Downtown View: If I were Mayor

January 24, 2012
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Several months ago this column featured some readers’ descriptions of what they would do if they were mayor of Boston. As you might imagine, I too have a few ideas about managing the city. Here are some things I’d do if I were mayor:

• I’d plant Boston ivy to grow over selected sections of Boston City Hall. I will donate plants from my own city garden to make it cheap. The ivy would cover up the concrete—one of the worst and most dirt-collecting building materials ever invented—as well as giving the plaza a bit of green. The plantings would save city hall for the mid-century preservationists while covering up a good portion of it for the city hall haters. And Boston ivy is so lovely. It turns golden in the fall and leaves delicate trace lines in the winter.

• I’d opt for fun in what one wag a few years ago dubbed “the city that always sleeps.” I’d establish a fun committee to come up with ideas like the community sing Keith Lockhart organized. I’d bring back Summerthing or something like it. I’d institute Winterthing too.

• I’d heavily fine every landlord who left a commercial space at street level vacant for one year or more. Are their pockets so deep it doesn’t matter if a space isn’t collecting rent? Do they care about the degradation of a neighborhood their blank space contributes to? I wouldn’t give them the luxury of waiting until they could get top dollar. Lease the space at a lower rent, or pay the city for the ruin such spaces cause.

• I’d tweak zoning in the Seaport District to reflect Boston’s nature as a city of contrasts. I’d require that developers who obtain permission to build the larger hotels and office and apartment buildings be required to also build low-rise single-family and multi-family flats in five and six story buildings along several blocks on designated streets. I’d insist that they put in small corner stores. My intention would be to introduce mixes like those in the Back Bay or downtown Chicago, where small-scale neighborhoods abut the skyscrapers.

• I’d save money by ripping out and selling off the pedestrian push buttons at every corner, keeping only those located on wide, busy streets that attract few pedestrians anyway. At the same time, I’d coordinate every pedestrian walk signal with traffic going in the same direction, a practice every other American city follows. Boston’s silly buttons not only confuse tourists, but also encourage Bostonians to jaywalk, since we suspect we will never get a signal that gives us time to cross the street.

• I would transfer the money I’ve saved by eliminating the push buttons to the parks budget.

• I’d be bold in public works. I’d have the recycling picked up every time the guys pick up the trash. I’d institute year-round street cleaning and towing. I’d widen every sidewalk and relocate trees to the edge of the curb so those that now buckle the walkways would have their own space near the roadway to grow. I’d put street signs on the sides of buildings a la Paris to reduce the number of poles on the sidewalks.

• I’d go after the bicyclists. I’d mount a campaign clearly stating who has the right of way in Boston. First, it’s pedestrians. Then it is bicycles. Then it is cars. Then it is big trucks. I’d have the police lurk near intersections to crack down on bicycle riders who run red lights and narrowly miss pedestrians. (Prompted by a couple of times last week when I saw a bicycle rider almost hit a pedestrian. In one case the pedestrian jumped back, and the bicyclist peddled away without a glance.)

• I’d tame the traffic. I’d neck down intersections like London does. I’d also copy London in imposing a congestion charge. I’d spend the money earned from the congestion charge on faster filling the potholes and repairing the streets. I’d charge $50 for a neighborhood parking sticker each year for the first car in a household. A sticker for a second car registered to a household would cost $200. No stickers for three or more cars. I’d trade parking meters in every neighborhood for central pay stations on each block, like the Back Bay has. Then I’d charge $5 an hour for parking.

• I’d impose zoning on every neighborhood’s commercial district, making offices a conditional use, restricting the width of storefronts, and requiring special permits for chains or any businesses whose headquarters were located outside the Boston city limits. Conditional use permits would require businesses to clean their sidewalks and street gutters, plant window boxes or tree pits, and keep trees alive, among other obligations.

• You may have noticed that implementing and enforcing these ideas would provide more revenue and require more city employees. That would mean a few more jobs available in an economy that surely needs some.

I haven’t mentioned, of course, schools, crime or housing. But what about you? I’d like to hear from you what you would do if you were mayor of Boston.

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