Banker & Tradesman’s editorial board and associate editor for commercial real estate interviewed Boston mayoral candidate Michelle Wu on the afternoon of Oct. 15, 2021 about her views on development how she would handle some of the pressing concerns that will face Boston’s next mayor. This transcript of that interview has been edited for clarity.
Voting members of the editorial board were: Associate Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Cassidy Norton, Managing Editor James Sanna and columnist Scott Van Voorhis. Commercial real estate editor Steve Adams took part in the interview, but did not take part in the editorial board’s deliberations on its endorsement.
James Sanna, managing editor: I guess a good place to start would be: what do you think former Mayor Marty Walsh got right with regards to housing and development?
Michelle Wu: First, thanks for having me, great to see you all and very grateful that you are taking an interest in not just covering the race but weigh in in as well. We have seen tremendous growth in the city and having a clear priority on housing production is something that we need to continue. I believe that we need some systemic changes to the process as well, so we can have more clarity and predictability and equity in how that production occurs city-wide, and have put forward some plans in terms of how to get there.
I think, you know, we’re in a different moment right now, as well, relative to the resources available and the approach of other levels of government that shape the context of housing and development overall, with funds available through the American Rescue Plan and potentially – fingers crossed – more with the infrastructure packages that are moving through [Congress], this could be a real moment to be creative and much more proactive about how Boston grows.
JS: Since you brought up the systemic reform piece, it’s probably worth diving into that right away, because it’s been a topic of great interest among a lot of our readers.
MW: There’s a euphemism!
JS: Well, you know, it’s a pretty good catch-all. It seems like it’s excited some people and scared the bejesus out of some people. So, I feel like at this point, all of us are pretty familiar with the basic tenants of [your proposal] but in more detail, how would you go about implementing this sort of thing. Obviously, going to the state legislature is kind of step one, I would think, but the city-wide planning aspect: how do you build that plan that you say the city needs?
MW: Yeah, in fact going to the state legislature would be pretty far back. A better way to say it is that there are many steps we can take before, that are within the city’s control, before the final formalization that would certainly require state legislative approval in terms of agency change at the Boston Planning & Development Agency – still technically the Boston Redevelopment Authority – but the underlying principal is that when we have a zoning code that hasn’t been comprehensively updated city-wide since 1965, it is essentially a set of gentle suggestions right now. There is no predictability. There is no clarity. There is no consistency with regards to how our neighborhoods and blocks are growing and that means that we are losing out on the resources that should be driving affordability and transportation access and climate resiliency but it also means that we are seeing inequities exacerbated across the city.
So how do you go about getting to a point where we have clear, predictable timelines and rules? We need comprehensive planning that drives a zoning update. All of which is within the purview of city government as it stands, right now. We should be separating planning from development within our agency structure. This is an idea that has been proposed campaign after campaign after campaign, mayoral candidate after mayoral candidate, including the last time that there was an open seat and the time before that.
So, it is complex to think about processes that are all running concurrently and that are helping shape a fundamental part of sustaining our city, which is the resources that come from and the housing and the spaces that come from development. But we need to start to build and set up that parallel structure so that we can switch over the development pipeline when it is stood up. The way I’ve been trying to describe this is the way we’ve approached bridge reconstruction projects in the Boston area. There are multiple ongoing [where construction crews are] working on a parallel structure but keeping that predictability in the pipeline as we go.
One thing very concretely is that there will be a cabinet-level chief of planning position that will think about these simultaneous, concurrent, ongoing timelines of planning and zoning as well as [inaudible] design.
Scott Van Voorhis, columnist: Concretely, how would the process change? If you’re laying it out for developers, for builders, what should they expect with this new process compared to the old process. How would it work, what would the changes and what would the areas that could really improve, not just for the development community but for the city as a whole?
MW: The way that it works now, there is no hard and fast answer on what type of approvals or what scale, scope, density, height you can be affirmatively approved for, so it becomes a case-by-case request for variances, for planned development area zoning changes that involves years, potentially, of conversations on the community side with regulators and ultimately various levels of hearings and commitments that are codified.
A tremendous amount of resources go into the soft costs of navigating such an unpredictable process, and ultimately again it is because the zoning code is very much outdated. The vast, vast, vast majority of new development that happens in Boston has to get a set of exceptions or variances to the code.
