza?

Walsh: Great question. City Hall Plaza.

Yancey: I would say City Hall.

Connolly: They are seamlessly horrible together.

Do you think Boston’s traffic division writes too many parking tickets in the city of Boston?

Yancey: No, I don’t. It generates 16-million plus….

Connolly: No.

Walsh: I’m running for mayor. No.

Do you support casino gambling in Boston and should there be a citywide referendum on the issue?

Connolly: Let East Boston decide.

Walsh: I support casino gaming in East Boston.

Yancey: I believe there should be a weighted system where we give more votes to the voters in East boston but I think the city should participate in that process.

Would you support the creation of additional bus-only lanes in Boston?

Walsh: I’ll try. The streets are tight.

Yancey: Yes, I would support that.

Connolly: Yes, rapid transit and signalization as well.

Should the city be putting cash into the Greenway’s budget?

Yancey: Yes, we should contribute some.

Connolly: No, the state needs to do its job. I’ll get the Conservancy at the table as well. They’ve done a great job but the state has to follow through on their obligations for a state park.

Walsh: The city has to put some money into that.

 

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.