Mayoral Hopeful John Barros On Keeping The BPDA, Managing Boston's Lab Boom
John Barros served as chief of economic development from 2014 to 2021 under then-Mayor Marty Walsh, but now he is vying for his former boss's seat in a crowded race of diverse, experienced candidates.
A Cape Verdean and lifelong Boston resident, Barros served as a liaison between the administration and the city's businesses. The former Walsh lieutenant also served under longtime Mayor Thomas Menino on the city's School Committee for three years between 2010 and 2013. Barros also unsuccessfully ran for Menino's seat before backing Walsh.
Today, Barros touts his experience as a community leader from nearly a decade of City Hall experience as well as a 13-year run as executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. Through years of speaking to business owners and developers, he also saw the crushing financial effects of the coronavirus pandemic as the co-owner of a restaurant in Dorchester, where he made his candidacy announcement last month.
Barros has a $229K campaign war chest, which is sixth-most in the race while a WBUR poll shows him fifth behind the early front-runners, Councilor Michelle Wu and acting Mayor Kim Janey, who are first and second in the poll, respectively. The same poll shows nearly half of respondents are undecided among the city's most diverse mayoral race ever, while Barros is third among the leaders in drawing developers donations, according to a Boston Globe analysis. Bisnow spoke with Barros about his vision for the city including the race's hot-button issues.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Bisnow: You own Restaurante Cesaria in Dorchester, so you have personal experience with the challenges that small businesses have faced during the pandemic. How was that restaurant affected? How has that experience shaped what type of mayor you would like to be?
John Barros: Yeah, great question. The restaurant is in Dorchester in the Boulder Street area. We saw revenues drop 75% that first week and it just continued to go down until it hit about 90%. And then it shifted, like many other businesses, to really focusing on takeout.
As chief of economic development, we were trying to think creatively as a city about what we could do to provide technical assistance to businesses that had not done a lot of takeout before. Our restaurant was heavily reliant on people coming to the restaurant to sit and order. And then we had to really boost up our takeout business by creating a delivery service that could set up relationships with the different delivery services that are out there and figuring out ways that we could deliver the food.
It was a business change for us so we knew we had to think about it creatively. And that helped inform me that other businesses needed technical assistance to help do it as well. You needed to have an online presence during the pandemic, and so we quickly added technical assistance for websites and making sure people have their menus on the website.
We provided a free poster to businesses, we can have the QR codes, so if somebody walked by your business, or went to your website, they can just use their phone and have your menu pop up on their phone in a more readily available way. We provided that for free to businesses.
Then we also knew that with that kind of revenue drop, we needed to make some cuts. We first cut management's pay and left some checks on the table to try to save as many jobs as possible. And then we began to repurpose people's jobs.
Bisnow: We’ve done stories recently about how the city’s apartment market is on the ropes as people have moved to the suburbs. While for the state, that might not be a net negative, Boston right now is losing people and tax revenue to the suburbs. How would you induce people to return to downtown? We’ve seen other cities partner with WeWork and other companies to offer workers incentives to return to offices. Should Boston look into something like that?
Barros: We need to make sure that we're working with our employers to understand their timetable. And in fact, I've talked to many of our larger employers and understand that people have different timetables for coming back. But most people have really expressed the intention of returning fully in three years. When they come back, they need to know these amenities need to be there.
People love the city because of the places to gather, the places to exchange ideas, the places to do joint problem-solving. And those are our restaurants, they're our common areas, they're our public spaces, arts and cultural institutions, performing arts institutions, all of those are places that we need to make sure to have vibrant and ready.
They help to create place, they help to create Boston. And that's super-important so when people come back downtown, they're finding that those places exist. That's a big reason why we need to invest in those businesses.
I have had conversations with WeWork and others and find that it is going to be important to understand the temporary office space that people might need or the smaller office spaces that people might need. I've seen some businesses move downtown from some of our neighborhoods because of pricing. That wasn't happening before, and that's interesting.
I talked to two small businesses recently that are looking at having additional office space, not leaving the neighborhood, because they really think it's critical, but having different spaces, and these are professional services businesses. So it's opening a whole new conversation of what's available to people because the market's softened a little bit.
Boston needs to be very active in how it partners to create awareness on availability, and create the kind of program that connects people who have an interest in office space and new types of spaces with people who are offering it. And make sure that the amenities are available that bring the city alive, so that when you go downtown, or you go to the urban center, you can still find the kind of amenities that brought you there: the places you can have lunch, the places you can have a drink, the places you can have dinner, the barbershop that you used to go to, the tailor or the different places you used to go for different services.
Bisnow: Your platform pledges leveraging city-owned buildings to create housing and encouraging more student housing from the local colleges to aid our affordable housing crisis. But land prices and housing prices are still going up.
Do you think those measures will close the gap enough? What else should the city be doing to spur more affordable housing development and preservation?
