The future of downtown Boston

Those of us who went to Boston Latin School know that a luminary sheds light upon a situation.  That is my assignment today, as it was last year.  So much has changed in twelve months. Without any doubt, the future of downtown Boston is robust.  I will review the many reasons for my optimism, and then suggest how we can do even better.

Since I have written a book about Boston history, it is only appropriate that I share a few thoughts about the city’s past.  When Rosemarie Sansone and I were serving on the Boston City Council, none of us would have ever thought that downtown would become a bustling residential neighborhood.  Very few people lived here; those who did often did so on a short-term basis.  None of us could have imagined the Godfrey Hotel being constructed in two renovated and historic buildings on Washington Street around the corner from the Brattle Book Store.  The only hotel in Downtown Crossing was the Avery.  Allow it to be said, I don’t think anybody in this room ever went there, or admitted to having done so. 

Recently I was lecturing and compared the Boston of the 1970’s to the Boston in which we live today.  Anyone who looks back at that era which was highlighted not only by the violence which followed court-ordered desegregation, but also by high unemployment, inflation, gasoline shortages, energy shortages, meat shortages for a period of time, as well as out and out corruption and deceit from the White House on down can certainly join with me in heralding our time as a golden era for Boston. 

When Rosemarie and I were on the City Council, city kids wanted to get out to the suburbs and live car-dependent lives, driving to malls and coming home to nice little houses with white picket fences.  Family patterns are changing dramatically.  What that means for downtown Boston is that there is a greater demand from people – both millennials and the AAAs – the aging active affluent – who do not have concerns about feeding, clothing and educating children and paying for automobiles.  What results is that the price of real estate and the price of rent will keep going up, in part because younger people will happily occupy smaller spaces to live downtown.

Given that I work on Summer Street and have been there and on Federal Street for over 25 years, I can also speak about the present.  It is important that city government continues to step up to assist Downtown Crossing and that all of us as citizens realize that we must invest in transit and do so now.  Just because the snow has melted and the Red Sox are playing, it does not mean that the MBTA crisis of last winter can be ignored.  The failure of the Commonwealth to address deficiencies in public transportation as evidenced by the collapse of the MBTA is unacceptable.  No great city can survive without a functioning public transportation system.  Further growth will depend upon getting people in and out of downtown Boston – where the Red Line and the Orange Line come together – not far from where Nixon Peabody has located its offices for decades.  That decision was not made lightly but resulted from a study of the commuting patterns of support staff.  One can always hire lawyers; good secretaries and staff are tough to come by. 

Our ever-changing city came to mind when I recently found myself on the Red Line at about 7:30 a.m.  I may have been the only person on the train reading a newspaper.  Was I the only person wearing a suit? The only person with a BlackBerry?  Young people have the freedom to make choices as to where they live, whether to own a car, whether to wear a tie or even whether to tuck in a shirt.  A lack of personal handcuffs results in enormous flexibility.  In the current era, such people are deciding to live in the city.  Downtown Crossing is now enlivened by a Roche Bros. supermarket and by lots of bright, young people who shop there, who do not live a 9 to 5 life and who want Boston to be open for business at a time when many of the rest of us are happily reading in bed.  In the modern era, young people want to work downtown because of its access to transit and the fact that it does not require a brutal commute.  That is one of the reasons why downtown is attracting new kinds of businesses, many of them very different from anything we could have imagined a generation ago.  It is no longer solely the bailiwick of Old Tweeds who purchase treasury bills for somebody’s grandmother.

Ours is a city with a population larger than at any time in fifty years, primarily because this is the era of brains, not brawn, and as most of us know, all we produce in Massachusetts is brains and cranberries.  The vibrant cities in America today are those that have evolved from an economy of smoke stacks and assembly lines to an economy of ideas.  Boston has reinvented itself successfully and I expect will continue to do so.

