The Boston Redevelopment Authority is speeding up its consideration of building proposals by developers and others in the final months of Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s administration, moving rapidly over the objections of some neighborhood residents and both candidates vying to become the city’s next mayor.
The BRA, which reviews all major development projects, has started increasing the frequency of its board meetings to act on proposals calling for everything from tax relief, to long-term real estate plans for universities, to construction of towering residential buildings.
Between July and September, the BRA received 27 project submissions, a 68 percent increase over the same period in 2012. In addition to Menino’s departure, the increased activity could be driven by several factors, such as developers’ fears of rising interest rates and their desire to capitalize on Boston’s red-hot residential real estate market.
Several hotly debated projects are pending, including long-term development plans for Northeastern University, a 33-story hotel and condominium building in the Back Bay, and a master plan for Harvard University’s expansion into Allston.
The BRA’s director, Peter Meade, said the authority is holding additional board meetings to make time for community debate and to respond to developers’ plans at a time of rapid building activity. He said the BRA is not trying to rush projects into construction, or exert influence over the next administration.
“I’m doing my job until I’m no longer in the job.”Peter Meade, BRA director
“I’m doing my job until I’m no longer in the job,” said Meade, who is stepping down when Menino leaves. He added the authority will continue to take up major proposals during the transition to the next administration. “I don’t think we should just put it into cruise control,” Meade said.
Typically, the authority’s board meets once a month, but it held two meetings in September and plans to hold two in October. The mayoral election will determine Menino’s successor on Nov. 5. Both candidates, Martin Walsh and John Connolly, are urging the BRA to delay approvals until community concerns are addressed.
“The decisions being made now are going to impact the next mayor. I don’t think there is any doubt about that,” Connolly said. “I think the big problem is that the [BRA] process needs to be more transparent. That was true a year ago, and it’s true now.”
Walsh said, “The BRA needs to slow down and adhere to its normal public process. I want to continue the growth of the city, but I want to make sure it’s done in a smart way as we move forward.”
Regardless, the decisions by Menino and the BRA will have a significant impact on development during the next administration.
Connolly and Walsh have outlined plans to significantly reform the authority’s operations.
Walsh is proposing to replace the BRA with a new economic development agency whose director would serve under a contract and be less accountable to the mayor’s office.
Connolly said he wants development to be determined by community planning and has pushed for more precise zoning rules, so that the height and use of new buildings is less subject to political manipulation.
But such reforms would take many months, if not years, to implement. The BRA is continuing to address a long list of new building proposals from Roxbury, to the West End, to the South Boston Innovation District.
In addition to the stepped-up meeting schedule at the BRA, Menino has said he intends to name a replacement for Clarence “Jeep” Jones, former BRA board chairman, who retired Sept. 26 after 32 years on the board.
Walsh and Connolly have advocated term limits for BRA board members and said the next mayor should get to name Jones’s successor. Any nominee would have to be confirmed by the city council.
In recent weeks, some residents have said the BRA is advancing major building projects without listening to their concerns. “It seems like everything is on a rushed course,” said Tom Iannotti, a Back Bay resident who is concerned a new tower proposed at 40 Trinity Place will worsen wind gusts in the area.
A spokeswoman for the BRA, Susan Elsbree, said Meade has told the project’s developer that the concerns about wind must be addressed before the building can be approved. The 40 Trinity project, which calls for a 33-story hotel and condominium building near the John Hancock Tower, was first proposed in August 2012. While some neighboring condominium owners have raised concerns about wind and traffic issues, others have offered support for the project.
During a meeting Sept. 26, the BRA board faced protests from community activists who objected to its approval of tax breaks for the $630 million redevelopment of the former Filene’s block and a $7.3 million contract granting the Red Sox permission to use public streets around Fenway Park on game days. Both items were approved by the board.
Meade has defended those actions, saying the $7.8 million tax break will allow the Filene’s developer, Millennium Partners, to use the savings to lure a Roche Bros. supermarket and other retail stores to Downtown Crossing. He and other officials also asserted a new Red Sox agreement needed to be acted upon because the arrangement with the team expires at the end of the season.
The agendas for the BRA’s October board meetings have not been published, but several major projects are expected to be taken up soon. Among them is a long-term development plan for Northeastern University and a new 484-bed residence hall for Boston College on Commonwealth Avenue.
The BRA postponed a planned vote on the residence hall Sept. 26 after neighbors complained the project was being advanced even though they were given little time to review proposed transportation improvements and other provisions. The dormitory proposal is expected to be taken up at a meeting scheduled for Tuesday.