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2021 Mayoral Election: A Q&A with the Candidates

The Boston Preservation Alliance is Boston’s primary, non-profit advocacy organization that protects and promotes the use of historic buildings and landscapes in all of Boston’s neighborhoods.

We asked Boston’s Mayoral candidates Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu to answer ten questions about the preservation processes, development review, housing, and climate change. Below are their answers shared verbatim.  

Click below to learn more about each candidate’s campaign platform.

Annissa for Boston  Michelle for Boston

To learn more about why Boston should prioritize preservation, read this letter by Alliance Executive Director, Greg Galer. 

Why Preservation should be a priority.

The questions are in bold with each candidate’s response following. 

  1. Virtual meetings have provided access to local government that didn’t exist before the pandemic. More individuals and organizations are able to engage with development and preservation and to comment or testify at hearings, public meetings, workshops, etc. Would your administration keep public meetings virtual, return to in-person only, or develop and implement a hybrid solution?
    • Annissa Essaibi GeorgeAnnissa Essaibi George–I believe every step of our development and zoning processes must be consistent and predictable. As Mayor, I will focus on making the planning, development and building processes of housing more accessible and transparent. The transition to virtual meetings during the pandemic has demonstrated the benefits of providing virtual options to participate. In my administration, I will work to implement a hybrid solution to ensure all meetings involving development and the community process to remove barriers and improve access. I will also ensure these meetings are conducted with language access. 
    • Michelle WuMichelle Wu–We have learned a great deal throughout the course of the pandemic about the opportunities that virtual meetings can create for greater and more diverse participation as well as the drawbacks. We also learned that some meetings lend themselves well to being conducted remotely while others are not. As Mayor, I will work with members of my administration and the community to take a thoughtful, inclusive approach that utilizes both in-person and remote meeting modalities with full accessibility for those who speak a language other than English, residents with communications disabilities, and others with barriers to participation. We must also ensure that public bodies adopt best practices when hosting virtual meetings – for example, allowing participants to see who else is in the room – so as to not discourage dialogue and engagement. As discussed in my digital equity plan, I will also work with city departments, the Boston Public Library, and non-profit organizations across Boston to make sure that all community members have access to reliable internet as well as the technological devices and digital skills that are a prerequisite for full participation in remote meetings.
  2. The Boston Landmarks Commission is charged with overseeing designated Boston Landmarks and the Article 85 process- a fairly limited scope that excludes the vast majority of buildings and resources in Boston. Most other conversations about historic resources, local context, existing buildings, neighborhood character, etc. occur within the Article 80 process- through dialogue at public meetings, with proponents or BPDA staff, or at BCDC. Therefore, the Article 80 process is crucial for preservation advocacy. Do you feel that the existing Article 80 process is successful and in what ways? If not, what would your administration change? What would you do to better ensure that projects below the threshold of Article 80 review are appropriately vetted?
    • Annissa Essaibi Geoge–The voices of our residents must be central to the planning and development process, and we can do a better job of making sure this process includes and uplifts every resident in every neighborhood. Boston residents deserve a chance to shape their skyline, and as Mayor I will push for greater transparency and public engagement as Boston continues to grow.  During my time on the City Council, I introduced legislation to make the public process more accessible by expediting the notification process to give residents a better opportunity to voice their opinions and concerns when it comes to new developments. I have also worked to increase the amount of information available to residents and to ensure that such information is easily accessible through a public developer database. As Mayor, I will continue that work by setting up a texting and email notification program for residents to opt-into and remove other barriers to participation like child care, remote participation options and changing meeting times so that workers with non-traditional schedules can participate. 