Barros: Housing production is critical and we've done a great job. In the last seven years of producing housing, we've seen record numbers of affordable housing. In fact, we saw a very impressive pace last year during the pandemic of new housing permits, and 27% of the new housing units that were approved last year were affordable. So we're seeing the right trend here in housing continue.
We've got to continue to produce, but we've got to be more creative. Looking at city land that's available and making sure that it's available for housing, and I'm looking at buildings that the city owns so that we can create adjacencies for new development.
For instance, we've been looking at creating housing in mixed-use buildings. So maybe in a building that we build a library, we can also build some housing on top of that, or to the side or to the back of it. But the city needs to look at all of its assets and make sure that we can fully utilize them to create more housing, more affordable housing for the city of Boston.
I am looking at trying to do as much as I possibly can on the housing front, and it starts with production. If we continue to do what we've been doing, and given the trend that we saw, even during the pandemic, in terms of new starts, new housing permits, we are heading in the right direction.
We were able to increase linkage fees for affordable housing and workforce development, working with developers and advocates sitting down at the table and coming up with the right new fees. We increased linkage fees by about 40%.
There are places that we've identified in the Imagine Boston 2030 plan, particularly those next to public transit and other amenities that are ripe for greater density, we're going to continue to work in that way. We need to invest more in housing and so part of that is making sure that the city is looking at some of the federal money that's coming in, that we're looking at some of the maybe underserved parts of our city where perhaps the real estate market is not as hot, and seeing if the city can go in there and use some of those onetime funds to build some housing to create a new catalyst for private funding to fall.
Bisnow: You have experience with the Dudley Street Initiative and other Boston-area initiatives. That momentum is also happening in parts of the city that are overdue.
Barros: I believe the city can play an important role in partnership with the community, in partnership with neighbors to help catalyze the kind of economic growth that people want to see locally. Nubian Square is a good example of that, Upham's Corner in Dorchester is another good example of that, where we knew there was a community that had done a lot of community planning and visioning for what it wanted to see.
And [the community] decided it wanted to build an innovation and arts district, it decided it needed more density in order to support the small businesses in the area and create more affordable housing, create more artists housing, and it was a really good opportunity for the city to go in and help catalyze that. We created a new pilot recently at Upham's Corner, where the city went in and assembled about 3-and-a-half acres of land, that will now go out in an RFP to create new housing and small-business space.
Mayor Walsh, before he stepped away, appropriated $21M for a new library, that new library is being considered for mixed-use where the library can potentially have some housing over it, some affordable housing. Then in the middle of Upham's Corner is the Strand Theater, another city-owned asset. And looking to discuss with developers the ability to build housing around the Strand Theater, that's appropriate, particularly affordable artist housing. There's a way for the city to vote to partner with communities who have planned or would like to plan out their growth, to make sure that it happens in this community. Affordable space for both businesses and residents was a really important component to the growth.
Bisnow: One of your opponents has called for abolishing the BPDA, and others have criticized it and the ZBA as a rubber stamp from the mayor regarding development projects. Do you agree with that criticism?
Do you think the city’s development process needs reform, and if so, how would you do it? If not, how would you respond to critics saying the city has been too friendly to developers while its housing prices have skyrocketed?
Barros: The BPDA is an important agency for Boston. It's important as a planning agency. We need to continue to invest in the planning capacity, at the BPDA we don't have enough. We need to continue to build staff and capacity to plan with neighborhoods, to plan with communities, in a way that the city can be very clear about what an area wants to support, what the neighbors want to support in their neighborhood.
As the executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, we partnered with the BPDA to do a lot of the work that we wanted to see happen in our neighborhood, and we use some of the redevelopment tools that are only held by the BPDA. We used eminent domain. We're the only nonprofit in the country I believe to use eminent domain to assemble land, in which we created the largest urban land trust in the country. So we successfully used the tools held by the BPDA to help push the neighborhood's agenda forward and help to transform an entire area, building affordable housing, building parks, building urban agricultural land and open space that helps to move or implement or realize the neighborhood's vision.
The BPDA is an important part of how the city partners with neighbors and neighborhoods, it's important in partnering with developers to move forward. But planning is critical so people feel like they have a partner and they have clarity about what's going to be supported, that they have clarity about where a neighborhood wants to go, and what the neighbors want to see. So developers aren't wasting their time purchasing things for a certain price, assuming that it'll have support.
They should know what the support is, there should be some clarity, there should be some transparency in the process, we're going to streamline the process so that nobody is surprised about the kinds of decisions that are being made. The BPDA needs to follow the neighbors' and communities' lead. And the developers need to be really clear about what that leaves us.
All of that is something that if we had more capacity, we would be able to do with greater ease. I also think at the same time, the city should be willing to step in and use whatever tools it has to fund or help us analyze what the community actually wants out of its plan.
