Banker & Tradesman’s editorial board and associate editor for commercial real estate interviewed Boston mayoral candidate Annissa Essaibi George on the afternoon of Oct. 8, 2021 about her views on development how she would handle some of the pressing concerns that will face Boston’s next mayor. This transcript of that interview has been edited for clarity.
Voting members of the editorial board were: Associate Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Cassidy Norton, Managing Editor James Sanna and columnist Scott Van Voorhis. Commercial real estate editor Steve Adams took part in the interview, but did not take part in the editorial board’s deliberations on its endorsement.
James Sanna, managing editor: Maybe a good place to start might be: In your estimation, what did Marty Walsh get right and what did he get wrong on housing and development?
Annissa Essaibi George: On the housing piece, what he got right was a very aggressive number that he wanted to reach as far as housing development and was very direct and specific about what the number of units were that we need as a city to fulfil housing needs across the board. I’d say the places that – and setting those goals are really important and that’s very much in line with my style when we have real numbers to aim towards, we can get to them. I’d say one of the challenges on the housing side and some of the difficulties would be – so there are a couple of things I’d say continue to be difficult and I don’t know if it’s directly related to Marty but he was the mayor, so it’s his responsibility – I think some of the challenges around some of the community process around that growth you know, and that continues to be a difficult process. It always has been. I’m a former civic association leader from back in the day so, if we need some greater predictability in that process, some more parameters and guidelines about what that looks like in going through community and partnership with any development here in the city.
I’d also say and something that I’m hoping to really lead on is creating more opportunities for home ownership across the city as well as a focus on family-sized housing and certainly we have to be responsive to the needs of our changing demographics here in the city but family-sized homeownership units especially on the homeownership end are really what we need. Another piece I think that Mayor Walsh started – and this came up recently in a conversation I just had with a constituent – was the ADUs. We just started exploring ADUs as a real opportunity to grow the number of units on our city, but we’ve just sort of grazed the surface on that, so kicking that into gear could be helpful around fulfilling some of the stock needs around the city.
JS: Fair enough. When it comes to new development, starting at that high level, where do you feel like you differ from your opponent?
AEG: On new development?
JS: Yeah, and your philosophical approach to it.
AEG: I mean, I don’t want to be fresh about it, but that I believe in it? I believe in a city that’s going to continue to grow. We have to make that process certainly more transparent. We’ve got to look at ways to hold the system and developers and community accountable to the process in which we define and decide and proscribe. I think we have to nail down that process. There are too many delays, and that increases the costs of development here in the city of Boston, especially around the challenges to create more affordability – on the housing end but that also applies to the commercial side of things, too.
For me, I’m very much a pro-growth candidate and I appreciate the impact that growth has on our ability to invest in things that I care a lot about like our schools, like open space, like everything else the city needs to do, btu I’d say that’s just high level where we differ. She does have on her website: “Abolish the BPDA.” Which, I think, her election would send some very strong signals to investment both local and global investment into this city that it’s going to be a while before Boston continues to grow in a meaningful way. Of course, anything that’s in the pipeline right now, I’d hope, would continue but I think that’s going to really impact the confidence int he marketplace here in Boston.
Scott Van Voorhis, columnist: You mentioned delays in the permitting process. What do you attribute the delays to? I hear what you’re saying, but it’s been a complaint over the years that the [Boston Planning & Development Agency] process and before that the [Boston Redevelopment Authority] process. A number of mayors have said they’re going to reform it and make changes. What exactly are you looking at that’s delaying projects? What would you like to see done to get things moving more quickly? You also mentioned putting more parameters in. What did you mean by that, as well? What’s missing right now that you think should be there?
AEG: Well, a couple of things. One, I do believe in creating a separate planning office sort of independent of the BPDA. I think that will help us do some more forward-thinking planning but not stopping the growth that’s in the pipeline today and what’s coming online in the near future. I think that the stops that we’re asking developers to follow along the way, there are very many stops along the way, and along that chain there are many kinks in the system, and we can’t get to the third point before you pass one and two. I think that the prefile efforts as well are really important, but if we’re going to engage in prefile efforts, we should probably be utilizing that same time to start some open discussion and dialogue with a community, whatever that community happens to be.
I also think that the delay in getting to a public hearing, the delay in getting some of the reviews done, the delay in getting – allowing a developer to submit a letter of intent because that sometimes is a delayed process and getting the initial, formal feedback before it’s done, there’s too many stops along the way. And again, that community process. Again, I’m a community member, that’s where I spent a lot of my time, as the leader of a civic association, as an engaged member of a civic association, but that even that timeline is really long. We’ve got to set some more strict guidelines through that process. There’s got to be a start date, there’s always that start date, but there has to be an end date in sight and to eliminate some of the excessive politics that happens in communities through projects. If I’m committed to growth, we’ve got to figure out ways to allow that growth to happen.
