Boston is brimming with an intellect no other city can contend with.
“We have the world’s greatest think tank at our disposal,” acknowledged Linda Kowalcky, deputy director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, who serves as Mayor Thomas Menino’s liaison to higher education. “It’s really been a privilege to work with a mayor who gets that and wants to reach out and tap into it for the benefit of Boston.”
As of 2009, Boston was home to 85 private colleges and universities — dozens of which have flourished under Menino’s 20-year reign.
Emerson College relocated from the Back Bay to a neighborhood formerly deemed the “Combat Zone.” The city’s sin strip, bordering the edge of Chinatown, was once lined with adult bookstores, X-rated movie theaters and peep shows.
“Emerson took a real chance on setting up this campus on the Common,” Kowalcky said.
But that chance, taken in partnership with the City, paid off. Emerson’s visionary decision resulted in a revitalization of the downtown stretch of streets, now recognized as the flourishing Theater District. Between the purchase and renovation of four buildings, restoration of the Cutler Majestic Theater and construction of three new buildings, the College has invested $450 million into the neighborhood.
Emerson President Lee Pelton made admirable mention of Menino’s collaborative efforts, which recently led to the reopening of Boston’s iconic Paramount Theatre, now an integral part of Emerson’s campus. Shared Pelton in a statement:
Emerson is among many institutions, as well as individuals, in neighborhoods throughout the City of Boston who will miss his inspired and compassionate leadership. … The Mayor’s dedication to rejuvenating many of Boston’s neighborhoods and providing better opportunities for individuals leaves an enduring impact on those who live and work here today and for generations to come. With gratitude and admiration, I wish the Mayor, Angela, and their family all the best when he leaves office next month.
Suffolk University has helped give Downtown Crossing its rebirth, as well. The neighboring school recently restored a historic landmark. Suffolk Construction dismantled, catalogued, cleaned, stored and reassembled the facade of the city’s Modern Theatre brick-by-brick. The building now serves as a Suffolk residence hall, yet the spirit of the old theater lives on in a first-floor gallery and new 184-seat performance space.
“That all happened under the mayor’s watch and leadership,” Kowalcky reiterated.
Suffolk University President James McCarthy commended the change, lauding Menino’s efforts. “As a University woven into the fabric of Boston,” McCarthy told BostInno that Suffolk continues to experience Menino’s positive impact daily. He added:
His commitment to thoughtful and sustainable development that benefits the surrounding community has led to the revitalization of Tremont and lower Washington streets. As a result of his vision, we find ourselves surrounded by rejuvenated theaters, thriving restaurants, new residences and academic buildings that attract students and so many others to this great city. For that, and for all that you have done for Boston, we thank you, Mayor Menino.
In March of 2004, the BRA announced a new housing partnership: one between Boston and its institutions. Although college students greatly help fuel the city’s economy, Menino recognized an additional impact they were having on the Hub. Off-campus student apartments were occupying housing neighborhood families could otherwise be inhabiting.
“Mayor Menino focused on the need to build dormitories and house students on their campus,” Kowalcky said. “Not only does it make for a lively campus atmosphere, but it also protects the quality of life in neighborhoods.”
Between 2000 and 2010, Boston added 29 dormitories and nearly 11,000 dormitory beds — an increase of 39 percent, according to the BRA. At the time, plans for another 2,200 beds in four dormitories were in the works, and that number has continued to increase.
“Menino has pressed the universities to really take responsibility,” Kowalcky noted.
And the schools have responded in positive ways that embody a win for them and the city.
Northeastern serves as a prime example. The University is planning to transform its presence on Columbus Avenue with the construction of a new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Building, along with a renovation of the city-owned William E. Carter Playground. While better connecting the neighborhoods of Roxbury and Fenway, Northeastern will also be implementing programs that would give more Roxbury students the ability to attend the school.
As Martha Pierce, the mayor’s education advisor, said, “The mayor has taken a very different look at higher education. It’s not just about getting into college, but making sure kids are successful in college.”
Over the last 20 years, Menino has formed several strategic partnerships to help the city’s youth achieve post-secondary success. In 2008, Menino introduced Success Boston, an initiative aimed at doubling the college completion rate for the Boston Public Schools’ Class of 2011 and beyond. High schoolers can now take college courses at local institutions. Over at Boston University, 25 seniors graduating from Boston Public Schools are annually awarded a four-year, full-tuition scholarship.
“I think you’ve seen a lot of the colleges really transform themselves and the neighborhoods along with it,” Kowalcky explained, “and we’ve really made sure the Boston neighborhoods and its residents get to share in that.”
Wentworth Institute of Technology President Zoria Panti? echoed, and reaffirmed, Kowalcky’s sentiments, telling BostInno:
The mayor’s tremendous support of higher education and innovation will have a lasting impact on the city of Boston. He is a true partner for promoting the opportunities available to students and encourages them to play an active role in contributing to the communities in which we live.
The City of Boston’s Office of Business Development has collaborated with college students head-on. The OBD recently partnered with Wentworth’s Accelerate, Innovation + Entrepreneurship Center to host the second Think Tank Boston, a day-long event that brings 100 of the city’s college students into accelerator MassChallenge for a Saturday of solving problems that are plaguing Boston.
“The students are becoming a huge asset to us,” said Brian Goodman, the OBD’s innovation and systems manager, in a previous interview — an asset not gone unnoticed by Menino.
The mayor has continued to tap into the research and immense intellect pouring out of our local institutions. Take the Boston office of New Urban Mechanics as an example. Although run by City employees, a lot of the work being produced builds on relationships previously made with the MIT Media Lab, as well as some of the computer science programs at Northeastern and Boston University.
Most recently, Menino launched the Boston Area Research Initiative in conjunction with the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. The mission is to “spur original research in the Greater Boston area that is on the cutting edge of social science and policy.”
By working more closely with the surrounding schools and students, the City is more easily able to slow the brain drain and keep young talent in Boston.
“In many ways, our colleges and universities have become an adjunct to the city,” Kowalcky added in jest.
In her next breath, however, she took on a more serious tone — one that reflected the tireless work Menino has done over the last 20 years.
“His commitment to this is very genuine,” she said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for everything he’s been able to do.”
Featured Image via WBUR