Regional rule: two tales of a city

Boston, a city of 562,000 people, nestles at the center of an urban population of 2.9 million. Should the 101 communities in its suburbs, like the feudal barons under medieval kings, cede their fiefdoms to a larger form of government? Should Boston, like Toronto or Minneapolis-St. Paul or Nashville or Dade County, Fla., forge a broad-based regional government? Thereby hangs a tale - or, more accurately, two tales.

Joel Pressman, mayor of the frequently overlooked city of Chelsea, cites a winning example of the need for regionalization. His city has a fire department. So does neighboring Revere. Along Broadway, a street connecting the cities, are two fire stations -- separated by a quarter of a mile.Between them is the city line.

"It's absolutely ridiculous to have the whole duplication of everything," Mr. Pressman told a recent breakfast meeting organized by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. He'd like to see more cooperation -- particularly down at street level, where Chelsea has only one hard-pressed street- cleaning machine. Revere has two.But no ready mechanism exists to allow the two communities to share their resources, or even to purchase equipment in common. Why not, he suggests, a regional Department of Public Works?

Why not, indeed, much greater regionalization?The idea is not unknown around here. The Metropolitan District Commission maintains parks, highways, and water and sewer service in 54 cities and towns. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) handles environmental issues, economic development, and land use from the harbor out to Route 495. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, while not in good odor these days (more on that in future columns), is an essentially good idea for running a transit system in 79 contiguous cities and towns. In these days of Proposition 2 1/2 (the voter-mandated measure to cut property taxes) such regional authorities could have great cost-saving virtues.

The concept of regional delivery of services, in fact, has such eminent appeal to reason that one can hardly believe it has not been more widely adopted. But reason, in the land of the bean and the cod, is not always the reigning force. And the several dozen reasonable men and women at the chamber breakfast were reluctantly drawn to a common conclusion: that regionalization, however worthy of continued study, is simply not on at this time.

Why not? The ostensible reason, articulated by most of the meeting's participants, is that Boston seems to be going down the tube -- and the affluent suburbs don't want to go with it. Boston, after all, may be on the short list for bankruptcy. State Rep. Gerald Cohen told the group that "the more we talk about receivership, the more we talk about the fears of any community being tied in to the City of Boston." Does Weston, after all, want the problems of Mayor White, or Canton those of the city council, or Stoneham those of the school committee? Politically, Boston is in disgrace -- not the best time to propose a merger.

Beyond that, too, is the sheer complexity of local government. Donald Megathlin of the MAPC notes that there are already 88 separate regional entities around Boston that have authority over physical development alone. In addition there are the agencies that dispense other things (like health care), and the local government units. Little wonder, then, that a 1973 federal report by the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations described Boston as the second most complex city government in the nation, exceeded only by Chicago.

But the real problem may run even deeper. For Boston prides itself on being a city of neighborhoods. Thoughts of turf run deep here, and both the city authorities and the press elevate these often-ethnic distinctions to high visibility. That's not surprising, during an age when nationalism is increasing worldwide. But just as international diplomacy gets tripped up by the vehement assertion of local identities, so the regionalism around the Hub, fortified by Yankee traditionalism, inhibits cooperation.

Maybe what's needed is more diplomacy. That is not to say that Boston should open a consulate in Cohasset. But Mayor White might consider the value of restraining his vitriolic comments about the suburbs. And suburbanites, who typically both love and hate the myth that is Boston, might exercise more tact. For the fact is that if Boston sinks, so does the region. And the financial hardships of the coming months make it imperative that the people who proudly say "I'm from Boston" whenever they go abroad -- even if they live in the suburbs -- should begin to focus on the larger goal of making a city that works.

Actually, the city has a tradition of expanding -- not only by land, through the annexation of such neighbors as Hyde Park and Roxbury, but also by sea. Beacon Hill, which used to be a good deal higher than it is, surrendered several peaks to fill the marshy bays around the original Shawmut Peninsula. The tiny spit of land eventually tripled in land area, producing a city on new-made land. That land came with new-made confusions about its deeds and titles.

