Written by Matt Camp, ICIC
When longtime Boston Mayor Thomas Menino passed away last week, at age 71 and after a long battle with cancer, those of us fortunate to work with him over the years couldn’t help but reflect upon all of his significant achievements that propelled Boston forward.
Boston in the early 1990s, when Mayor Menino first came to the helm, was experiencing the same fate as many other U.S. cities: underperforming schools, crime and the shift of jobs to suburban office parks drove residents to the suburbs’ greener pastures. Boston’s population had dropped from over 800,000 in 1950 to just below 575,000 in the 1990s, which included many who could not afford to go elsewhere—namely, inner city residents who relied on inexpensive housing and access to public transportation.
Rather than shying away from the challenge of reinventing Boston, Mayor Menino made it his life’s work.
Mayor Menino first tackled the crime that plagued the city. One of the first mayors to use data and smart analytics to achieve results on crime, Menino transformed the way the Boston Police Department went about its policing. There was a new emphasis on systems change—focusing not on reactive policing but rather public health and prevention. In seven years, violent and property crime collectively dropped 28%.
Next was a focus on inner city schools. Under Mayor Menino’s leadership, Boston gradually reinstated the neighborhood school. In 1996, Mayor Menino held his State of the City speech at the Burke High School in Dorchester, one of the City’s most troubled schools. That night, he told the citizens of Boston to judge him by the City’s progress in education. And at that time, Boston education reform began in earnest. His education initiatives included an expansion of kindergarten and early education, a Write Boston program to improve the writing skills of high schoolers, and the launch of 22 new pilot schools, including Boston Arts Academy, the city’s first public school for visual and performing arts. It’s no wonder, then, that Boston won the distinguished Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2006, and was named one of the 20 “most improved school systems in the world” by McKinsey & Company in 2010—one of only two U.S. cities to receive the designation. In his 20 years as Mayor, Menino took a failing district to one of the most renowned urban public school systems in the country.
As crime dropped and the schools improved, bringing business back to Boston became an easier sell.
In 1995, Mayor Menino created the first urban, multi-district Main Street program in the U.S. in order to revitalize neighborhood commercial districts through design, technical and financial support. It was a territory familiar to Mayor Menino, as he had brought the Main Street program to Roslindale when he served as a City Councilor. In just three years, the volunteer-driven Roslindale Main Streets program resulted in 73 façade changes, 43 commercial building renovations, 29 new businesses and 143 net new jobs, totaling more than $5 million in investment. The model has been replicated to 20 Boston districts and is now considered a national model.
At a larger level, the 1980s-1990s Boston economy was experiencing a shift and becoming more knowledge-based, with significant growth in financial services and health care industries. As this shift occurred, Mayor Menino wanted to make sure that “back street” businesses – defined as small- and medium-sized industrial and commercial companies, were not left behind. A study by ICIC and the Boston Consulting Group found that there were more than 4,000 back street businesses in Boston that employed more than 100,000 people (21% of Boston’s total workforce). Mayor Menino understood the value of these businesses and launched a formal “Back Street Office” (BSO) in 2001 to address issues such as permitting, workforce development and access to capital. Through the BSO, hundreds of back street businesses have stayed in Boston. In 2013 alone, the BSO worked with over 90 companies in the Newmarket neighborhood alone, which has one of the City’s largest industrial corridors. This effort resulted in the creation or retention of 700 jobs.
Meanwhile, Mayor Menino tapped into the growth of the financial and healthcare industries. The Boston economy is driven by its anchor institutions—specifically, it’s world-class universities and hospitals. To tap into the research and technology being created at its anchors, Mayor Menino rebranded the City’s 1,000-acre seaport district as the “Innovation District” in 2010. More than 200 companies in the life science, technology and creative industries have moved to the Innovation District, since providing more than 5,000 new jobs—a number expected to double in the next five years alone.
A year after announcing the Innovation District, Mayor Menino announced a major initiative to revitalize the inner city neighborhood of Dudley Square (home to ICIC). The first step in doing so was renovating the abandoned Ferdinand Furniture building, a 1895 Baroque-style building located in the heart of the square. He announced that the Ferdinand building would be the new home to 500 Boston Public School employees, which he was relocating to drive foot traffic to the Dudley area. The renovation, which was expected to cost more than $100 million, would be paid for using municipal bonds. Already, private commercial development is flocking to this new “urban village”. A new 323-unit mixed-use development is under construction; a 145-key boutique hotel and 50 residential units are planned along nearby Melnea Cass Boulevard; and across the street, a development with a new grocery store, 40,000 S.F. of new retail/office and 30 residential units is planned. Overall, Dudley is expected to add 2 million S.F. of new office, retail and housing space in the next five years.
To be sure, Mayor Menino’s accomplishments are too great to list, as are his accolades. Just last year, ICIC awarded Mayor Menino its “Urban Innovator Award” for his commitment to inner city residents, businesses and neighborhoods. Today, we remember the many ways Mayor Menino led the pack, served as the ultimate urban innovator, and lifted the fortunes of a city and everyone within it.
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