Friday, May 30, 2014

The table is set for a reappraisal - Boston and Cambridge in 2014.

For those of us who follow the local political scene, 2014 is a year of change. We need to pay attention to it, and make use of it.  In the last 12 months, Boston has elected a new mayor for the first time in 20 years; long-time Cambridge city manager Bob Healy stepped down after 33 years in the job, and in November the Cambridge citizens replaced four out of their nine member city council with new faces.  In November of this year, the Commonwealth will elected a new governor.

All these new leaders will quickly realize that the challenges remain.  Development pressures keep apace as our regional economy continues to transform at ever increasing speed. Transportation budgets lag, the T can’t pay for itself although ridership increases.  Projects like the Green Line extension take decades to complete.  Our housing-jobs balance is way out of balance, as costs rise well out of reach of many, even in the middle income ranges. Mirroring a larger trend, the richer are richer, the poor poorer, the middle nonexistent. Environmental worries continue to press on us with increasing urgency, particularly for communities along the coast that will be under water at a catastrophic weather event. Children end up with very different educational experiences in our public schools while our colleges and universities produce some of the brightest and most talented students in the world.  The table is set for a reappraisal of where we are and where we are going. 

Since a very important part of the state’s economic activity is happening in the 2.3 miles between Cambridge's Kendall Square and Boston’s new Innovation District, it is very important that the political leadership of these cities, along with the governor, come together to draw the roadmap for the next eight years.  Some of this is already happening with the recent announcement that Boston, Cambridge, Quincy, Braintree and Somerville will work together on promoting the life sciences, but that is only a first step.

The innovation economy didn’t exist in its current form when Deval Patrick first started running for governor in 2005.  It was a side show to the larger discussion of regional prosperity.  And then it just took off, in part through the drive and intelligence of some very smart people, including Tim Rowe, who found a way to tell the story of Kendall Square and make it into something all by itself.  This has transformed Cambridge and it is transforming the region.

But it hasn't happened without glitches.  The critic would say that, to the contrary, it has happened with little coordination, insufficient communication and no thoughtful planning.  When pharmaceutical giant Vertex announced in 2011 that it was leaving Cambridge for Boston, there were grumblings over the perceived role that then-mayor Tom Menino and Governor Patrick played in facilitating the process.  The story was that by throwing money at the company through tax incentives, Menino convinced Vertex’s CEO to relocate into a new building in Boston’s Innovation District, only a few hundred yards away from where it had been located.  Apparently, Vertex’s decision was made even easier by money that the state put in to the deal.  To everyone on the Cambridge side of the river, this smacked of all the wrong ways of achieving economic development, a proverbial robbing of Peter to pay Paul.

The specifics of the Vertex deal have receded into the background but the parable still lingers on and for good reason.  It is a cautionary tale about how this region should not do economic development.  The new Boston mayor Marty Walsh as well as the Cambridge political establishment and the incoming governor need to get on the same page.  The future prosperity of this region will depend in part on Massachusetts' ability to push this prosperity away from the Red Line corridor, to places like Brockton, Lowell, Lawrence and Worcester. 

Organizations like the Metropolitan Area Planning Council can and should play an important role in bringing the political leadership together.  Often times, in the context of cross-border discussions in this state, politicians need a safe place to have those talks.  As soon as someone appears to be gaming the system, elected officials run for cover.  It's an occupational hazard that comes with the territory, but without dialog, honest open dialog, we’ll never come up with the innovative solutions these regional conundrums require.  And the time to strike is now, when people are new in the work, approaching it with an open mind and not burdened by too much knowledge of all the attempts that failed in the past.  We know that the non-political world is pushing forward at a mind-bending clip.  Our political processes shouldn’t happen that fast.  But they should be able to respond to the challenges of this day, and find the opportunities that exist there, to make sure this region continues to lead America in the 21st century.