The mayoral campaigns may not be quite as visible as in a non-COVID environment, but they are every bit as busy and Councilor Michelle Wu’s mayoral campaign showed that last weekend with an issue-heavy virtual house party on March 6.
Wu and her key supporters in Charlestown, as well as those interested in her campaign, joined her for a Zoom meeting in the afternoon and discussed everything from COVID recovery to schools to City government philosophy – but especially the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA).
Wu began the meeting with her back story of coming to Boston with her mother, who had suffered a mental health crisis, and her two younger sisters. Starting a business here, going to college and raising her two sisters, she found out a lot about City government, resources and the trappings of so many systems in place.
She now lives in Roslindale with her husband and two sons, and said running for mayor was the last thing anyone would have predicted for her future.
“Everyone in my friends group in college would have said I was the last person they expected to run for office, and that would have included me also,” she laughed. “This is something I never, ever thought I would be doing when I was growing up.”
She also identified three priorities for Day 1 if she were elected, and they included:
•Keeping families in the city.
•Closing the racial wealth gap.
•Democratizing city processes in every community.
For the Charlestown virtual campaign party, development was heavy on the agenda, and it was a chance for Wu to expound on her call to phase out the BPDA and institute master planning.
“The problem with the BPDA is it allows the City of Boston to run a permitting system that is the most complicated, opaque and most unpredictable system in the country,” she said. “It is that way because we have not been doing citywide master planning. I know there’s been an effort led by Lydia Edwards and community activists to make sure Charlestown has a master plan because we have not even had a neighborhood-wide plan in most of the City. The last time the City of Boston did a full Master Plan that was incorporated into zoning…was 1965. Since then changes happened in corridors or pockets or this neighborhood or that haven’t fit together. It’s meant that not only are we not solving the problems that development should be helping us solve…but we’re making them worse because we’re looking at them on a one-by-one basis.”
She said she is for setting zoning rules with specific neighborhood master plans that consider everything together – such as the overall traffic impacts and school seating needs that come with more development.
She said she envisions a system where there wouldn’t have to be public meetings for every development, and no need to have the “negotiations” that take place between the developer and the community on every building project. With a set of rules that aren’t given exceptions so often, developers would build what the community has already approved.
“If you ask any developer they would rather know what the rules are and they would build to the rules and then it’s a streamlined process to just get stamped that you built it right and structurally sound rather than a two-plus year negotiation in a protracted battle that ends up who knows where,” she said. “In that battle not everyone necessarily is trusting of everyone else. Neighbors know that the only way to get anywhere is to go in and oppose. Developers know they will get opposition and they propose twice as high and settle somewhere in the middle. That’s no way to run a planning process. We need to get to a point where we won’t have community feedback on every single parcel and we won’t have a community meeting on every development.”
She said she envisions a building environment that doesn’t require the BPDA or the Zoning Board every time someone wants to pick up a hammer.
“Right now the vast majority of projects get a handful or more of exceptions,” she said. “They all go through the ZBA or bypass the ZBA with some special new spot zoning from the BPDA.”
In Charlestown, she said any master planning process would have to focus on climate resiliency and the waterfront. Taking into account sea level rise and storm surges would be a major part of master planning at the neighborhood level in Charlestown, East Boston and the North End, she said.
She also said she has been tagged as anti-development, but in fact she is for re-imagining how development is done. That includes a heavy dose of climate resiliency, planning for infrastructure such as transportation/transit, and building more workforce housing and less luxury.
One high point of the discussion also was about her plan to make parts of the transit system in Boston free. She said she has “crunched the numbers” and it will work, starting with the bus lines.
“We can start immediately with the bus routes,” she said. “The bus routes can be adjusted on their route. We don’t need to pay to lay new track. We can adjust routes and add vehicles to the system and make sure buses running are going faster…Mayors can have a huge influence in doing this.”
She said a one-cent increase on the gas tax would fund free bus service in the MBTA, and a two-cent increase would fund it statewide. She said the gas tax has not increased in Massachusetts for 15 years.
In all, she said she would have a philosophy of government that would look at possibilities, pilots and innovation – rather than a philosophy that looks to the probability of failure on policy.
“We need to move from probability government to possibility government where you’re experimenting with and piloting lots of different things, some of which will definitely fail, but some of which will have to chance to make a big difference,” she said. “I think we could have seen that with school re-opening…We should have started much earlier and said let’s test and see what it would cost to have some outdoor tent classrooms and have some classrooms in shutdown hockey rinks where the desks could be spaced far apart. There were universities that were vacant. Then by the time the school year got to where it needed to go indoors, we know what works and how to scale that up. That’s the approach I want to bring to City government. We do have resource constraints, but we have a whole lot not lining up and coordinating because we’ve been afraid of that kind of innovation.”