The Path to Vibrant Storefronts in Boston

Anyone who walks the streets of Boston in 2019 can tell it’s an exciting time in our city. While Boston has its challenges, we are fortunate to have a historically low unemployment rate, thriving industries, and a growing population. Our city’s vibrant small business districts are both a cause and a consequence of this prosperity. Yet visiting those business districts presents a paradox: why do some storefronts on bustling main streets remain vacant year after year?

Boston, like many high-cost cities around the world, faces a persistent problem of long-term vacancies. As the old problem of urban blight recedes, prosperity brings with it an opposite challenge: commercial rents too high for local small businesses to fill empty space. Periodic vacancies of a few months or even a year are a normal part of a bustling business district, and no landlord should be begrudged the occasional turnover necessary to bring their property to its best use. Yet vacancies of five years, ten years or even longer in otherwise prosperous business districts have no place on a healthy main street. 

The causes of long-term vacancy are many, from charging a rent that is too high to keep a tenant, not offering a property for rent while waiting for its value to rise, using losses from vacant space to offset taxes, changes in retail from online commerce, or even the City permitting process. Some of these challenges can be tackled by local government, while others are beyond our power to address. What is clear is that no matter what the cause is or where the vacant property is located, vacancy creates holes in the fabric of our neighborhoods. At it worst, vacancy creates a negative spiral: perennially empty storefronts reduce foot traffic, which hurts neighboring businesses, which can then create more vacancies. In one block on Boylston Street with multiple vacancies, small business owners have reported a 25% reduction in revenue as vacancy spreads.

At the Boston City Council hearing I hosted on the vacancy problem along with my colleague, Council President Andrea Campbell, we heard from residents, business groups, and city officials eager to solve this issue. We learned that while long-term vacancy is at times due to the economic and tax incentives of a large landlord, it is also a result of legacy owners unfocused on benefiting from their property. The hearing highlighted the efforts of Arlington to tackle an epidemic of vacant storefronts in their downtown area through a modest $400 annual fee. The popular policy brought landlords and the city’s economic development department to the table, reducing Arlington’s downtown vacancies by 40%.

Boston needs similar tools in our economic development toolbox-- not to penalize landlords, but to benefit the small businesses who should have access to vacant space. Such policies win high marks from residents who deserve thriving main streets in their neighborhoods. My hope is that any vacancy fee would raise $0, as landlords of long-term vacant storefronts step up and do the right thing. In turn, the City should partner with them by streamlining the permitting for pop-up locations that activate the streetscape while waiting for a long-term tenant. When a restaurant deal at the Roslindale substation fell through, the landlord and local main streets organization came together to bring pop-up beer halls to the space temporarily. The resulting foot traffic has benefited every business in the area while helping local brewers like Turtle Swamp Brewery test out a second location. 

Not every main street is like Roslindale Village, and others like Dudley Square or Egleston Square may need more carrots than sticks to end long-term vacancies. But this vacancy initiative, and the data collection to accompany it, will help us think differently about the space within our shared city. With Boston’s property in such high demand, letting storefronts sit unused for years is a disservice to the neighboring businesses and people being priced out of Boston. I foresee new business owners given a chance, pop-up art galleries and studios, new services for our neighborhoods, and more uses we have yet to imagine if we succeed at replacing vacancy with vibrancy in the City of Boston.

A Different Type of Campaign

The 2019 municipal election will be held this November and I'm going to let you all in on a little secret: I'm running for reelection to serve as your District 6 City Councilor! We've had some great success during my time on the Council and I'm proud of our record of results. But we still have a lot of work to do around climate change and resiliency; strengthening our public schools; traffic, pedestrian, and cyclist safety; small business development; affordable housing; not to mention our focus on delivering top notch constituent services.

My favorite part of campaigning is going door-to-door. This weekend, I'm going to begin our reelection canvassing efforts and I'm looking forward to seeing you at your door. In the weeks ahead, we'll also begin hosting house parties throughout the district, as well as other retail campaigning events (you'll no doubt bump into me at train/commuter rail stops, coffee shops, and supermarkets!).

Next month, I'll be hosting my traditional neighborhood-specific campaign kickoffs (save the dates: We'll be at the Squealing Pig in West Roxbury on 5/15 and Turtle Swamp Brewing in JP on 6/19; both events start at 5:30pm).

For the upcoming campaign, we're going to do something a little bit different. In addition to the typical retail politicking, I'm going to use this election as an opportunity to highlight some of the incredible non-profits in our district and invite you to service projects around them.

In the weeks and months ahead, you might see Team O'Malley supporting the Jason Roberts Challengers League on the field at the Ohrenberger, or volunteering at the Sherrill House in JP.  You might see us helping to clean up Lawson's Place in Egleston Square or supporting the efforts of Community Servings. We could be helping to deliver meals with Ethos or manning the grill at Mildred Hailey summer barbecues. Sometimes it may just be me, other times, we'll be bringing several dozen people. There's no shortage of incredible non-profits and service agencies in District 6, and we want to support and highlight as many as possible. 

