Four of the five candidates running to take Mike Ross's place on the City Council said tonight it's way past time for the city to give District 8 more elementary schools.
The fifth candidate, Angelica Addivinola might have agreed as well, but she didn't attend a forum sponsored by the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay at the Copley Square library. The field will be winnowed down to two in the Sept. 24 preliminary.
Tom Dooley said he would work to stop busing and use the money to immediately open new schools in the district. "This district pays a disproportionate amount of city taxes. We're entitled to public schools. ... Mayor Menino has been stopping us from reopening our schools."
Gloria Murray said both district 8 and families of color need more schools, "quality schools in their neighborhood."
Michael Nichols and Joshua Zakim said the city should bid on buildings Suffolk University is readying to sell for use as schools.
The city's purchase of the old Mitt Romney headquarters on Commercial Street just isn't enough to satisfy the demand for schools in the district Zakim said. He added he would look at a variety of approaches, including possibly seeking to place schools in the lower floors of some of the new towers that could be going up across the district.
Nicols said the building which the Boston Arts Academy could move out of would make a great elementary school for the Fenway and Back Bay.
It was at this point that Nichols and Zakim got into one of several disagreements.
Nichols said the school/development idea would give the BRA another tool with which to beat a neighborhood into submission no matter how much the tower would affect it. "The second we tie a school to a skyscraper, it becomes nearly impossible to oppose that project," he said. "You know how the BRA works."
Zakim said he was in no way in favor of giving "carte blanche to any developer," but only to look to see how cities such as New York have used the approach to get new schools built.
Nichols said that suggests a certain inability to deal with the reality that is the BRA.
The BRA and development
Dooley says he would move to dismantle the authority, which he compared to the Russian mobsters he says he once had to pay bribes to when doing business in Moscow. He added the BRA is "simply a vehicle to violate city zoning and city laws." He would then move to sell what he said were the 250 parcels of land the BRA now owns.
Zakim and Murray said the BRA doesn't do a good job at looking at the cumulative impact of all new buildings in a given area, such as on Boylston Street in the Fenway. Murray said there's a lot of buildable land across the city and maybe it's time for other neighborhoods to start getting some of the high rises. She added she would seek to split the BRA into a plannning department and an economic-development department, and look at a Back Bay version of the Main Streets programs, which has helped business districts in other neighborhoods.
Zakim called for help for small businesses. In addition to helping retail, he said he would try to work with local colleges on innovation centers that could help entrepreneurs and small startups.
Nichols said he's worred about expansion by local non-profit institutions, which he said "threatens pretty much every part of this district." He added that, unlike certain candidates he could name - but didn't - he's not in the pocket of real-estate developers and labor unions. He added that while he'd like to break the BRA up, he's not sure the City Council can do that, so instead, he would seek to have the BRA develop master plans for each neighborhood "with us, and not for us."
Candidates agreed: The cap on liquor licenses in Boston should be lifted. Not for the Back Bay, mind you, but for other neighborhoods that have been priced out of the licenses.
Nichols said he is working with some current councilors on a sort of lien program that would let the elderly and people on fixed incomes stay in their homes by paying only what they can afford - and making up the rest when they do sell.
Dooley said he would insist that tax revenue from new development go to reducing the taxes of existing residents and businesses, not go into the general city coffers. He added he wants to see more payments in lieu of taxes from local colleges. He said he would move to eliminate the restaurant meals tax and the hotel tax on inns with fewer than 100 beds.
Murray and Nichols said the city needs to stop giving large tax breaks to large companies, especially when studies show it's small businesses that are responsible for most job growth in the city. Nichols also called for more PILOT funds and said colleges reluctant to pay up could find themselves charged fees for city services, such as police and ambulance service.
Zakim said he would work with urban legislators to try to find ways to give cities new ways to raise revenue, to reduce their over reliance on property taxes.
Crime in Copley Square
Murray said a crackdown on crime in the Public Garden has pushed ne'er-do-wells into Copley Square. That the 9 and 10 buses disgorge homeless people right in the square doesn't help either. She called for more community policing, more surveillance cameras.
Nichols said there are some steps residents could take - for example, by combining old gift cards and using the remaining funds on them to help the local homeless.
Zakim said the area needs fewer cops in cruisers and more cops on walking beats - because walking cops can see things cops in cruisers might not. He added that enforecment needs to be coupled with getting people the services they need.
Dooley said the city should hire 1,000 auxiliary officers, at $30,000 annual salary - to supplement the regular police patrols.
Preserving the walkability of the neighborhood in the face of more bicycles
Murray said drivers need more education on not causing problems. Nichols said the city could have done a better job in alerting motorists to impending bike lanes, said bicyclists need more education themselves. Zakim, who doesn't own a car, agreed more education of people with wheels of any kind is needed, but said police also need to do more enforcement. Dooley wondered why cops can't stop motor miscreants, take away their keys and have their cars towed away.
All four candidates agreed this is very important.
Three of the four candidates said groups that use the parks in or near the Back Bay should be held accountable for any damage their events do. Nichols said groups should help with routine maintenance but that he's not liking the thought of pitting arts groups against parks, because Boston is a world-class city and major events in the neighborhoods that best represent Boston around the world are part of what make Boston special.