Don’t do Stupid Stuff

Hillary Clinton distanced herself from President Obama’s cautionary guide to international relations. But I thought his motto was good advice for most matters. Not that I’ve always avoided doing stupid stuff, and you can probably think of a few times you’ve not followed that advice either.

When individuals do stupid stuff, it’s usually a problem only for them. But when political leaders mis-step, it’s a problem for us.

Tom Menino, for example, didn’t always do the wisest thing, even though we still loved him. He and other officials muffed the Seaport District. It’s probably the stupidest stuff the city has recently done.

First, the name. The Seaport District is not South Boston just like the Boston Common is not Beacon Hill. But the pols caved into parochial minds and called it the South Boston Waterfront, a name no one uses. The city tried to make an end run around the matter, anointing it the Innovation District. But that doesn’t work, since the city applied no innovation in creating it.

For example, why didn’t we build a fast subway line through the Seaport, into South Boston and alongside the Ted Williams tunnel to the airport? Fifteen years ago, the district was raw, empty land—perfect for digging a long, deep ditch without bothering anyone. It would have been relatively cheap. It would have meant that several areas of the city poorly served by rapid transit would have had a crack at getting out of their cars.

Instead, we have gridlock on the Seaport’s wide streets and bottlenecks at the bridges. Don’t you think officials could have predicted this outcome with so few options to vehicles? The rest of us did.

The Silver Line doesn’t hack it. On a Sunday morning, it takes seven minutes by cab from my house to the airport. By Red Line, then Silver Line? Almost an hour. So much for bus “rapid” transit.

Another Seaport problem can be laid at the feet of the BRA. The buildings are boring. Many observers have been talking about this. A few weeks ago, Robert Campbell, the city’s authoritative architecture critic, published a column echoing this disappointment with Seaport architecture.

Instead of creating a region that looks like Crystal City near D.C., the city could have required developers to build five-story townhouses on side streets in exchange for permission to build the squat, boxy structures now filling entire blocks. They could have imposed a street grid that varied wide streets with narrow ones, and long blocks with short ones. Aren’t these guys supposed to be urban planners?

Maybe the wide streets can be repurposed. We could run streetcar tracks down the middle from South Boston and over the Fort Point Channel, splitting into two directions at Atlantic Avenue, ending up at both rail stations. Or maybe it’s too late to save the district from a problem everyone could have predicted from the get-go.

Another stupid step the city took in the Seaport District was deciding to ignore institutions that make neighborhoods good places to live. It did not set aside land or funds to build a branch library. One developer proposed a private school, for which he was mocked. His idea, however, was better than no school at all.

What has happened to the micro-apartments that were intended to appeal to young whippersnappers starting new companies? Unfortunately, at the high rent charged for these tight spaces, the whippersnappers probably couldn’t afford them. I feared these spaces would become new-style tenements, poorly maintained because temporary residents don’t care much.

And that is the sad part of the stupid stuff we’ve done in the Seaport District. With no neighborhood institutions, small apartments, chain restaurants and no public transportation, the district reads as anywhere USA and temporary, a short stay for young people before they have kids and light out for the suburbs because the Seaport is hostile to families.

Some of these problems may work themselves out. The Boston Convention and Exhibition Center this summer installed an interesting playground, one of the only innovations in the Innovation District. It may inspire other builders when they install the few green spaces they are required to provide.

At some point a group of residents may become frustrated about having no school or library and set up a persistent tune that grates on city officials’ ears enough to provide such amenities.

Reportedly a movie theatre is going in, and maybe a supermarket will find its way to the district, but if the North End’s experience is an example, the wait could be long.

            Right now, all the stupid stuff we’ve done to this district means that no one I know is eager to pick up and move there. It will take a long time to recover from the lack of good planning we’ve so far seen.

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