Walsh at Chamber : Tells How Boston is Different in 2019

The Charlestown Chamber of Commerce welcomed Mayor Martin Walsh and his economic development team to an outdoor Q&A with the business community on Monday afternoon, and the mayor led off with talking about the evolution of the City as a world leader.

The mayor and his team, including Economic Development Director John Barros, have been active in the Town for the last several weeks, doing a walk-through of the businesses recently. He said he has called for some businesses to be more active, and also looked at issues that are hampering small owners too.

“The City of Boston of 2019 is not the City of Boston of 1970,” he said. “We’re a completely different city now. That 1970s City doesn’t exist anymore. Neither does the city of the 1980s and 1990s…Boston is an international city. Boston is on the world stage because of climate resiliency and the fact we’re a headquarters city. Before the last five years, we were not a headquarters city. We were known as a back office city…Boston is competing with other cities in America.”

He said as part of that evolution, it’s important that the City keeps up with things that cities like Austin, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Jose. That’s why, he said, they have begun planning and developing the city in a new and different way.

“It’s a good thing, and not everyone thinks it is, but I think so,” he said. “However when we poll, 70 percent of the people say they approve of the direction the city is going. The last time the population was this high was in the 1950s when we had 850,000 people. We may not get there, but in 15 years we’ll be at 750,000. That’s 12,000 new jobs here.”

That overall progress is also filtering down to the business districts like Main Street or Bunker Hill Street.

Yet, despite the progress, many of the business owners in the district questioned the mayor about how they can put pressure on private property owners who keep their property vacant. Both Chamber President Jimmy Lister and Junebug owner Andrea Mitchell said that was one big issue in the community.

“We have properties that are vacant in our business district a majority of the time,” said Mitchell. “Someone comes to our Main Street and the first thing they see is a store that’s not occupied and sitting abandoned. That’s tough.”

The mayor said they are looking at tools to help landlords see the benefit of renting vacant spaces, and that it’s a problem across the city.

“You have business owners that are looking for a place to get into and will pay rent, but the landlord won’t rent it,” he said. “We’re trying to find out if we have tools to engage a property owners to rent the property.”

Natalia Urtubey, of the City’s economic development office, said the City cannot intervene in lease discussions, but they can reach out to property owners of vacant stores to encourage them to use the spaces.

“A lot of these are private property and when we make a connection with the landlord or owner, it’s hard to get them to rent it out,” she said. “If you know a landlord, get them connected to us because we have a lot of small businesses looking for space in Charlestown and citywide to occupy or expand into.”

One idea for temporary spaces, such as on Main Street and Bunker Hill Street, is offering space for pop-up or seasonal businesses.

•Barros said they are in the midst of re-evaluating the Main Streets program citywide, and can offer more information on that to Charlestown – which has no Main Streets program. However, because the Chamber has been so well organized in Charlestown, they would likely work through other networks to help.

“There are restrictions on federal money we get, but we’re going to be flexible with Charlestown,” he said.

•The parking restrictions in Charlestown and across the city seem to be hurting businesses, and Lauren Thompson of Mockingbird said they are concerned that the parking restrictions in Charlestown are causing the loss of valuable, and rare, commercial spaces.

Right now, there are daytime restrictions Monday through Friday on much of the parking in Charlestown, including spaces in the business districts and in the neighborhoods.

The mayor said they would be re-evaluating much of the parking in the city, and in Charlestown.

“It’s a complicated and delicate mix because a lot of the times you have business on a main street and residences around them,” he said. “I am asking Boston Transportation to take a look at that. It will be controversial. I’ve asked BTD to look at whether we need parking restrictions in the morning when people are gone to work. I want them to look at whether we need parking restrictions in the neighborhoods during the day. We have to look at our parking in the neighborhoods at all levels.”

•The mayor and Barros also addressed the liquor license situation.

Right now, there is a proposal that Charlestown would get five licenses over three years, and those licenses would stay in the neighborhood. They could not be sold to another owner and taken to other parts of the city.

Charlestown has been one of the few downtown neighborhoods that has clamored for more licenses, as it has become very difficult to start a restaurant in the Town.

That proposal is now back at the Council and needs to be sent back to the State Legislature for review and approval. A previous version didn’t make it to Beacon Hill from the Council.

•One final point of frustration for the business community has been utilities coming to do work with little notice, sometimes cutting the power with no notice. One business owner said power was cut without notice recently when a local restaurant had a full house and lost power. Everyone had to leave and they had to compensate those who were eating – at their expense.

Barros said they are looking into these situations, and while they don’t approve permits for this emergency work, they are investigating it.

“Even when it’s an emergency, they’re supposed to give us the kind of emergency and the timeline,” he said. “Frankly, we have been having conversations about whether this emergency situation is being abused. These situations happen all over the city…Please contact us when this happens because we’re collecting info on it.”

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