After years of inactivity, ‘a renaissance on steroids’
EVER SINCE the 2008 market crash, the metaphor for Boston has been the gaping hole in Downtown Crossing where Filene’s once thrived: a figurative hollowing out of the city. Granted, developer Millennium Partners now hopes to build on the site, but that’s a ways off and so the metaphor still holds: Something, it seems, is fundamentally wrong with Boston.
Not at all.
Walk around the city and you’ll find other holes in the ground. These, however, are filled with cranes and workers. It’s easy to dismiss them as nothing more than anecdotal - tentative signs of an economic recovery the Federal Reserve still views as tepid. Yet while the Fed’s assessment may well be true for the rest of the country, the situation in Boston is different. In Boston, big things are happening.
The Boston Redevelopment Authority expects 62 major residential projects to be built within the next few years. A third of those are already under construction. Their total projected cost is an amazing $9.8 billion, a level of spending that far exceeds that of the last four years and indeed is well more than in the years that proceeded the recession. The BRA estimates all this new activity will directly create 14,000 construction-related jobs (technically, 14,000 “job years’’ - that is, jobs lasting 12 months) and at least an equal number of jobs indirectly. Once built, the new dwellings will house over 20,000 new residents.
The new residential projects are everywhere - 2,070 units in South Boston and its waterfront, 888 in the Fenway, 1,665 downtown, 1,132 in the South End - and they extend to neighborhoods outside of the city’s core, including West Roxbury (with three new developments), East Boston (five), and Allston-Brighton (four).
For four years the city’s economy seemed almost paralyzed. Now it is emphatically on the move. Those in the construction trades, most obviously, have reason to be delighted. But there’s much more to the resurgence of residential building than new jobs and new money. That resurgence also speaks profoundly to the next phase of Boston’s renaissance, a renaissance driven not just by office towers in business districts, but rather a rediscovery of the city by people who not only work there, but also want to live there. “It’s a renaissance on steroids,’’ says Peter Meade, the BRA’s head. Last quarter alone, he observes, Boston broke ground for 1,000 new units of housing. He’s excited, and for good reason.
There was a time when it appeared that urban areas such as Boston were doomed. From a population high of over 800,000 in 1950, Boston suffered a dramatic exodus to the suburbs. By 1980, it was down to under 563,000. Since then, things have slowly reversed, with the population now at 618,000. Pushed by the Menino administration’s relentless focus on matters of safety and “urban mechanics,’’ Boston regained its reputation as a livable city.
But the magnitude of the projects now underway suggests that those modest gains are about to accelerate. Boston still has an image for being a sleepy burg. Meade predicts the next few years will see the city transformed into one filled with activity 18 hours a day.
No doubt, some won’t be happy about this. The NIMBY crowd would just as soon see nothing change - no new buildings, no new residents. Too bad. Vibrant and successful cities need more people, not fewer. There are too many places in Boston where, technically urban or not, it feels underpopulated.
Of greater concern is the nature of the new developments, which - averaging two residents per unit - are plainly geared toward couples, not families. And the new units’ high costs leave nagging worries about those with more modest incomes.
Improve the schools and perhaps more families return. And while wealth is a concern, the converse - a city with only the poor - is far worse. A thriving middle- and upper-income population gives Boston a tax base from which it can better extend a helping hand to those in need.
In a world of virtual communications, some wonder whether cities have much of a future. Builders with money to spend are betting just the opposite. I’m with them. The prospects have never looked so good.
Originally published in the Boston Globe on March 24, 2012.