Wednesday, April 11, 2007

John Tobin's proposal merits support

The new city hall shouldn't be
Windsor Castle on the waterfront

by Kevin John Sowyrda

Note - This is an advance copy of Boston and Beyond which will appear in the South End News ( on news stands in Boston this Thursday.

It's shaping up to be the Taj Mahal of Boston, a new city hall to replace the 1962 architectural monstrosity that never passed for one except in the eyes of the less than sober architects who gave birth to that thing; they being Edward Knowles, Gerhard M. Kallmann and Noel McKinnell - all of whom should thank God that creating nauseating physicality is not a capital crime, though I'm sure the Landmark Commission would like to change that.

Mayor Menino finally agrees with this writer and so many others that Boston needs a city hall that can be navigated by pedestrians who left their GPS devices in the glove compartment. Good for the mayor to finally jump on our bandwagon. Great idea, Your Honor. But Mayor Menino seems inclined to build the new complex on highly coveted and valuable waterfront property in South Boston with significant amenities for city councilors. Bad idea, Your Honor. The waterfront should be left to developers who will build and then contribute needed tax dollars to the city treasury. The new city hall should go exactly where citizens can best reach it and be built in the most economical fashion possible with austerity and accessibility being the watchwords for the project.

If bureaucrats desire fancy offices, let them have the sensibility to do what former Councilor Paul Scappichio did - quit and join the private sector.

But the political bellies are nonetheless rumbling with hunger. Political support for the new seat of municipal government at a fabulous waterfront perch has been garnered only with the promise of handsome garnishments. It's common knowledge that many city councilors are communicating regularly with the officials who've already been given $100,000 for initial design concepts. You can bet your property tax bill that members of that august legislative body will want bigger offices, because in politics size really does matter.

First, the mayor should scuttle the waterfront property concept before the feeding frenzy gets out of control. The land is simply too valuable for a government building and the mayor's theory that public sector construction there will stimulate further development is not backed up by the facts. Has the Moakley Court House achieved that goal? Sam Tyler of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau put it this way when I picked his brain on the subject earlier this week. "I don't think we need city hall at Dry Dock Number Four to encourage development. It will develop itself."

So I give you the Tobin plan. The front bencher on the city council, John Tobin, was absolutely the first voice in the city calling for a new municipal headquarters. In an interview this week Tobin told me that the new city hall should be built where the present city hall is today, complete with a sizable, cash generating underground garage. One political observer I spoke with noted that the vast expanse of concrete at city hall plaza can accommodate construction of the new building while the one being put to pasture continues to serve constituents. When construction is completed, the city will have plenty of turf to sell to anxious developers sure to be interested in premium downtown property where public transportation is already excellent, thanks to the Green and Orange lines of the M.B.T.A.

Wherever the new city hall goes, not all the city departments of the day need go there. It would be wise to create a new city hall with a new attitude about government - that only those departments truly worthy of taxpayer support should be brought along for the new ride. Hence, departments like intergovernmental affairs can be left behind for the demo crew. The last time I checked we have a plethora of state reps, a few congressmen and two able senators who are all well equipped to liaison with the state and federal governments. The money saved should go to hiring more cops.

And no space will be needed for the utterly absurd Office of New Bostonians. First, there's nothing for the staff there to do since no sane person is moving here. Second, the money saved is better spent on more cops.

Other departments best left to demolition foreman are the Women's Commission and the Rental Housing Resource Center. These departments may have highly noble mandates, but the money is still better spent on more cops.

If the new city hall is built with economies of scale and architectural sensibility first in mind, it will change Boston's downtown for decades to come. The mayor should immediately adopt Tobin's vision, which merits support.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

City Manager for Boston

Issue Date: 4/5/2007, Posted On: 4/4/2007

Boston and Beyond

Kevin John Sowyrda
Crime is “not out of control” and, “this city works” and “the bad guys don’t control the city,” Mayor Menino told the people of Dorchester earlier this week. Between gun shots and belly laughs, that is. Had he continued to share his eccentric view of the world at large, he probably would have added that Elvis is alive, the Celtics play mind-boggling basketball and that he’s soon to be beaming up to the Mother Ship for advice on a presently doomed reelection bid — which would explain his present politically catatonic state of mind.

Mayor Menino is not well, anymore than the city is well. This is the nature of politics given the fact that leaders and their spheres of influence have purely symbiotic relationships. When the mayor is sick, the city is ailing; and when the city is failing, so too is Hizzoner.

With a nearly 50 percent increase in the Hub’s murder rate compared to that of last year, the mayor’s painfully oblivious attitude and his moribund intent to paint a Norman Rockwell picture of a mountain of crime scenes is disturbing, at best. I’m beginning to consider the possibility that Hizzoner just rented the new Marie Antoinette movie staring Kirsten Dunst and simply took to heart the Queen’s blissful oblivion amidst popular suffering, figuring maybe that little Austrian was on to something. But the mayor must have missed the movie’s ending, don’t you think?

Today’s suffering will be ignored by our leaders only at their peril. The suffering can be seen in the faces of victims’ families who seem ill satisfied by a figure head at city hall who wants us to eat cake. After all, Hizzoner is hardly affected by pedestrian life in Boston — given the many armaments I suspect are tucked underneath the JC Penny suits of his around the clock body guard detail.

Accordingly, putting all hyperbole in a lock box for however brief a moment, we should consider the following. It’s time for the city to self-revolutionize and form an entirely new government structure which has the expertise to address the mounting challenges of the day.

The era of boss hog politicians running the melting pots of America should be over and give way to the growing trend of professionalizing municipal government. This wave of depoliticizing local services first began in the Commonwealth in the 1950s. Since then there has been a gradual march to reform and improve city and town governance by vesting executive powers in appointed public policy wonks, as is the case in Cambridge which is administrated by City Manager Robert W. Healy. If you ever wondered what people do after graduating from the Kennedy School of Government, now you know.

Boston should just do it. An appointed, ceremonial mayor — from the ranks of the city council — would be just fine for the mundane tasks of ribbon cutting and parading handsomely at holiday occasions. But a qualified city manager, given a lengthy contract for cover from undue political influence, will clearly alleviate the growing anxiety in the neighborhoods that there’s no one at the City Hall helm who has the intellectual power, the imagination or the political independence to lead the Hub through the tough times ahead. Imagine a city chief executive forbidden to raise campaign funds. Imagine a city chief executive who doesn’t have to worry about what the pollsters say or what the developers want him to do. Imagine a city chief executive who can actually speak the English language.

I’m not holding my breath for things to change in Boston overnight. I sadly anticipate that Menino’s failure to lead during this crime crisis will continue long after my hair turns even grayer. That’s why those citizens who are able to will continue to pack up the U-Haul and head for the ’burbs because many people think that Boston is no longer a safe home for families.

But before the Diaspora of the middle class reaches a critical stage, Boston needs to terminate business as usual. The overtly strong mayoral form of government has done little to improve life in Boston, and a significant change in the city charter is long overdue.

It would be difficult for present circumstances to be any worse under the changes I propose. And I’m the first man who will support Tom Menino for the position of ribbon cutter and parade marcher at large.