And so a new process, the vision is that we would have a zoning code that much better reflects the needs and standards of the community for where it makes sense to have density and coordinated with affordability, for the planning process to have also coordinated not just height and FAR, but how our schools blueprint, our facilities should match, how the transportation system needs to accommodate the growth and density that we are building up in the city and right now – sorry, to go back to the current process – climate considerations for large projects are mostly walked through a voluntary resiliency checklist as opposed to clear standards that are baseline requirements.
So, I think, particularly on those areas of affordability, transportation, access and climate resiliency, we need to have the zoning code and clear rules of the process reflect community needs, and then a streamlined process because more projects can then be as-of-right through that code.
SVV: Under Mayor Walsh, there was 8, 9, 10 million square feet of development every year. What’s your thoughts on that? It clearly was some sort of a record for that period of time. Was that about right? Too much? Under your administration would there be a drop or a more selective approach to projects?
MW: Yeah, I think it’s difficult to compare across different parts of the development cycle, post-pandemic compared to pre-pandemic. That was, you know, what we have seen in Boston over the last eight, seven or eight years has been one of the largest building booms in the city’s history over centuries. And so, as a city that is already historic and we’re looking at – with the exception of a couple major sites, we are largely talking about infill development. Because so much already happened, we are – it will just be difficult to compare the pace and scale.
We are also seeing the impacts of how our economy has changed through and after the pandemic. Boston very much is still growing due to life sciences, and we have the chance to invest and clear away or to align some of the growth with job pathways and workforce development in this city. We also are seeing, currently still, a glut of vacancy in downtown commercial buildings. Foot traffic is way, way down, as in cities across the country even as we’re connecting now, and this will continue, so every city is in a global competition for capital, for talent, for residents and businesses, and this new way of integrating remote work into that.
The increased mobility of our workforce makes it even more so that cities have to truly attract talent in person in a way that’s at a heightened level than before. We have to give people a reason to be in Boston where they can’t miss out on being in our city, in person. Community, arts and culture, restaurants, childcare, transportation, connectivity, that all will become even more important. What makes for a livable community becomes even more important when there’s so much more flexibility with where you can live relative to where you can work and where companies have to be located relative to where people are.
This is a moment to be creative and to seize on the opportunity that this presents to Boston. Already, a city with great bones when it comes to these community and quality of life and livability factors. We have a thriving arts and culture scene that city government can elevate and center. We should be taking a chance to put on-site childcare in every large downtown office building while there are vacancies because that can help shift the calculus for working parents as they are now thinking about which days to go into the office versus work from home. There’s a chance to be proactive about our housing crisis in this conversation, as well, and to get down to address and convene the partnerships across different sectors to tackle our underlying challenges.
Steve Adams, commercial real estate reporter: On the resiliency front, there are three major developments on Fort Point Channel that are supposedly going to be paying some amount to build this berm that’s going to protect the Seaport or part of it, but you’ve been talking about district-wide funding for resiliency. Should that be looked at first, before we look at doing parcel-by-parcel deals with developers to pay for that type of work?
MW: Unfortunately, we are past the moment in time where we could just do one thing at a time. The window of action for climate preparedness is closing and Hurricane Ida showed just how little change in wind direction and speed spared Boston, but demonstrated the risk that we face with every storm that could come our way: flooding, taking out major infrastructure, dozens of lives lost. And so, we have to push for every possible action to be taken and that includes being creative about funding, of course, when there are opportunities for individual developments to be tied to financing for larger-scale resiliency projects, that should be part of the conversation.
As you’ve noted I’ve proposed thinking about how we assess our stormwater infrastructure differently, to incentivize resiliency and think about maybe not water usage drop by drop, but square footage of permeable land versus permeable surfaces. We should be thinking about expanding the [federal Property Assessed Clean Energy]-type of financing for homeowners, so that residents who otherwise could not afford the up-front costs of improvements could have support from public entities and then ensure that we are tying that to ongoing repayments that stretch out over a long period of time on a water bill, for example. And there will be funding from the federal government, as well. We are moving towards an awareness and action, that cities that are shovel-ready in our resiliency projects will be first in line to capitalize on that funding.
And then, I think in terms of how we structure and pay for and approach climate resiliency overall, some of these changes seem very, very big. We’re talking about harbor protection at the scale of a seawall or other protections that have been laid out by various entities in the area, and we certainly should be in coordination with our regional partners and the commonwealth on that.
But at the city level, there are very immediate steps we can take that add up quickly to make a big difference, as well. I’ve said we should double the number of street trees in Boston over the four-year mayoral term, an improvement that will not only address urban heat island effects, but also help with cleaning the air, build community, help with stormwater retention, and something that is very, very tangible. Shifting to electric school buses, is another example. Right now, we have 700 school buses. About 300 are still diesel buses which generate 5-10 times the particulate pollution in the air that our kids on those buses are breathing in and neighborhoods all throughout Boston. The co-benefits of switching over would also mean getting that diesel pollution out of our communities, but also saving money over the lifetime of each of these vehicles, and also having the flexibility of new vehicle-to-grid technology or vehicle-to-building technology, which essentially means that these large, electric vehicles can serve as mobile power stations. Once they’re fully charged up, they can be deployed to charge up other buildings and infrastructure in cases of power outages or storms, or even just to manage our electrical grid, to charge up at off-peak times and put that electricity back into the grid to help with costs – anyway, there are a lot of ways city action can be really immediate, but also incredibly impactful.
JS: Looping back, real quick, to the overarching “planning the city” idea, in terms of boosting housing production, that’s what you’re pinning your hopes on?
MW: Can I add one piece on that, that maybe I should have mentioned earlier? It’s that simplifying and streamlining our process to ease the soft costs, I believe would help immediately and significantly. But in terms of just looking from the housing production angle, the city should be putting public dollars into creating more units directly, whether that is through the federal funds that are available, or leveraging city-owned property, integrating affordable housing into the redevelopment of schools and libraires and community centers, municipal parking lots, and also working to make sure we are boosting home ownership. So, there are some other pieces besides process change, but trying to look at every angle – land costs, financing costs – so we can have an impact on all those.
JS: In the context of all that, what do you see as the mayor’s role? If you get elected, is your role as part of this process, are you there to be a cheerleader? Or is your ideal process more from the ground up, going out into the neighborhoods and seeing what consensus develops?
MW: There need to be certain baselines and values that are not on the table to be negotiated. For example, multimodal transportation options, climate resiliency as a major priority, integrating the health and safety of young people and seniors – thinking through the lens of what some call “8-80 cities,” cities that work for 8-year-olds and for 80-year-olds – and density near transportation.
Boston has already gone through multiple iterations of soliciting feedback to suggest some changes, but then hasn’t ever codified that into an updated zoning code. We saw the Imagine Boston 2030 process, in fact there was already a Boston 400 process in the early 1990s, as well. I am talking about a true planning and rezoning process that will result in new rules for growth and development in the city. This doesn’t happen overnight, but there are ways to think about breaking the city into different regions that might have a slightly different focus, whether that’s on coastal resiliency or access and connectivity through the heart of the city in and around Franklin Park or activating the Fairmount Line and what that would mean along that corridor with electrified rapid transit.
I think the mayor’s role in development and or many policy areas is to ensure that city government is a platform for connecting all of our constituencies into shaping our future and moving the city towards that more sustainable, vibrant and resilient future. I think that sometimes in the political process, we can get very reactive, focused on the short term or what might impact the next political cycle, but this is really a moment to think about generational investments and generational impact.
SA: Thinking about major development parcels that are going to be in play shortly, what would be your goals for Widett Circle, and would an ecommerce warehouse be an appropriate use there?
MW: It is just so rare that in a city as dense and historic as Boston, that we have such a large swath of land that includes significant public ownership – and not just city ownership, but state ownership – making up two-thirds of that area. We should have a master plan that looks at how all of that could fit together. There’s transportation access readily built in, and of course there are challenges that we, as a city, have discussed over many years and in many different contexts about the rail yards and decking and what that would require, but to truly evaluate how that parcel – nearly 30 acres of publicly-owned land, city-owned public land could tie into a solution for our growing housing pressures. That should be on the table, and not necessarily just reacting to our next proposal.
SA: The city land is the Frontage Road portion, and the state portion is the rail layover?
MW: That’s right.
SVV: When you mentioned rezoning the city, a couple things: That’s certainly a major undertaking. How long would it involve? But also, in the suburbs, zoning is often used as a restrictive measure to prevent development, and I’m wondering: couldn’t this just end up, in some neighborhoods, as just a way of reducing the amount of development, reducing the amount of density to what the people who don’t want any housing in the neighborhood – especially rental housing – would want? How can you avoid falling into the potential situation where density is reduced?
MW: This is what I mean when I was speaking about how there are certain baseline principals that need to be a starting point, and that needs to be that the city is growing and that it needs to accommodate growth in an equitable and inclusive way. I think we have examples where, in surrounding areas – Somerville has gone through a major planning and rezoning process city-wide. More locally, we have seen at the neighborhood or corridor scale, what this type of planning could look like. It has happened in snatches here and there, but it hasn’t happened with the holistic connection city-wide.
SA: On the life science front, obviously the Seaport district was the first landing spot for that, and now it’s starting to creep in closer to both residential neighborhoods and downtown, Government Center, places like that. Lab buildings: Should they be located in the downtown or in the more residential areas?
MW: I don’t think that there it’s an either-or. I think the conversation should be more around what are the parameters that should guide the design and development of life sciences in certain contexts. For example, one issue that has come up is relatively – I don’t want to use the word minor because every detail is significant – but it is a small detail that has an impact in how these projects are sited and approved, is around the measurements for whether mechanicals are included in height or not and so when we are seeing a type of development that is a little bit different from how the traditional ways in which we’ve been setting the standards in residential areas, it is worth having the conversation to see should we just measure things differently, or make sure we are capturing the impacts. But this is an opportunity for Boston to be ready for the next several decades of growth and economic competitiveness, and so we should be investing in life sciences and connecting our education system to these jobs and leaning in. I would say, it’s life sciences, it’s green tech and the green economy, it’s a rethinking of the care economy and ensuring that equity and equitable procurement is part of each of those conversations.
SVV: I don’t want to misquote you, but there was a quote in a news account where you called the Seaport “a playground for the rich,” and I think that feeds into a perception that – probably rightfully – that neighborhood has developed in ways that seem to be catering to the very wealthy, not what you’d think a middle-class neighborhood would be. Looking at Widett Circle or even Suffolk Downs or any other new opportunity like that, how do you prevent the next Widett Circle from becoming the next Seaport? It’s not like people didn’t discuss it and it got debated over the years, but it just kept rolling on.
MW: This is why planning really matters. The Seaport is the natural end result in a process where decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, parcel by parcel, rather than district-wide or city-wide. And it wasn’t for lack of effort, here. You can speak to residents who were part of years and years of planning conversations that resulted in what was called the Hundred Acres plan for the Fort Point/Seaport area. The vision was open space and residential and commercial and preserving the artist community that had given rise to so much of the growth while retaining the, sort of, fabric of the marine industrial, proximity to the water, and then the way that plan was implemented – because it was never codified into zoning, because it was always just a set of general parameters – slowly, the parts set aside for residential were eaten into by commercial space.
The open space areas that have been designated for parks were replaced with different uses that felt much less inclusive and open and that’s just one example of the actual built environment and not even the conversation about civic amenities. The fact that there’s still no public building, no convening spaces that are publicly-owned, with the exception of a quasi-public space in District Hall, which is leased. No library, no school, no social infrastructure there to allow for, to encourage community-building. And, of course, the residents are taking on their own shoulders and there is a thriving, strong residential community that has been fighting for recognition and adherence to the plans put in place so long ago, but when there is the momentum to look at each case-by-case example, it’s easy to say “well, let’s give an exception because this is before us right now.”
For Allston, for Suffolk Downs, potentially in the future for Widett Circle, swaths of Hyde Park, really having that comprehensive, district-wide conversation – not just density and height, but what makes for a thriving community? Mobility? Resiliency? Civic amenities? That should all be codified into how an area grows.
JS: You mentioned “growth with equity.” Right now one of the city’s big tools is the IDP program. Do you think that there should be another increase? The Walsh administration pushed one through [a 43 percent increase in developers’ “linkage” payments to the city affordable housing trust fund] on its way out the door. Where do you stand on that? Should the affordability percentage go up?
MW: I support being at a 20 percent threshold, but of course the ultimate goal isn’t a certain ratcheting up the percentage to a certain level. It is the production of the number of affordable units. The other important point is that IDP will never be the vehicle to generate the level of affordable housing production that we need. It is about ensuring that there are integrated, multi-income communities. But we need to have more public skin in the game when it comes to affordable housing creation, so that we’re not expecting it to entirely be generated from the private sector.
