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Mayoral candidates say they would overhaul BRA

A majority of candidates for mayor say they would overhaul or dismantle the Boston Redevelopment Authority, raising the possibility of sweeping change at an agency that has shaped decades of development and become a prime lever of power for Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

One candidate, state Representative Martin Walsh, wants to abolish the BRA as a stand-alone agency, while several others prefer to divide its responsibilities among multiple bodies. Still others would keep the agency intact, while tinkering to make it more transparent.

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Their responses to a Globe questionnaire establish some of the starkest differences to date in the wide open race for mayor, and hold major implications for billions of dollars of real estate investment at a time of increasing construction activity in Boston.

“The BRA is in need of significant reforms to make it more transparent and accountable,” wrote Councilor-at-Large John Connolly, who along with Walsh wants to institute term limits for the authority’s board members, among other reforms.

Dismantling the agency would mark a dramatic change in city governance. With a current budget of $14 million, the BRA has overseen development in Boston since 1957. Over the years, it has become a major source of power for Menino and other mayors who used it to physically reshape the city and pursue their political agendas.

Supporters of the agency say it has spurred the city’s growth and attracted investment from around the world, remaking its skyline and fueling redevelopment from the South Boston Innovation District, to Downtown Crossing and Dudley Square.

“Boston used to be a city without any confidence in itself,” said Stephen Coyle, a former director of the agency under Raymond Flynn, the former mayor. “Now it’s a top-five city for any investment manager in the country. It wasn’t that way 10 years ago. It wasn’t that way 40 years ago.”

But some argue the BRA has become too friendly to the wealthy and well-connected. The extent of the potential reform at the agency depends on whether the next mayor would simply reorganize its responsibilities or cede political control over development decisions. Several candidates emphasize the need to decentralize the BRA, but few say they would relinquish power outright.

“I’m skeptical any new mayor would do that,” said Steve Poftak, executive director of the Rappaport Institute at Harvard University. “It would be akin to saying you want to be mayor to change the city, and then taking away the main way for you to influence its development.”

In addition to reviewing development proposals, the BRA controls or significantly influences neighborhood planning, city zoning rules, affordable housing construction, and regulations on parking and open space.

Most of the dozen candidates said they would significantly alter its operations after hearing from some residents and developers that decision-making can be unpredictable and subject to political whims. Even the candidates who would preserve the authority are proposing major reforms such as putting control over affordable housing in a separate agency.

Walsh, a former head of a powerful building trades union, would make the most dramatic change. He is proposing to replace the BRA with an economic development agency whose director would serve under a contract and be less accountable to the mayor’s office. “Under my plan, the mayor will have less direct power; multiple current entities with similar responsibilities will be morphed into one, creating tax savings and eliminating duplication,” Walsh wrote in a statement.

By contrast, Charlotte Golar Richie, Bill Walczak, City Councilor Rob Consalvo, and Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley would largely retain the BRA’s current structure, with each proposing different reforms to increase community input and establish more defined rules.

Four candidates would create separate entities for community planning and development review, ostensibly to prevent developers from wielding too much influence over permitting decisions. Among those favoring that approach include Felix Arroyo, Charles Yancey, John Barros, and Charles Clemons.

City Councilor Michael Ross would not abolish the BRA, preferring to institute a system of neighborhood-based planning to guide development. He would strip the BRA’s authority to negotiate affordable housing construction, giving that responsibility to a different department.

The election of a new mayor will take place at a time of rapid development in city neighborhoods. More than $5.6 billion worth of projects are under construction, including 5,024 housing units, according to the BRA. Major projects are underway in the Fenway, Downtown Crossing, the South Boston Innovation District, East Boston, and other neighborhoods.

Candidates who criticize the BRA risk provoking Menino, who sees real estate improvements to the neighborhoods and commercial districts as a major part of his legacy. The city has seen 80 million square feet of development during Menino’s 20-year tenure, an amount equal to 11 percent of Boston’s building stock.

“The numbers on increasing the city’s tax base, tremendous job growth, and new housing units speak for themselves,” said BRA spokeswoman Susan Elsbree.

Peter Meade, the current BRA director who will leave with Menino, has publicly questioned the notion of splitting planning and development between two agencies, saying it would only diminish the ability of neighbors to directly influence development plans.

Since Menino said he would not seek reelection, the BRA has seen a sharp rise in building proposals. Developers have lined up to get approvals in place before a potentially disruptive change in power.

One real estate industry representative cautioned that a major overhaul of the BRA could sap the city’s considerable economic momentum. For example, major reforms would be likely to require approval of the Legislature, which passed the initial law to create the BRA.

“It could be a very long time before you have an operating review process,” said David Begelfer, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, a commercial real estate association.

But several of the candidates said they have continually received complaints about the BRA on the campaign trail. “When I speak to community folks most particularly, they feel like they are not heard by the BRA,” said Conley, the Suffolk district attorney. “And then a decision gets made with no clarity or explanation.”

He said he would seek to provide a clearer justification for development decisions, posting more information online, among other changes.

Golar Richie said she wants to see more development in outlying neighborhoods, and Barros pushed for more participation by women and minority-owned businesses. Consalvo said he wants to streamline permitting and end no-bid contracts for city-owned property, while Walczak said he would start a process to compile master plans for every neighborhood in the city.

“The most important change to the BRA will be a primacy on planning for the city and neighborhood needs, not the interests of developers,” Walczak said. “That is not a structure change, but a philosophical change.”

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.

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