Steve Adams, commercial real estate editor: I wanted to touch on some of the sites and near-term projects on the horizon on the development side. Starting off with Widett Circle, what do you think about the potential for or the uses there, including an e-commerce warehouse. Is that a desirable use?
AEG: Well, I think that we’ve got to be really thoughtful about a major gateway to our city. It’s a symbolic spot. When we think about what we want people to see when they first enter our city, especially if they’re coming up from the south or from the west, their needs to absolutely need community input. Again, we need a prescribed process in which we engage the neighborhood, the city to give input on what they see in that space and carefully consider the effects that project may have, thinking about the needs for – you know, what those infrastructure needs might be, whether it’s transportation, whether it’s housing, and what that use is.
Does it engage the public or is it just a warehouse? Is it a focal point? Is it a structure that adds a certain vibrancy? is it iconic? or is it, again, just a warehouse? I’m not excited about a warehouse being featured in a gateway, an entrance to our city. And I think the conversation around the amazon distribution center is the best use of that space, and I think we need a more outward-facing community process to get to what a good use of what that space is. But it also needs to be a space where, if we’re going to look at housing, that we’re creating thoughtful housing, that if we’re creating commercial use for that space, that it’s thoughtful commercial use that creates jobs and creates opportunities for our people. It’s a big part of what I’d like to see when we’re looking for growth in our city. it’s not just creating construction jobs but it’s creating longer-term jobs for city residents. And it also has to look good. It needs to be a statement piece or statement pieces.
SA: There were some discussions a few years ago concerning selling the Frontage Road parcel as well. Should that be incorporated into the whole planning process for Widett?
AEG: Yeah, I think we certainly have to have that on the table. We’ve also got to consider our city’s needs, especially as it relates to the garage and the facilities that are there. That building, that structure and the parking lot are in complete, really bad, really terrible shape but utilizing or retaining part of that land for continued city use – because it is central, it is in a central location n ear a couple of major corridors, but also if it were to be part of a larger parcel, could it make a different impact for the people of Boston? And all that has to be weighed through an internal and an external process.
SA: Have you seen any acceptable locations for relocating the functions from Frontage elsewhere in the city?
AEG: I have not, but I also haven’t looked. I haven’t been part of those discussions. I think it was a few years ago that a number of councilors were invited over to look at that frontage road facility, but I didn’t attend. I can’t remember if it was just the committee members or something that attended. I haven’t looked at it, but I do think if we’re going to relocate those facilities, we have to be really thoughtful about where they go because everything can’t be on the outskirts of the city. There’s a tow lot there, we source some of our public works, our snowplows, some of our bigger-capacity vehicles that we need to be able to access for this part of the city, so we need to be thoughtful about that. The repair garage, I know that’s over there for some of our city fleet. That could probably be in another place, but there are some functions that need to be close to the downtown.
SA: What was your though about Gov. [Charlie] Baker’s interpretation of the [Boston] Municipal Harbor Plan. He seemed to say the train has left the station and can’t be pulled back now and regardless of how the state handles this latest wrinkle, do you support the Pinnacle proposal as it’s currently proposed?
AEG: So, I don’t support it as it’s currently proposed, and I do have some reservations about that project. I don’t think on the Municipal Harbor Plan, in particular, that we need to completely scrap that and that’s seven years’ worth of work and community engagement and again, to start that process over and a process that took a long period of time, a lot of investment from community members. I hear all the time whether it’s any designated task force or [Impact Advisory Group] they feel they get involved and engaged in these processes, then someone else makes a different decision and all of those works are for not. So, for me, we should really honor and respect that process, so I don’t think we should scrap that municipal harbor plan.
I do believe we need an activated and accessible waterfront and we need a plan that delivers on that and it has to be a responsible plan and it has to be responsive to the needs of Bostonians and those visiting our city and not forgetting it’s used by lots of different types of people when we think about our residents, our tourists, the people who come to visit our city or work in our city every day. So, at this point we’ve got to reconnect with the community and see where there are possible changes to that plan, but they have to be done in partnership they have to be done in a transparent way and the stakeholders have to be brought back to the table. You know, walking away from that plan is irresponsible and the chaos that’s been created by that over the last couple of months, now, we’ve got to bring people back together and get moving on it. It’s also about the jobs that are being created around all of that work on the harbor front.
SA: Hook Wharf is also part of that process. What do you think about that?
AEG: That is also part of that. there was a pretty extensive community process around that we’ve walked away from all those years of involvement. I’m thinking of all those residents and community members and businesses who’ve dedicated hours of their lives and certainly the financial commitment that many people put into that, as well as the city. To simply walk away from that is not acceptable. When we talk about government needing to be transparent, when we talk about needing to be held accountable to the processes that are put in place, we’ve got to fulfill that. Government just needs to be more responsible to the processes it puts in place.
