Sunday, March 25, 2007

Seven for City Council in District Two

It’s a strange time for a candidate forum in South Boston: only two days after the St. Patrick’s Day/Evacuation Day Parade. House signs are out in force--in red, green, and navy blue. But, on the steps of the South Boston Education Complex, where the forum is being held, there aren’t even sign-holders or hand-shakers. If the parade and the preceding events are Mardi Gras, the forum is Ash Wednesday, and the tone of the seven people trying to succeed the late Jim Kelly as the District Two City Councilor is anxious, if not somber.

After winning his first term in 1983, Kelly was never seriously threatened by a challenger. His district also included the South End, Chinatown, Bay Village, and the Leather District, but the bulk of the votes came from South Boston. Kelly was the anti-busing hard-liner and former sheet metal worker who became the pragmatic broker of constituent services, winning a share of respect throughout the district. A staunch ally of trade unions, much of his concern over development had been about construction jobs, especially in his early terms. But, almost a quarter of a century after he took office, the concern over gentrification has spread from the South End to other parts of the district. In South Boston, it’s behind everything from rising tax bills and vanishing parking spaces to the scattering of pricy, new condos huddled like milk cartons on a dairy shelf.

Even the parade, for all the resistance to change by its organizers, can be a sign of malaise. One candidate in the April 17 preliminary election, Brian Mahoney, talks about its shrinking contingent of youth soccer players. A veteran and former longshoreman and police officer, Mahoney's a neighborhood activist and (like most other male candidates) volunteer coach, along with being the sexton at St. Vincent's Church. He blames high taxes for making families move out of South Boston or start up somewhere else.

Another candidate, Bob O’Shea, points to the job market. He says it’s harder to find the kinds of jobs—on the waterfront or with Boston Edison—that used to be good enough to make the neighborhood affordable. And, as more than one candidate lamented, it’s easier to find drug traffic, or even to suppose that drug-abuse, behind the façade of a strong family, might be under-reported. Rather than suggest any help with jobs for trade unions, most candidates try to prove they would resist pressure from the mayor and entanglements with developers. All of them oppose the mayor’s plan to build a new City Hall on the South Boston waterfront. All but one of them favor a separation of the planning work at the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) from its role in helping new projects get started. And there was no opposition to a landmark designation that could save warehouses and put a squeeze on high-rise development around Fort Point Channel.

“Planning must drive development,” said candidate Mary Cooney, a native of Boston’s old West End. She called for having “decision-making ability returned to the neighborhood.” A neighborhood activist and home health care provider living in South Boston, she worked on reducing power plant emissions and blocking an asphalt plant proposed for South Bay in the early 1990’s. Another project she opposed was the expansion of the Greyhound Bus facility in South Boston.

Along with supporting the changes in the BRA, Ed Flynn calls for having development projects reviewed by neighborhood councils. The councils were introduced during the 1980’s by his father, former mayor Ray Flynn. They continue to operate in some neighborhoods, including Chinatown and Jamaica Plain. Even if they pressure developers to make their projects more compatible, they’re still no guarantee against gentrification.

During the forum, some candidates embraced Kelly as a role model—usually with the emphasis on independence, rather than on collaborating with the mayor for constituent services, or with developers for jobs in the building trades. Likewise, the tone among the candidates ranged from collegial to confrontational. At one extreme was Bob Ferrara, who called the city’s process of regulating development a “bag job,” with the mayor “pushing stuff through.” There was bluntness from Brian Mahoney (“I was brought up to be nobody’s punching bag”), who took credit for legal actions against developers (including one represented by O’Shea), deplored the state of street cleaning (“We’re getting disrespected”), and described the BRA as “out of control.” A Navy veteran and substitute teacher at the South Boston Education Complex, Flynn played off the high end of new development against the people who grew up in the neighborhood’s old working-class economy. Instead of a new city hall or luxury units in the former St. Augustine’s Parish buildings, he argued, there should be job training on the waterfront and affordable housing.

Bill Linehan also took credit for challenging a developer who wanted to increase density in his neighborhood, but he emphasized his twenty years of experience under the city’s last two mayors. “I know how city government works,” he said, “and I know how I can make it work better for you.” He was also the least antagonistic toward Mayor Menino. Though he favored a “buffer zone” between development near the waterfront and the rest of South Boston, he stopped short of supporting a split of the BRA (saying later only that he’d “consider” it). He was also the least opposed to the relocation of City Hall, objecting only to the waterfront parcel preferred by the mayor.

