Menino's promise

Realizing his pledge of flexibility is the key to Boston's future success
By EDITORIAL  |  January 6, 2010


Boston's political tribes checked their traditional hostilities at the door this week when they trooped into Faneuil Hall for the inauguration of Mayor Thomas Menino, who took the oath to serve an unprecedented fifth term.

Boston is a city that revels in history and Menino did himself and the community proud by being, well, himself.

Menino was informal yet dignified, loose but sharp, and at ease with the fact that he, a onetime neighborhood politician, has reached a milestone that eluded two legendary predecessors, James Michael Curley and Kevin Hagan White.

Menino's inaugural pledge to look upon old problems with fresh and open eyes scored points with political handicappers. If Menino is to make a success of what is surely going to be the most challenging four years of his long political career, he is going to have to develop the ability to be flexible.

Can the urban mechanic learn how to use a new tool? The answer will be evident in the coming months. In the meantime, the Phoenix applauds Menino's vow.

In terms of thinking outside of the box, Menino is off to a good start with his plan for in-district charter schools, which would keep badly needed funds in the public system while granting principals the administrative flexibility they need to right underperforming schools.

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Carol Johnson has been quietly and effectively laying the groundwork for a turnaround by recruiting talented principals from around the nation. President Barack Obama has made federal money available for efforts such as these. And Governor Deval Patrick is working to make Massachusetts eligible to receive those funds.

Menino recognizes the opportunity this represents. The fate of immediate school reform now rests with the state legislature, which must enact provisions that will synchronize work rules with federal funding requirements.

The Phoenix has two fears: that the legislature will botch the job by caving into pressure from teachers' unions, which value the jobs of shoddy teachers more than they recognize the needs of students, and that the legislature will do the minimum it deems necessary to qualify.

Menino, for his part, has been lobbying hard for the best deal for Boston.

When it comes to economic development, Menino will be further challenged to think in new ways. This is especially true in the case of the stalled Downtown Crossing project. The once vibrant intersection of Washington and Summer Streets was slated to be filled with offices, retail shops, condos, and a hotel. But at the moment, the site of the former Filene's department store is a hole in the ground, surrounded by a shell of historic buildings — a piece of upscale urban blight that sucks the energy from the surrounding neighborhood.

Most experts consider the project dead in the water, a victim of the economic crash. Let's hope that Menino's jawboning about finding a new use for the site is just that. The intersection must regain its former vitality if the surrounding streets and businesses are not to degenerate.

Menino should make Downtown Crossing the poster child for his campaign of brave, original urban thinking. He should temporarily shelve his reservations about becoming more involved in private development, and should avail himself of financing strategies that other big-city mayors use. If Menino is looking for an example, he can find one in Somerville, where imagination has been the key ingredient in realizing Assembly Square.

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