All that may sound like history -- unless you live in Harbor Towers, and thereby hangs another tale. The tenants of those twin high-rise apartment houses on the water's edge have been told that their building is being transformed into condominiums. When they buy their piece of the tower, will they have clear titles?

The commonwealth's assistant attorney general, Howard Palmer, thinks they may not. The reason: a fluke of the law which could only happen, it seems, in a state whose so-called "blue laws" required you to carry a musket to church until fairly recently.

The current problem comes down from English common law, which gave the king the ownership of all land beyond the high-water mark. A 1647 ordinance of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, refining that law, reserved to the public the use of the tidal land between high- and low-water marks for fishing, fowling, and navigation. And then the filling began. So what lies beyond the low-water mark? All the filled land. That includes the waterfront. It also includes the Ritz, the Prudential Center, the public library, and everything else in the area known for good reason as "Back Bay."

Into this legal quagmire waded the Supreme Judicial Court, which in 1979 handed down the so-called "Quirico decision," named after former Justice Francis J. Quirico. It said that the state held in trust all land seaward of the primitive low-water line and should see that it was used in the public interest.

Legislation now pending on Beacon Hill would clear the clouds from the titles on all land inland of Atlantic Avenue and bordered by Storrow Drive, Massachusetts Avenue, and Albany Street. But outside that line -- seaward from Atlantic Avenue, for example, where Harbor Towers stands -- the state would still have a say in the riparian rights of landowners.

Is Harbor Towers in the public interest? That question is only the tip of the kelp heap. What about conversions of wharfs to condominiums, or the use of waterfront property for factories, or piers that support restaurants?

These are not easy questions. Boston's waterfront is among its least appreciated resources -- largely because access is currently so restricted. The solution, again, may be regionalization. The harbor embraces towns from Lynn to Nantasket, and needs a firm hand on its tiller. A report on the future of the harbor prepared by the government-funded MIT Boston Harbor Management Project (still in draft form) suggests that the other major urban harbors in the country have refocused their governing bodies toward harbor development. Here, however, no existing government agency commands the respect of all the others: The duchies are too strong. Worse, there is hardly any discussion of the problems, which include:

* Integrated planning. Land and waterside activities must be interrelated. Too often the terrestrial interests proceed without coordination with the aquatic concerns. The result: Non-water-related activities take up valuable shore- front property. The classic example is the parking lot near the Aquarium. As long as its land is assessed as it is -- at the peppercorn price of $1 per square foot -- there may be little incentive to do something better with it.

* Transportation. As riders of the "T" well know, land- based transportation is crowded and unreliable. Yet water- based transportation, with the exception of the delightful commuter boats from Hull and Hingham, towns south of Boston, is still in its infancy. And while the experiments by the Hingham group proved that hovercraft may not be the answer, the potential for conventional-hulled boats is large. Currently, state subsidies support commuter boat lines, where fares cover 40 percent of revenues. But boat subsidies cost the Commonwealth less than corresponding subsidies on the "T," which earns only 18.5 percent of its revenues from fares.

* Rights of way. Legally, public paths to the waterfront abound. In practice, they are ill-defined, forgotten, or frankly ignored. Many suspect that some "No Trespassing" signs now in place may be illegal. But without a right-of-way commission to survey, define, and enforce the public's access, few can be sure where these age-old paths are.

Here, then, is a place for strong regional action. The Boston Harbor Associates (TBHA), a dedicated nonprofit group that enjoys the trust of both private- and public-sector interests, could serve as a catalyst to move the discussion off dead center. With as little as $30,000 in funding, it could become both traffic cop and town crier for the numerous issues needing resolution as the harbor reaches toward its potential. That amount, given to a government agency, could evaporate overnight. Given to TBHA, it could help the entire area rediscover why it was once called the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

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