Minino's blind spot
By Joan Vennochi, Globe Staff, 03/28/00
Burned again. That is the subplot of the story that developer Robert F.
Walsh - a close friend of Mayor Thomas M. Menino - owed close to $200,000 in
back mortgage payments on a Dorchester subsidized housing project.
The disclosure of Walsh's debt last week by the Boston Herald was aimed at
embarrassing the Boston Red Sox as they advance plans for a publicly
The ballclub has a passive investment interest in the housing development
through the Jean Yawkey Trust, which controls the Red Sox and is one of five
limited partners in the Latin Academy project.
But who should really be embarrassed? Tom Menino.
How can Boston's "housing mayor" allow a dear friend like Walsh to make a
mockery of affordable housing, an issue Menino supposedly cares so much about?
The question has been raised before and the answer remains the same. Menino
is a well-intentioned chief executive with a bad blind spot. He continues to
let a small circle of friends control too many important projects. That is not
good for Boston's long-range development picture.
At the same time the mayor runs this place like a small town, he continues
to proclaim Boston as a big city at an important crossroads.
It has a hot economy, a hot image, and the unimaginable for an old seaport
- still undeveloped, hot waterfront property. Unfortunately, what cools all
the hotness down is the mayor's continuing loyalty to the tepid or mediocre.
It is seen, for example, in Menino's appointment of Mark Maloney as
director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
Maloney, a nice person with decent housing credentials, will never lead the
way on downtown development. He can't; he doesn't have the background or
desire. Instead, he will follow Menino's lead, whether or not it takes the
city where it should.
Following Menino's lead puts Boston under the sway of one neighborhood -
South Boston. Following Menino's lead puts Boston in the grip of friends like
Walsh, a golfing buddy and member of the mayor's kitchen Cabinet.
It is bad enough that the mayor's friend got 11 months behind on mortgage
payments and ignored efforts by the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency to
recover the late payments, reportedly asking state officials, "Don't you know
who I am?" It is even worse that Walsh is development adviser to the Boston
Does anyone really understand where Walsh's private interest ends and
Menino's public interest begins? How can anyone, including Menino, think it is
a good idea for Walsh to be a point man on anything as controversial and
complicated as the plan for a new Fenway?
While there is probably no such thing as an arms-length business
transaction in Boston, Menino and Walsh aren't just holding hands. They are
locked in a tight embrace.
Walsh urges the Red Sox to propose hotel, retail, and office projects
around the new ballpark. The mayor tells the press the project "has to be more
than a ballpark." Coincidence - or behind-the-scenes cooperation between
The Fenway project is one of many under Walsh's control, all over the city.
He's the project manager for a new development in Fort Point Channel. He won a
no-bid contract to build the South End Community Health Center, funded in part
by grants from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. He played a
role in relocating the Harborlights summer music tent and is aiding the
Massachusetts Port Authority in that agency's plans for hotels, office
buildings, and residences on the South Boston waterfront.
Walsh is also involved in a deal to revitalize a boarded up section of
housing development in South Boston.
There is a small group of others who walk that same line, balancing
longtime friendship with the mayor and high-yield business interests with the
city. Menino defends everyone in the group and gets angry when his integrity
or theirs is called into question.
The mayor is right that the system has not proven to be corrupt - at least
not yet. But it is already claustrophobic, small-minded, and small-thinking.
You are wondering why a city filled with hard-driving money managers and
high-flying venture capitalists is slow to move and dull when it does?
Because the hard-driving, high-flying types are not developing property.
The new Boston has been left to the old Boston - the mayor's friends. They
keep burning him, and he keeps playing with fire.