The Boston Phoenix December 7 - 14, 2000


Filling the void

Bob Durand is the state's point man on waterfront negotiations. But whose vision is he pushing? The governor's, or his own?

by Seth Gitell

DEAL MAKER: Environmental Secretary Bob Durand has taken the lead on shaping waterfront development, while Governor Paul Cellucci has kept a low profile.

Nature abhors a vacuum. So does politics.

That's why on Wednesday, as the Phoenix went to press, Secretary of Environmental Affairs Robert Durand -- not Governor Paul Cellucci -- was planning to brief the public on a compromise agreement for construction on Boston's waterfront. Although Cellucci was expected to be present at a 3 p.m. press conference to discuss the Fan Pier deal with both Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Secretary Durand, one has to ask, whose vision did Durand push by scaling back the development? The governor's, or his own?

From the start, Cellucci has largely absented himself from the high-level negotiations now taking place over the future of the waterfront. He's indicated only that he wants development to proceed, but that it must comply with the state's public-waterway law. Meanwhile, he has left the heavy lifting to Durand, a former state senator from Marlborough. Even now, as the finishing touches are being put on a scaled-back version of the plan, Cellucci is just returning from a trade mission to Australia and Japan. Durand, who was scheduled to travel with the governor, stayed behind to hash out the final details of the Fan Pier plan, making him -- and not Cellucci -- the state's de facto counterpart to Boston's mayor, Thomas Menino.

Steve Grossman, one of Cellucci's potential Democratic rivals, calls Cellucci's handling of the waterfront issue "an abrogation of leadership." "The governor's office has got to be a war room during negotiations like these," Grossman says. "The governor's got to say, `Bring in the sandwiches, bring in the coffee, bring in the players. Let's get the deal done.' To permit your environmental secretary to freelance on a deal that could define the future of Boston is not the kind of bold, energetic leadership that the people of Massachusetts are entitled to from their governor."

Less partisan observers have taken note of the unusual arrangement as well. Lawrence DiCara, the head of the real-estate department at the law firm Nixon Peabody and a former Boston city councilor, says: "My sense is that the governor has not been in the middle of this at all."

The notion that the governor may not be, um, fully engaged doesn't really come as a surprise to anyone in Massachusetts. But Durand's unusually high profile in the waterfront negotiations has spurred some to ask what's really going on. Cellucci may be using the secretary as a hatchet man to undercut Menino on the waterfront deal -- or Durand, a lifelong Democrat who has described his time in the Cellucci administration as a "sabbatical" from his party, may be positioning himself for a run for higher office.

Under Chapter 91 of the Massachusetts General Laws, the state holds jurisdiction over development of waterfronts and waterways. In essence, such development must not preclude public access to the waterfront -- and waterfront development must also serve a "public purpose." The plan proposed by the Pritzker family, which Menino supports and many environmental and community activists oppose (see "The Vision Thing," News and Features, October 19), appears to clash with this law: it calls for 150-foot buildings as close as 140 feet to the water's edge and at least two 300-foot buildings built farther back. Durand is the state official who decides whether or not development complies with Chapter 91, and it was he who demanded cuts in the original plan. It is he who negotiated a compromise with the city and the Pritzkers, who own a big chunk of waterfront land.

That Durand would be at the center of such a fight seemed unlikely when the Marlborough native became secretary of the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs two years ago this week. When he started, environmental advocates feared that Durand, the bulk of whose experience had been in central Massachusetts and the suburbs, might not focus on urban issues such as the Boston waterfront. (Ironically, Boston Globe columnist David Warsh recently characterized Durand and others who demand more open space on the waterfront as "suburbanites at heart.")

But three months after he took office, Vivien Li, the executive director of the Boston Harbor Association, led Durand on a walking tour of the waterfront. "He does not come from an urban area," says Li. "He had no idea what the waterfront was like. He said the walk was very enlightening to him in terms of the issues." Durand remembers the Harbor walk well. "I got to see how those open spaces sometimes are adequate," he says. "At other times you get the walled-off feeling. You don't feel welcome. That shouldn't occur."

Durand remembered those lessons when it came time to make the Chapter 91 determination, taking a hands-on approach not typically seen in secretary-level officials. In addition to the one meeting necessary for compliance with state law, Durand scheduled several others. And he chaired them all, a task normally assigned to a staffer. The September 26 meeting ran for four hours, until 11 p.m.; Durand retained personal control of the gavel throughout. After some initial comments from the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), no one else stepped forward to promote the plan backed by the city and the Pritzkers. Durand painstakingly listened to the comments of community members and environmental groups.

By the end of October, everyone learned that the time spent in the hearings had made an impact on Durand. The secretary put out a draft decision that went against the wishes of Menino and the BRA. That plan called for the removal of "Building H" on the Fan Pier site and the addition of more public open space. It also recommended the inclusion of more civic and/or cultural facilities.