What are some organizations that you'd like us to support?  Please let us know in the comment section below.

West Roxbury Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Meeting

On Wednesday, February 27th, I organized a community meeting on pedestrian and traffic safety alongside Senator Mike Rush, Representative Ed Coppinger, the Mayor’s office, and the Boston Police Department. At the meeting, we heard from Chief of Streets Chris Osgood, Northeastern Professor Peter Furth, and the community. All 200+ people in attendance were moved by the grace and strength of the Wentworth family as they shared their story and offered thoughtful and effective suggestions for making our streets safer.

Captain Therese Kozmiski and Sgt. Scott O’Mara of Area E-5 Police Station explained how Boston Police have stepped up their enforcement on our streets. This issue is personal to Captain Kozmiski, and she has made sure that her team is out there every day. Area E-5’s crosswalk citations, typically an average of 50 a month, increased to 80 in the month of February. Area E-5 has also increased their motor vehicle citations by 118 per month compared to last year’s statistics.

Chris Osgood of the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) shared that Centre Street and neighboring streets will be a priority. BTD has already engaged a consultant to complete a Centre Street traffic and safety study that will result in a community process for comprehensive safety improvements and changes to the area. They also plan to redo a number of crosswalks, add signage, and employ other short-term strategies to improve safety.

Boston resident and Northeastern Professor Peter Furth spoke about an academic study of safety changes to Centre Street conducted by one of his students. The study concluded that a ‘road diet’ would be the best solution for safety on Centre Street: having one lane in each direction with a shared dedicated turning lane. After the crash, I reached out to Professor Furth to discuss the notion of a road diet, and left our meeting feeling that it is the best option for bringing about transformative change and getting us closer to Vision Zero.

We heard testimony from close to 50 residents who shared their concerns. Many residents supported the road diet concept, and several mentioned the need for dedicated bike lanes, while others mentioned concerns about traffic diverting to side streets and impacts on parking. Residents’ concerns were not limited to Centre Street. We heard about pedestrian safety in front of the Beethoven School on Washington St., Billings Field on LaGrange St., and safety in general on Washington St., Spring St. and Weld St. I think one thing nearly everyone can agree on is that rather than piecemeal changes, we have to tackle this problem with a holistic approach.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Chief Osgood announced that we’ll convene a follow-up meeting in June (once the traffic study has concluded) and present the findings to the neighborhood.

 

If you were not able to attend, I provided surveys to residents to list their biggest concerns; my team and I are compiling your thoughts to share them with BTD. In addition, I created a “Drive Slow Boston” sign so that neighbors will have a way to act immediately to improve safety and raise awareness around our neighborhood. My team and I will be happy to bring a sign to anyone who wants to put one up in your front yard. If you would like to complete a survey or receive a sign, please click on this link: www.votemattomalley.com/safety.

Our meeting in February, and countless conversations with residents who have reached out to me, has shown me that the Parkway community can come together to support each other through tragedy and find solutions to fix any problem. I hope that in the months and years to come we continue to show each other that our commitment to a safe and neighborly community can only become stronger when we work together.

Shortly after her election to the council, my former colleague (and now rock star Congresswoman) Ayanna Pressley formed a new standing committee on our body: the Committee on Healthy Women, Families, and Communities.  I proudly served as AP’s Vice-Chair and assumed the Chairmanship once she joined Congress earlier this year.

In my time on the body, I’ve almost exclusively chaired the Committee on the Environment (which, for you fellow #bospoli nerds, began as the Committee on Environment and Health, followed by the Committee on Environment and Parks, then the Committee on the Environment and Sustainability, and now stands as the Committee on Environment, Sustainability, and Parks.  It goes without saying that I’m passionate about both the environment and the Oxford comma!

I’m truly honored to now chair these two great Committees.


What’s the benefit of chairing a Committee?

You can set the calendar for hearings, working sessions, and actions to be taken (unless it is an ordinance or law; that goes through the Government Operations Committee).

You can dive as deeply into learning about a given topic, studying the problems posed by that policy area, and working to address and fix those challenges.


My team and I have used the Chairmanship of the Environment Committee is a prime example of these benefits. We have worked to address one of the most consequential issues of our time, climate change, by focusing on city policies and initiatives that create sustainability, resiliency, and environmental justice while reducing our carbon footprint. We’ve had some big success stories, but we’re motivated by all the work still to do.

This week, I’m excited to introduce my first order for the Committee on Healthy Women, Families, and Communities. I will submit, along with Councilor Kim Janey, an order for a hearing on “Black Maternal Health, Racial and Gender Equity in the Healthcare System in the City of Boston,” Docket #0396.

Among developed countries, the United States has the highest rate of deaths from causes related to or aggravated by pregnancy.  Data from the Centers for Disease Control show that the maternal mortality rate for black women is 40 deaths per 100,000 births, compared to 12.4 per 100,000 births for white women. These statistics are frightening.

