DOTBlock^ DOT Block : the Building Boom brings adventure and movement to a city too much attached to “Place”

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Every day, almost, my friend John Doherty, President of IUPAT Local 35, posts news of yet another building project approved by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (known to all as the “BRA”). Doherty has a point. Every new project keeps his members at work painting and developing and earning good money.

I do not see why that is a bad thing. I do not see why any of Boston’s numerous new building is a bad thing. We live in a city, or we work in it, or we do both. Cities are dynamic things. They change. It’s why they exist. Commerce is their purpose, change the result; the process, the benefit. The workers earn good pay, the risk capitalists profit, the city draws in more and more commerce, and that in turn draws in more and more people : because people want to do things and to earn a better life doing them.

Almost every part of Boston is changing now. Mattapan and Hyde park haven’t yet seen it, but every other neighborhood throbs with the sounds of construction. Shirley Leung’s story in todays’ Boston Globe Business section tells it :

As Leung points out, the Building Boom’s new phase involves housing — lots and lots of it, enough maybe to reverse the present shortfall of supply and thus reverse the stupefying rise in rents and prices that has, during the past 20 years, made Boston residence almost unaffordable except for very high earners.

To get to that point, of course, has come more and more to threaten certain residents’ sense that where they live should forever remain as is. All over Boston, neighborhood activists complain about developments. Either they’re too expensive, or they’re too cheap. They bring noise, traffic, density. They have too many floors. They block sunlight. They “displace” people. And on and on.

We’ve seen the complainers and heard the nay’s. Every BRA proposal must, by the rules, be submitted to “community input:” at required “public comment” hearings. These hearings are perfectly attuned to the agendas of opponents, who always show up, whereas supporters of the proposal usually do not, because few developers have the time or the staff on hand to marshal them. Much of the objection to development is bare “NIMBYism” — “not in my back yard” — but the argument of “displacement:” also arises. This is a more serious argument and merits the response I’m about to make.

It is true that Boston’s Building Boom has boosted housing prices and rents enormously. How can it not ? It costs money to build : land costs, architect renderings, construction contracts, building materials, permitting, labor, utility hook-ups, marketing, brokering. None of these comes cheap. You want construction to be done right; you want high quality materials and amenities. Land costs are high because it is scarce — nobody’s creating any more of it — and why should its owners take less of a selling price than the market accords ? Meanwhile, residents facing “displacement” have to pay nothing for simply staying put. Residents get all the benefits that the Building Boom brings, by way of higher value for their homes, or newness to their neighborhood, yet they pay nothing for it. If you ask me, residents make out like a bandit when development comes calling.

Still, residents have a legitimate beef when development upgrades their neighborhood. As rents go up, rental residents may not be able to afford what’s asked by landlords. As house prices go up, owners have to decide whether to cash in and leave or to stay put and not cash in. Thus the “displacement” outcry.

Boston is a city easy to love. It’s hard to face leaving it, even moving to a different neighborhood of it, merely because prices push you. But would any of us prefer the alternative, the dead, often vacant, sometimes unsafe, bleak, jobless city that was Boston 30 and 40 years ago ? I suppose some of us would. We’re all too ready to romanticize that Boston, of tribal loyalties, neighborhood self-sufficiency, hardscrabble dollars, and cheap housing. It wasn’t as great as we make out. It was hard to make a living unless you knew someone. Tenants had few legal protections. The BRA dictated. That era has gone, probably for good reasons, and today tenants have far more power than formerly, while the City itself — the neighborhoods, too — bustle with boutiques, outdoor dining, and streets crowded even at night with pedestrians and sight-seers. The new Boston isn’t merely a home, it’s an adventure; an exciting, risk taking, innovative adventure; an exploration.

I’ll admit that Boston adventure means expanding one’s reach beyond one’s beloved old  neighborhood; it entails investment, newness, tear downs, and re-invention. Yet there’s also nothing stopping you from making the change rather than letting someone else impose change on you.

In the new Boston, you have to get out in front or be run over ? Game on.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere