Additionally, Wu notably missed a number of high-profile groundbreaking ribbon cuttings and ceremonies — bread-and-butter events for his predecessors — including the June opening of Amazon’s new building in the Seaport District. and an event a few days later to celebrate a Massachusetts Turnpike Bridge that will house an office and lab tower and hotel. Governor Charlie Baker attended both events.
Developers “used to have the best seat at the table, and now they’re right at the table, and it’s a change for them,” said Erin O’Brien, a politics professor at the University. from Massachusetts to Boston. “The fact that they are complaining tells you that the power dynamics in Boston are changing. And that’s what Michelle Wu’s coalition wanted.
Indeed, Wu adheres closely to a populist agenda that got him elected in a landslide, an agenda guided by the priorities of community groups, not commercial interests. It’s about a rebalancing of power by the city’s first woman, person of color, and millennial to be elected mayor. And the developers are uncomfortable as Wu sets out to deliver on his campaign promises to blow up the city’s development process, limit rent growth and extract more affordable housing funding from big builders.
The way Wu deals with developers also provides a window into how she governs. In an interview, Wu said she believed city hall could be more effective if it held its chiefs of staff and department heads accountable, and credited this approach for enabling his administration to launch new initiatives in areas such as child care, climate resilience and downtown revitalization.
“There are so many self-governing leaders within the City Hall organization taking on this job versus one person at the top, a bottleneck approving every decision,” she said.
Wu acknowledges that it took a long time to fill key positions in her administration — largely because she had a truncated two-week transition from Election Day to taking office — while running the city. through another surge of COVID-19.
“My goal from the start has been to strengthen our team at City Hall, so that we can do as much as possible in collaboration with community members,” she added. “That meant I couldn’t attend all the meetings I wanted, especially some of the one-on-ones.”
Likewise, this is why Wu missed important real estate events, noting that June was a particularly busy month for his administration.
Still, with the bulk of her Cabinet roles now filled — including superintendent of Boston public schools, police commissioner and director of the Boston Planning and Development Agency — Wu said she waits for his calendar to become available.
“As our team solidifies, I will have more time for more of these meetings and appearances,” she said.
Developers, however, shouldn’t expect a return to business as usual.
They have cultivated relationships with mayors over the years for a reason: they need the blessing of the town hall to launch their projects. And other mayors have obliged, in part because new buildings generate revenue for the city budget. Property taxes account for nearly three-quarters of the city’s revenue, compared to two and a half decades ago – and the majority comes from taxes on “commercial, industrial and personal property”, not residences.
Menino relished the influence he had on developers, taking a hands-on approach to real estate projects, leaning into such detail as what the top of a Back Bay skyscraper should look like.
Walsh didn’t get as involved as Menino, instead of delegating the job of managing a massive construction boom to redesign and renamed BPDA. But as a former construction union leader, Walsh understood industry and knew what the development meant for Boston’s jobs and economy, and was known in real estate circles for taking meetings with developers.
When Janey became acting mayor after Walsh became U.S. Labor Secretary last year, it too maintained an open-door policy with developers. And when she ran for mayor, prominent developers and real estate lawyers sat on her campaign finance committee.
Even though Wu served as a longtime city councilor before being elected mayor, she was never known to have a particularly close relationship with the downtown business community, and her campaign received relatively few donations from the real estate industry, especially in the early months of last year’s wide-open primary.
With Wu in charge of City Hall, developers should expect to first meet Arthur Jemison, who started in late May as chief planner and director of the BPDA. Wu introduced Jemison to a few dozen developers at a rally at the city-owned Parkman House in April, and several say they have met him individually since then. The developers are encouraged that someone is now in charge of the agency, but are worried about the loss of personnel. More than 100 people have left the BPDA since 2020, and many positions remain vacant.
“I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t want to be successful,” said longtime Boston real estate attorney and former city councilman Larry DiCara. “But she probably spent less time talking to business leaders than many of her predecessors.”
The issue of Wu’s business connections was raised at a recent meeting of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce’s executive committee. While chamber chief executive Jim Rooney said he speaks frequently with the mayor about issues such as schools and downtown revival, other leaders have struggled to figure out how to work with her. .
“They are still trying to figure out how to deal with City Hall. That’s the stage we’re in,” Rooney said. “We must all practice the art of being patiently impatient.”
Developer Richard Taylor said members of the business community are going through a bit of a culture shock.
“The business community, especially the real estate community, needs to understand this is different and adjust our thinking about how to work with city hall,” said Taylor, who is developing city-owned land on the place Nubian of Roxbury and make an offer. on another city-owned plot in Roxbury.
As Ron O’Hanley, chief executive of State Street Corp. and chairman of the chamber council, the business community ultimately needs the support of the mayor, and vice versa.
“The region won’t succeed if it doesn’t succeed,” O’Hanley said. “I’m confident she will have a big impact, and I think it’s incumbent on all of us to work with her.”
While developers may feel uncomfortable with Wu, it’s a different story with community leaders and activists – many of whom feel heard and seen for the first time in a long time.
Take Wu’s negotiation of massive business development plans from Harvard to Allston. To address neighborhood concerns, Wu suspended the city’s review of a mixed-use complex proposed by New York real estate giant Tishman Speyer on Harvard land.
She met representatives of the promoter and the university, as well as local elected officials. As Harvard and Tishman Speyer offered mitigation measures — more affordable housing, more master plans — and neighbors remained wary, Wu called a meeting at city hall in June to negotiate a peace.
Tony D’Isidoro, head of the Allston Civic Association, said Wu spoke first, then Jemison. Then, D’Isidoro had the opportunity to speak alongside two neighborhood activists, in front of Harvard or the promoters.
“I think that sent a message to Harvard and Tishman Speyer,” D’Isidoro said, “that she wasn’t going to move forward until she had the assurance from the community .”
In fact, Wu called D’Isidoro days before the BPDA approved the first phase of the project in July to make sure he was on board.
For State Rep. Mike Moran, a Wu supporter who represents Allston, this meeting was a watershed moment to bring all of the major stakeholders to the table — not just Harvard and the developers, but the Allston groups as well. Brighton and local elected officials – on an equal footing.
“That never happened. . . down to Michelle Wu,” Moran said.
He added that no one should be surprised by this approach. Wu presented himself as a reformer.
“I don’t necessarily think she’s anti-business,” Moran said. “There’s another way to do business now.”
Shirley Leung is a business columnist. She can be contacted at [email protected] Jon Chesto can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto. Catherine Carlock can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @bycathcarlock.