Off-Center

You can hardly blame Mayor Tom Menino for hating the building he works in. Boston's city hall is an intimidating concrete battleship from the 1960s. Nobody loves it except for a few architecture snobs, who value it as an icon of a style fittingly known as "Brutalism."
by | March 2007

You can hardly blame Mayor Tom Menino for hating the building he works in. Boston's city hall is an intimidating concrete battleship from the 1960s. Nobody loves it except for a few architecture snobs, who value it as an icon of a style fittingly known as "Brutalism."

So when Menino announced his intention to build Boston a new city hall, it seemed like an easy sell. Instead, he's encountering a lot of opposition. That's not because Bostonians are suddenly growing nostalgic for a despised landmark. It's because they like where it's located: smack in the heart of the city.

Menino's plan is to build a new city hall on the South Boston waterfront. It's an up-and-coming neighborhood with a new convention center, hotels, offices and condos. Menino would pay for a new city hall there by selling the current one to a developer, along with the nine prime acres it sits on.

It's certainly an entrepreneurial idea. What's wrong with it is that a city hall belongs downtown. Austin, San Jose and Seattle all understood this when they built new civic centers in recent years. Even faceless suburbs that are building mixed-use town centers from scratch--places such as Keller, Texas and Stockbridge, Georgia-- recognize that they need to put a city hall right in the middle for anyone to take their new "downtowns" seriously.

RECALL-O-RAMA

It's become the checklist of many an American mayor: First, get elected. Second, take oath of office. Third, survive recall campaign.

Just look at New Jersey, which according to the Newark Star-Ledger has caught "recall fever." Over the past year, recall committees have formed in 14 cities to try to kick their mayors out of office. Most of these efforts will never gather enough signatures to make it onto a ballot. Still, all it takes to start the process is for three people to sign the paperwork.

Recall was once the tool Progressive reformers used to bust up urban political machines. But lately, it's become the tool political hacks use to settle grudges. Most recall campaigns are run by a handful of activists who are upset about a single issue--high property taxes, in New Jersey's case. With a little moxie and a good Web site, anyone can make a personal protest look like a mass movement.

WHY, OH WIFI

When it comes to wireless Internet access, localities have a good case to make for installing city-wide and county-wide networks. One could easily argue that broadband is on its way to becoming an essential utility, like water or sewers. A better argument is for government efficiency: Mobile workers such as cops, building inspectors and case workers can tap wireless networks to do their jobs better.

Oftentimes, however, communities fall back on their weakest case: the jobs argument. In Missouri, St. Louis County is studying the feasibility of blanketing all of its 524 square miles with wireless Internet. "It's a tremendous economic development tool," a county business-development official told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "It could really set this area apart."

That may have been true two years ago, when the concept of municipal wireless was edgy and new. But now more than 300 city or county projects are in the pipeline. If there were any first-mover advantages to be had in wireless, they're long gone. What's more, it's hard to imagine a corporation in 2007 moving anywhere for the WiFi. Any company that truly needs broadband to survive has either found it--or died--by now.

In other words, wireless doesn't get you ahead of the competition anymore. If you're just starting now, you're playing catch up.

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