Cassidy Norton, associate publisher: Going to jump in here. Is your main objection to the Pinnacle project because of the way it’s designed, its access to the waterfront or is there another part?
AEG: I think that’s part of it, but also the community process. because the way it started just before COVID, and you know we’ve heard from residents as well as other community members – the [New England] Aquarium, and certainly partners in the Harbor Now effort – just some real concerns about how that process started and then all of a sudden COVID hit and a lot of our community meetings were really difficult to tune in to and to engage with, so bringing stakeholders back together, restarting – I guess not even restarting that process, but reengaging in I think a meaningful conversation around that project is something that’s important to me, personally, because of the timing of when all of that went down, with Pinnacle in particular. That was one of the very last things that happened at Long Wharf before Biogen, so I think it’s important – the residents that I represent, as well as all of the interested parties down there – a real process is important.
SVV: On housing, former Mayor Marty Walsh, as you mentioned, put in a major effort to boosting the number of units and unfortunately prices, rents have still continued to go up. What do you think needs to be done here? Do we need to do more housing in addition to what’s being already done? Are there other new ideas you’d bring to the table to deal with this critical, thorny problem?
AEG: The thorny problem of living here in the city, the cost of housing? You know, there’s certainly a supply response to that problem, but Boston is not going to magically become less expensive to live in overnight, and I actually think that’s the wrong fight to be having, that’s the wrong work to be focused on. As much as we want to drive down costs, production will solve for some of that but not for all of that. We really need to help our city’s residents create wealth, to access the workforce in different ways, to lift wages and to think, I think, very creatively about how to create talent here in the city of Boston. That’s related to education for young people.
I’ve committed in my first 100 days to a strategic plan around Madison Park Vocational Technical High School, and that’s around the construction trades, for sure, and around the other programs that exist there like the culinary arts and the automotive industry and auto mechanic efforts they do there, but it’s also around making sure kids at Madison, young people at Madison have access to life sciences and biotech, that’s coming to this city, that they have access to advanced manufacturing that is a sort of industry that’s seeing a little bit of a rebirth, locally, that they have access to the financial services industry, that they have access to the financial industry in a much more meaningful way.
We think about the work around climate action and environmental justice, those jobs need people to do them, and we can train them at Madison as young people, but we should also make sure that Madison is also a full-day campus, at night, afternoons and evenings, whether it’s other young people or adults in there being trained and retrained and upskilled in these various fields. Industry will continue to come to this city if they have a talented workforce to draw from. We can do that, certainly in partnership with these industries, to create that workforce and that helps put money in people’s pockets, to help them afford – again, it’s really hard to drive down the cost of living here in the city of Boston. What we need to do is help people access those economic opportunities to build their own wealth.
SVV: You had mentioned – I think it was single-family homes, or some other kind of homeownership proposal you were looking at – in terms of building wealth, homeownership as a way of doing that. How would you get enough units through that approach given that we’re in an urban environment and you can get a lot more units just building up, right?
AEG: Yes, and homeownership isn’t just the traditional single-family, necessarily. Home ownership is condo, home ownership is, you know, families buying multifamily homes – two-families, three-families and six-families – and that’s the way it was done at one point in this city, and I think there’s an opportunity to explore returning to that. I think as a city we need to invest, especially as we look at some of the federal funds and the requirements around sustainable investments of those federal funds, we need to look at ways to help city residents become homeowners. If you’re already struggling to pay rent, you can pay a mortgage. You may need, and certainly some families need, down payment assistance. I’m committed to investing in down payment assistance efforts here in the city. That’s a sustainable investment in our city’s people.
I think there’s also a special opportunity to look at supporting the first-time homebuyer – there are lots of programs to do that – but that we’re also supporting the first-generation homebuyers. Families that have been in our city for multiple generations and have only ever been tenants. Supporting them in their first-time homebuying for their family, forever, of all time, that’s what first-generation homebuyer means to me. But also making sure that there are technical assistance supports in place to help that buyer in particular through the process of not just becoming a homebuyer but also owning a home. You know, how do you fix the boiler? How do you repair a roof? How do you make sure you don’t get screwed from a contractor that’s going to repair your back porches?
But then, let’s also look at buying a three-family or buying a two-family and let’s look at – and I’m going to give props to councilor [and former mayoral candidateAndrea] Campbell on her very specific desire to engage the city-owned lots across our city. We, because they’re city lots, there’s an opportunity to manage the costs a little bit. There’s an opportunity to engage. I have a desire to engage whether it’s developers of color, architects of color, general contractors of color, certainly families of color in ownership opportunities, in developing these lots and creating multi-unit homeownership opportunities for families who have never owned their own homes.
For me, that has such a compounding impact. It stabilizes children, it stabilizes family, it stabilizes community. There is a direct correlation between the levels of homeownership in any neighborhood and the quality of school. There’s a direct correlation between home ownership and employment and food security. We talk so much as a city, certainly as elected officials and as candidates for mayor about closing the wealth gap. Home ownership closes the wealth gap. Access to economic opportunity and jobs that are high paying closes the wealth gap.
