After 20 years, Mayor Thomas Menino is stepping aside, and in November, Bostonians elected state representative Martin Walsh to take his place. Things are due for a shake-up and a lot of the mayor-elect’s plans will directly affect how we young folks live and move in the Hub. I had the opportunity to sit down with Walsh at his headquarters and chat with him about his plans for his first term, from housing to transport to jukeboxes to those pesky kids living off campus.
Q. The state gave you a real boost when they decided to expand service on the T on weekend nights. Do you have any plans outside of this for improving transit in the city?
A. Yeah, we will. We’re going to look at all the different modes of transportation in the city of Boston. Certainly our transition team is working on some stuff now. MBTA service is a good start, but it’s only two days and it’s not until May, I believe. If you look at long-term solutions, you have to look at certain areas of the city, as well. The transportation issues around the Innovation District might be different than the issues around Dorchester Avenue, which might be different than the ones around Fenway. So we have to look at all the modes of transportation. A lot of people are talking about bikes, as well, and that is all going to be part of a comprehensive approach.
Q. Were you intrigued by Cambridge’s idea of extending Hubway into the winter? Do you think that could work for Boston?
A. I don’t know. It’s hard to say, with the weather. We’ll definitely watch and see how successful they are. I think a day like today is a tough day, you know what I mean? It’s been strange here in Boston, every other winter has been bad. Last winter was the exception because it should have been the off-winter but it was an on-winter for some reason. So we really have to see how the weather goes. But a lot more people are talking to me, personally, about bicycle travel, which is a good thing. And when I say that I don’t mean the average bicyclist, but other people. And that’s a good thing.
Q. What can Boston do to increase its stock of affordable housing, and what can the city do to work with developers to achieve this?
A. We have to build more housing — more workforce housing, more affordable housing. One of the ways of doing it is coming up with a way of paying for it. I think permitting it, we can do that. We need to talk to developers about building height in certain parts of the city. If they are willing to build workforce or affordable housing in town, then we need to look at going up in height. One other way, I met today with college presidents and I brought to their attention that I’d love to see more on-campus college housing built, and that would certainly free up some housing stock in neighborhoods. Also, no one really talks about this but on-campus graduate housing. If they would be willing to do that, then that creates a little more supply.
Q. I’m glad that you brought up student and grad student housing, because one of the sources of conflict between students and neighborhood residents, especially in places like Allston, is students living off campus. What does the city have to do to mediate this problem, and what advice would you give to students and residents?
A. The first thing the city has to do is really hold the owners of those properties accountable. I think what happens in some cases is that owners take advantage of young people by overcrowding, putting too many people in a building, not having a safe means of egress. That’s an issue in Brighton, that was the case in two fires there. That has to be number one. Number two is, I mean, when I went out to Linden Street to talk to people, they were graduate students, they weren’t undergrads. I mean, there has to be a little respect as well for the community. I understand that you’re young and you want to enjoy yourself and have fun, and I’m not saying that you can’t do that, but you have to have a little respect for the community, as well. So there has to be some education for young people. I think they try it. The city, when I went out there to Brighton, I went out to Linden Street a couple of times during the campaign, once to talk at the house that burned down where that young women died. But I went again during moving in weekend, and it was a madhouse. Literally. And I was saying to myself, “My God, it’s like a college campus, except it’s a neighborhood in the city.” When it comes to the residents, it’s really hard to say to the residents, “You have to understand this,” because their life changes from September to May. It’s hard to say, “You have to tolerate this.” If it was only the occasional house here and there, OK. But it’s the whole neighborhood. That’s the problem.
Q. So if the idea is to get undergrad and graduate students to live on campus, how do you work with universities to achieve that?