Massachusetts, as with many policy issues such as gun reform and education, leads nationally in maternal health. Yet the same racial disparities persist in our state and in our city. Recently, the Massachusetts State Health Assessment discovered that black mothers continue to have the most limited access to prenatal care. Moreover, the percentage of black mothers suffering from the symptoms of postpartum depression is three times higher than the percentage for white mothers in Massachusetts.

The purpose of the hearing is to convene all of the relevant stakeholders: hospitals, universities, public health institutions, community health centers, and, most importantly, Boston’s community leaders, who have been working on these issues for quite some time. We aim to hold an honest conversation on this issue, hear from women experiencing challenges in the healthcare system, learn from their stories, and address the social determinants of inequities in health.

I’m fully cognizant that we can’t solve this problem with one hearing, but we can certainly begin to address it, and hopefully set the stage for reducing health disparities in the future. Let’s get to work.  

Office Hours on the Go: So You Don’t Have to Complain About the T Alone

This morning I held the first in a series of Office Hours on the T. As some readers may know, one of my favorite aspects of my job is holding district office hours. It gives me an opportunity to hear directly from my neighbors while letting them know what my office is working on (not unlike what I hope this blog can accomplish). While we typically alternate morning office hours between different local businesses throughout District 6, occasionally we’ll try novel ways to reach folks. Several years ago, I held Office Hours on the Run with neighborhood jogs and I’m thrilled to resurrect those on this Saturday, 2/23, at 9am at Jamaica Pond – so bring your running shoes and join me!

For today’s office hours I caught the 51 bus to Forest Hills, took the Orange Line to Green Street Station, and after 30 minutes talking with folks there, I hopped back on the Orange Line to State to finish my commute to City Hall.  We heard from quite a few constituents who read about Office Hours on the Go on social media, and several others who just happened to bump into us. It was a terrific opportunity to discuss transportation infrastructure, public safety, and Boston Public Schools, as well as some more light-hearted topics like Netflix recommendations (Kathryn and I watched the documentary, Abducted in Plain Sight last night. It was chilling for a whole host of reasons).

We’ll continue holding these Office Hours on the Go in the weeks and months ahead. In addition to more T office hours and this weekend’s 5K run around Jamaica Pond (fun fact: the circumference of the pond is nearly exactly 1.5 miles), I’d like to do other Office Hours on the Go using the other ways we get around our city: bicycling to work, walking to work, and carpooling. What else would you like to see? No idea is too off-the-wall.

One of the issues that came up today and has been a major focus for my office is safety of our streets. Next Wednesday, February 27th, I’m co-hosting a meeting on pedestrian and traffic safety in West Roxbury (please see and share image below):

PedestrianSafety.png

Everyone in our community is beyond devastated over the tragic death of our neighbor earlier this month. We must do everything we can to prevent another crash. That’s why I’m convening local officials, the Boston Transportation Department, the Boston Police Department, and experts like Northeastern Civil Engineering Professor Peter Furth to discuss strategies and ideas for street safety going forward. Every possible solution is on the table: street redesign, lane diets, protected lanes, center islands, raised crosswalks, etc., and I’m hopeful that neighbors will come with open minds to address this challenge. Additionally, we will be discussing added enforcement and better use of technology to build safer roads for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers alike. It won’t be easy, but I am confident that by working together, listening to one another, and being receptive to different ideas we will get closer to achieving Vision Zero and creating comprehensive road safety in our neighborhoods. The time to act is now.

O’Malley on the Web, Version 4.0

Today I’m beginning the fourth iteration of my blog, the first time I’ve done it in nearly a decade. I was an early adopter of this format in college. O’Malley on the Web (OOTW) 1.0 essentially consisted of my nascent resume, some thoughts on the 2000 presidential election, and God-awful geocities formatting like scrolling texts and plugins that never quite worked.

OOTW 2.0 was a big selling point of my 2003 City Council campaign. I was called the first blogging City Council candidate as I chronicled my thoughts on the campaign trail and my experience as a first-time candidate. It was as therapeutic for me as it was hopefully interesting for readers. If folks are interested, I’ll link to some of my old posts on this page.

OOTW 3.0 was my Blogspot page from 2006-2010 covering sports, politics, and pop-culture with a heavy dose of New England nostalgia. I slowly built up a small but loyal readership that was no doubt aided by my popular ward-by-ward election analysis. Then there was the time I went semi-viral for my beverage nostalgia—Boston.com featured my piece lamenting the paucity of Orange Juliuses in malls. Every mall of my childhood had an Orange Julius and then one day: POOF! They all went the way of the Dodo. Some digital editor at Boston.com must’ve agreed with my premise, and my readership went up tenfold. I like to imagine I educated some Orange Julius fans about civic engagement if they stuck around.

I am hopeful that OOTW 4.0 will combine the best aspects of 2.0 & 3.0 with a heaping helping of wonky policy added in (plus plenty of parenthetical asides).  I will update occasionally and invite you to share your thoughts or ideas for topics in the comment section under each blog post or on social media (my twitter handle is @MattOMalley and my email is matthew.omalley@boston.gov).  Let’s take this journey again together.