Two decades ago, I fell in love with Boston after arriving as a college student. I was enthralled by this bustling, walkable city, the busy restaurants and thriving communities in Chinatown and across our neighborhoods, and the public transit system fed by the round tokens that made it possible to explore it all. Over this last year, our city was nearly unrecognizable in the depths of the pandemic – streets empty, universities closed, restaurants shuttered, public transportation cut back, neighborhoods struggling.
As Greater Boston puts together the pieces for our economic recovery, we face the same uncertainty as other dense metropolitan areas that emptied out and slowed down during the pandemic. With vacancies in the commercial real estate market and continued precariousness in our tourism and hospitality industries, this is a critical moment for proactive partnership across the public and private sectors to rebuild and reinvest. Boston is uniquely positioned to lead the way in defining a post-pandemic economy to deliver long-term growth, equity and resilience.
The pandemic triggered changes to the commercial and residential real estate markets that will last long after COVID-19. Early on in the public health emergency, I was grateful for the flexibility of working remotely to be able to juggle kids at home, even if it meant waking up in the 4 a.m. hour to get some uninterrupted work in before the little ones woke up. But now, even as childcare and schools have opened back up, more than 80 percent of employees who have been working from home say they would prefer to maintain at least some days per week of remote work. As employers downsize in-person office needs, not only does that mean we must proactively manage downtown office vacancy rates, but it accelerates our global competition for talent and capital.
Housing Costs, Old Zoning Threaten Future
Our recovery should grow and connect the competitive advantages underlying Boston’s regional economy. Our life sciences cluster is second to none, producing one of the life-saving COVID-19 vaccines in close proximity to healthcare institutions that shaped the global pandemic response. Our colleges and universities feed a hub of talent and innovation. Our renowned history, arts, culture and restaurant scenes and walkable neighborhoods draw visitors from around the world and conferences seeking to immerse themselves in Boston’s innovative spirit.
But to remain a global leader in talent and opportunity, Boston must lead the way in transforming livability and affordability for everyone making a home here: bringing down the cost of living for our workforce and boosting civic infrastructure for quality of life.
During the pandemic, Boston lost 10 percent of its software and IT workforce, while Miami’s grew by 15 percent. As capital and talent are increasingly fluid across the country, we have an urgent window to grow our supply of housing, connect and improve our transportation system, build our climate resiliency, transform our public schools and deliver an equitable recovery for our communities.
This is an unprecedented opportunity that will require reorienting our systems toward equity and resilience, with coordinated planning to address our interconnected challenges and align all sectors with a vision for our city. Our current ad hoc development process is not equipped to execute that vision. With an outdated zoning code and no mechanism for citywide planning, our development system continues to pit stakeholders against one another, resulting in inconsistent approvals, unpredictable outcomes and expensive costs to a lengthy process. These costs perpetuate Boston’s housing crisis and racial wealth gap, when development should fuel our city’s long-term livability and climate resiliency.
Instead of relying on a mitigation fee at the end of development projects to close gaps in our city, we must proactively harness our growth to connect affordability with smart density and our transportation network. And we must start in this urgent moment.
Chart a Path Together
Now is the time to position our workforce for the new economy.
With an infusion of federal relief funds, Boston can foster equitable jobs creation with green jobs through accelerating decarbonization of existing buildings and resilient development while closing the racial wealth gap and connecting local students to opportunity.
We can close the gap for early education and childcare to support working families across our city by investing in the care economy as a sustainable career pathway, boosting the wages and entrepreneurship of this majority women of color workforce.
We can align vacancies in our downtown office buildings for onsite childcare, supercharge our arts and culture sector and reimagine opportunities for affordable housing across our municipal buildings footprint. We can recognize the centrality of our restaurants to bringing back foot traffic across our downtown and neighborhood business districts.
With Boston’s immense resources and rich legacy of activism, all of this is possible. But we can’t be afraid to take action. We can’t afford to settle for fragmented, piecemeal progress. As mayor, I’ll convene all sectors and all stakeholders to chart a vision of Boston’s future that redefines what it means to be a world-class city – and then we’ll deliver on that vision together.
Michelle Wu is an at-large Boston city councilor and a candidate for mayor.