Nine members of the Land Use and Development Advisory Committee met via Zoom on Thursday, December 10 to review the status of ongoing projects and to discuss issues and opportunities for the future of the city after the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control.
Project Manager Michelle Moon reviewed tactical public realm projects designed and implemented under oversight of A Better City in the streets of Jamaica Plan and Roslindale. The parklet on Green Street in Jamaica Plain was well used this fall, adding more space for informal outdoor activities adjacent to a row of shops around the corner from the Centre Street shopping street. The remaking of Birch Street in Roslindale into a pedestrian plaza has been delayed due to the pandemic, but it is scheduled to be implemented early in 2021. In the interim this year, temporary outdoor activities took place in the closed street. A report on these and other placemaking projects funded by the Barr Foundation and the City of Boston will be released early in 2021.
Senior Advisor Thomas Nally shared an essay on the future of the city after the pandemic is in control. He summarized some points in that essay contrasting the current quiet downtown and the potential for the return of activity. He quoted social observer Richard Florida who has written about examples of urban rebounds in Europe after the Black Death and the Great Fire of London. Professor Florida suggests that cities will come back after COVID, but perhaps a bit different and more affordable. A concern raised about people not returning to the city is what happens to the public realm when more people spend time at home or on their back porch than on the city sidewalks and streets.
Our members attending the meeting represented a cross section of architects, landscape architects, developers, and a lawyer or two who are concerned about the future of the city and the public realm.
The first comment was that people still want to go downtown although may have found that they can be productive working remotely when commuting is not necessary.
One member reflected at length on the history of cities and density. He said that around the 1920s there was an anti-urban trend establishing Garden Cities and seeking less density to reduce fire risk, disease spread, and other negative attributes of density. That trend lasted for 70 years until the 1990s when cities were seen as safer, and cities were thriving. The question is has the latest trend reversed? People need to feel comfortable, and challenges like the pandemic, cost of housing and transportation, and attitudes of the current administration need to be overcome by benefits such as support for innovation, climate change benefits, and other positive externalities of density. Housing is too expensive, but the benefits of urban life outweigh the costs. There is concern that the latest urban trend may be threatened by current conditions.
Another commenter said that we don’t want to lose the brand that is Boston. His survey of employees indicated that there needs to be a spot in the office for everyone. He is not sure what it will look like to attract employees back.
Regarding return to the workplace, one developer expects that people will spend three to four days per week in the office, but today the downtown is still empty. Most people are driving to work now and that will not be sustainable. Will the availability of the vaccine get people to take the MBTA again? We are emotionally scarred by COVID and it will take time for people to put this behind them.
Another developer said that cities have been around for thousands of years and will continue. Millennials may be living with their parents for a while to enjoy free rent, but they do not want to be in the suburbs. They will come back to the cities first. We need to think about public and private outdoor space. After 9 months, people do not want to work at home for five days per week. When offices reopen, people will see themselves at a career disadvantage if they are not in the office with everyone else. In Zoom meetings held now, with half the people around a table in the office and half at home, the people in the office are interacting, and those at home are not.
He continues, saying that over the next 12 months there will be more space available in office buildings, and quality spaces to lease at discount prices. His firm is offering three months free rent for residential units. Hoteling does not work for small companies as was suggested. Spreading people out will net out the demand for space. He does not see more people working in suburban office space by late 2021.
Kate Dineen summarized some preliminary discussions with officers and board members of A Better City. We are positioned to lead the connection with the City of Boston on return to the workplace, with a focus on substance and not public relations. We will do the homework on what needs to be done.
Rick Dimino said that we will work with City officials to determine the role for A Better City, which will be more than that of cheerleader. The role will include sessions such as this conversation. He said that there is need is for involvement beyond the business community with many diverse voices. We will also keep sustainability and climate change in mind as we rethink how we use the city.
Rick thanked everyone for their contributions to this session.