Monday, June 30, 2008

Jan.-June: The Big Issues on Beacon Hill

We're at the halfway point of the year. I thought I would review what were in my opinion the top six issues that percolated on Beacon Hill in Boston during the last six months, just for fun. Here goes:

6. Boston Common Activity
From March until December of last year, the City of Boston renovated the Parade Grounds on the Boston Common (roughly the area above the Boston Common Garage). Ever since that effort began, the rumblings about the proper use of the Boston Common have resonated. They have gotten pretty loud this year, probably at their loudest when the Boston City Council hosted a public hearing on the Common. Your latest update: Kudos to Boston City Councilor Mike Ross, who went to New York City recently to survey how Boston's rival city makes use of public areas. The creative juices are flowing. A cafe on Boston Common? A mid-afternoon hot dog and beverage near the frog pond? Why not.

5. Towing for Street Cleaning
Last year, Boston Public Works Chief Dennis Royer instituted the most aggressive policy on towing imaginable. With the use of outside contractors, he removed cars whenever he could, in all neighborhoods, when those cars were parked illegally. The good news? Street cleaners could reach the curb, and when that happens, the cleaners actually make a difference. The bad news? Dozens of neighbors had their cars towed, which is not a pleasant experience. The Boston City Council held two hearings, one earlier this year, to discuss whether the towing should be eased so as to reduce the burden. While I empathize with those whose cars are towed, the benefits outweigh the inconvenience. And I am happy the aggressive towing remains, thanks to Chief Royer and Mayor Tom Menino.

4. The Parade vs. the Primary
For two weeks ahead of the Super Bowl (where the Patriots played the Giants), downtown neighborhoods braced for a potential disaster. We learned that, at the request of the NFL, the Superbowl parade would be scheduled on the Tuesday following Superbowl Sunday, which in Boston would be the same day as the Massachusetts Democratic Primary. Unlike some previous contests, turnout for the primary was expected to be high. However, the planned parade route in Boston, if based on previous years, would potentially block polling locations (in particular the West End Library and City Hall, which are polling locations for Beacon Hill residents). The image aroused tales of a potential apocalypse. How could something as American as the Superbowl directly lead to a restriction of voting rights? In the end, there was one minor twist to the tale that saved us all. The Patriots lost the game. Do we have Eli Manning to thank for an event-free election day?

3. Phillips Street Park
Let's face it, Phillips Street Park, a tiny enclave of land tucked away on a residential street in Beacon Hill, looks tired. More importantly, the only drainage point in the park is the back yard of the home of Rajan Nanda and his wife. So the City of Boston appropriated money to renovate the park and fix the drainage issue. Easy enough, right? Well, as I was to learn, redesigning a public space that is within baseball-throwing distance of hundreds of residents is not as easy as one public meeting. Try four, as well as countless phone and in-person meetings, and a process that took well over a year. In the end, the design for Phillips Street Park is a compromise that pleases no one but benefits many. Kudos to Karin Mathiesen in Mike Ross' office, and to the City of Boston Parks Department, for their hard work over the many months.

2. The Storrow Drive Tunnel
I don't understand all the ins and outs of the Storrow Drive tunnel issue, but it goes something like this. Storrow Drive is falling apart, slowly but surely. To figure out how to fix it, the State (which owns the land) started a public process. The State told the public it was considering creating a bypass road into the Esplanade while the Tunnel was to be repaired. The Beacon Hill and Back Bay neighborhoods went crazy (and rightly so, in my opinion). A fellow board member on the Beacon Hill Civic Association threatened to tie herself to an Esplanade tree in protest. The State retracted the idea and the public process has stopped. From that point, it gets hazy in my recollection, but I have heard that there are repair efforts under way on a limited basis (i.e. at night when traffic is light) on the tunnel. Note to self: Don't mess with the Esplanade.

1. Suffolk University's Institutional Master Plan (IMP)
If you are at all surprised by the number one item on this list, you need a Beacon Hill 101 refresher course (maybe Suffolk would offer one?). I have never seen any other issue suck all of the oxygen out of public discourse more than this issue has over the past several months. It was a lesson in town-and-gown, NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) politics, and age prejudice all wrapped into one. In the end, the Beacon Hill Civic Association and Suffolk reached an agreement. Many of my neighbors and Suffolk officials spent several late nights to hammer out the deal. I look forward to working with Suffolk this Summer as we prepare for move-in day in September (for the past two years, I have walked the neighborhood with some friends who work at Suffolk and neighbors to welcome our new residents).

Fittingly enough, official word of the Boston Redevelopment Authority's approval of the Suffolk IMP reached my email inbox today. The last day of June. Six months of '08 down, six to go.

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