City Councillor at-large Michelle Wu, in a replay of 2017, dominated the voting in September’s preliminary election, topping the ticket with 19 percent of votes cast for a strong field of 15 candidates and finishing well ahead of fellow incumbents Annissa Essaibi-George and Michael Flaherty, who each earned just under 14 percent.
Since her election to the council in 2013, Wu has emerged as a force: In 2016, she became the first woman of color to be named council president; she has been leading efforts to get policy makers and the Legislature to pay more attention to the beleagured MBTA (maybe, she says, make it a fare-free operation); and, most recently, she spoke up loudly with a 72-page review of her concerns about the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA). Bottom line: She wants it “abolished.
“There’s a sense more than ever this year at the polls that people are excited about city government and are ready to partner on the issues that matter,” Wu said in an interview with the Reporter. “My goal over the next few weeks is to keep getting out there and push turnout as high as we can possibly get it.”
“People talk about being disappointed that it was 11 percent of voters that came out to vote in September,” Wu, a Roslindale resident, said. “But I think it’s important to point out that having the election in and of itself was a victory because Boston has not had a preliminary in a council-only year since 2003.”
Her strategy going into the Nov. 5 general election is to focus on policy and organizing, she said. Some of her areas relate to the ever-growing traffic and transportation problem, out of reach housing prices, and the climate crisis that she says is already affecting Boston neighborhoods.
“We are in a really important moment for the city and the country,” she said, “and residents across every neighborhood are ready to get involved with shaping the future of their community. That very much depends on the council exercising leadership with bold, progressive actions,” she added. “We need to give people a reason to come out to vote and that means putting forward the ideas that I hope to see the council address next term.”
As to her call to shut down the BPDA, last week she went public with her belief that Boston’s current development processes, rather than harnessing the city’s growth to address urgent challenges, have instead exacerbated inequality, traffic and congestion, and climate vulnerability.
“We can’t afford to maintain a complicated system that only the powerful and privileged can navigate,” Wu wrote in her review. “For us to be connected and have a comprehensive citywide planning effort really would be moving us toward the future that we’re missing out on, one where [we’re] harnessing our growth and development as a way to fix our problems. We need to move away from a system based on special exceptions and driven by influence toward a system based on community driven planning.”
In place of the BPDA, Wu has proposed the creation of a new Planning Department that would “overhaul the zoning code to introduce consistency and predictability to the development process” and “begin compiling a comprehensive master plan built on meaningful community engagement.”
She added: “Right now we are looking at every new development on its own, and it’s a new negotiation that frustrates everyone involved. Residents feel like they have to gear up for battle with every new project, and developers don’t have any predictability about what they might be able to build, how long it will take, or what they will need to do to match community needs.”
Wu, who currently serves as chair of the Council’s Committee on Planning, Development, and Transportation, says her report is based on feedback and research from conversations with residents, public hearings on proposed projects, meetings with civic leaders and neighborhood associations, and historical research.
She said that “many residents in Dorchester,” where community engagement and diversity are important, “were the inspiration for pieces of the report, and the need to put all of it into one recommendation. The neighborhood really represents the diversity and promise of the city and a history of all of the waves of immigration and welcoming new people. And it’s now really a hot spot for development.”
Wu calls the BPDA approach to development “complicated, expensive, unpredictable and inconsistent,” and says that the city needs to look at the issue in a more holistic way, taking into account factors like climate resilience, housing affordability, and transportation.
“When we have a system based on a lot of complications and needing to get special approvals there’s a very small number of interests that win out,” Wu said. “And it’s developers and businesses who know the system because they have those relationships or can pay someone to guide them through it. But the vast majority of people don’t have a way to meaningfully get through.”
With respect to traffic and transportation, Wu said, “I think in general we need to move away having parking minimums and instead focus on how we get every part of the city connected to public transit,” Wu said. “When I say planning, it’s about connecting that conversation with the one about parking minimums.”
“The city council is the way that residents can have the most direct access to what’s happening in the city,” Wu said. “Our job is to provide that transparency and ask the questions of city agencies. The team of councillors that voters will choose on November 5 really will have a tremendous impact on people’s daily lives and offer the potential for everyone to be part of and included in government.”
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