One way to see the vision of Boston Mayoral candidate Marty Walsh is to put a map in front of him. Not just any map, but a map of the city he hopes to lead.
So last Sunday, on a day when Boston sports fans were euphoric over the Patriots and Red Sox, I met with Walsh at El Diamante, an East Boston restaurant.
With potato skins and mozzarella skins within reach, we spread out a map of Boston on a pool table. Walsh has a marker in his hand.
"You have Dorchester here," he said. "You have the street I grew up on here."
Walsh began circling any areas on the map that are ripe for commercial or residential development.
"Freeport and Marcy Boulevard, you could do a mixed-use there," he said. "And this corridor here alongside the highway, you have the opportunity there to do some developments."
Boston is in the midst of a building boom.
Over the past 20 years, the city has added more than 80 million square feet of development – in projects ranging from the $1 billion Boston Exhibition and Convention Center to almost 12,000 college dorm rooms. And the pace of development is accelerating. In the first five months of this year, Boston welcomed $2.6 billion of new construction, a 28 percent increase over the same period last year.
And a lot of that has to do with outgoing Mayor Tom Menino.
Menino has a legendary grip over construction projects. He decides what does and does not get built in this town. And that can depend on whether he likes or dislikes a developer, says WGBH News political analyst Peter Kadzis.
"Menino has been imperial," Kadzis said. "He’s been absolutely imperial with the way he’s dealt with developers."
It’s no secret that Menino has his favorite developers: Joe Fallon, Steve Samuels, Millenium Partners.
And he has blackballed others, like developer Don Chiofaro. Chiafaro had plans to build two towers by the waterfront, but then, Kadzis says, Menino said no and the project hasn’t gone anywhere.
"Now the mayor has thrown up all sorts of bogus excuses and reasons like saying it was too high, the FAA wouldn’t approve of it," Kadzis said. "That’s not true. But the mayor has said no to anything he didn’t like."
Menino has even had a hand in design. He famously likes buildings with crown shaped tops. One story goes that the developers of a Back Bay project initially chose a flat roof for their skyscraper. But Menino wasn’t a fan of flat roofs. So the architects showed up at his office in city hall with a bunch of new hats for the building. Menino picked the crown. And so 111 Huntington Avenue at the Prudential Center was built.
Walsh says he’ll be different.
“I personally like the older architecture, but that’s just me," Walsh said. "We have to be careful. Obviously we need to make sure the buildings fit in and look well. But I don’t think I’ll be as hands-on as the current mayor."
Walsh is also proposing changes to the Boston Redevelopment Authority. All major development projects in Boston have to go through the BRA. It exerts total control over zoning, planning and development. The four-member board is accountable only to the mayor. And Kadzis says it operates with virtually zero transparency.
"The BRA is like a greek god," he said. "It’s shrouded in mystery. A lot of people say the BRA and the mayor have too much power."
Larry DiCara, a former city councilor, a formal mayoral candidate and a real estate lawyer who has represented developers before the BRA, says the agency is efficient.
"There’s a fine line between transparency and getting results," DiCara said.
DiCara says Boston is competing with cities all over the world for private real estate investors. And having a one-stop shop in the BRA instead of layers of red tape makes Boston more competitive
"I represent developers," DiCara said. "If every negotiation to which I was party ended up in the newspapers, I expect some buildings would not have been built. Transparency sounds really good, but in the end, one needs to get results."
Walsh wants to replace the BRA with a new economic development agency whose director would serve under a contract and be less accountable to the mayor’s office. Walsh says he’s looking for a lot more transparency and predictability.
"I think its important for the community to feel they have a voice in the BRA, and also its important for us to look at how the business community is handled, so they can really get an understanding of how the project is moving and how quickly or how long it will take to get a project from the beginning to the end."
But these reforms could take months or years to put into place. In the meantime, the BRA and Menino are not slowing down.
In September, the mayor proposed spending $16 billion in private and public money to build 30,000 housing units by 2020. It’s part of his last push to solve a housing affordability crisis that’s been a chronic problem in Boston.
Walsh wants Menino to scale back. He’s worried that the $16 billion housing plan could saddle the city with debt.
"When he first came out with it, I called on the city to slow down a little bit on some of these proposals," Walsh said. "Thirty thousand units of housing by 2016 is a great goal, but we need to figure out how we’re going to pay for it."
But Walsh agrees the city needs to create more housing. He moved back to the map where he’s circled places to potentially develop.
"Chinatown is certainly looking for housing," he said. "Low-income, moderate-priced housing for folks that feel like they’re being priced out."
The lower-income and middle-class families are getting squeezed out, says Professor Barry Bluestone, who heads the Dukakis Center at Northeastern University.
"We have a tremendous affordability problem," Bluestone said.
Bluestone conducts an annual study of the Greater Boston Housing market. The 2013 report, which came out last week, shows the housing market is getting better. Home prices are increasing, new building permits are on the rise, and foreclosures have dropped.
But the report also finds that low- and middle-income families are still struggling to find affordable places to live.
"Our major problem is that we certainly have sufficient housing and the ability to produce housing for wealthy people," Bluestone said. "And we’re seeing a lot of that going up. And we have the opportunity and the tools to produce some housing for low income people. We have public housing, we have low income housing tax credits, we have rental vouchers."
He says the real problem is providing housing for working families, "which is so difficult to do because housing costs for new development is so high that it’s almost impossible to build housing that working families can afford. It’s almost $500,000 a unit just to build housing in Greater Boston."
Looking at the map to identify places to develop, Walsh circled the Fenway and then Northeastern University.
"I’d like to see the universities put more housing on campus," he said. "Because if it’s on campus, then it frees up housing in the communities."
His pen moved to the Fort Point area.
"Then you have a lot of vacant lots in this part of Boston, where we could build some housing," he said. "Not workforce housing, but three-deckers and two-families, and allow it as a first time buyers program."
Walsh took a step back and looked over his work. The map is a patchwork of circles, Xs and lines marking areas for growth and development. Then he nodded.
"Yeah, there’s a lot we can do," he said.