NO WAY TO CREATE A ROXBURY INNOVATION DISTRICT

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^ lots of committee, not much connection ; the “NIDC” meets at Boston Public Library

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Last night I attended a meeting of the so-called “Neighborhood Innovation District Committee,” a group of about 15 well-knowns who have been tasked with etablishing an “Innovation District,” as we now call technology research parks, in Roxbury. Unhappily, the meeting made the creation of such a district harder to achieve, not easier.

The committee couldn’t even define what “innovation” means without swerving well off the rails. Committee member Ed Glaeser — who has written brilliantly about Boston’s history and surely knows better — asserted that “innovation should apply to all kinds of business enterprises : food stores, handicrafts, retail.” This is nonsense, as was his assertion of “an innovation district with a heart.”

Dear Ed Glaeser : what an innovation district needs is a profit.

One committee member said, “you can’t create an innovation district from the top down.”

Sorry, Sir, but that is precisely how you create it.

Having determined that the innovation district they were working on would, basically, do the same job that Boston’s Main Streets and Neighborhood development programs are already doing — and thereby unnecessarily duplicating said programs — the committee proceeded to discuss, for more than an hour, the kinds of “neighborhood impacts” that one usually hears at neighborhood approval meetings for residential and mixed-use real estate development : Madison Park being a good example.

There was, therefore, much talk about assuring that the Innovation district wouldn’t displace existing Roxbury residents, that it would help provide employment for neighborhood residents, that it would favor neighborhood innovators, etc.

In all of this well-meaning, sensitivity-trained committee-ese, I heard not one full sentence of what the building of an innovation district is all about. Considering that the committee includes very connected Boston activists — Mel King, Byron ushing, Sheila Dillon, Greg Bialecki, Dan Isenberg, and Marianna White-Hammond, Chris Jones, and Valerie Roberson, as well as Glaeser — and is chaired by former mayor candidate John Barros, this failure to address the real issue annoyed me greatly.

So let me now set forth what an innovation district is and what creating one means to the future of Roxbury :

1. An innovation district is, in fact, a technology start-up and research park. no more, no less.

2. to create one, you need ( a ) an easy access highway or public transpo or both ( b ) space that can be rented cheaply and built just as cheaply ( c ) innovators and researchers and ( d ) investor capital.

3. to permit an innovation district, you need a City government that actually wants one (and doesn’t just say that it wants one)

4.putting an innovation district in Roxbury is easy to do. Melnea cass Boulevard skirts Roxbury’s northeast border and connects immediately to Route 93. The area along Cass Boulevard is well stocked with under-used warehouses, trash-mashed empty lots, and old factories. Innovators live and innovate (in lots and garages) hard by the Boulevard and all along Fort Point Channel directly next door.

5.An innovation district in Roxbury will accelerate major change already taking place in the neighborhood, as young people unable to afford the current South End move to Roxbury next door and as the Dudley Square business district is money-jolted by the soon presence, in the Ferdinand Building, of 500 Boston school department central office employees.

Real estate prices are moving sharply upward all over Roxbury, and long-time residents, who have never had much economic boon (a lot of that due to racism) now find themselves holding a lottery ticket in the form of homes worth $ 800,000 to 4 1,500,000 — usually with no mortgage to pay off, as it was often difficult to get lenders to grant mortgages in Boston’s community of color.

Those who want to stay in Roxbury will need to move fast to keep up, and a lot of that keeping up will require Boston Public schools to do better, much better, at educating kids for actual jobs. The need is already there, and very pressing, but it’s easy right now to put off the difficult decisions — especially those involving the school system — for another day. Placing an innovation District in Roxbury — and thereby importing the innovators, although many innovators (yes, people of color too, believe it or not) now live in Roxbury, though you wouldn’t think so to hear what was said last night — will accelerate these changes and force everyone to rethink his or her personal situation : can i stay ? if so, how and where ? What will i have to do differently ? Is it worth it ?

Change is difficult, but in a dynamic economy such as Boston’s, you either accelerate the change or it accelerates you. An innovation district, properly focused and not trying to solve all the ills of our society, has the economic power to change a neighborhood enormously. i would have thought that last night’s committee meeting would have understood this. It did not. Instead, it pretty much guaranteed that there won’t be an innovation district in Roxbury any time soon.

—- Mike Freedberg / Roxbury Here

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