I don’t know how much you know about my personal story, but my father was a security guard at Boston University, and he went to work at BU so that I could go there for free. That eliminated a significant cost from my parents’ life, from my life and created an opportunity for me. Some of these opportunities we’ve got to manufacture, and I think this is a real one when it comes to closing the wealth gap for families. It’s housing and workforce development and economic opportunity.
JS: It’s interesting that you bring up this idea of boosting the total pool of homeowners, because it ties in with that demand and that building question we brought up. I think one of the big lessons of the pandemic was that the rate of construction in this state just really doesn’t match up with the demand [for homes] even if you’re looking at it on a demographic basis without pouring more gasoline on there in the form of subsidies to get other people in the market. So, when it comes to increasing that supply, arguably some of the lowest-hanging fruit is in some of these more outlying neighborhoods where the land cost is a little bit lower, and you have a Main Street or something like that could use some additional foot traffic. When you think of communities that are good fits for more density, sometimes the project will run into oppositions from folks –
AEG: From neighborhood associations or civic associations?
JS: Right, or just from individuals. So how would you negotiate something like that on an ongoing basis?
AEG: I think one of the challenges we face as a city – generally people like to be cranky when they show up at neighborhood meetings, that’s just the way it is. But I also think if Bostonians and neighbors actually see an opportunity for themselves to own a piece of that project or for their kids to own a piece of that project it really does change the temperature of the room.
One of the greatest things about growth and development, and one of the reasons there’s so much conflict and so much challenge thrown up by any part of our city is that people don’t see an opportunity for themselves to either be a part of the construction team – you know, when we’ve got out-of-state license plates every day on these jobsites and you’ve got a group of young people hanging out on the corner with nothing to do, there’s such a huge disconnect with what’s happening in someone’s backyard, when you see a true opportunity to not just be a part of the construction force but to see yourself in ownership opportunity that really does change, I think, the direction of any conversation. And I believe that the city’s people are much more open to the opportunities they know they might be able to take advantage of.
Where do I think those opportunities are for greater density in our city? Certainly, the regular conversation around transit-oriented development. We need to make sure we have a public transit system that is working, for that to fully be embraced. Certainly, there are opportunities around our main corridors for greater development, greater height, greater density. I think there is an opportunity through – and it’s a way to chip away at the edges on some of the edges for additional numbers – through additional dwelling units, the ADUs. That’s an opportunity and one place that I think we haven’t spent enough time exploring, as a city, that I’d like to do, and I’m committed to the concept and the idea.
We haven’t sort of fleshed out what it looks like in practice – but we’ve got so many of our older Bostonians in sort of the more suburban parts of our city that are way over-housed. They’re sitting on not just a tremendous financial asset, but a tremendous opportunity for the next family to set down roots and buy a home. But seniors who are living in their own home, whether it’s a one-family, a two-family or a three-family, can’t walk away from it because there’s nowhere else necessarily for them to buy. So, we’ve also got to create, because we talk a lot about affordable senior housing, but we’ve got some seniors that have some wealth, that are maybe looking to reinvest and downsize and purchase, and that’s often saved for conversations, for more affluent suburban older residents. you know, they’re empty-nesters and they’re returning to the city for the first time after a long time. We’ve got families, older families, older empty-nesters who live in Mattapan, who live in Hyde Park, who live in West Roxbury, who are so over-housed but what can they buy in the city, or even the community they live in today. That’s a real opportunity to shake up the housing stock a little bit.
SVV: It sounds like you’re in some ways saying that there’s been too much emphasis on rental housing at the expense of home ownership that you really want to shift the overall policy away, for a little bit, from homeownership. But it sounds like – you didn’t say it exactly – when there’s neighborhood opposition maybe there’s more opposition to rental units than home ownership units, meaning you can’t buy a piece of a rental project.
AEG: Yeah, I just mean we need a better balance. There will always be renters, there’s always a place in the marketplace for renters, so I don’t want to walk away from it for sure, but I do think there’s been an overemphasis on the rental marketplace, but I think my emphasis has been on the homeownership piece with a greater focus on the first-generation piece, because it’s a segment of the city’s population that has not been paid attention to, and when you think about our communities of color in particular, they have been left out of this discussion. As a city, as mayor, there’s an opportunity to shift some of the discussion and the housing production in that space and I’m willing to commit city dollars to it because I think, especially when you look at the federal money coming in, it is a real opportunity to make sustainable investments in our city, in our neighborhoods and in our people.
JS: So, in a nutshell –
AEG: I don’t do anything in a nutshell!