What about our future?  There is plenty to discuss.  About the oldest rule when it comes to development is that public investment begets private investment.  I know from personal experience that the public dollars spent on cleaning up Boston Harbor, depressing the Central Artery, building the Silver Line beneath Fort Point Channel, and connecting the various segments of our highway systems have resulted not only in the creation of The Greenway and the building out of the Seaport, but also in a general uptick in our local economy.

The investment in downtown Boston of a Silver Line beneath our streets – to replace the Silver Line buses which now cause traffic jams– is a logical next step, just as was the construction of the first subway tunnel almost 120 years ago, which many mocked as unsafe.

The next step is to clean up the chaos on our downtown streets caused by buses, some there legally, and some, I expect, illegally.  There is no logical reason why buses to far away places should compete for space on narrow downtown streets with motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists.  There is no reason to have buses taking left hand turns from the right lane – especially when there is four feet of snow on the ground!  A new era requires new thinking rather than the acceptance of decisions made decades ago.  To me, the words “we have always done it that way” is an unacceptable response.

Why not take some of the $103 million surplus from the Boston parking meter fund – which special revenue fund can support traffic and parking capital projects – and undertake a significant study of transportation in the downtown area, and then fix the problems?  Everything should be on the table: delivery schedules, loading zones, parking regulations, bus routes, cab stands, the directions of streets, whether a street should be open at all and when, and who owns and maintains the sidewalks.  We should not be reluctant to seek a special act of the Legislature in the event there is any confusion as to who has the rights to do what.  There is no constitutional right for a bus heading to Foxwoods to park on a city street.  Bus stations should serve as the terminus for bus routes; that’s why they exist. This work should not await the culmination of the 2030 study; it should start now.

I foresee a downtown that is bustling 24 hours a day, where people gather formally and informally to work and to talk and to enjoy each other’s company.  I foresee a downtown very different from the downtown of John Hynes and John Collins, where women in hats and men smoking pipes would come, do their business, and leave. 

None of us, had we been sitting here a generation ago, could have imagined that East Boston would have had more Salvadorans than people named Salvatore.  None of us could have imagined a city where scores of languages are spoken on our streets, and people choose to live in previously abandoned mills and warehouse buildings along the waterfront and elsewhere.   Nor could we have imagined a downtown which is so bustling that there is an ongoing competition between black cars, yellow cabs, French-speaking bus drivers from Quebec and women from foreign countries wearing dresses riding bicycles, without helmets. 

Life is a forest of decision trees.  Elected officials and those they deputize must make the difficult decisions that cannot be made via a committee of well meaning citizens nor via a referendum.  They must balance the interests of competing factions, as there is only so much sidewalk, and so much street.  A great future requires bold decisions.  It’s time to make them with respect to downtown.  Montreal has done so.  Vienna has done so.  Boston can do so.

Finally, how can anyone speak of the future of Boston without referencing the recent Olympic bid?  I view the decisions made a few weeks ago as the beginning of a new era of planning rather than the end of the Olympic effort.  These efforts arise from time to time. Whether it be the City Beautiful Movement of a century ago led by Lincoln Filene or the Boston College Citizen Seminars, which began almost 60 years ago at the behest of Father Seavey Joyce, or more recent efforts by Norman Leventhal and others, we should build upon what the Boston 2024 Committee did rather than dismiss their work.  Boston’s 2030 planning effort should build upon these efforts.  We should ask for their traffic studies, their architectural plans and their financial projections as a way of advancing the city in the future. 

A city’s greatness should not be measured by the height of its buildings; towers of glass which crowd the sky do not a great city make.  A city must be measured by the strength of its people.  In that sense, the people of Boston have endured economic recession, urban unrest, terrorist related tragedy, and a mighty nasty winter.  That’s why I am optimistic about our future.

Lawrence S. DiCara is a former Boston City Councillor from Dorchester. Now a partner at the Nixon Peabody law firm, DiCara delivered the above address at the BISNOW:  The Future of Downtown, a conference held on Aug. 18.