100-plus days in, Wu talks Dorchester development, elected school committee

Mayor Michelle Wu talks to the press after her swearing-in ceremony inside City Hall. (Reporter file photo)

Mayor Michelle Wu officially hit the 100-days mark on Thursday, her tenure as the city’s chief executive so far shaped by clashes with public safety unions over a coronavirus vaccination mandate, a step-aside deal for the Boston Public Schools superintendent and a blizzard.

Her next 100 days are likely to be just as intense. She continues to fill out her administration, searching for a new chief of planning. She is also looking for a new police commissioner and a climate change chief, and aims to have a new superintendent named by June.

Asked what she considered to be her biggest accomplishment out of the mix of things that greeted her when she assumed office Nov. 16, Wu said, “Starting to shift what Boston believes is possible.” That’s a reference to both the three fare-free buses, a pilot program funded through $8 million in federal dollars, and to the substance use and homelessness crisis at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.

City officials cleared the encampment earlier this year. Residents who used to live in tents moved to the nearby Roundhouse Hotel, among other places. During the blizzard weeks ago, Wu was on Atkinson Street as the snow rolled in. “We weren’t seeing a blizzard come down on hundreds of tents with residents inside,” she said, praising the efforts of city employees and social workers to connect the former residents of “Mass and Cass,” as the area is known, with housing and treatment.

Other items on her mayoral to-do list, such as abolishing the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which was rebranded under Mayor Marty Walsh as the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), are not something that will happen as quickly. Translating the campaign pledge into reality first means hiring a chief of planning as project proposals continue to roll in, and neighborhood meetings on projects already underway continue.

At a number of recent community meetings on the “Dorchester Bay City” project — a $5 billion proposal to remake the 36-acre area once home to the Bayside Expo Center into nearly 2,000 residential units, 15 acres of green space, and 4.3 million square feet of office and research space — attendees have wondered aloud what the new mayor thinks. The project, if it moves ahead through the city approval process, could take 20 years to complete.

“We’re in a transition period, still, shifting the way the city runs our planning and development processes,” Wu said in an interview, noting that the job of chief of planning, a new cabinet-level post, remains unfilled. “We can’t get that person in fast enough because that role will involve overseeing the ongoing pipeline of proposed projects, which are still coming fast and furious, as well as the longer term, deeper reforms to the BPDA and to our development processes,” she said.

The Dorchester Bay City proposal highlights how so many concerns, from climate change, to housing affordability and what public spaces should look like, are interconnected, according to Wu.

“I’m looking forward to getting our planning piece in place quickly so that we get down to the nitty gritty on so many of these projects that are before us and are quite consequential,” she said.

Wu also noted her new chief of staff, comes with a background in planning, architecture and design. Tiffany Chu, a transit technology company executive, is a former commissioner of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, and graduated from MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning. “Given how we are building out our organization, managing our team, we’ll have an eye to how all these pieces fit together,” Wu said.

The timeline for a new chief of planning is “weeks rather than months,” the mayor said. A committee has been helping to recruit and vet candidates. Kairos Shen, who Wu describes as a friend and adviser, is helping with the search. Shen, who served as the BRA's director of planning for 13 years and now works at MIT, is not a candidate for the job himself, according to Wu.

The chief of planning will enter City Hall as Dorchester undergoes a building boom, with residential units and life science buildings going up across the neighborhood. Savin Hill resident Don Walsh, who has been closely tracking the various projects underway, has estimated that 10,000 new housing units will eventually come to the Columbia-Savin Hill area. That includes developments around South Bay, up and down Morrissey Boulevard, and the “Dot Block” project by Glover’s Corner.

Wu, who has spoken with Walsh several times at various community meetings, said she trusts his math and his desire to make sure city and state planners are readying infrastructure to handle the growth and ensuing density. “There are no better experts than our neighborhood leaders who are at every single one of these abutters meetings and following it very closely,” she said.

Reiterating her criticism of the Boston Planning and Development Agency before she became mayor, Wu said, “The truth is we have had a very disjointed planning process. We’ve had a very disjointed development approvals process where individual parcels are considered and discussed with the surrounding community, and then you look around, one by one by one, we’ve had all the impacts add up in ways that the city has not accounted for at a neighborhood or citywide level. So when it comes to affordability, transportation access, where our school seats are located, and where we have to be intentionally preparing for climate impacts, we have to do a better job of tying all those pieces together.”

Then there is the search for a new Boston Public Schools superintendent. The mayorally appointed school committee is about to start its hunt in the coming days, though whoever gets the job could end up working for an elected body down the road.

Voters who went to the polls in November backed a nonbinding ballot question to return to an elected school committee. Seventy-nine percent said “yes” to an elected school committee, while also voting in a mayor who prefers a hybrid of elected and mayorally appointed members.

The City Council is working on a measure that reflects voters’ wishes, and for it to go into effect, it must also get the approval of the mayor, the state legislature and the governor.

Asked whether the question of an elected school committee would affect the superintendent candidate pool, Wu said, “It’s hard to say. I hope that the candidates who will put their hats in the ring for BPS superintendent are doing so because they love the city, they believe in our school community and they share a vision of what’s possible for public education in this city.”

Wu added: “Regardless of the particular governance structure, Boston is and will remain one of the most exciting places to work in public education in the country. And I am determined to use every platform I have as mayor to ensure our young people will be a priority across every sector and every institution.”

Wu has two boys in the Boston public schools and previously served as her sister’s legal guardian in the same system. “So I know the frustration of families who feel like their voices aren’t always heard in the decision making. Building that resource of trust and engagement with our communities, it is the most important ingredient for success in the Boston Public Schools. I know we will choose a superintendent who values that and who will welcome the chance to hear directly from our school communities and work to include this in our decision-making.”

She still strongly backs keeping an element of mayoral accountability and said a hybrid is not off the table. “At this point I don’t support a fully elected school committee,” she said. “It’s important to have mayoral accountability in the governance structure.”

Asked whether she would veto a City Council proposal for a fully elected school committee, Wu said, “We’re not at that point yet.”

Whether or not an elected school committee comes to fruition, that change to voters’ ballots remains a ways off. This year’s ballot, meanwhile, will include statewide offices, such as the governor and attorney general, as well as House and Senate races, and Suffolk County district attorney.

Wu’s predecessors, including the late Thomas Menino and Marty Walsh frequently directed their supporters to candidates, with uneven results on Election Day. Wu quickly dove back into politics after her election, working to elect East Boston City Councillor Lydia Edwards, a close friend, to the state Senate.

Wu said that with 100 days under her belt, she’s focused on city government operations. “But I also know how important the partnerships of the state legislature and statewide elected officials are as well,” she said. “I’m not involved at this point. I’ve had conversations with candidates.”

Boston residents deserve action on rent control, climate change initiatives, housing affordability and fare-free public transit, according to Wu.

”I’m excited to see the issues that residents brought up and raised during the mayoral election continue to be front and center in statewide races, too,” she said.

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