Also drawing on public sector experience is Bob O’Shea. He was a liaison to South Boston for the Big Dig (under the Mass. Turnpike Authority) and he chaired the design committee for the convention and exhibition center. Though he offered himself as an “independent leader,” he put himself forward as the candidate who knew about planning, zoning, and permitting. One other credential: his role in establishing St. Peter’s Academy, after the closing of the St. Peter’s parish school.

Susan Passoni was the only candidate who had run against Kelly. A South End resident, she received almost 38.7% of the vote in the last regular election, in 2005. She’s also endorsed by the Boston Teachers Union. Her motivation for running: friends and neighbors driven to leave the South End by the high cost of housing or the low quality of schools. With experience as a research analyst in investment banking, she put herself forward as the candidate who could search for tax relief with “a new, creative perspective.” But, at the forum in South Boston, response to her call for “generating incremental revenues” failed to match even the applause for Linehan’s proposal to solve quality of life problems with a “neighborhood response team” (a borrowing from District 1 City Councilor Sal LaMattina).

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In Chinatown, the look of change is more dramatic. The garish façades of the old Combat Zone have mostly given way to the clean gloss of high-rise development. More sites are planned for development, including a holdover from the overlapping garment district, the former “Dainty Dot Hosiery” building on Essex Street. The location’s on the east side of the Chinatown, on the edge of the Rose Kennedy Greenway, which is itself one more incentive for building. As required by the city, high-rise developers have been setting aside what are called “affordable” units and “linkage” money for housing. But neighborhood leaders have been quick to point out the definition of affordable is based on a standard for the metropolitan area—way above the income levels of needy households in Chinatown. Add to this one more index of need: seven buildings in Chinatown where rents, according to the Chinese Progressive Association, have increased over the last two years anywhere from 20% to 200%.

Even before candidates made their way to the forum Thursday night at the cafeteria of the Quincy School, there was a silent message from Chinatown residents holding pink signs in the hallway. The signs called for supporting a stabilization zone putting limits on development and rent increases. One of the sign-holders was 69 year-old Hin Sang Yu, who has lived in Chinatown for 18 years, and who had recently worked to reduce a rent increase in his subsidized apartment. Sponsors of the forum wanted more affordable units resulting from new development to be set aside for people like Yu—and the Chinese Progressive Assn. counts 700 on a waiting list for three buildings. It can be argued that permissive zoning—letting developers build higher—drives up the price of each square foot of land, thereby raising market expectations and taxes. It can also be argued that more permissive zoning is the goose that lays more golden eggs--more “affordable” units with deeper subsidies to put them in reach of the neediest residents.

Before the meeting, the Chinese Progressive Assn. counted only Passoni and Cooney as supporting both a moratorium on zoning waivers for high-rise development and a retargeting of affordable units to people in the most need. Before the forum was over, O’Shea and Mahoney declared their support. Ferrara was also for the retargeting, and he called for directing more “linkage money” for affordable housing to the areas “most impacted” by development. Flynn supported more housing for the elderly and people on fixed incomes. Linehan supported a shorter moratorium on zoning waivers—until the new district councilor takes office. From Passoni, there was one more idea for an asset to help pay for affordability—taking 1300 acres of land owned by the BRA.

The candidates also suggested ways to speed up construction of a branch library and to fight crime. O’Shea said it was “absurd” to have Chinatown businesses paying for a neighborhood crime watch. “Why do you need to pay details to police your city streets?” he asked. And Linehan promised, “I would stand with you and say the Combat zone—all of it—has to go.”

Most of the candidates also criticized the latest plan for the underground extension of the Silver Line from South Station. That prompted one more comment about the BRA from Mahoney, who decided the agency wasn’t out of control after all, but simply controlled by the mayor. “If I am the councilor,” said Mahoney, “the BRA will be buried into the tunnel—if it’s built.”

Note: a forum for District 2 candiadates will take place Tuesday, March 27, 6-8 p.m., at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, 41 Berkeley Street, the South End. The event is sponsored by The Neighborhood Forum and the South End News. Information about the candidates can also be found on South Boston Online.