Kenmore vs. Kendall | Tom Keane

Menino’s top-down vision gives Kenmore a boost

By Tom Keane
May 1, 2011

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A DECADE ago, Kenmore Square woke up only on Red Sox game days. The other 284 days a year it felt sleepy and decrepit, like some beach town in midwinter. No more. Along with Boylston Street in the West Fenway, the area is transforming into an entertainment mecca bustling with a mix of restaurants, retailers, and new residents drawn in by its newfound exuberance. Compare that to Kendall Square, just two miles away in Cambridge. That area is as sterile as the biotech labs that have made it their home, an arid and lifeless patch that at night can sometimes seem positively scary.

The destiny of neither place was foreordained. Indeed, the contrast between the two is striking precisely because they are both so similar. Each is the result of the intersection of several major roads — Broadway and Main Street in Kendall Square, and Commonwealth Avenue, Brookline Avenue, and Beacon Street in Kenmore Square. Each is anchored by an MBTA stop. MIT abuts Kendall Square; Boston University half-surrounds Kenmore. Each is close to residential areas. Historically, the commercial building stock near both squares was dominated by warehouses. Each too has its own movie theater nearby — mass market in Boston and, as befits its image, art-house in Cambridge. In fact, each has its own brewpub.

So why the difference? In large measure, it comes down to the way each city is run.

Cambridge is more a town than a city, with an elected council that squabbles about issues (as is typical of city and town legislative bodies) and a hired city manager — Robert Healy — who actually administers the place. There is a mayor, of sorts, elected by the members of the council, but the position is largely ceremonial.

Boston, on the other hand, has the classic form of big-city governance: strong mayor, weak council. Tom Menino has clout not only because he’s mastered the levers of power during his 18-year tenure, but because the city charter gives him extraordinary latitude to hire, fire, and push through whatever he wants. The City Council’s principal check on him is its power to approve the annual budget. But even here, its influence is limited: It can cut the budget, but not increase it, nor can it reallocate spending among different departments. The vote is essentially up or down and — as Republicans in Washington recently discovered — voting no and shutting down a government is politically dangerous.

Cambridge represents a bottom-up model of ideas bubbling to the surface from a wide variety of sources. It’s small-d democracy in action. Boston is the reverse: a top-down model where the mayor’s office is in near absolute control. If Cambridge is a democracy, Boston is an autocracy.

The difference is clearest when it comes to real estate development. Good development requires two things: a single vision and the political power to push that vision through to reality. Cambridge has no lack of great ideas, but its system gives no one person the authority to pick and choose. Moreover, its surfeit of democracy emboldens the great killer of development — the NIMBY attitude of those who oppose any change. Kendall Square seems a consequence of the aimlessness that results from this formula: lots of good pieces, but nothing that holds together into a coherent whole.

Kenmore Square, conversely, reflects vision and power. The official fiction is the Boston Redevelopment Authority bears responsibility for all development. That’s true, but with a major caveat: The BRA is controlled by the mayor — meaning that the vision and power ultimately stem from Menino’s office. That’s not to say the plans taking shape in the area are all Menino’s; the ideas come from the BRA, developers, and community groups such as the Fenway Community Development Corporation. But ultimately they have to pass the mayor’s muster and secure his backing.

There are downsides to this, of course, many of them well known. Developers on the mayor’s good side get their projects through. Those who have angered him — such as Don Chiofaro, who wants to build a tower on the waterfront — find their proposals sidelined, merit notwithstanding. And of course, making development into something political can mean that a mediocre vision gets built or that great ideas are watered down.

All of these criticisms are true. But in city-building, results matter. Cambridge’s governance feels good. Boston’s gets things done.

Tom Keane writes regularly for the Globe.