Boston is changing: new neighborhoods, new residents, a new innovation economy, and now a new comprehensive plan. In this age of accelerating urban transformation, it’s striking how many of these changes had their origins in decisions made — or not made — 20 years ago.
In the waning years of the last century, there was no war on terror, gay marriage, or social media. The millennium approached, but the concept of “Millennials” was as yet unformed. The Clinton administration was implementing the new urbanist HOPE VI public-housing program; President Bill Clinton himself was being impeached.
The Charles River cleanup was progressing after Governor Bill Weld took an impromptu plunge into the river to kick-start it. And Mayor Tom Menino began feuding with City Council president Jimmy Kelly about the spoils of development on the South Boston waterfront as the economy improved.
Twenty years later, it’s clear we got some big things right. The Harbor Cleanup, Big Dig, and Silver Line have helped the city flourish in unexpected ways. But we’ve become dependent on private development to address more incremental needs, so the advantages of growth are unevenly distributed, and the fruits of development sometimes fall short of our civic aspirations. Plus we’re playing catch-up on things we missed or ignored, such as the shift to nonauto travel and especially the effects of climate change.
First, the good news. Starting 20 or more years ago, we made large public investments in water quality in Boston Harbor and the Charles River. Though motivated by environmental concerns (and a lawsuit), these investments are paying huge quality-of-life dividends today. After turning our backs for decades on our gritty postindustrial waterfront, we’re now reconceiving it as Boston’s front yard, recalling our maritime heritage.
Cleaning the harbor also helped unlock the development potential of the Seaport — more on that to follow. Some 38 miles of the 47-mile HarborWalk are in place. The mostly swimmable Charles River Basin can now be envisioned as a signal recreational resource; a swim park may not be far in our future.
The Big Dig, primarily designed to increase auto through-put, also leveraged new parks along the Charles River, in East Boston, in Charlestown, and of course downtown. The Rose F. Kennedy Greenway gets better every season with new programming and amenities. Our waterfronts will need more investment in the next 20 years to become more connected to each other and more accessible to all, but we’ve made real progress.
Another cobenefit of the Big Dig — and its companion mitigation project, the Silver Line — was better airport access, especially from the Seaport. Last year, Logan Airport had more than twice the flights it had in 1998 and more than four times as many passengers. With nonstop flights to 53 international destinations, Logan is now a portal to the world, helping explain not only General Electric’s move to the Seaport but also Boston’s increasing “global city” footprint.
But we’re also being held back by investments not yet made. Three transportation megaprojects — the Urban Ring, South Station expansion, and North-South Rail Link — have languished, though the last one could be having a second life. Even more important, we have not made public investments in many more incremental needs.
After 20 years of transit-oriented development, we have not invested nearly enough in transit, so growth is concentrated in transit-served areas and the system struggles to meet demand — not only during snowmageddons but also every weekday morning. If the Green Line extension proceeds, it will be the first rail extension since the Red Line reached Alewife in 1985, though the population of the city of Boston alone is almost 20 percent greater than it was then.
We have also avoided making the public investments that could transform the Massachusetts Turnpike in central Boston from a transportation scar to a civic asset. In the last 20 years, a succession of turnpike air rights proposals have foundered on constructability challenges, upside-down economics, and neighborhood opposition. The last air rights project, Copley Place, began almost 40 years ago and had significant public funding. It’s time to ask whether we need to deploy infrastructure support, tax abatements, or other incentives if we expect private developers to bind the wound.
The Seaport may be the most visible emblem of Boston’s resurgence. Twenty years ago, it was mostly awash in surface parking and low-scale uses. But the aforementioned troika of federally funded projects, along with land acquisition for the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, were all completed or well under way.
To build on this momentum, in 1999 the Boston Redevelopment Authority completed the Seaport Public Realm Plan to guide the area’s growth. The first to espouse city-making principles that are now second nature, the plan envisioned mixed uses on a new interwoven street grid, with a rich public realm of sidewalks, plazas, and parks.
But the same federal government that funded the district’s emergence hobbled it with constraints. The Federal Highway Administration required the Big Dig’s surface streets to promote traffic flow rather than walkability. Federal Aviation Administration requirements after the September 11 attacks limited building heights to protect air navigation. This combination led to boxy buildings on wide streets rather than the fine-grained urbanism many hoped for.