On district matters, a Patrick ally turns adversary
INTRO TEXT a year ago, Marty Walz was among the legion of liberal Democrats enthralled by Deval Patrick’s gubernatorial candidacy. The state representative from Boston’s Back Bay was an enthusiastic supporter of the candidate who promised a new way of doing business on Beacon Hill. Today, however, Walz finds herself battling the new administration on three high-profile issues in her district. She remains diplomatic about the disagreements, but Walz’s experience illustrates the difference between the lofty rhetoric of the campaign trail and the often messy business of making decisions and governing.
Sitting in her State House office one afternoon in mid September, the two-term lawmaker is clearly exasperated. “I could talk about Storrow Drive all day,” she says. No one said that managing the rebuilding of Boston’s 55-year-old Storrow Drive tunnel would be easy. But an option being floated by the Patrick administration—a temporary roadway through the Esplanade—has floored Walz and many area residents. Walz has thrown down the gauntlet, vowing to stop the administration from clear-cutting trees and paving the fabled green space along the Charles River. Don’t underestimate her tenacity, says her House colleague Michael Moran, a Brighton Democrat. “She is going to fight tooth and nail for this,” he says.
Richard Sullivan, the Department of Conservation and Recreation commissioner, understands that putting back on the table the idea of the temporary Esplanade detour—an approach that the Romney administration considered but rejected—was “a controversial move.” He says he doesn’t have any preconceived notions about what option will ultimately emerge as the preferred one. “If at the end of the day, there are certain impacts that [Walz and her constituents] are willing to live with over others, then that’s fine,” he says.
Even so, Walz says those who have been involved in advisory consultations with the state view the proposal’s unexpected resurrection as a subversion of the community engagement process. In an op-ed headlined “Betrayal” that she penned this summer for the Back Bay Sun, Walz wrote, “The process has been a model for how a governmental agency should work with community members. Until now.”
The Esplanade rift exposes some raw nerves not only in Walz’s district, but among the governor’s supporters in the environmental community. “This is fairly standard operating procedure with the new administration. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of opportunity for conversation,” says Robert Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, which plans an independent study of tunnel construction management alternatives. “They tend to keep their own counsel, make decisions, and then let everybody know afterward.”
Even before the Storrow Drive controversy erupted over the summer, Walz and environmental leaders were at odds with the administration. In February, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Department of Environmental Protection exceeded its authority by exempting the NorthPoint mixed-use development under construction in East Cambridge from Chapter 91, the state waterways laws that regulate development on coastal sites and in filled areas that were once tidelands. The exemption the state had been granting for filled tidelands, the justices found, infringes on the Legislature’s prerogative to safeguard the public’s rights to oversight of development in such areas.
Developers said the ruling will wreak havoc on projects far from any coastline. The Greater Boston Real Estate Board called the decision “a drastic change to the rules that developers had followed for many years.” In March, Patrick filed a bill that would exempt landlocked filled tidelands from the law.
The debate over Chapter 91 has largely focused on public interests in those lands and impacts on existing and future development. But Walz has zeroed in on a particular issue of big concern in her district. By exempting landlocked filled tidelands from Chapter 91, as the administration proposes, she says the state would lose an opportunity to regulate development impacts on groundwater levels. Water moving beneath the earth’s surface helps protect the wood pilings supporting the foundations of scores of buildings in the Back Bay, South End, and other nearby neighborhoods. If the pilings dry out due to falling groundwater levels, those buildings are at risk for structural failure. “If it’s your home that’s been torn down because some developer disrupted the groundwater flow, the exemption under Chapter 91 hasn’t worked out so well for you,” says Walz.
Meanwhile, in a yet another dust-up over district matters, Walz says a big administration-supported development project in her backyard isn’t working well for taxpayers. In July, the Patrick administration approved a $10 million grant to the developers of Columbus Center, a huge residential, retail, and hotel complex, for a platform to be built over the Massachusetts Turnpike to support the structure. The developers are also seeking a second $10 million state grant.
“Just how many times are taxpayers going to pay for that deck?” asked Walz, House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, and Rep. Byron Rushing, a fellow Boston Democrat, in a July letter to Patrick, calling such requests “a misuse of taxpayer dollars.” Last year, the Columbus Center developers secured $20 million in MassHousing loans from a fund created for affordable apartments. Another $22 million in tax increment financing and investment tax credits came from the state Economic Assistance Coordinating Council.
At issue is whether or not developers should receive public subsidies, monies the developers originally said that they wouldn’t seek, she argues. (The developers have denied making such statements.) “Now that it’s all approved, they are coming to every government agency that will have them,” Walz says. “I’m not in the business of paying income taxes every year so real estate developers can get richer at my expense.”
Of her recent run-ins with the new administration, Walz speaks in measured tones. “In all three instances, there was a failure to consult and get advice and guidance from each of the communities involved,” she says. What does this say about the Patrick administration’s much-touted commitment to civic engagement? “I think they are still learning to do that,” she says.