Boston and the Doom Loop

Our Times

Across the country, cities are recovering from the impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The response to the pandemic led to precautions like remote work for many of us, supported by our robust communications tools, challenges of our transportation systems and social distancing, the desire for more independence, and the urge to enjoy more of our family time. These situations have lingered, and some of us are now blessed or burdened by a residual attitude supporting remote work. While downtowns suffer from unintended consequences of partially empty office space, vacant storefronts and failing small businesses, loss of urban vitality, and falling property values, these conditions now threaten to strain cities’ fiscal resources as property tax revenues begin to plummet. Our transportation systems have been skewed toward greater use of private vehicles bringing increased roadway congestion and starving fare revenues for transit.

Cities are in varying states of rebound and recovery. Much like our part of the country still rebounding from the weight of ice age glaciers that receded millennia ago, the pandemic recovery seems to be prolonged and not very uniform. Reportedly, St. Louis is still in the throes of commercial meltdown with huge vacancies and loss of property values while San Francisco that suffered the most visible contractions is beginning a gradual upturn in some quarters.

Here in Massachusetts, we have additional challenges of a transit system that has endured years of neglect and disinvestment, a housing market with supply and demand issues causing costs to rise, demographic imperatives of an aging population exacerbating the flight of educated population in their peak productive years due to high costs, and the impacts of climate change on sea level in the Gulf of Maine and in our diminishing winter bringing more rain storms and less snow for our ski areas.

Property values, tax revenues, costs, workforce issues, weather, and climate not to mention national issues like fear of inflation and the impact of high interest rates meant to cure those fears bedevil us. Political turmoil and distrust of institutions overarch our local situation. All these factors diminish any optimism that we collectively built up during our recent economic boom years and by our shelves full of sports championship trophies, hardly tempered by our continued leadership and success in combating the pandemic.

In the words of a favorite Billy Joel song, these are the only times we have ever known. We “choose between reality and madness. It’s either sadness or euphoria.”

So, what is the response?

The Response

The city and business organizations are initiating measures to enhance the vitality of downtown. The state of Massachusetts is requiring communities served by transit to step up to the housing challenges by changing their zoning regulations to allow denser, multifamily housing – produced at less cost presumably – near transit that over time may not only begin to alleviate the housing crisis, but also enhance transit ridership and revenue. Cities here and across the country are taking steps to encourage conversion of older downtown office space for residential uses to place more people on the sidewalks and in the storefronts. The City of Boston is reexamining the way that it plans for and regulates development that considers how all parties’ interests can have an opportunity to be heard and incorporated in the process.

All of these steps are well intended but face a range of challenges. Past planning mistakes have burdened current efforts with baggage that needs to be overcome as new, more inclusive approaches are introduced. Traditions of local zoning control and, frankly, aversion to dense housing occupied by people different from many of the locals, present a challenge for the MBTA Communities. Office building layouts and infrastructure provide physical challenges to residential conversion in addition to challenges of the interest rate and current investment environment even if demand for housing would fill any new supply if the price is right. With federal pandemic response funding beginning to run short, and property values declining, the City is seeking authority to increase tax rates on commercial property even as these property owners are squeezed by growing vacancies and evaporating rental revenues.

It is difficult to see silver linings to these dark clouds or any silver bullets to puncture the ballooning pessimism.

What is Missing?

We need to be mindful and take heart in our region’s continuing strengths and assets. In the aggregate, this region has much to be proud of. Not all of our sports teams are on the downslope. Our world leading educational and medical institutions as a whole remain world leading. We remain the nation’s leading center of medical and life science research. In the age of knowledge industries, Massachusetts remains in the vanguard. We are beginning to address the housing crisis and to recognize the historic importance of immigration to the health of the regional economy. And we are paying attention to our transportation needs and challenges.

We also need to consider the importance of contributions to a healthy core downtown, which makes Boston one of a few American cities based on a strong, active center. If we can restore more of the traditional vitality, we can continue to be a model for urbanism and maintain our title as the Hub.

These are not yet optimistic times, but there is reason for hope.

But to build that hopeful momentum there is a greater need for civic responsibility and engagement to counter the trends of abandonment and political turbulence. There are always small steps by individuals that can become movement for positive change.

We each need to decide not to be part of the problem, but rather to be part of the solution.

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