A. Universities and colleges want to do it. But some colleges don’t have the landmass they need to build housing on campus. So we have to look at how can they enter into private relationships for housing, but take control of the property. And I’m not sure where the city stands on that today. I’ve heard stories that the city isn’t really favorable to that. So we have to talk to them about how we create more housing that way. It’s a long-term solution. It’s not going to be short-term. Most colleges and universities don’t have the deep pockets to build these all in two years. So we’ll have to look at other ways, and part of that is going back to the owners of these houses and say, “Listen, let’s put some rules in place,” and maybe team up with the colleges and universities to take responsibility for their students off campus. UMass Boston does that in Dorchester. If there’s a problem in Savin Hill with off campus housing for UMass students, then we can call the chancellors office and they’ll address it.
Q. Business owners complain that Boston’s permitting process strangles both businesses and our image as a city nationally. Do you agree, and if so, what do we do to change it?
A. We’re going to work on it. I do agree with it, and a lot of people came to me on the campaign. I’ve had some conversations with the mayor about this stuff, but not deep ones yet, and my transition team has been looking at how can we streamline the permitting process in Boston, particularly around entertainment licensing. If someone wants to open up a restaurant and they want a TV or a jukebox or whatever they call it today…
Q. Like a sound system?
A. I called it a jukebox recently and someone laughed at me. Anyway, you have to look at, how do you streamline it or make it simpler? Even when a restaurant opens today, and someone signs off on the plans, the fire department has to sign off and the building department has to sign off on it. Why can’t we put it online and have both departments sign off on it together? That cuts down on the time. I think there is a lot of streamlining we’ll be able to do. And I think that the mayor was there for 20 years, I think that sometimes it’s hard to change the system after 20 years because people get complacent. But when something new starts, you can make changes.
Q. You’ve mentioned starting a cabinet-level position for arts and culture, and considering earmarking 1 percent of the city budget for arts funding. Do you have any other initiatives you’re considering?
A. Not yet, we’re still working that through the transition team. But we’ll be making announcements. We’re working with a whole bunch of people, people who might have thought that they weren’t really included, or really didn’t have a voice before. The 1 percent, we’re looking at that when we put the budget together. But looking at this potential budget deficit of $50 million, that will affect not just the arts funding, but other things as well. It will be stronger than a placeholder on the budget. It will be something in the budget.
Q. Should Boston host the Olympics?
A. If we can afford it. I don’t think we should host it alone. There have been reports that it would cost $15 billion and when I’m mayor of Boston, Boston won’t be paying $15 billion in cost for a $2 billion return. It would be exciting, and I’d love to have them here, don’t get me wrong. But again, a $2 billion return on a $15 billion investment? Doesn’t seem like a good deal.
Q. Boston has a reputation for being a great place to start a company, but not necessarily a great place to grow one. How are you going to change that?
A. We have to change that, and that’s part of my economic conversations. When we bring a business here, we have to cultivate that business and make that business feel that when they are going to grow, they’re going to do that here in Boston. That’s a priority, something we spoke about during the whole campaign. Now you’re going to have situations like Partners, where they left and you’re going to say, “Well, what would have happened then?” But there are some start-ups that get there venture capital money, but they don’t even come here. So we need to get them to come here and grow, and make sure they grow here in Boston.
Q. But how, specifically? Do you have any plans?
A. Yeah. We’ll have a — maybe “liaison” isn’t a strong enough word — but we’ll have a liaison and an office of business development that is going to be out there so that if a company is looking to expand, they’ll be able to call City Hall or call some authority and say,“We want to expand, can you help us?” We’re absolutely going to do that. Almost like a concierge service.
Q. Do you think it needs something stronger than that, or is that the real niche that you can fill?
A. I think that’s one of the things you need. Any business you have there is always that customer service component. Depending on how strong that component is, that’s how strong the company is. And if we add a customer service component to the city, I think that will be helpful. I think we can also use some of our college and universities or talent here to attract people. We have the best and brightest in the city, we have great neighborhoods, and we have to market better. There is a lot more to it, but if we can market the history, the arts and culture, tourism, all the other things, that’s a piece of this.
[Photo credit: Jessica Rinaldi for the Boston Globe]