How is Boston working to transform housing and transit in the 2020s? There’s a plan for that.
Boston is going to be different by 2030.
Back in 2010, the city of the 617 was indeed that in more ways than one: just over 617,000 people called Boston home, one decade into the 21st century.
In the 10 years since, as the local economy rebounded from the Great Recession and booming construction molded a new skyline, so too blossomed a new wave of people settling down in the Hub.
In 2019, Boston’s population hit an estimated 694,583 people inside city limits, data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows.
But other trends took hold, too. Rents and home prices soared, placing a new emphasis on the need for affordable housing. Traffic congestion worsened as headache-inducing gridlock became a staple of the region’s daily commute.
And the city’s newfound attraction after decades of fleeing residents shows no signs of growing dull either, at least any time soon.
By 2030, the population is projected to come close to 760,000 — its highest since it tapered off from its peak of 801,444 in 1950.
It’s also a number that’s driving much of the work Sheila Dillon, the city’s chief of housing, is focusing on with the Neighborhood Development Department these days as the 2020s come into view.
Under “Imagine Boston 2030,” the city’s expansive plan for how it will tackle just about every topic over the next decade, Boston is slated to build 69,000 new units of housing across income levels to keep pace with its burgeoning popularity.
(If it’s any indication of just how much people want to live here, Dillon’s department had to boost that goal up in 2018 from its vision of 53,000 units that it laid out a mere four years earlier.)
As of late last month, the city had already permitted 32,399 units — the metric the city uses to measure growth, according to Dillon.
“We are where we need to be to be successful by 2030,” she said in a recent interview.
When it comes to moving all these people around the city, the 2030 plan also envisions changing how residents use its streets by creating infrastructure that supports options extending beyond cars and SUVs. (Fewer cars on the road also helps Boston reach its plans to be carbon neutral by 2050).
“We’ve seen over the course of this last decade a whole set of new ways in which people are getting around, whether it’s things like bike share programs, obviously things like (transportation network companies, and) some intentional work by the city and the T to increase the reliability of buses,” Chris Osgood, the city’s chief of streets, transportation, and sanitation, told Boston.com. “I think as you saw this proliferation of options in this last decade, I think you’re going to see an integration of those options in the decade ahead.”
Here’s how the 2030 vision is slated to bring innovation to Boston’s housing stock and transportation system in the 2020s:
New housing means looking in new places
Bookworms may want to bookmark this: Renting in Boston in 2030 could mean living above your local library.
The idea revolves around looking at adding units to libraries already in need of refurbishment and modernization, Dillon said. Still in its early stages, the effort is slated to go through a planning process this spring, she said.
“Boston is the center of so much innovation, but then when it was coming to our housing production and solving our housing needs, we were doing what had been done,” Dillon said. “We were doing the same thing for decades.”
Enter the city’s Housing Innovation Lab. Launched in 2015, the effort is geared towards developing pilot programs and building out new ways Boston can build more affordable housing.
Among those iLab initiatives: the compact living pilot program, which allows new buildings to create smaller units under certain conditions, and a program codified into the zoning law last April to allow the creation of additional dwelling units in owner-occupied residences.
In other words, landlords may build up to two additional units — complete with their own facilities — within the footprint of their homes, if certain requirements are met. The new initiative, approved after a year-and-a-half-long pilot program, is aimed at streamlining the Zoning Board of Appeal process owners would otherwise have to endure.
As of February 2019, the city had already received 55 applications — most of which, or 88 percent, were for basement units — and had issued 12 permits.
“That program is really taking off,” Dillon said.
On the heels of promising initial results, the iLab is now expanding its goal around its intergenerational homeshare pilot program, which matches prospective renters — namely students — and older adults with a spare bedroom.
By this June, officials are hoping to have made 100 matches among applicants.
Dillon said the city is also looking to how businesses and employers can step in and help with housing shortages.
“There are plenty of large companies and corporations on the West Coast that are investing in affordable housing,” she said.
Employer-assisted housing has the potential to help companies attract and retain employees and can take many forms, from providing loans to corporations investing in new development, experts say.
