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Promises unmet

The mayor has failed to deliver, in whole or in part, on nearly half of his 41 most clearly stated commitments to the city.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John C. Drake
Globe Staff / April 27, 2008

Charles Euchner began his work at Boston City Hall with an ambitious directive from Mayor Thomas M. Menino: Build a plan for the city's next three decades of growth. But even as he began, Euchner had a nagging suspicion that the project had been effectively abandoned.

Menino told area business leaders in 1997 that Boston 400, as the planning process was called, would be the "boldest thing to happen in this city in a long, long time," asserting that it would "not become a document collecting dust on a shelf."

It is true that the plan, which was developed with a budget of $575,000, is not collecting dust and sitting on a shelf. But that is only because it was never published, making it what Euchner considers an embarrassing flop.

"To this day, I still hear from people saying, 'Whatever happened to that thing?' and I'm kind of embarrassed and sad," said Euchner, the urban planner who earned about $125,000 over nearly three years as a full-time consultant on the project.

From projects as small as a park playground, to visions as grand as a new City Hall on the South Boston waterfront, Menino has showered audiences with commitments and promises since his election in 1993. He has delivered on many, but not all.

The Globe reviewed 10 years' worth of Menino's annual speeches to the Boston Municipal Research Bureau and each of his annual State of the City ceremonial addresses in which he made promises as soaring as a signature skyscraper to more nuts-and-bolts initiatives like installing more school computers and distributing condoms.

Among the promises he has fulfilled: expanding after-school programming, selling the Berkeley Street police headquarters to fund affordable housing, issuing 10,000 new housing permits, and establishing neighborhood response teams to better coordinate delivery of city services.

But of 41 of the mayor's most clearly stated goals touted in those speeches, 10, including the Boston 400 plan, never materialized. Ten others were fulfilled only in part, or after lengthy delays. The unfulfilled commitments include an early, ill-fated plan to sell the city's Marine Industrial Park and repeated entreaties to return to neighborhood schools, which have been rejected at every turn by community leaders.

His mixed track record of delivering on the promises made in the annual addresses stands in contrast to the popular mayor's reputation for delivering on the little things. The mayor, while acknowledging some of the initiatives were not fulfilled as promised, said in an interview that in most cases the spirit behind the promises were honored.

"It's good to make commitments on things, because you set goals for yourself," Menino said in a phone interview. "You're not going to meet them all the time, but you have to strive to meet them."

Some big promises have lingered without completion for years, such as complete revitalization of Blue Hill Avenue and providing neighborhood elementary schools. In some cases, the commitments proved to be overly ambitious or issued prematurely, possibly a result of Menino trying to make news in each of a series of three annual speeches he gives to watchdog groups and the public, said Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a city watchdog that hosts one of the addresses.

"Coming up with three major speeches in that short a time frame can mean there may be some pushing of the envelope to find something newsworthy, that could lead to introducing something that hasn't been fully vetted," Tyler said.

Despite setbacks, the mayor's ambition has not waned.

Last year, he proposed moving City Hall to the South Boston waterfront and erecting a 1,000-foot tower in the Financial District. The mayor's office continues to make the case for moving the seat of government, despite criticism that the site would be less accessible than Government Center and might not spur development in an already growing region. He has yet to put forward detailed plans for the proposal. A sagging economy has forced the tower idea to the side, at least for now.

One observer said it is not surprising that the mayor's commitments have not all been delivered as promised.

"I think it's unfair to expect immediate results from these speeches," said John A. Nucci, a former city councilor and mayoral candidate who is now a vice president at Suffolk University. "These speeches are better used for grand vision, exactly the way Mayor Menino has been doing it."

An examination of some of his larger promises that fell short shows how the mayor has been foiled, sometimes by unforeseen opposition or events beyond his control. When Menino announced plans in 1996 to sell the Marine Industrial Park, for instance, he said the goal was job creation. But critics, particularly those in South Boston, said the plan was ill-conceived and could have the opposite effect. The mayor backed off the plan. Today, more than 100 companies are tenants at the park.

Another commitment announced around the same time is just now beginning to take shape, though not in the form initially envisioned. The mayor said in 1996 the city would purchase the Registry building in the Crosstown section of Roxbury and establish a "Southwest Corridor City Hall." Instead, Northeastern University ended up purchasing the building.

Menino said the city was simply outbid for the Registry building. "I bid $9 million for the building and Northeastern bid $11 million," Menino said. "We would have liked to have been there, yes, but I wasn't going to pay $11 million."

The mayor's spokeswoman, Dorothy Joyce, said the idea of a City Hall annex in Roxbury is very much alive with the city's purchase in 2006 of the Ferdinand building in Dudley Square. The city is renovating the facility and plans to move city offices to the space.

Menino has been consistently bedeviled by opposition to neighborhood schools - a signature promise that continues to sputter. As a mayoral candidate in 1993, Menino, then the acting mayor, said he supported realignment of school zones to create "walk-to" schools. In 1999, he said the city would build five new neighborhood schools, so that virtually all elementary school children would be able to walk to school within six years. Three have been built. In 2004 a city panel he appointed recommended a similar plan.

"What I hear from neighborhoods more often than not is, 'We'd love to go to school near my home,' but the important thing is parents want to have choice," Menino said. "In 2004, we had many hearings around the city and came to the final analysis and couldn't get public support."

This year, in his 2008 State of the City, Menino made a move toward neighborhood schools, but in a different way, calling for the school system to redraw bus zones to save $10 million annually.

The mayor also has stepped into national issues with his pronouncements, calling for potentially innovative solutions to rising energy and prescription drug costs that were studied or piloted, but never fully implemented. He made national news in 2004 when he said the city would begin importing drugs from Canada for city retirees, thumbing his nose at federal drug regulators. The city did launch a pilot program later that year for about 200 retirees, saving the city about $50,000. But the program was not expanded.

Boston 400 was among the grander visions - a master plan for the city in 2030, Boston's 400th anniversary. "It will be the sweeping blueprint for the city's future, the bold long-range goals we plan to accomplish together," Menino said in 1997, at the Boston Municipal Research Bureau's annual luncheon. "Achieving these goals will be the work of our lifetimes."

In the end, despite more than 100 community meetings over three years and the mayor's backing, Boston 400 fizzled.

"From the very beginning, Boston 400 was an orphan," said Euchner, who was hired from College of the Holy Cross in 1997 to serve as full-time consultant on the project. He said a change in leadership at the Boston Redevelopment Authority led to its neglect.

A draft report briefly had a home on the city's website, but has been removed. Euchner went on to lead Harvard University's Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston before moving to Connecticut, where he teaches English at Yale University.

Today, Euchner contends that without a final report to be used as a guide, the city got nothing out of its investment of time and money. But city officials contend that its conclusions - even unpublished - pervade much of the city's planning. Menino scoffed at Euchner's criticism.

"Some people want to have documents. I want to get things done," he said. "I'm the mayor that makes the promises, not him. . . . It's easy to sit there at Yale and make judgments. I sit at City Hall and make commitments and take action."

John C. Drake can be reached at jdrake@globe.com.

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