Dealing with deserted downtowns now high on Baker menu 

THERE WAS MORE than just the scent of bacon and eggs in the air at yesterday’s Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast. There was a whiff of irony present, too. 

It seemed like Old Home Day as the business group’s regular morning speaker series returned to an in-person gathering for the first time since the pandemic outbreak. Chamber president Jim Rooney joked that he was glad his suit still fit, an apparent reference to the casual attire and packing on of “pandemic pounds” that have characterized the last two years for many. 

While the Westin Copley Place ballroom may have been buzzing with business types, the morning speaker focused on the fact that the same is hardly true for downtowns writ large. 

“The future of downtowns is going to be different, whether we like it or not,” Gov. Charlie Baker told the breakfast gathering. “We need to start the process of reimagining the placemaking of downtowns so they can thrive and be successful in what will be a slightly different world in many cases and a significantly different world in some cases.”

Baker plans to file an economic development bill to aid downtowns struggling amid the work-from-home pattern that took hold during the pandemic – and seems here to stay, at least in some form. The Legislature deep-sixed a downtown aid package Baker filed last year. Details of the new proposal have not been revealed, but the Globe said Baker expects to propose using a combination of bonding and the $2 billion in unspent American Rescue Plan Act money to fund the plan. 

As MassINC Polling Group president Steve Koczela recently pointed out, a Pew Center survey showed that more than half of those who say their job can be done from home are continuing to do so most of the time. As a consequence, he says, downtowns are empty. MBTA ridership stands at roughly half its pre-pandemic level. 

And even those companies mandating a return to in-person work are often doing so with a modified schedule. The Boston Globe recently told staffers that, starting in early May, they would be expected in-person at the paper’s downtown offices three days a week, while they can continue to work remotely two days. 

As Koczela points out, each day that a firm goes remote represents a 20 percent reduction in their workers’ presence downtown – where they would buy sandwiches for lunch, get a haircut, or share an after-work drink with co-workers. 

“Downtown economies are built around massive daily inflows of workers,” he writes, adding that Boston “will need to find another way to fill vast empty spaces in the hulking monuments to an economy that no longer exists.”  

While Baker – and Massachusetts mayors – have to worry about what the new-normal means for downtowns here, they can at least be thankful they’re not in Eric Adams’s shoes. 

The Wall Street Journal reports that New York City’s new mayor faces a challenge unlike that of any big-city leader, with Manhattan home to nearly 11 percent of all office inventory in the country. 

Manhattan office availability hit a record-high 17.4 percent in February. There’s lots of talk about converting office space to housing – the market for which remains red-hot in New York. But midtown Manhattan buildings are not well-suited to such conversions, the Journal says, leaving big questions about how the “reimagining” Baker spoke of will play out there.  

MICHAEL JONAS

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Facial recognition tech: A state commission, with law enforcement officials dissenting, calls for limiting the use of facial recognition technology to felony cases and requiring a warrant. Read more.

Receivership counterproductive: Boston Mayor Michelle Wu tells the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that a state takeover of the Boston Public Schools would be counterproductive. City Councilor Julia Mejia says “another executive leadership retooling” is not the answer. But state Education Secretary James Peyser says the state cannot simply sit on the sidelines. Read more.

State must step up: State Auditor Suzanne Bump flags 29 bills passed within the last five years that had a substantial impact on municipal budgets and require the state to cover the cost. Bump stopped short of calling the legislation unfunded mandates. Read more.

OPINION

Receivership bad idea: Dan French, the president of the board of Citizens for Public Schools, says state receivership is the wrong answer to the question of what to do about the Boston Public Schools. Read more.

Low-income fare: Citing her own personal experience and her observations, Bri Nichols of Brockton makes the case for legislation establishing low income fares on the MBTA and regional transit authorities. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

Gov. Charlie Baker says he’s developing a plan for Massachusetts to do more to retain workers. (MassLive)

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against Baker filed by the former head of the state Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing over his firing, but she acknowledged he was left in a “difficult situation” by not being given a forum to clear his name regarding ties to a college fraternity whose members wore robes resembling those used by the Ku Klux Klan. (Boston Globe

Republican lawmakers will gather in front of the State House today to renew their call for a temporary suspension of the state gas tax. (Boston Herald)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

A judge sides with the city of Beverly and finds that a family is not entitled to keep a coop of emotional support chickens to help their 8-year-old daughter. (Salem News)

Salem teams up with the Bar Association to create a housing stability program, where lawyers will volunteer to connect tenants with resources before they have an eviction case that lands up in court. (Salem News)

Rockport pushes back against new state guidelines requiring more multi-family housing near MBTA stops, with local officials saying that high density of housing won’t work for a small town like Rockport. (Gloucester Daily Times)

After eight years, Worcester City Manager Edward Augustus will step down in May. He has not decided what’s next. (Telegram & Gazette)

A low-profile farmer passes away in Southampton and leaves $2.5 million to the town for a new senior center. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Moderna says a low-dose of its COVID-19 vaccine proved effective in trials among children under 6. (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

US Rep. Seth Moulton puts forth a plan to seize and resell Russian oligarch’s yachts and put the money toward humanitarian assistance in Ukraine. (Gloucester Daily Times)

GOP governors in Indiana and Utah veto anti-trans sports bans. (CNN)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

A report from an advocacy group and MIT researcher says eviction filings in the state were higher in predominantly minority neighborhoods than white neighborhoods after a statewide moratorium expired during the pandemic. (Boston Globe

EDUCATION

The superintendent of the Northampton public schools plans to bring in an independent investigator to review complaints about an embedded honors math program. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

TRANSPORTATION

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu continues her fare-free MBTA bus roadshow, joined by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and former acting mayor Kim Janey. (Boston Globe

MEDIA

Dan Kennedy sizes up the brouhaha over the recent New York Times editorial on free speech issues. (Media Nation)