The late Mayor Thomas Menino during his tenure focused heavily on development in the East Boston neighborhood. His approach to development over the past two decades was a one of balance that included supporting quality affordable housing, market rate development and more housing for seniors.
One of his first orders of business after being elected as mayor was to begin a project to bring an Early Learning Center to the neighborhood. While this project met some resistance at the time in the the early 1990s, Menino stuck to his guns and inevitably transformed a corner of Gove Street into an oasis of early childhood education in the neighborhood. But his quest to build up Eastie’s housing stock did not end there.
Menino had become a champion in the area for more quality affordable housing so low income residents could have a safe and clean environment in which to live.
When the city received Hope VI federal funding Menino could have allocated it anywhere in the neighborhood but chose the aging World War II housing projects in Maverick Square as the perfect spot to create a mixed use development that would pair affordable housing with market rate units.
Mayor Menino had a longstanding partnerships with Eastie’s Community Development Corporations like the East Boston CDC and Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH). With the CDC he created Maverick landing through Hope VI and began a partnership with NOAH to being affordable housing and homeownership opportunities for area residents.
“Mayor Menino boldly set the City on a course to build affordable and workforce housing,” said NOAH’s Executive Director Phil Giffee. “He understood who needed housing and why. He hired strong people. He was a strong believer in preserving historical structures such as at Trinity House. He was an early advocate of energy efficiency or ‘Sustainability’. He saw the foreclosure crisis coming in 2006, long before it became national headlines.”
Giffee at the time said Menino called community groups together with banks and pushed early for solutions to keep people in their homes and preserve City neighborhoods.
“He led the charge nationally to re-build public housing, which led to the total redevelopment of Maverick Landing and other developments across the City,” remembers Giffee. “He had an eye for detail so he also pushed for quality design in City-funded housing.”
Menino’s other passion was to begin a process with Massport and the city to begin a ambitious plan to transform Eastie’s dilapidated waterfront into something special. In one of his last State of the City speeches he told Boston he would make waterfront development in Eastie a reality by the end of that year. He came through on his promise and by the following winter shovels where in the ground for long awaited Portside at Pier One project on Marginal street. He also help fast track other important components to Eastie’s waterfront like the Harborwalk, the Hodge Boiler Works Project, Clipper Ship Wharf and the News Street Development.
It was these projects were he struck a balance between the need for market rate and middle class development with affordable housing.
“He was an advocate of waterfront development but he required the private sector to build affordable housing, or to invest some of their profits in a fund to build affordable housing,” said Giffee. “He pushed universities to build more housing on campus and not gobble up working-class neighborhoods, a struggle which continues today.”
Menino long felt development had to come with homeownership and long promoted housing ownership with his Housing Assistance Center in City Hall to help stabilize the neighborhood.
“He came to every groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting to which NOAH asked him,” said Giffee. “He spoke clearly about the need for housing for working people, poor people, middle-income people – of all cultures. He knew most people worked hard and that poverty, or low wages even with multiple jobs, was not the people’s fault. When NOAH was being slandered from negative and slanderous sources in the 90’s, ‘The Mayor’ always stood tall. He ignored the race-baiting, cultural insults being propagated. Working with our elected officials, he did not let those forces, strong as they were in East Boston, have their sway in the neighborhood.”
One’s country of origin or economic status was not a barrier to him. He knew people came here to better themselves, just as his grandparents and ours did generations ago. From his own heritage, he knew what suffering and discrimination meant. In the end, he won. The soundness of his policies, his faith and the force of his personality made affordable and workforce housing acceptable in the City.
“We owe him a debt of gratitude for having the courage of his convictions,” said Giffee.
He also focused on non-profits and their needs and desires to expand their reach in the neighborhood. He helped Zumix, Eastie’s popular youth music program, secure a former city building to move their expanding program from a small facility on Maverick Street to a state-of-the-art facility that now exists at the Zumix Firehouse on Sumner Street.
He also had a great passion to provide more public housing for Eastie’s seniors. One of his crowning achievements was transforming the former Barnes School on Marion Street, a historic Greek Revival building that was architecturally significant on Eagle Hill into an award winning senior housing facility by partnering with the East Boston CDC and Trinity Financial.
He then focused his efforts in Maverick Square. Menino’s Main Streets Program had already made headway in transforming the commercial district into an attractive shopping area with restaurants and shops. Menino felt it lacked one anchor business. When the former gas station was up to renew their permit to extend and expand their parking lot operation, Menino worked with City Councilor Sal LaMattina to refuse to allow for the parking lot plan to continue for another 70 years. He helped spark the interest of the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center to build a world class clinic and administrative offices on the site of the former lot.
The end result was beautiful anchor building in the square aimed at drawing more pedestrian traffic to the area that trickled down to the shops and restaurants in the square.
“The health center lost a beloved supporter,” said EBNHC CEO Manny Lopes. “Mayor Tom Menino was a champion of our community. He devoted his career to serving the people of Boston, and did so with all of his heart. We will remember him with fondness and gratitude in helping our expansion in the neighborhood and development of our Maverick Square location.”
There were numerous other small and large scale developments that Menino had his fingerprints on but before he left office in January 2014 he became most proud of his work to develop a state-of-the-art Library on Bremen Street at the opposite end of the Bremen Street Park form the YMCA, another
facility Menino gave his stamp of approval and help develop as a landmark along the park system.
Menino, seeing a budget shortfall from the Boston Public Library saw the opportunity to have one, brand new centrally located facility that Eastie resident could enjoy. At the ribbon cutting in November, the weekend before an election he would not run in in 20 years, Menino said the library was a crowning achievement at what had worked all along his career–bringing the community together, to work together to produce something that would be an great addition to a neighborhood he loved.