As Durand negotiates the final deal, it's not a sure thing that community activists will like the results -- the Conservation Law Foundation is holding open the possibility of filing suit to stop construction pending its review of the new plan. Still, theybeen impressed so far. "He's an unusual secretary," says Li, noting that Durand has demonstrated a Clintonesque knowledge of policy minutiae. "It was very clear the secretary knew exactly what's in there in much more detail than a secretary normally does. If he can pull this off, he could come off as the best environmental secretary we've ever had."

Indeed, Hubie Jones, a veteran of the Massachusetts political scene and a co-convener of the Waterfront Information Network, who's also the special assistant to the chancellor at UMass Boston, calls Durand "one of the most interesting public servants I've dealt with since Frank Sargent." Sargent, a former Republican governor, is best known for having stopped the Southwest Corridor project -- which would have allowed Interstate 95 to carve an unsightly swath through Boston.

So is Durand, as Grossman put it, "freelancing?" Or is he implementing Cellucci's vision? Most observers believe that Durand's actions lie somewhere in between. As a pro-business Republican, Cellucci generally supports development wholeheartedly, but it's possible that Cellucci has a reason to oppose the Pritzker plan. He could be using Durand to make things harder for Menino -- with whom Cellucci tangled over the summer-jobs program earlier in the year. Accepting this hypothesis would mean buying into the idea that Cellucci is a heck of a lot more involved in the local political process than anyone around here imagines. For his part, Durand disavows any covert effort to undermine Menino: "It's not true at all. There are a lot of people trying to cause a lot of trouble here. This is just a big, complex project, and the law needs to be applied."

That would seem to validate the other scenario: Durand's doing his own thing.

Cellucci's spokesman John Birtwell, says otherwise: "I think the governor is involved to an appropriate extent," he says.

"It's not [so much] a question of delegating his vision as it is [of] the statutory requirements that the secretary is charged with: to make sure [waterfront development] has limited environmental impact," Birtwell adds. "Most people hold the opinion that Bob Durand has been very strong on environmental issues and striking the right balance [with] preserving the public's rights to the waterfront."

Durand says that Cellucci has discussed the waterfront plan with him "four or five times" -- most recently, before the governor's departure for the Far East. "We had a discussion about where we were with the process and how far along we were," says Durand. "He hasn't micro-managed the process. He's been very good at letting me do the job."

Regardless of what Durand and Birtwell say, however, you don't have to be Bob Woodward to see that Durand is running this show. What seems to be taking place is that an engaged and vital politician is operating in the vacuum left by a disengaged and languid leader. Of course, that's what observers thought when Durand put the finishing touches on the Community Preservation Act -- a piece of legislation he had drafted as a state senator with the help of community advocates -- only to see Cellucci refuse to sign it and send the bill back to the legislature for further work on a funding provision. Might something similar happen when Cellucci returns and finally starts focusing on the issue? Perhaps. Durand, however, points out that the preservation bill was eventually signed into law and that both he and Cellucci consider it one of their environmental highlights this year.

Another theory: Durand is laying groundwork with the environmentalists whose support he would need in a race for state office or a congressional seat -- something Cellucci, as a Republican, isn't concerned about. For example, if US Representative Martin Meehan were to run for higher office -- either for governor, or, if it were to become available, John Kerry's Senate seat -- Durand would be a likely candidate to seek Meehan's congressional post. Even though the industrial cities along the Merrimack River are generally regarded as the political strongholds in that district, a candidate from the suburbs is not out of the question -- especially a candidate with Durand's profile.

"What's happening now is that the votes in the congressional district are moving away from the cities and towards the suburbs," says Paul Sullivan, the political editor of the Lowell Sun. "Durand plays well in the suburbs. The fact that he's telling those numskulls like Menino that they don't run the world probably plays well in the district."

Durand brushes off the suggestion that he is engaged in some kind of early campaign for higher office. "I've heard I'm going to run for governor, lieutenant governor, Congress," he says. "The bottom line is I love this job. I'd stay here a long time if I could. It would be foolhardy to jump into a congressional race. The power base of that district is Lawrence and Lowell -- not Hudson or Marlborough."

Instead, Durand gives another explanation for his actions. "I've got three boys," he says. "I judge my actions by `What will my grandchildren think of this?' You get a chance to leave a legacy only so often in your life."

Durand maintains that he sees his work as important because it holds such meaning for the future of the city and the Commonwealth. Of course, that's the kind of thing you'd normally hear from a governor. The shame of all this is that the person one would expect to muse about his political legacy, and to earn comparisons with a previous governor, is the person who actually sits in Beacon Hill's corner office -- Cellucci. That this discussion is focused instead on one of his surrogates speaks for itself.

On the other hand, Cellucci's hands-off approach has enabled a genuinely interested public official to step up to the plate. Depending on the deal negotiated with the city, Cellucci's plan -- or lack thereof -- to let Durand run everything may turn out for the best.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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