The city's got to be a partner in this and can't just allow the community to negotiate with the private developer on what it needs and wants. Because the private sector can only pay for so much of some of what the community has asked for in its plan. And I feel like that kind of compromise compromises the process and compromises trust in the development process.
There is a delta between what the private sector can pay for and what the community has actually asked for. So if the community is asking for deeper affordability and it can't be penciled out in the project, then the city needs to step in and help figure out how to provide that. If the community's asking for more green space, more resiliency, more climate resiliency in the project, the city needs to be a partner and make sure that we can figure out how to get creative to make that happen.
So as mayor, one of my commitments is to try to hold fidelity in and build more trust in that community process to make sure that the community's plan is the most important thing, and that the city is a partner in realizing that plan. And it doesn't always have to be negotiated only with the developer.
Bisnow: The city has seen a lab boom with life sciences clusters rising in the Seaport and Boston Landing. Many community members are increasingly wary of the fast pace of lab development, citing concerns over inclusion in the development process and awareness of what is planned.
Should there be more scrutiny on these office and other asset types being pivoted to labs? If no, how would you address those concerns? If yes, what type of scrutiny do you think is warranted?
Barros: Labs have become really popular in Boston in current development trends. I think there's a lot of confusion in terms of what these labs are and what they'll be doing. I think more importantly, we need to talk about what labs are not in Boston, right, and make sure that we remove any worries of viruses or research that could be conducted that could be harmful.
As I talked to developers, many of these labs are going to be makerspace, there are going to be light industrial use, they'll be used for research and development, they will be used for sort of low-risk activity, but high-production activity in terms of economic development.
So now the question is, how do we connect Boston's residents to those opportunities? If these are the opportunities, if these are the jobs that are going, we need to make sure that we invest in the job training, we need to invest in workforce development, that allows us to capture those jobs for local residents.
We also need to talk to developers about how we get the first shot at those jobs, understanding who they're planning to bring and what jobs they're planning to bring. We'll provide the kind of information to workforce development partners that have people.
So we need to understand the jobs, connect those jobs to our workforce development committee, and then connect the workforce development community back to the developers and employers to have them source the candidates who are locally trained and live locally to those jobs. It is creating and coordinating an ecosystem to a new trend in our city of labs. As we do that, we'll both make sure that the jobs stay local, that people are ready to work in them to be really productive. And then Boston continues to be a place that grows and brings good jobs.
Bisnow: Developers say to actually get life sciences tenants to these buildings, they need speed to market, and scrutiny and additional regulation would only serve to slow them down. You’ve been active in the development community. Are you concerned about overbuilding in the lab space, considering how many of these projects are on spec?
Barros: I know they are interested in building labs, I know that there have been some approvals on some labs. It'll be interesting to see and have them get built. Boston, the development community, is bullish on labs. We need to see them get built and see employers come to them and use them. We need to create the economic activities around labs, understand them better connect small businesses to them.
Right now, a lot of proposals, people are talking about them. I think there are some more appropriate places for lab growth than others that developers have been looking at, like the Newmarket Business District. We've got to help direct the lab growth to places that are appropriate for growth.
Bisnow: Mayor Walsh signed an executive order in response to the February city of Boston study that found only a minimal percentage of city contracts have been to minority-owned and women-owned businesses. The new guidelines call for a combined 25% of contracts to go toward women- and minority-owned businesses.
You were chief of economic development over the course of this study. Why has the city issued so few contracts to minority-owned and women-owned businesses in the past decade? Do you support this order? As mayor, how would you ensure there is equity in the bidding process?
Barros: The city of Boston has, as you know, never awarded an appropriate amount of public contracts to women- and minority-owned businesses. When we went into government, we knew that that was the case. In fact, we started to immediately do the work to clean up the data and put in the systems for tracking so that we can do a disparity study in order to lay down the legal framework for goals, because we knew that we had to have goals to turn around the trend on spending.
In fact, I'm very proud the mayor signed a historic new goal for the city of Boston where 25% of the contracts for the city of Boston will go to women-owned companies or people-of-color-owned companies, which represent about $180M a year that would go to our neighborhoods and go to our families.
We now need to make sure that we can fulfill the other parts, have a fair procurement system that allows us to meet and exceed those goals. And that means that we need to take the larger contracts that are not accessible to smaller businesses and split them up and make them accessible.
We need to review bonding, and lower bonding where feasible, or provide cash flow for small businesses, women-owned businesses, people-of-color-owned businesses, to be able to provide the bonding. The city needs to look at the fact that it takes too long to reimburse, and small businesses can't carry the debt as long as other businesses can carry them for.
We need to make sure that we provide technical assistance where needed. So there's still a lot of work to do to make sure that we're moving this trend in the right direction. But it starts with goals. And I'm really proud of the fact that we got there.