JS: [Laughs] I just want to make sure I’m understanding the idea correctly. Since some of the lean towards apartment construction is driven by the basic economics of it – especially if you’re a merchant builder as I’m sure you probably know – if I understand you correctly, you’re hoping that putting city dollars towards subsidies for first-time buyers that will be enough to change the financial calculus for folks, plus maybe a bit of, we’ll say, encouragement as they go through the development process? Or are there other pieces that you have in mind to help this transition?
AEG: No, I think that’s it for me, and I think that’s the capacity at which I can function. Certainly, I bring on a team that is much more skilled and has deeper understanding of this housing market. As mayor, you set the tone, you set the priorities and the vision and then you bring in a team to do the work. Was that too honest of an answer?
JS: [Laughs] No, that’s fine.
AEG: I’m well-versed in a lot of the work we need to do as a city. I’ve certainly gotten my feet wet as an at-large city councilor. I’ve been focused, certainly as a former educator, on the work of education in this city and I have a special interest in ending homelessness in the city, especially family homelessness in our city, but we’ve got a crisis on our hands as it relates to family homelessness and the opioid crisis, it’s one of those things that intersects with one another, btu I never expect to be the smarter person in the room. I plan on building a team and a cabinet that are experts in their fields that can take my vision, my passion, my direction and make these things happen, but it absolutely has to be a collaborative and coordinated effort between the city and city agencies, private developers, the nonprofit sector where appropriate to engage them but also looking at the banking system. It has to work financially for those who are going to build.
The city of Boston is not in the actual business of building. We’re in the business of making sure it’s easier to build projects that our people need in this city, the people who are here today, and making sure that we’re creating opportunities for whoever wants to move to this city to come. And that’s related to the commercial sector. A new industry sees opportunities to grow here, they’re going to be looking for these things as well and I want new industries to explore opportunities here in the city of Boston because that means added revenue, that means jobs for our city’s people, that means opportunities across the board and Boston should be doing all those things.
SA: There’s been a lot of life science development in the Seaport and the Marine Park, and now it’s starting to spread into downtown areas, South End, even right next to the Greenway at Bulfinch Crossing, potentially. What do you think about life science and lab uses? Are they appropriate for the core neighborhoods and the downtown?
AEG: I think that they’re absolutely important if they’re hiring our people. That’s, again, about wealth development. It’s about our city’s residents seeing themselves in these buildings, showing up to work every day. That’s critical for me. Our communities are much more receptive to these industries coming into their communities if they see opportunities for growth. I think it’s also an added piece of that conversation is that if it impacts our transit system. So, if we think about it, everything now currently drives into the core, drives into downtown, basically, we need to make sure that we have a downtown transit system that’s interconnecting our neighborhoods to access those opportunities, as well.
SA: I had a follow-up, also on home ownership creation. How well do you think the inclusionary development policy is working and are there opportunities there to change it through things like requiring more home ownership units or any other changes as far as minimum affordable units or maximum income requirements?
AEG: Yeah, that’s a great question and I support the concept of pushing it up to 20 percent and I think there is an opportunity to push it to 20 percent but I also think, project-by-project, depending on the size, depending on where it is in the city, who’s leading that development, if it’s city property or not city property that we’re always looking for where that sweet spot is between the number of units in a particular unit and how deep the affordability can be, as well as the opportunities for home ownership. So, I think it’s always and it should be a math problem and there should be opportunity for someone to sit down and do a calculation, so not hard and fast on that.
Obviously, we have a rule in place today – 13 percent – I’d like to make moves towards 20, but I also want to make sure we’re building the right type of housing at the right price point for residents, so, again, it’s project-by-project. Not something that I foresee myself managing project-by-project, but bringing in a team that really will embrace that. I also, though, am very mindful that projects can go from concept to groundbreaking to occupancy – especially on the housing side – pretty quickly, so creating a couple of different models within a few different ranges would be helpful, because we have to move that along.
On the affordability piece, those are the last units to go, and those are the units that are supposed to help Bostonians today, and you know, that’s a real problem. We’ve got to speed up that process. Obviously following all fair housing rules and regulations an policies, but we’ve got to speed that up, because those are the units where our city’s residents see themselves in and if they can’t access that building and that building’s been occupied for up to several years sometimes, that impacts obviously the new tenant or homeowner, it also impacts the bottom line for the developer and it adds to the cost of developing housing in our city. When we shrink that time, we can manage some of those costs.
I also think, and the City Council has been moving on this, as a body, to speed up the process for projects that are 100 percent affordable, obviously along the spectrum, both in timeline as well as in some of the parking minimum requirements. We need to get those projects online and the length of time just adds – and I hear from developers that I’ve gotten to know over the course of my career and certainly the developers who’ve reached out over the course of this campaign, just saying “We can give you more affordability if you can give us more predictability in the process. If you can shrink that timeline and I’m not paying on an empty parcel, or an under-capacity parcel [or] building, I can do more for this city if I can navigate the process in a more simple and predictable way.”
SA: What have developers told you about how important that whole parking relief on the affordable projects is that the council has talked about?
AEG: Oh, it’s incredibly important. I think if every developer could get rid of the parking requirement altogether, they’d be happy. You know, certainly, community by community, depending on the size of the project, depending on where that project is, especially in proximity to public transit, that’s important. But I think there’s also a certain level of practicality to that. And, you know, my husband and I have four children, and we’ve got four hockey bags and you know sometimes we’re going from hockey to football to fall baseball and there’s got to be a degree of reasonableness and logic that we put into this work.
JS: What are some of the favorite ideas that you’ve heard over the course of this campaign about achieving that faster development process?
AEG: My favorite ideas?
JS: Yeah, the same things you’d want to explore –
AEG: Well, shrinking the timeline –
JS: I guess I mean: How do you shrink the timeline? Is it removing pieces? Like, I don’t know, trying to set definite time limits?
AEG: Absolutely, timelines are critical, there’s a start and an end date to this process because it’s that end date when we keep pushing that, when goalposts keep getting moved and moved again and again. I think it’s also putting it all online and making sure that it is an active engagement through a portal that a developer – and, again, I think this depends on the size of the project – where a developer can follow the process through, electronically. Because when it’s that piece of paper, over one – whether it’s an inspection or a checklist gets lost, that everything turns upside-down. The utilities also need to be a better partner in this. Projects are held up – and this is a complaint I hear regularly – every project gets held up because of utilities and if you don’t know someone to call, it’s never going to happen. Whether it’s ownership or rental, you can’t close if you can’t move in. And that’s a huge challenge across the board, and that is across the city. There’s no one particular project that’s easier to get done than another, and we’ve got to develop a stronger relationship with the utility companies to get that work done. But the process of navigating City Hall, whether it’s City Hall downtown or at 1010 Mass. Ave. [where Boston’s Inspectional Services Division is headquartered], we’ve got to make it easier to navigate, putting more of the process online and allowing developers to do a couple of things at the same time.
So, starting those initial efforts at City Hall with BPDA or at the same time starting some sort of community engagement. Let’s start all of those processes sooner. The other piece on smaller projects is that we can’t formally start a community process until you get your rejection letter. But developers are in this business. They know what the rejections are going to be. Allow them to start that community process up-front. Allow the community to have more of a partnership and more of an active engagement in some of that work up-front so it’s not like “I have to put this paperwork in, I have to apply before I get rejected and come to you, so I’m going to put my project proposal in, let it get rejected and then I’m going to come to you,” and the community is already starting from a position of conflict because they weren’t sort of engaged formally at the beginning.
SVV: This is a longstanding problem as well, kids getting vocational training, wanting to get into the trades from the city and maybe not making that connection. You had Mayor Walsh, no one could be more of an expert that him – he came from the trades, he ran the local building trades union, he started some of these programs – but there’s still that disconnect there. You mentioned depending upon laborers, construction workers coming in from out of the city, a disconnect it sounds like in terms of having more diversity in the city, if he can’t get it done, who can at this point? What would you do differently?
AEG: I think that one of the disconnects especially as relates to Madison, is that Mayor Walsh doesn’t understand our educational system here, didn’t understand BPS. Didn’t attend the Boston Public Schools. I did, I actually went to a technical high school. I think a lack of understanding of how the system, if we think about the central office, how it functions and operates and certainly didn’t spend any time in the classroom. I think, you know, we want to fix out schools we want to fix some of the programs in our schools and we want to empower school leaders to build strong partnerships, so we have to have someone in power who understands schools, who understands the system, which I do.
I also think that at Madison, in particular, some of the funding challenges are very real, and that money goes to the central office and then gets redistributed out to the schools, so Madison doesn’t see all that it should, I’d like to change some of that funding. I want Madison to remain a Boston public school – there has been some discussion around making it an independent school district and separating it from BPS. That I don’t support. I want authority over Madison.
I also think that we need to more widely open the doors to partnership. Industries want to get involved at Madison. They need that a talent, they need the workforce, but where our challenges have been around that is that we’ve opened the doors. We’ve said “come partner with Madison” but then we’re not actively engaging those partnerships. And then we also need to make sure we’ve got kids in that building in that school that want to be in that school. I’ve been an advocate for grade reconfigurations across the board in all of our high schools – I taught high school in Boston – I think that adding seventh and eighth grade, which is a move we’re doing in a lot of our high schools anyway, adding that to Madison creates a longer onramp to the high school years, which is good for kids, good for academics, good for learning, good for student supports, but it also creates a longer period of exploration into the career trades, the construction trades and other careers.