“They’re helping their employees buy homes,” Dillon said of these initiatives. “They are co-locating housing near their office buildings and labs. So we’re going to be talking to businesses, we’ve started already, about all of those ideas and more.”
Recently, city lawmakers have signed off on two Home Rule Petitions sent off to Beacon Hill for approval that Dillion said will provide “significant resources for affordable housing” in the next decade, if approved.
One of those proposals would allow the city to adjust how much commercial real estate developers contribute to the “Linkage” program — which funds affordable housing and workforce training — on a yearly basis, as opposed to the current, once-every-three-years cycle, among other changes.
The other, passed in City Hall last month, would seek to impose a 2 percent real estate transfer tax on property transactions valued over $2 million. That mechanism would provide $168 million annually for affordable housing, officials say.
“We’re in the middle of this effort and we’re starting to see some very good results and people across many incomes are getting housed,” Dillon said. “All we can do is put our heads down and continue to work hard on the issue.”
‘Mobility hubs’ will help centralize transportation options around Boston as the bike network expands
If it feels like there are more Bluebikes around Greater Boston these days, it’s because there are.
In 2019, the municipality-led public bicycle sharing program hit a new high, marking its 10 millionth ride back in September since the two-wheelers first hit the streets in 2011.
In fact, in June, Bluebikes experienced its highest ridership in a single day ever, with 10,035 riders pedaling on the roads.
“It has grown significantly,” Osgood said, just days before the end of 2019.
He expected the program to see over 2.2 million rides for the entire year — indeed higher than the approximately 1.7 million trips completed in 2018.
Osgood is also expecting things won’t slow down anytime soon.
“We’ve seen such marketed growth literally over the last calendar year for this program … There is actually even more demand than we currently have bikes or bike stations that are accessible,” he said.
“I actually don’t think we are anywhere near the plateau point,” he added.
And so city officials have been riding towards one of their 2030 goals: to have a bike-share station within a 10 minute walk of every Boston resident’s home, according to Osgood.
To date, over 80 percent of folks do — up from about 42 percent in 2014, said Vaneet Gupta, director of planning for the city’s Transportation Department.
The stations are expected to be key fixtures of what the city is calling “neighborhood mobility hubs”: locations around Boston where commuters can find an array of transit options at their fingertips.
“These will provide local connections by clustering bike share and car share with bus stops, wayfinding, and placemaking in order to expedite transfers and improve multimodal transportation,” the Imagine Boston 2030 plan notes.
Gupta describes the vision this way: “It basically gives our residents greater choice on which mode they can choose to travel to where they have to get to. So for example, you might come out of a (T) stop and you may want to make your last mile trip, you might decide to take a bike-share bike or you might decide to walk. So we want to provide amenities around these stations that allow people to make those choices.”
It’s worth noting biking in Boston isn’t expected to be the same as it once was, either.
In recent years, the Transportation Department has built out the number of protected bike lanes in the city, growing to eight miles — up from what was a mere two miles at one time — while more projects are still in the works, according to Osgood. (If you’ve been on Commonwealth Avenue near Boston University within the past year, you can see one of these projects emerging.)
“As we really look at the decade ahead, I think that’s what you’ll see: You’ll see sort of these important pieces that we’ve built already become stitched together to something which reaches all neighborhoods of the city,” he said.
Overall, transportation officials have 58 projects slated to see through the 2030 plan, ranging on everything from bicycle network upgrades to making Boston’s street safer under the city’s Vision Zero initiative.
Twenty-one of them are at some stage of completion or construction, while 17 are undergoing the design process, according to Osgood. Another 20 are still waiting in the wings.
Among those efforts, Osgood is also excited about how Boston can transform how its people use its streets.
He points to certain changes that have already been made: how Charles, Canal, and Newbury streets have become pedestrian-only on certain days in recent years, and how places like Birch Street in Roslindale Square have been re-imagined into plazas where neighborhoods can congregate.
“I think that one of those things that make cities great are great streets, like great, vibrant streets,” Osgood said.
“Embracing the streets as a place where residents can come together is something that I think we’ll see a lot more of in the decade ahead,” he added.
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