Return Engagement: Elliott Laffer Assumes Reins of NABB Again as Chair

Elliot Laffer, who served as chairman of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay for two terms from 1990 to 1992, assumed the reins of the organization again during its 65th annual meeting, which was held virtually last night, Wednesday, Sept. 16 – thus making him the only individual to date to return to the seat after previously vacating it.

Elliot Laffer, returning chair of the
Neighborhood Association of the
Back Bay.

Laffer, who grew up in Bayonne, N.J., and earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y., had a 30-year career in sales and sales management of engineered equipment that brought him to Boston in 1971. He settled in Back Bay in December of 1974 and first joined NABB the following year. Early on, he served on NABB’s Architectural Committee, as well as on a Block Organization that, as he recalls, “didn’t pan out.”

In 1977, Laffer was named treasurer of NABB for a one-year term, which he said, was “such a long time ago, [the organization] couldn’t afford to hire any staff and the records were kept in a shoebox.”

NABB was structured differently back then and included the president, who was appointed to a four-year term, and three vice presidents, as well a secretary and a treasurer, and Laffer would serve as one of its vice presidents from 1978 to 82.

This timeframe also marked the beginning of the process for Copley Place, a state air-rights project built over the Mass Turnpike that opened in 1983.

Under then-Gov. Michael Dukakis’s administration, the state established a civic review process for what should be built on the site, and the developer, Urban Investment and Development Co., a Chicago-based subsidiary of Aetna Life & Casualty, proposed a luxury mall with hotel and office components, which, Laffer said, was a novel idea for Boston at the time.

The state then launched what Laffer described as a “loosely structured process” led by Tunney Lee, former department head of urban studies and planning at MIT. Anyone who turned out for the public meeting was appointed to the committee, which eventually swelled in size to around 400 members, and, Laffer said, “didn’t function too well” as a result.

About a year later, Lee convened a steering committee for the project comprising himself, representatives from the Mass Turnpike Authority and the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and one yet-to-be-determined public representative. “There was lot of concern among the participants that the plans was to cut the public out of the decision-making process,” Laffer recalled.

Like today, NABB was also then the only organization representing the residents of Back Bay while the South End was home to several such groups.

During the meeting to determine who would be the steering committee’s representative from the public, two South End residents with opposing views on gentrification couldn’t agree on a nominee from their own neighborhood, so they instead both volunteered an unwitting Laffer, who was only 29 at the time, for the job.

“The process led to significant improvements to the way the project came out,” said Laffer, who also served as NABB’s representative on the advisory committees to the Boston Redevelopment Authority for the project.

A BRA staffer later told Laffer that the agency’s deputy director had once confided that he believed “the process wouldn’t have come to a satisfactory solution without” Laffer’s involvement, which, Laffer said, “was nice to hear.”

In illustrating this point, Laffer contrasts the success of Copley Place, which he believes benefitted greatly from the public process, with Lafayette Place Mall – a mixed-use project that also contained retail, hotel and office elements and got underway in Downtown Boston around the same as  time as Copley Place did. But without public input, Laffer said, Lafayette Place proved “an utter failure.”

In 1982, when NABB adopted its current structure, which includes a chairperson, the president, one vice president, a treasurer and a secretary, Laffer was named the organization’s president.

After wrapping up his tenure as president around 1984, Laffer was serving on the board and NABB’s executive committee when representatives of the Newark, N.J.-based Prudential Company came to Boston with a plan to expand the Prudential Center.

Soon afterwards, Laffer and Russ Gaudreau, chair of NABB at this time, met company representatives for breakfast and voiced their concern over the size of the proposed project, which, as Laffer said, went largely ignored.

Prudential officials, meanwhile, met with representatives from about seven other neighborhood organizations, Laffer said, and agreed to attend a “highly publicized” meeting in Rabb Hall at the Copley Branch of the BPL to address the community’s concerns. But two days beforehand, the company said its representatives wouldn’t be attending it after all.

Undaunted, Laffer was confident that he knew enough about the project to conduct the meeting himself and enlisted the help of Dick Braley, director of NABB at the time, who built a model to scale using slides of the proposed development for Laffer to use during his presentation.

The meeting went on as scheduled in Rabb Hall, with around 400 in attendance to hear from Laffer, who said he drew from his experience as an “old sales guy” for the occasion.

David Scondras, District 8’s first City Councilor, subsequently subpoenaed the Prudential Company to come to a City Council meeting at Rabb Hall, which paved the way for another meeting at the Parkman House with then-Mayor Ray Flynn and company representatives, who showed up this time with “a proposal with pictures,” Laffer said.

In response, the Mayor’s Deputy Director of Neighborhood Services drafted a set of guidelines for the project that paved the way for the Prudential Project Advisory Committee (PruPAC), and, Laffer would go on to serve as vice chair of PruPAC for more than 30 years until the completion of the process.

“It was the hardest political thing I’ve ever done…and it was a two-year process just to develop the guidelines,” Laffer said. “We got 21 of 22 groups to sign on, and in most ways, [the guidelines] defined what got built.”