I also want Madison to be a place where adults, the parents of children who might be exploring Madison either today or in a few years, if parents are in the construction trades, and in these careers, these kids will see it as a possibility. Mayor Walsh was the son of, the nephew of, the cousin of laborers and that relationship, that literal relationship is why he ended up in that field. Our kids, across the district, across our whole city, don’t have those relationships so they don’t see themselves, they don’t understand the wealth you can create in the construction trades, and in all careers but in the construction trades in particular because they don’t have the uncle, the cousin, the father that’s making six digits being a plumber, an electrician an iron worker or a sheet metal fabrication, so it’s really important that we’re doing this multi-generational effort and exposure to different careers, but in this case for the construction career in particular.
SVV: Could the unions be doing more?
AEG: Absolutely the unions should be doing more. And the unions in principle want to increase diversity, want to increase opportunities for communities of color and women to become more engaged in their respective trades, but sometimes it’s hard to find them. it’s sometimes hard to introduce them to the trades because there is still a lack of representation. So, when you do both things at the same time, you create greater opportunity, greater exposure.
SVV: Are there ways, what would you do work with the unions? Are their programs even large enough that they run, it seems like they’re very small?
AEG: That’s Building Trades. Building Trades has 20 people at a time once every six months, and that literally scratches the surface. I’d like to see the construction trades, the unions much more actively engaged at Madison. Not just for career day or for show and tell, but in a very real way. Their work rooms, their labs – just for background I went to Boston Technical High School, which is now the O’Bryant, but when I weas there, we did electronics and sheet metal and drafting and the sheet metal class I took, I took at Madison. We used their lab for that class because the school had just moved locations. The mailbox I made for my house is the mailbox I made in Sheet Metal [class]. I married to an engineer. He never made a mailbox. So, kids need those partnerships. It can’t simply be an academic exercise in a classroom that’s not connected to reality. So, the unions need to be involved, but even in the other fields, like the auto tech, the automotive program at Madison. The city fleet, our city cars, our police cars, our meter maid cars, all of those should be maintained, oil changes, tire checks, all that should be done at Madison. Our culinary arts program, when we have events at City Hall, those should be catered by our kids. We’re not tapping into the talent that we have, and I think that sends a message to the school population. It sends a message to a faculty, and it sends a message to a city that if City Hall doesn’t think that this school is important enough to engage and do business with, why would private industry.
JS: One follow-up to something you brought up a minute ago: Do you have a short list of people you’d want in your cabinet when it comes to development and housing issues?
AEG: You mean you want me to name people?
JS: You know, if there’s a wish list, a dream team. And if that’s a little hard to do, who’s your kitchen cabinet right now when it comes to gut-checking ideas around housing and development.
AEG: That’s a great question. I’m not going to tell you names, but a few things on my cabinet: I’m committed to building a diverse cabinet, when you think about the racial demographics of the city, the ethnic demographics of the city, making sure that the BIPOC community is well-represented, and that we’ve got a field of experts in place that can do this work in partnership with me and that cabinet be more than just a photo-op. I could take a really beautiful and colorful picture, but unless I empower the people that are around me to do this work and to lead into those spaces, we’ll never get to the answers in the weeds, in the nuance in practice to answer for the housing crisis and the housing shortage and how do we actually get to fulfil my vision and my passion in this space.
I’m not going to name names, but I’m happy to take names and take recommendations. I have my campaign underway right now, but because of the quick turnaround from Nov. 2 to Nov. 16 when, I assume, the role of mayor of the city, that’s not a period of transition. So, Sept. 15, the day after the primary, the preliminary, we set up a very small team that’s focused on that transition planning. Doing things like identifying what the structure of my cabinet will be because I will not mirror what Secretary Walsh did as mayor, I will not mirror what the interim administration looked like. I will build my own team and pick the fancy titles that I want, but certainly we will have housing at the table, we will have climate and environment at the table and transit and that sort of stuff. So, we’re focused on who are the people who can potentially fill those roles. We’re also looking at who’s there today who’s interested in staying on for an additional period of transition. Nov. 16, I’m not going to have a fully empaneled cabinet and I don’t think that’s appropriate anyway. Some things can wait longer than others.
Certainly, over the last six years I’ve build a very strong relationship with Chief Dillon, a strong relationship with Director Golden and their respective teams, so I am hopeful, in those spaces, but in other departments as well. I’m hopeful that in those spaces the chiefs themselves stay on for at least a short, brief period of transition, that they have some strong team members in place that will keep the ship afloat and the city moving. Nov. 3, things don’t stop. School day needs to start, lights need to turn on, if there happens to be a November snowstorm, we’re going to need to plow that snow, so the function of city government is going to have to continue, so Nov. 3 isn’t going to look like Nov. 2 or Nov. 16. We’re really taking a very close look at any of the interim appointments that were made, because those are the most unstable positions at this point because by city charter they evaporate on Nov. 16, so making sure there are people in place for those.
My kitchen cabinet is made up of some internal folks who work at City Hall today, who I won’t name and then a lot of campaign strategy people, especially as I shifted from my council days into this mayor’s race, we’ve got more consultants than I care to pay, but I do.