    • Michelle Wu–As Chair of the City Council’s Committee on Planning, Development and Transportation, I have had a window into Boston’s broken development process, including the limitations of Article 80. Through conversations with residents and developers, public hearings on proposed projects, and meetings with civic leaders and neighborhood associations, it’s become clear that we’re not planning for our best future. As part of remaking the planning and development process in Boston, I look forward to assessing the efficacy of regulatory tools such as Article 80 to accelerate progress towards our shared goals, including historic preservation, climate resiliency, racial equity, and accessibility. I’m grateful to Councilor Bok for advancing this work through her proposal to establish a Boston Commemoration Commission empowered to recommend reforms to the Article 85 process, but we must also look to broader reforms to ensure planning drives development, not the other way around. I’ve laid out my vision for fixing Boston’s planning and development process, and I look forward to working in partnership with the preservation community to ensure a newly-established, fully-resourced planning department includes experts in historical preservation to ensure that preservation and development can go hand-in-hand.
  3. Do you feel that the Boston Landmarks Commission’s budget is sufficient to allow the staff to fulfill its role? Should BLC be more proactive, such as undertaking a city-wide survey of historic resources, dealing with the large backlog of Pending Landmarks, and providing guidance to project proponents and BPDA staff on individual sites? Do you feel that BLC staff should play a more proactive role in development or should BLC not be charged with more than its current role as overseer of local Landmarks, local Historic Districts, and Article 85?
    • Annissa Essaibi George–As an active participant in the City’s budget process, I believe that the Boston Landmarks Commission budget should be increased. They play a critical role in historic preservation and have an obligation to identify important landmarks in our City. As Mayor, I will not only increase the budget to the landmarks commission that is necessary for them to address the backlog of pending Boston landmarks properties, but also give them a greater role when it comes to development by having them work with the BPDA and ISD. It is important to me that the Boston Landmarks Commission is well equipped and able to continue to preserve our historic City. 
    • Michelle Wu–I was glad to see that the Landmarks Commission’s budget grew to include another preservation planner this year, but moving forward, we need to ensure BLC has all the resources it needs to shift to a more proactive approach, as well as work through a growing backlog of requests. BLC’s work is essential to our shared goals of building a city that sees, values, and treasures every community, but we need a more comprehensive study on Boston’s historic resources to serve as a baseline as we work to celebrate the historic significance of our built environment across all our neighborhoods. I’m also committed to better integrating BLC’s work with that of other departments, particularly the Community Preservation Committee and the Treasury Department, so that we can leverage funds to prioritize critical preservation work.
  4. The Walsh administration approached the housing crisis by encouraging as much new construction as possible across the city. While we support efforts to provide housing, we feel that this approach has led to an increase in hasty, incongruous development in Boston’s neighborhoods. How would your administration balance the ongoing need for housing with the need to maintain the unique character, scale, and historic resources of Boston’s neighborhoods?
    • Annissa Essaibi George–I believe it’s critical the next Mayor keeps pace with the Walsh Administration’s housing goals, especially as we think about how this relates to our economic recovery coming out of the pandemic. However, while this growth brings good jobs, workforce talent, and desperately needed housing, the next Mayor has an opportunity to be more intentional, thoughtful and inclusive in our approach to development. We cannot have a one-size-fits-all approach for development across Boston, and especially within our neighborhoods. I believe we must plan, then build, and we can do this best by creating a planning office separate from the Boston Planning & Development Agency. A planning office will prioritize the needs, wants and realities of our neighborhoods, while at the same time achieving our city-wide housing goals.
    • Michelle Wu–First we need to ensure that we have community-led master plans to begin with. A successful community-led master planning process necessarily includes thoughtful consideration and appreciation of the historic significance of the existing built environment. Our current development approval process depends on exceptions to the zoning code given out by the BPDA and ZBA, parcel by parcel, and requires residents to become local zoning experts if they wish to have a voice in the growth and development of their communities. We need to restructure this process and engage in community-led city planning that centers housing stability, shared prosperity, affordability, transportation and food access, climate resiliency, connected communities, and historic preservation.
  5. The BPDA has shown an increased commitment to neighborhood planning through the creation of masterplans, guidelines, etc. which can be an important tool for preservation. They are developed over years with immense input from the community. However, the plans are often “shelved” and not necessarily referenced after completion, not updated over time, or intentionally overruled to allow for development that doesn’t meet the recommendations. We have heard both developers and BPDA staff claim that vetted and approved guidelines are “just guidelines” when advocating for projects that violate things like height limits. Would your administration continue to conduct neighborhood master planning and, if so, would you consider them to be more general guidelines or binding agreements, perhaps incorporated into zoning? What would you do to strengthen the shelf life and implementation of planning studies? How would you improve the planning process to make it more equitable and fill the gaps of neighborhoods that have not been studied? What are your thoughts on the stalled PLAN: Downtown effort?