The project also resulted in what was then the largest private investment in Boston’s history.

When the BRA honored Laffer with an award in 1989, it was the only one presented that year by Stephen Coyle, who was then the agency’s director. Coyle said he estimated that Laffer had been on hand for around 300 meetings pertaining to the Pru’s expansion, to which Laffer wryly replied those were only the ones that Coyle knew about. “I spent a lot of my life doing that,” Laffer said.

Besides ensuring the positive outcome of the Prudential Center expansion, Laffer also has confidence in knowing that nearly every community process he has been involved in, including his most recent stint serving on the CAC for the Back Bay/South End Gateway project, has eventually reached consensus.

“I take pride in that every time I go into one of these things I get unanimity or near-unanimity,” Laffer said. “And one reason why this happens is that NABB believes we shouldn’t achieve our goals at the expense of other neighborhoods so we’ve tried really hard to respect what other neighborhoods are trying to accomplish, and to find a way to reach as many of everyone’s goals as we can.”

Although Laffer added, “The Storrow Tunnel is the only one we couldn’t figure out, but hopefully we’ll have another chance at that.”

Reaching a consensus doesn’t always come easily, however, as illustrated by the process surrounding 500 Boylston, which commenced around 1984 and Laffer described as a “controversial project in the neighborhood.”

It was originally proposed as two identical buildings designed by Philip Johnson, who was also the architect on 222 Berkeley St., and like that project, Hines of Houston, Texas, was also initially on board as the developer.

Laffer, who served as NABB’s representative on the advisory committees to the BRA for 500 Boylston St., helped convene a Citizens Action Committee for the project, with only around seven stakeholders. “It got super private, which was a mistake,”  Laffer said in hindsight.

Still, though, the CAC got most of what it asked for in regard to requested changes in height and setback, as well as the developer providing retail space on three sides of the building’s ground floor.

One stakeholder with a seat at the table on the CAC was Spencer Rice, who besides chairing the committee, was the also rector at Trinity Church, which was located right across street from 500 Boylston and had suffered significant structural issues during the construction of the John Hancock Tower.

Trinity Church, as Laffer soon learned, sits on around 5,000 wood pilings, and Rice was determined that this latest project wouldn’t further compromise the building.

“This is where I learned about groundwater,” said Laffer, who, in 2004, was named the first executive director of the Boston Groundwater Trust, which he described as “a quasigovernmental body that monitors groundwater levels in the made land sections of the city, where most buildings constructed before 1920 are supported on wood pilings that can rot if groundwater levels drop below their tops causing very expensive to repair damage, and to make recommendations for solving the problem.”

The city established the Groundwater Trust in 1986, but Laffer said it “went dormant” from about 1989 until 1997 when then-Mayor Thomas Menino was persuaded to appoint new trustees and “provide it with modest funding.”

In his more than decade-long tenure as the first executive director of the Groundwater Trust, Laffer helped draft zoning changes that encouraged construction methods to help maintain groundwater levels and worked with the city and state to implement these new policies.

Upon his retirement in 2015, Laffer received citations commending his work from the Boston City Council and the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He has since go on to volunteer with SCORE, which he described as “an SBA-affiliated organization that provides mentoring to help those who are contemplating founding new for-profit or nonprofit organizations or looking for help as they work through problems in their small businesses.”

Martyn Roetter, NABB’s outgoing chair, said it’s “somewhat of a paradox” that Laffer’s contributions “have helped transform Back Bay into a place that someone with his background and resources could no longer afford to live.” But Roetter added: “Elliot recognizes this issue as one of his and NABB’s major concerns.”

Serving most recently as co-chair of NABB’s Licensing and Building Use Committee, Laffer was tasked with, among other responsibilities, reviewing applications for what Roetter described as “the contentious subject of marijuana dispensaries in the neighborhood” – an issue that is sure to continue to be a hot-button issue with NABB and in Back Bay.

Another invaluable asset that Laffer brings to the role as chair, Roetter said, is that “besides Sue Prindle, he has one of the longest institutional memories within NABB,” so “it’s helpful to have him put things into perspective.”

Yet Laffer “has kept up with the times,” Roetter said, and remains “eager and ready to tackle the job as the challenges now exist.”

By a conservative estimate, Laffer figures he has participated in or at least attended approximately 2,500 community meetings in Back Bay over the past 45 years, including around 1,000 meeting of various NABB committees he has served on, as well as 800 meeting related to various development projects and between 400 and 500 NABB Executive Committee meetings.

And while Laffer has devoted incalculable hours to serving Back Bay over the years, he knows all too well that his wife, Gail, and their daughter, Stephanie, have also had to sacrifice precious family time with him so he could commit himself to the neighborhood.

In fact, the long-running family joke around the Laffer household has always been that the first words Stephanie, who turns 40 next year, uttered were: “Daddy go to meeting.”

Ultimately, however, Laffer said, “What I’ve really tried to do at all these meetings is make sure that we accomplished something. There’s a purpose behind all of these meetings, and there’s an endpoint where trying to get to.”

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