Wu sees way for in-person meetings with allowances for remote access

Public meetings on development projects often become tense affairs, as supporters and opponents clash over the size of proposals, traffic, and parking as plans undergo review from the Boston Planning and Development Agency.

There are complaints about where the meetings are held, and people are unhappy that the gatherings continue to take place online, even as the pandemic is waning in its effects. For many attendees, especially the elderly, participating by Zoom, the teleconferencing application, is a struggle; a family member is likely to be asked to step in and fiddle with the laptop keys.

Others have noted that joining a meeting online allows them to juggle errands and parent at home, logging on with a baby on their lap or a frying pan on the stove. For supporters of some projects in Dorchester, such as the controversial proposal to convert the Comfort Inn at 900 Morrissey Boulevard into permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless people, an online connection to public discussions is a matter of comfort and safety: Why go in person to a meeting held by local civic associations to get shouted down by implacable opponents?

Count Mayor Michelle Wu as among those who see a way to shift back toward in-person meetings, while still allowing for remote access.

“I think in-person meetings are really important,” Wu told the Reporter in an interview on Monday. “Maybe this is just the eternal optimist in me, but there is some function of the public conversation that is, yes, about the topic that’s in front of us, but also about just reinforcing and building community.”

She conceded that “not everyone” is comfortable on Zoom while noting that “it does open up the accessibility for a whole lot more people. We have seen participation in certain types of meetings and in many neighborhood meetings go up when people can Zoom in from their living room or home, instead of having to try to get on the Red Line to come downtown to City Hall or wherever it is.

“So the hope, I think, is to preserve both pieces of that. To have in-person meetings and then to have the hybrid option where people can still access it.”

The location of the meeting would be key, the mayor added. “I can create a very difficult experience for people who are trying to Zoom in if there’s not a proper screen set-up and you can’t hear them.”

City officials are now looking into which buildings might be the easiest for a hybrid model — a location in each neighborhood, preferably — where there is the technological capacity to set up a screen and sound in order to have public meetings held both in-person and online.

“We want that to be a real option – that you can, from both directions, hear people and participate,” Wu said.

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