    • Annissa Essaibi George–As mentioned above, I believe true community planning plays a critical role in ensuring our city grows in a way that’s inclusive for everyone. Also critical to this process is streamlining Boston’s decades old zoning processes. As Mayor, I will update our zoning code to be more transparent, equitable, and better align with our city’s housing needs as well as the needs of Boston’s residents. While I do not know all the details of why the Downtown planning process was stalled, I know much of the traditional community engagement and planning process was interrupted by COVID-19. As Mayor, I am committed to a robust public process for all of our planning efforts and development projects.
    • Michelle Wu–Boston residents have dedicated their time and energy to crafting thoughtful, balanced neighborhood plans, from Jamaica Plain and Roxbury to Dorchester Ave to Downtown, but we need to ensure these plans have real teeth. We need a fully-resourced public planning department to codify community-led plans into our zoning code, establishing a clear, consistent set of rules to guide future development.
  6. Because the regulation creating Article 85 is part of the Zoning code, the Zoning Board of Appeals has the authority to overrule demolition decisions made by the Commission. This has happened in the past, with no opportunity for public engagement during the hearing, and Boston has lost historic buildings as a result. How would your administration address this? Zoning variances can have significant impacts on historic neighborhoods- do you have plans to review zoning variances and how property owners acquire them?
    • Annissa Essaibi George–As stated above, I am committed to centering community voices in all aspects of our development processes. We also need to create smarter connections between agencies so that planning, zoning, permitting, and building are coordinated. As Mayor, I will do this by appointing a Chief who would have oversight of the Department of Neighborhood Development, Inspectional Services Department, and the Boston Planning and Development Agency. This would allow for a coordinated response to preservation and development in the city.
    • Michelle Wu–Variances should be the exception to the rule, not the prevailing approach to planning and development. Our zoning code should be updated to reflect a citywide master planning effort that takes an intentional approach to valuing our historical buildings and neighborhoods. I am also supportive of ongoing efforts to reform the Zoning Board of Appeals to ensure members have expertise in affordable housing, civil rights, environmental protection, and urban planning, and to establish guardrails against conflicts of interest or corruption.
  7. Boston is committed to being a leader in fighting climate change and preparing for its impacts. About 75% of the city was built before WWII, meaning most of the city is comprised of older buildings. It is impossible to meet our climate goals without addressing existing buildings- either through adaptive reuse and energy retrofits or through demolition and new construction. What would be your approach to addressing existing buildings within Boston’s climate preparedness goals?
    • Annissa Essaibi George–We are in the midst of a climate emergency and, in order to reverse the harmful effects of climate change, we need to act urgently to cut emissions. I believe that the first step in Boston becoming a national leader on climate action is to start here at home. With the disproportionate impact of climate change on our most vulnerable communities, achieving climate justice and resiliency is a top priority. Through my role as Chair of Education, I have led the Council’s advocacy on the BuildBPS facilities plan with specific focus on energy efficiency and the sustainability of our school buildings.  My focus on climate readiness in the BuildBPS facilities plan reflects my strong belief that we must prioritize the reduction of carbon emission of Boston buildings to realize progress in our Climate Action Plan.  
      As Mayor, I will work with every City department to prioritize the reduction of carbon emissions of our publicly-owned infrastructure and to establish a sustainable and inclusive planning process. Building from my efforts on the Council, I will ensure that the BuildBPS facilities plan increases the energy efficiency of our school buildings by investing in deep energy and efficiency retrofits. I will also continue and expand Renew Boston Trust towards our schools, low income housing, homeless shelters, and other city buildings. As Mayor, I will push for long overdue reforms in our zoning laws and redesign our permitting process to ensure the use of sustainable building materials and advance performance emissions standards in our building codes. Under my administration as Mayor, Boston will be on track to realize our Climate Ready goals by 2050.
