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Says city will change zoning codes, streamline affordable permitting process

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Wu seeks partnerships with business community to tackle city’s challenges
Mayor Michell Wu addresses the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Forum.

Underscoring the challenges stemming from growing inequality, rising housing costs and strained transit infrastructure the city faces as its population grows, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu sought support from Boston’s business leaders in her first speech before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

Wu told business leaders gathered for the chamber’s Government Affairs Forum that as Boston’s population rebounds from the COVID pandemic, critical government agencies, including the City of Boston and the MBTA, are facing challenges filling job vacancies.

Wu, who was elected on a progressive platform that included rent control, a green new deal to tackle climate threats and making public transit free — positions not broadly embraced in the city’s business community — in her speech emphasized the need for local businesses to work together with city government to tackle the challenges facing the city.

“Other cities have their industries, of course, and their culture too,” she told business leaders. “But none have an ecosystem as interdependent as ours. We enjoy the benefits together and we share in the threats to our economy and community.”

Wu noted that the city in 1950 had 800,000 residents, a number that dropped to 560,000 by 1980, and now has grown back to nearly 700,000. But rising home costs are pushing out many of those who keep the city running, she warned.

“A city without adequate space for people is a city losing kids and families, where residents of color and frontline workers are pushed out, a city where employers struggle to recruit and retain because families struggle to afford to stay and those who can least afford it are facing the greatest climate risks to health and safety.”

Faster permits, updated zoning

During her speech, Wu announced an executive order to cut the process for permitting new affordable housing — which takes on average 11 months — in half. She also said the city would work to make all permitting processes for those doing business in the city more streamlined and predictable.

She also said her administration plans to rework the city’s zoning codes, which govern building heights and density, parking requirements and other factors. While some neighborhoods underwent rezoning processes during the nine years of former Mayor Martin Walsh’s administration, others haven’t been rezoned since the early 2000s. Wu said the zoning codes are outdated.

“Our current zoning policies are holding us back,” she said. “We need to update and modernize zoning laws across Boston to meet the needs of our city’s residents and businesses today.”

While past zoning processes limited the size and density of housing, since the Walsh administration committed in 2018 to a goal of building 69,000 new units by 2030 to keep up with growing demand, the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal has regularly granted variances to developers seeking to build larger, denser developments in neighborhoods throughout the city. Some neighborhood activists say that this variance-granting system creates a chaotic approach to zoning that favors deep-pocketed developers over abutters.

Wu noted her recent appointment of 11 new members to the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal and said she plans to bring “predictability and professionalism” to the body, which faced scandals over insider-dealing during both the Walsh administration and that of former Mayor Thomas Menino.

Traffic congestion

Her administration is working to target congestion, Wu said, but she stopped short of advocating for specific policies transit activists have pushed, such as congestion pricing — a scheme some cities have implemented to limit driving in busy downtown areas.

She pointed to the increased use of Blue Bikes during the Orange Line shutdown and the city’s increased emphasis on dedicated bus lanes as examples of ways her administration has worked to decrease congestion.

She cited the state’s project to rebuild the Allston interchange on Interstate 90, for which state officials are seeking $1.2 billion in federal funds, along with a connection between the MBTA’s Red and Blue lines and the proposed electrification of the Fairmount commuter rail line among the top priorities for her administration moving forward.

Schools and downtown businesses

Wu also cited investments in the Boston Public Schools, which she said was the city’s most valuable pipeline to fill the jobs local businesses are creating.

“As a Boston Public Schools mom, I’m acutely aware of the ways in which our school system has the ability to either open doors for students or hold them shut,” she said, noting her administration’s multi-billion dollar commitment to renovating existing buildings and constructing new ones and her administration’s commitment to building a new facility for Madison Park Vocational Technical School.

The mayor also told business leaders her administration is committed to revitalizing downtown Boston, noting that 1-in-2 workers in businesses sited downtown now are able to work remotely, reducing foot traffic downtown by half of what it was pre-COVID.

“Economic activity is down 20 to 40% from pre-pandemic levels in industries like retail, tourism and hospitality,” she said. “And remote work has left office occupancy levels at just 30% of what they were pre-pandemic levels.”

The city has contracted with The Boston Consulting Group on a study to revitalize the commercial district. Wu said the study, yet to be released, will outline plans for the future of downtown.

“That future is one where our downtown is an inclusive around-the-clock neighborhood filled with new homes, diverse businesses, world-class public spaces, vibrant nightlife, and a thriving arts and culture scene,” she said.

A common theme in her speech was the interconnectedness of businesses, nonprofits and government. She cited State Street Bank, Massachusetts General Hospital and the city’s biotech sector as examples of Boston’s entrepreneurial spirit. She called on business leaders to tap into that same spirit as the city faces its new challenges.

“Our growth is strongest and most sustainable when we are lifting as we climb,” she said. “When we center the needs of the people and communities who, given the chance, would do anything to bring more life and joy to the city they call home.”

boston zoning, Downtown Boston, Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Michelle Wu