SA: I wanted to touch just briefly on coastal resiliency. The city is facing a big price tag there, $4 billion was one of the figures that was thrown out, how soon should be there be some sort of umbrella policy as far as the funding for this? Should there be district-wide financing and what’s the public-private cost share that’s appropriate?
AEG: I don’t know what that public-private, what that cost share should be. I do think we have an opportunity with some of the federal funds coming in, the infrastructure dollars especially, to help us lay a groundwork. I this to be a regional approach and it has to be greater than just Boston and Massachusetts on this. You think of the Eastern Seaboard on the water issue, we’ve got to look at this more regionally, a New England approach, certainly look forward to building a relationship with the governor on this issue, because I think that he needs to play a bigger role in that work. Certainly, working with the Metro Mayors [Coalition] but also the coastal mayors. I think that’s an important coalition to build, especially as it relates to those of the resiliency measures, we need to put in place, and I imagine the governor needs to also convene a coastal governors’ effort to talk about those shared costs.
JS: I just want to see if we can squeeze in one question about transit as it relates to climate change. If the long-term game is to get people, especially in cities like Boston, away from driving, that’s going to involve building more infrastructure, some of it like bus lanes and bike lanes, it’s going to be inherently controversial. When you look at a place like Centre Street in West Roxbury, where the eggheads say you need to put X in here, and you have community members saying “No, I don’t want that,” or a segment of the community really, how do you navigate that?
AEG: The problem becomes when the experts tell the community what they need to do instead of engaging in some sort of community process. That’s sort of a start. I think also one of the challenges that happens is the experts don’t actually spend time in community and understanding where there could be options. They’ve committed to one thing and don’t explore other opportunities. On the West Roxbury [bike lanes] piece in particular, there are absolutely improvements that need to be done along the Centre Street corridor, there are also some tremendous opportunities on Washington Street, as well as on VFW Parkway – which is actually a pretty incredible corridor that connects lots of different communities.
I think on public transit we’ve done a lot of work around the bus lanes and the bike lanes. We’ve also learned a couple lessons and we’ve got to fix a few pieces. That Tremont and Columbus Ave. that goes up through Eggleston Square, that’s maybe a little bit of a problem, as it’s being constructed, that center bus lane that doesn’t include a bike lane, can be a problem and I think the success we saw through Allston and Brighton with their dedicated bus lane, the success we’ve seen on the Washington Street side through [Roslindale] and into Forest Hills, that’s success we saw, we may not see that on Columbus Ave. Time will certainly tell us. American Legion, there’s also some challenges. And there’s education that’s missing. You’ve got vehicles that are driving through the bike lane and on the weekends, if we’re not anticipating or not realizing how that park how Franklin Park is being utilized, especially on the weekends, we’ve got, now, a bike lane that is really a parking lane and there’s got to be a more practical approach to those decisions.
I’m a proponent of the North-South Rail Link. I think there are some junctures we can create that can make it easier to utilize public transit. That interconnectedness community by community, that’s got to be something we explore. We also have to think about shift workers and the night owl service and making sure – employees are working more and more non-traditional hours and some of that started long before COVID but COVID has also created a big shift and a change in the workforce and how the workforce is engaging, so we’ve got to think more creatively about that, but that work there has to be done with the state and with our partners with the MBTA. We’ve got to make sure it’s a cost, that we as a city are willing to contribute to.
CN: Is there anything else you want to add, real quick, before we close?
AEG: I’m grateful for an opportunity to talk about these questions, in particular, because I haven’t received these questions and had this conversation with the focus that you all have brought to this conversation. For me, it’s about engaging the right people in this work, who are going to be thoughtful and want to participate in planning for the Boston of tomorrow and being very thoughtful about what it looks like down the road. I will take any recommendations around cabinet posts and who the leaders are in various fields for consideration as long as they’re putting Boston first, those are experts and people that I want to talk to, so I’m just grateful for your interest and engagement in this race. This is probably one of the most critical elections of all time.
I’m sure you’re all aware I’ve had a longstanding relationship with Marty Walsh, but I’d say in 2013, of all the candidates who ran for mayor, and then when we whittled it down to two, there were very little differences and probably not much of a different Boston would have been seen should [John] Conolly or Walsh who was elected. This is a different story. This is a very different race. I think the difference is between me and my opponent are very stark. I believe in a Boston that will continue to grow; I do not think we should shut down development. I think we have to look for opportunities to continue to enhance our city and make sure that we have revenue and jobs coming in that we’re able to create revenue and jobs along the way. Certainly thoughtfully, but Boston needs to continue to grow if we’re going to be a city that’s successful and thriving and doing all of the things it needs to do to be Boston.
JS: Fair enough. Thank you very much, and if we have any follow-up questions, we’ll let you know.
AEG: Thanks very much for your time!