    • Michelle Wu–The Boston Green New Deal and Just Recovery agenda that my team released in 2020 provides a roadmap for cutting carbon emissions in both the buildings and transportation sectors, including the ambitious goal of meeting a net-zero municipal footprint by 2024. I’m proud to have supported the updated BERDO 2.0 ordinance, which will require large existing buildings to meet emissions standards that decrease over time, and I look forward to working with Boston’s talented community of planners, architects, construction experts, landscape designers, developers, and more to aggressively cut emissions from our buildings sector. I’m also committed to creating sustainable career pathways for Boston residents, including by deepening partnerships among Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, the building trades, and local construction firms so that Boston youth are prepared to take on this essential work in an emerging green sector.
  8. How would you hold property owners accountable for adequately maintaining properties so that our existing building stock can be fully utilized and preserved for future use? What is your opinion of Minimum Maintenance requirements? How would you address Demolition by Neglect or long-term vacancy of historic and viable buildings?
    • Annissa Essaibi George–It is critical that we maintain our existing building stock. It is important that we design policies and programs that encourage preservation. We also need to take into account supporting seniors who are trying to age in place and other low income residents, all while ensuring accountability for larger property owners. I am committed to supporting small property owners and owner occupants in maintaining their properties through city programs like HomeWorks, which are a valuable resource for property owners with more expensive home repairs. I would support expanding the HomeWorks  program model to a similar program specifically for properties of historic significance. When it comes to larger property owners I believe that there should be accountability, especially when it comes to maintenance and long term vacancy. For our historic buildings especially we should continue to explore policies like the vacancy tax. 
    • Michelle Wu–We need to ensure that the Inspectional Services Department has the staff and resources needed to enforce our building standards. Even budgeting for a small number of administrative assistants would go a long way toward freeing up ISD inspectors to do their essential work. City Hall can also play an important convening role in bringing our higher education institutions to the table with the major landlords that serve their student bodies, ensuring that students and other renters know their housing rights, and leveraging the City’s regulatory powers to enforce them.
  9. Boston is one of the oldest cities in the country. Our historic buildings and unique spaces, and our character-rich neighborhoods, attract millions of visitors and countless businesses and make Boston an inspiring place to live. In what ways would you signal that historic preservation is important to Boston and you as Mayor, and how would your administration prioritize tools, policies, and resources to protect our historic assets?
    • Annissa Essaibi George–In addition to the priorities outlined above, in order to preserve the historical assets in our City, we must have a workforce with the technical training to protect and preserve those assets. As Mayor, I will expand the preservation education program in our vocational programs with a specific focus on Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, to ensure our residents and young people can take advantage of the growing opportunities for employment opportunities in preservation.  
    • Michelle Wu–Shaping development is one of the most powerful roles of city government, and as Mayor, I am committed to overhauling our planning and development system to equip our city with the tools we need to build a safer, healthier, more equitable, more resilient future. In this unprecedented moment of transition for Boston, I am so grateful to the residents, activists, and advocates who have kept up the pressure at the neighborhood level to think about all the ways that representation matters – not just looking forward, but looking backward, as well. As we take on the entrenched interests that have benefited from our opaque, outdated development approvals process, I look forward to deepening my partnership with our preservation community to simultaneously celebrate and mark historically significant elements of our built environment and push for climate justice, housing justice, economic justice, racial justice, and transportation justice in how we create a city that cares for all Bostonians.
  10. Is there anything else you would like the preservation community to know about your priorities or plans?

To learn more about why Boston should prioritize preservation, read this letter by Alliance Executive Director, Greg Galer. 

Why Preservation should be a priority.


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Launch of the City's new Commemoration Commission

On May 1, 2022, Boston celebrated the 200th anniversary of incorporation as a city at the Old South Meeting House.

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Image of City Hall by Matthew Dickey.

Victory! Budget Increased for Boston Landmarks Commission.

The Alliance works closely with the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC), which resides within the Environment Department at the City, to further preservation efforts in Boston.

Thank you to all our corporate members, including: