Taking an early look at the Boston 2030 blueprint; population growth forecast fuels concerns on housing

With a renewed focus on expanding and developing historically underserved areas of Boston while also identifying zones for increased commercial growth, the mayor’s administration last week rolled out a draft report for its Imagine Boston 2030 plan.

The long-term initiative is meant to help guide Boston during a period of rapid population growth – the city could reach 800,000 residents by 2050 – that is as yet unmatched by appropriate housing options, which has prompted the Walsh administration to push for 53,000 new units of housing by 2030.

Projected demand for jobs is also expected to rise, according to the report, and with it a demand for about 20 million square feet of additional workspace by 2030.

In offering the first comprehensive plan since the 1950s, Mayor Martin Walsh said housing and transit questions quickly rose to the top of the priority list in discussions among planners and residents. “The result of that plan was a thriving city,” Walsh said. “This city’s going to be very different as we move forward from here. We want to make sure as we grow and change that we grow for everyone.”

That growth will come with several embedded complications: median household income that is comparable to the national average, but in a real estate market where median home value is more than double that of the rest of the country; and a wide wealth gap where black residents in Greater Boston have, at best, a median net worth .05 percent that of white residents.

“Not all of our gains have been shared equally,” said Rebekah Emanuel, Imagine Boston 2030 director.
It is these considerations that several concurrent planning studies are grappling with, many of them under the umbrella of Imagine Boston 2030. Nine initiative categories are incorporated into the plan, including ongoing projects like the city’s transportation plan – Go Boston 2030 – and climate adaptation strategy – Climate Ready Boston.

More than 12,000 residents weighed in on Imagine Boston 2030, officials said, by participating in open houses and panel discussions as well as in-person and online surveys. Overall, they cast a wide net, asking for improvements in areas including infrastructure, housing, health, and technology.

The team broke down the city into existing neighborhoods in need of “enhancement,” commercial cores primed for transformation into “mixed-use job centers,” and neighborhood edges ripe for “expansion.” The expanded neighborhoods are “places where you can imagine transformational change,” Emanuel said.

These pockets speckle the city, with some of the largest swaths covering Newmarket/Widett Circle, the “100 acres” section of Fort Point, Beacon Yards in Allston, Sullivan Square in Charlestown, and Readville in Hyde Park. But they also stretch along major transit lines and underutilized waterfronts. Officials noted that the availability of existing transportation networks, coinciding with lower land costs, made these areas ripe for mixed-use housing and focused efforts on job growth.

Walsh said an initiative priority is to “connect historically underserved neighborhoods to opportunity, and in 2030, some of those underserved neighborhoods could look very different. So as we took the plans up, each of the individual plans that we’re doing, we have to be planning for the future of those communities, and how do those communities in some ways change for the better but don’t lose their identities and who they truly are.”

Promoting development and investment in outlying neighborhoods is made more difficult by divisions, including physical infrastructure, historic city policies, and flaws in existing transportation networks, the report notes.

Officials are encouraging the creation of more biking infrastructure, working with the state to improve MBTA service, and considering innovations like self-driving cars. Although the Fairmount commuter rail line anchors communities from Readville through to South Station, transit initiatives are aiming to “establish more frequent and reliable service along the Fairmount corridor, with a potential extension to the South Boston Waterfront.”

As a coastal city with several major waterways, Boston is the fourth most-exposed US city to flooding, Emanuel said. A three-foot sea level rise by 2070 could leave the city shorelines unrecognizable, which suggests the need for more climate-oriented planning.

Richard McGuinness, deputy director for waterfront planning at the BPDA, said city and state studies on the waterfront are under way. A water transit master plan was last conducted about 16 years ago, he said, with renewed efforts looking beyond the main harbor. Now five harbor sections, including portions of Columbia Point and down to Savin Hill, are included in discussions of neighborhood waterfront accessibility and potential water-based transit.

“We need to make sure our waterfront is resilient to climate change and sea level changes,” he said. “We need to adapt as waters rise.”

The 300-page document charts several bold, broad initiatives, but a successful start depends on funding and private-public partnerships are an option, said BPDA planning director Sara Myerson.

Walsh said the city will also seek assistance from state and federal channels. “If we want to be competitive on a global scale, on a national scale, we’d better start investing in infrastructure,” he said. “We’re talking about decades of neglect.”

A week of Imagine Boston 2030 events is planned for next week and early next month, with the team dubbing Nov. 30 to Dec. 5 “Imagine Boston Week.” Representatives from various city departments will lead tours, panels, and showcases.

Interested parties can use the Imagine Boston website to register for these events, among them: a Dec. 1 ride along the Fairmount Line, a Dec. 3 tour from Franklin Park to Moakley Park, a Dec. 4 ferry tour of the waterfront, and a concluding Dec. 5 showcase of Boston data trends.

After a second draft comes out in 2017, Emanuel said the final Imagine Boston 2030 report is expected to be released late next year. “This is a living document,” Walsh said. “It’s not complete.”