Why must a few lonely cranks decide the future of Boston’s buildings?
READY OR NOT, Boston is ramping up for another building boom. There are at least five major residential projects under review at City Hall, including ones for Stuart Street, Copley Place, Chinatown, the Seaport District, and the Fenway. Together, these proposals would add up to 1,400 new apartments and condos over the next few years.
This is good news for Boston. We need more housing to keep prices reasonable and attract young innovators. The bad news is that these projects aren’t in well-planned districts like the highly groomed South Boston waterfront. Instead, they will pop up on single lots throughout the city. That means that everything — from a project’s size to its location and use — will be open to debate. Public debate.
What’s the problem with that? Well, as I write this, a chorus of naysayers is already warming up to protest these developments in the name of public virtue. These refuseniks aren’t interested in what you or I think is best for the city. They’re hell-bent on blocking anything a developer puts in front of them. Crazy as it sounds, in one of the nation’s largest cities, a few local characters who regularly show up at public meetings somehow have the power to completely derail major projects. This has to change. If it doesn’t, Boston could lose its competitive edge.
FOR THOSE OF YOU fortunate enough to have never been through this mess, a quick primer: Boston requires that every large-scale development proposal be approved by a citizens’ advisory committee — the members of which are selected from neighborhood groups big and small. This committee then spends inordinate amounts of time (often years) meeting monthly to debate the merits of the proposal. Sounds good in theory, but the truth is, only committed anti-development gadflies show up. Normal people have jobs and lives to live, and can’t commit to endless meetings. The best-known anti-development activist is Shirley Kressel, whose decades-long stance has been that only small projects are able to contribute to the city’s quality of life. Her opposition to almost everything is legendary. The root of the problem is that public review around here begins and ends with the assumption that the developers are against us.
So how did we wind up with this system? We used to have a top-down process, coordinated by professional planners who controlled the future of every neighborhood in Boston. These planners made micro and macro decisions based on what they thought was best, and you either loved it or hated it. But after the destruction of the West End in the late 1950s, the public wanted a way to control what got built, what got demolished, and what got left alone. Fair enough. But what started as democratized planning has now morphed into Kabuki theater, where those with political grudges and time on their hands have disproportionate influence over the city’s future.
What these curmudgeons agree on is that building height and developer profits will destroy our city. If you propose a 30-story building, the “public” asks, “Why not 20 stories?” It’s as though height is pure evil. In fact, height is often the measure of a project’s financial viability. In other words, the higher you build in this expensive, land-limited city, the more cost-efficient the venture. Chop off a few stories and, well, the project goes away.