Renee Loth

Next on the Hub’s horizon

By Renee Loth
November 20, 2009

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LET’S HOPE Mayor Tom Menino is recovering nicely from his recent knee surgery, and using the unexpected downtime to contemplate something he said shortly after his thumping victory to an unprecedented fifth term.

“What I hope to do in the next four years is take more risk on some of the things we have to deal with in government,’’ he said. A few days earlier he told the Globe’s editorial board, “I have a lot of political capital out there that I haven’t used.’’

Menino is unapologetic about hoarding that capital over the last 16 years, but it seems change is in the air. So here are some ways the mayor can become a really big spender of political coin:

Adopt the harbor: Boston Harbor is a great urban success story, but it is still woefully underutilized. Menino could aim to make Boston’s simply the best, most active harbor in the United States.

First, he should make sure to finish the 3 1/2-mile South Bay Harbor trail that will connect Roxbury, the South End, and Chinatown to the waterfront. This will also provide an important link between the neighborhoods and the Rose Kennedy Greenway. He could order up a new school curriculum that takes advantage of the living laboratory provided by the harbor islands. Boston’s families need more affordable ways to get to the islands, with more frequent ferry service, especially to the gem-like Spectacle Island. And speaking of spectacles, Menino should let bygones be bygones and find a way to bring crowd-pleasing extravaganzas such as the Tall Ships back to Boston.

To win at this, Menino would have do work across many political jurisdictions, from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to the National Park Service, which would be a stretch for him.

Heal the town-gown ruptures: North Allston has a hole in its heart, after being seduced and abandoned by Harvard University. Harvard’s secret predations into Allston were bad enough, but its ambitious expansion plans are now on hold because of the crash in its endowment, leaving behind boarded-up businesses and rats. Menino ought to use a little of that pent-up political capital to “encourage’’ Harvard - and all the universities bent on expansion into Boston - to keep their commitments to the neighborhoods.

Menino has sent a letter to Harvard president Drew Faust, calling on her to make sure the buildings Harvard bought up “contribute to the vitality of the community.’’ But Harvard has been slow to lease the vacant storefronts. Menino should press the university to spend its promised $25 million in community benefits sooner rather than later.

Remake urban education: One of the least credible moments in the mayoral debates came when Menino answered the criticism that 100 of 143 schools in Boston are underperforming by saying that even wealthy communities, like Weston, Wellesley, and Brookline have underperforming schools. “They all fit into the same category we do,’’ he said. Come on. What Boston parent wouldn’t change places in a heartbeat with a school in Weston or Wellesley?

Menino should push for controversial legislative reforms to allow him to enrich the education in every school. Sure it will alienate some of the unions and conflict-averse principals. But that’s what fifth terms are for.Get creative: Last month, Boston hosted its first book festival, which is hard to believe in a city steeped in literary tradition. Philadelphia and Seattle are better known for public art. We aren’t even on the list of cities with the biggest music industries. This month, Boston introduced single-stream recycling, but San Francisco, Seattle, and Boulder, Colo., already have curbside composting in residential neighborhoods.

The point is that other, often smaller, cities are way ahead on innovation. There’s a lot to love about Boston. But with the exception of the Institute of Contemporary Art, most of the institutions Boston is proudest of - Symphony Hall, the public library, Fenway Park - are close to or more than 100 years old.

Set ambitious goals: New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, had a much closer shave for reelection than Menino, but his initiatives have been much bigger. For one, he spearheaded an extensive reimagining of the city’s land use to accommodate what he projects will be 1 million more residents by 2030. Can Menino imagine adding, say, 100,000 to Boston’s population? This would require a housing, jobs, and development strategy on steroids, no doubt. But Paris has roughly the same area as Boston and three times as many residents. A growing city is a dynamic city, not to mention a city that produces more economic development and tax revenue. And that’s something Menino can take to the bank.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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