Thursday, September 19, 2013

Why I am voting for Mike Ross

Normally I try to stay out of explicit politics on this blog, but there's a huge election coming up on Tuesday: the preliminary election for Mayor and City Council, and it's the biggest one of my generation. With Mayor Menino retiring, there's 12 candidates competing to be the next mayor. There's also 19 City Council at-Large candidates. The preliminary election will narrow the field of mayor from 12 down to 2, and it will narrow the City Council at-Large candidates from 19 to 8.

It's one thing to work on general activism for walkability and public transportation. But the actual policy gets made by elected officials. So it's important to engage with them. And during election season, that means talking to them about issues that are important to you. And finding candidates that agree with you, and helping them to get elected. All the great ideas in the world are not going to help anyone unless you can get elected, or get someone elected who believes in those ideas.

I collected a series of notes earlier about housing issues, but yesterday was the Transportation Forum, and I'm going to refer people to that because there is video and a great questionnaire that goes along with it. Also the Boston Globe published their transportation questionnaire. We're lucky that there's been a lot of focus on transportation and livability issues this cycle. That means that many of the candidates have had to speak about their plans, and at least give lip service to the ideas of promoting walking, biking, public transit, housing development, economic diversity and the like. Maybe it even means that whoever wins will follow through on those promises. With some of them, we can only hope they won't go back on their words.

There is one candidate that I know will be good on these issues and that is why I am voting for Mike Ross in the preliminary election. I don't know if he will be one of the two candidates to pass the threshold next week. There's far too much uncertainty in the race to make any sort of prediction. However Tuesday turns out, I have chosen to support him because I believe he represents the best choice on the issues that I find most important, on the themes that I often cover in this blog.


Mike lives in Mission Hill and represents District 8: including Mission Hill, the Fenway, the Back Bay and Beacon Hill. Of all the candidates, he lives closest to Boston proper. He's represented that district for over 13 years including 2 years as City Council President. Given the choice, I would prefer that Boston not continue to be ruled as a colony of its outer suburbs.

His district includes densely populated residential areas, bustling commercial and mixed use areas, big institutions, major parks, much of the Central Subway and it borders a stretch of the Southwest Corridor. In other words, he has a lot of experience dealing with urban issues.

He lives on a street with a big hospital along one end, and many student-occupied houses adjacent. He has to deal personally with the kind of issues that would be more abstract to someone who lives far away in, say, West Roxbury or Hyde Park, but all too real to someone who lives in Mission Hill, Allston or Roxbury. I think that kind of lived experience is important to have in the mayor of a city like Boston.

Community Organizing

In the past decade, he's helped bring about the revitalization of the West Fens. A stretch of Boylston Street near Fenway Park used to look like a slice of New Jersey: parking lots and fast food chains. Now it's under intense development as a whole new urban corridor, with high-rises and mixed-uses. It's bringing life to an area that's close to downtown but was largely ignored as a Red Sox fiefdom for decades.

At the same time, he's managed to do it in a way that has community buy-in. In other parts of the city, the community bitterly fights any attempt to bring development and life into the area. In the Fenway, he brought together many parties to sit down and plan the development, and as a result, people are happy and welcome the changes coming.

For a nice change of pace, the plan actually includes parking maximums set at 0.75 / unit as well as language and design plans talking about the importance of making a walkable place that is not overwhelmed by cars. Yes, that's right: plans developed through community process that call for fewer parking spaces and more urbanity. I find that very impressive.


I would say that one of the first aspects of his stump speech that stood out to me is his emphasis on the need to build more housing. And not just a little trickle, but large amounts that will help relieve the enormous pressure being put on the neighborhoods. Like in the Fenway, he emphasizes the importance of bringing the community together and planning for the housing expansion, so that it will be done fairly and predictably. But he also emphasizes the need for more than just housing: there are also the amenities which make living in the city feasible and desirable. Markets where you can buy fresh produce and other food. Restaurants where you can go out and socialize. A diversity of retail to bring jobs and life to neighborhoods. And all within walking distance, to make a place that you don't feel forced to drive away from, but rather feel welcome to stay and live in. His answer to the first question of the Transportation forum questionnaire encapsulates this, what he speaks about while on the campaign trail:
I am fortunate enough to live in an extremely livable community, Mission Hill, one that helps to identify for me what the definition of that word truly is. I have access to numerous forms of public transportation like a bike share hub at the bottom of my street, the Green Line on Huntington Avenue, the Orange Line at the other end of Tremont Street next to Columbus Avenue, the bus; the options for getting around the city are limitless. There are community staples--a community health center, a grocery store that provides fresh and healthy food options as well as affordable restaurants are all within walking distance. This is a community that is thriving due in a large part to it's livability and every neighborhood deserves to have this equal access and opportunity.
I hope that you can see why I judge the importance of living in an urban neighborhood of the city so highly. There's a lot more in his housing plan as well, worth a read.


More than any other candidate, Mike Ross has made public transportation a centerpiece of his campaign. To publicize the release of his Transportation plan, he opted to campaign for three days without a car -- a difficult task given the MBTA in its current decrepit state. The Boston Globe called it a "gimmick," but it was more than any other candidate dared to do, and I think that shows just how out of touch the Globe is. For some of us, going car-free is not a "gimmick" but our everyday lives.

Mike has worked on transit issues in the past. The Night Owl was an attempt to provide late night MBTA service from 2001 to 2005 that Mike pushed for back when he first arrived on the City Council. It wasn't able to be made sustainable at the time, but it looks like the time is ripe for it again, and he has pledged to bring it back as mayor.

He believes in the importance of transit oriented development:
Transit-oriented development (TOD) has the potential to spark investment in parts of our city that need it most. Mixed-use housing and commercial development in close proximity to T stops supports MBTA ridership, sustainable development, and creates greater connections for neighborhoods.
[...] As Mayor, I will improve and modernize zoning and permitting processes in order to facilitate more transit-oriented development in Boston to promote greater transit ridership and create more sustainable and livable communities. A successful public transit system is dependent on riders' access to transit stops. Promoting mixed-use housing and commercial development in close proximity to T stops and transit hubs makes taking the T an easy option for residents. It's also a sustainable way to develop our neighborhoods and jumpstart business districts near T stops.
And he is also supportive of reducing the destructive parking quotas which have been plaguing our city since the 1950s. Furthermore, when asked about parking around the city, he responded by talking about the possibilities of "parking benefit districts" (see also this PDF) which is absolutely stunning to be hearing from a potential mayor. This is the kind of thinking which lives up to the slogan "Boston Smarter."

Although I'm not personally much of a bicycling activist, I do support it, and his Transportation Plan pledges to make Boston the #1 city in America for cyclists, and lists a number of ways he intends to go about it. That includes hiring a transportation director with a strong cycling background, building more cycle tracks, and adding more bike lanes elsewhere.

Also, if you haven't read his response to the Transportation Forum questionnaire yet, I recommend it.

Other issues

Mike worked to bring food trucks to Boston and pushed back against entrenched bureaucracy that didn't want to be bothered dealing with it.

He was willing to bring in ideas from other cities to improve our public spaces. Such as in the Common, which now has a new sandwich shop. That replaced a decrepit structure that was blighting the vicinity, and the idea came from NYC's Central Park.

When he first took office, the Red Sox were prepared to scrap Fenway Park -- in his district -- and demand a large subsidy from the city to replace it. Instead he worked to convince the owners to renovate the park, not replace it. Personally, I like baseball, and I like Fenway Park. But even if you don't care for baseball, thanks in part to his efforts, the city wasn't weaseled out of a half-billion of taxpayer dollars or worse to build a new stadium. I think that's a win for good government.

In 2008, at the depth of the recession, the firefighters union demanded a huge raise that would have cost the city an extra $45 million it didn't have. Libraries were going to be closed, including one in my area. Mike was able to negotiate with the union leadership and save that money, save the libraries, and do it without alienating the union. I believe in the importance of unions, and yet, also believe that they are just one side of the balance that needs to be maintained, with the needs of the public represented strongly by elected officials.

The topic of schools is admittedly out of my element, but, I am happy with his plans: more availability of vocational schooling at the upper end, early pre-K at the lower end, and a longer school day for arts. I know he also worked to get an elementary school opened in the North End (actually in the old Romney HQ) which is the first one in the area since the 1970s. That's pretty cool, and will help families stay in the city.


I think that housing and transportation policies have many side effects on a wide variety of city issues, ranging from safety, parks and public health, to education, as well. That's why I focus on those two. It's important to have a diversity of housing options to suit a diversity of people and their economic means. Otherwise you end up with a segregated society. And it's important to have neighborhoods where people feel safe and welcome when walking. Our streets are our largest public space, and if they become depopulated, they become unsafe. If parents don't feel safe, then they won't let their kids walk, and then those kids will lose out on the main advantage of being in a city: having a place to grow up which is bigger, more engaging, and more diverse than your own backyard. Not all learning occurs at school. If children are being shuttled around between controlled locations exclusively by private vehicles, then what's the difference between that and being in a sprawling suburb?

As you may have noticed, I've spent a long time thinking about this. Probably too long. I may not change anyone's mind, but I'm hoping that this discussion may help someone looking for help with deciding. These are the issues that I find important, and these are the reasons why I am voting for Mike Ross for mayor.

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