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The Menino years | Globe Editorial

With hands on, for good or ill, mayor tends to neighborhoods

September 10, 2009

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ALMOST IMMEDIATELY after winning office in 1993, Mayor Menino made a beeline for Blue Hill Avenue, a swath of rundown storefronts in the heart of Boston’s minority community. Menino wanted to establish his bona fides as a neighborhood mayor. While no one would mistake the area today for Wellesley’s town center, Blue Hill Avenue in the Grove Hall neighborhood is a vastly better place with legitimate shopping opportunities.

Nearly every neighborhood in the city has improved under Menino, who has guided the rebirth of main street business districts, planted trees, and rehabilitated troubled public-housing developments. The major exception is the part of Allston slated to become a new campus for Harvard University. Menino lost track of Harvard as it acquired property stealthily through proxies during the late 1990s. And he could only look on powerlessly when the economy faltered and Harvard shelved much of its plan to build 10 million square feet of new building space, leaving neighbors complaining about the vacant buildings in their midst.

This mayor operates without an overriding blueprint for the city’s future. After 16 years, he should have one. And yet Menino, by and large, delivers in the neighborhoods. His willingness to attend to street-corner concerns seems undiminished after 16 years.

Since 1993, more than 26,000 units of new housing have risen. The mayor can’t claim credit for all of them, but he did oversee methodical efforts, including housing trusts, to ensure that at least 7,000 of the units would be affordable for people with modest incomes. When college kids were driving up the cost of rents in the neighborhoods, he pressed college presidents to build more than 9,000 new dorm units in the past nine years. Roughly 6,000 new hotel rooms have come on line since 1999. A new convention center rose in the Seaport District in 2004. And Menino has taken aggressive steps of late to stem foreclosures in hard-hit neighborhoods. It’s a notable record.

Menino has managed to maintain a consistent level of city services in the neighborhoods. Not perfect, as evidenced by the monumental failure in 1997 to respond to a freak April snowstorm, leaving secondary roads across the city unplowed for days. Residents in the high-voting precincts of West Roxbury, who don’t ask for much beyond reliable plowing and trash pickup, were enraged. But they had gotten over it by 2000 when Menino transformed an unsightly landfill into the 100-acre Millennium Park along the Charles River. Menino, as a rule, makes amends.

No slouch downtown
In Boston, historically, there are neighborhood mayors and downtown mayors. John Collins was a downtown mayor determined to reinvigorate a city where, by 1960, the skyline had barely changed in 30 years. Kevin White, who took office in 1968, morphed from a neighborhood mayor with his focus on Little City Halls into downtown “Kevin Deluxe,’’ overseeing the creation of the Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Ray Flynn was a neighborhood guy to the core who benefited from some boom years in the 1980s. It is Menino, however, who has managed to keep his feet planted firmly and productively in each sector.

A recent Globe article cited statistics showing that Boston has built more commercial space per square mile of land during the past decade than any of the nation’s 10 most populous cities. Menino has kept tight control on the process. That power dovetails with the mayor’s tendency to play favorites among developers - also documented in the Globe article - to make the process maddeningly unpredictable for those seeking to build projects.

Menino and his Boston Redevelopment Authority eschew straight, simple zoning laws, under the theory that the city can wring neighborhood improvement benefits more easily out of developers who need to go to City Hall for variances. The development of the 36-story office tower at One Lincoln Street, for example, yielded $2.7 million for cultural and neighborhood programs in Chinatown since 2004.

Menino may be more vulnerable on the subject of what doesn’t get built, as evidenced by the giant hole in the ground courtesy of a stalled development project at the former Filene’s site in Downtown Crossing. It’s hard to quantify how many developers were scared away by Menino’s hands-on approach. And the city’s downtown shopping district may well have evolved faster under a more hands-off mayor - though maybe not for the better.

Some Bostonians may be tiring of Menino’s pervasive presence, but his constant intervention, by and large, has strengthened the urban fabric - both downtown and in the neighborhoods.

Second of five editorials on Mayor Menino’s record.

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