SA: On the rent control issue, what research have you seen as far as how that would affect general private investment in new housing, based on Boston’s past history in that area?
MW: So, I’m not talking about going back to the old style of rent control that Massachusetts had, but moving towards rent stabilization that other jurisdictions have seen work. There was a recent write-up analyzing the impact of Oregon’s rent law,** stabilization [inaudible]. It paired, at the same time, increased density, as-of-right, to increased housing production, while putting guardrails on the rate of increase for rents at 7 percent, plus inflation annually, which ended up about 9.25 and 9.5 percent, and the analysis found that, while there’s a multi-year lag on the impacts, but to the extent that they could measure the impact already, there was no discernable impact in terms of depressing housing production or any of the other concerns that many people are often citing as concerns here.
JS: I think we’ve got just a couple more minutes left, looking at the clock, but I’m curious: when you think about development, you’ve been neck-deep in this stuff for a while on the City Council, but who do you turn to for gut-checks or you’re not willing to name names, how do you get that gut check? And when you try to build your cabinet on housing issues, what kind of expertise do you want in there?
MW: Our cabinet and our city workforce should reflect our city in diversity and representation and in expertise. My philosophy and what I’ve seen in eight years of policy-making on the city council is that the impacts of policies will never deliver the results that are intended unless those on the front lines of driving that and experiencing the policies are at the table. And so, when it comes to development, I am grateful to be connected to a wide range of housing activists, of affordable housing developers, of large-and small-scale developers in Boston and beyond, and those who have thought extensively about how those processes affect the public sector in different places around the country, as well. I have, in my eight years on the council, passed multiple times more legislation than any other city councilor and it’s because my team and I have focused on building broad tables for conversation and continuing to add more voices from all different perspectives. That’s how you arrive at consensus and actually get things done in city government.
JS: I just want to get a quick clarification – you’d mentioned expertise across the country. So should we take that to mean that when you look at positions like the planning czar that you mentioned, that you’d be looking beyond Boston’s borders, beyond the folks who typically fall into that BRA director’s chair.
MW: I think for many of the key roles in our city, we should be looking for local and – we should be open to the talent that can best deliver the change that Boston needs, and so I am not wedded to only someone from a particular background or city of origin or that it would have to be someone from a particular background or location, but yes. We will make sure that there is top talent in City Hall working across all different sectors.
JS: It looks like we’re right at time, so thank you very much for your time.
MW: Thank you everyone!
**Wu’s office followed up with the following additional detail about the rent stabilization laws in other parts of the country that she was referencing:
“We can look to other cities and states for examples. In Oregon in 2019, as Michelle mentioned, Governor Kate Brown enacted a cap on future growth on housing prices, limiting annual increases to 7% plus inflation after the first year of tenancy – working out to about 10% per year. The legislation also prohibited no-cause evictions and enacted other eviction protections, which can help evade some of the worst inefficiency outcomes of rent control policies. Rent in Portland had increased 30% from 2011 to 2019, leading to some of the highest rates of homelessness in the country. Oregon’s rent stabilization and eviction protection measures were designed to provide some immediate relief, while Oregon also focused on building supply to address longer-term challenges, including a $400 million investment in affordable housing and systemic zoning reforms through the “Residential Infill Project,” legalizing triplexes, fourplexes, attached townhomes, and cottage clusters across the Portland metro area and other urban centers; and eliminating parking minimum. Though it’s still too soon to make firm conclusions about the impact of the new policies, developers in the Portland metro area have continued to take out building permits at a consistent rate, demonstrating no impact of the rent control measures on construction investments so far.
“We’ve also been looking into Seattle’s displacement risk index, a composite metric including housing tenancy, housing cost burden, household income, proximity to transit, and more. Policymakers have used this index to geographically target housing policies to specific neighborhoods or census tracts. We could use something similar in Boston to target rent stabilization measures to those areas of the city where residents are at the highest risk of being priced out. Again, these stabilization measures should be combined with zoning reforms and City investment to grow our housing stock, including affordable and income-restricted housing, over the long-term, while keeping families in place while our housing supply catches up to demand.”