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Developers urge Mayor Walsh to clarify BRA process

Say clarity lacking on decision process

Boston’s new mayor, Martin J. Walsh, has repeatedly promised that the city’s building boom would continue under his administration, even as he vowed a top-to-bottom overhaul of its chief planning agency.

But three months into his term, the pipeline of major new proposals has slowed to a trickle. Some of the lawyers, developers, and neighborhood activists who drive development in Boston say they are unsure who in Walsh’s administration is responsible for making key decisions on real estate projects.

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There is still no permanent director at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. John Barros is the city’s new economic czar, but neither he nor the mayor has become immersed in the details of development. Meanwhile, the mayor has named an acting director of the BRA, launched an audit of its operations, and terminated most of the employees in one of its divisions, prompting some to worry the agency is adrift.

“It’s not moving as fast as everyone would like it to,” said Kevin Ahearn, president of the brokerage Otis & Ahearn, which is putting together a development on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. “Everybody is anxious because the marketplace is so strong and the opportunity with the low interest rates is compelling.”

Kevin Phelan, cochairman of the real estate firm Colliers International, said that opportunities for development in Boston aren’t going to disappear while the mayor puts a new team in place. Still, he said, it is critical for Walsh to create a clear chain of command on development matters.

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“The BRA head has to have direct access to the mayor,” he said. “Multiple layers will dilute things, and it will become problematic. But I think we all have to take a deep breath and give him some time.”

Since Walsh became mayor, the BRA has approved redevelopment of the Landmark Center complex in the Fenway and a 600-unit apartment complex in the South End, projects already in the pipeline when Walsh took over for Thomas M. Menino. But the authority’s first three board meetings under Walsh dealt mostly with smaller projects, and no major new proposals have been announced.

The mayor’s decisions in the months ahead will affect the future of a historic building boom in Boston, which is experiencing a wave of opportunity as more residents and companies move into the city. Thousands of condominiums and luxury apartments are under construction, dozens of new restaurants have opened, and office buildings are rising from Dudley Square to the South Boston Innovation District.

Walsh said the perception that there is a slowdown is due only to the breakneck pace of approvals in the final months of the Menino administration.

“The reason large projects haven’t gone forward is because that past administration fast-tracked everything,” Walsh said. “They approved such a high rate of projects in the last three BRA meetings.”

Those previously approved developments included a massive redevelopment of the Government Center Garage, a towering cluster of buildings in front of TD Garden, a hotel and condominium tower in the Back Bay, and large projects with office and retail space in Brighton and the South End.

Not everyone thinks Walsh’s go-slow approach is a bad thing, especially as rapid building begins to redefine large swaths of the city.

“It’s important to look at the type of density and type of development we’re doing,” said Carol Ridge Martinez, a Brighton resident and executive director of the Allston Brighton Community Development Corp. “If we don’t do it right, we’re going to be living with it for a long time, so I think the Walsh administration is wise to take time to figure things out.”

The mayor said he will wait for the BRA audit results, expected in April, before making any major changes in personnel or structure. He said the authority will continue to review new proposals and try to advance previously stalled projects such as Fenway Center, a huge complex of apartments, stores, parking and offices near the famed ballpark.

Some lawyers and others who work with developers say it’s hard to get moving with more substantial proposals that require support from the city. They declined to speak publicly because of concerns that doing so would cause their projects to fall out of favor at City Hall.

One lawyer representing two clients with large projects downtown said he met with the BRA’s acting director, Brian Golden, more than a month ago but he’s still waiting to hear back about what steps to take next. During the Menino administration, the lawyer said, a response would have arrived within a week. Now his projects are behind schedule.

Golden said he understands that developers want to “seize the moment” in a rising market. When he started at the BRA in 2009, the Great Recession had virtually halted real estate activity. Now, construction cranes crowd the horizon.

“It’s a radically different environment,” Golden said. “I want to keep it going.”

He contends the BRA’s staff is busier than it was during the last few months under Menino. Golden said he has been meeting regularly with developers and anyone with concerns should call on him personally.

But some real estate executives said they’re unsure if Golden is really in charge of development decisions. Once Walsh appointed Barros as the city’s economic development chief, some developers and residents started to approach him on real estate matters.

For example, neighbors affected by Boston College’s development plans sent a letter outlining their concerns to Barros, not Golden, arguing the BRA had failed to adequately respond to community comments on BC’s campus master plan.

Walsh said Barros is charged with recruiting businesses to the city, supporting real estate development, and fostering economic growth. He said the BRA remains responsible for planning and approving individual projects.

The mayor said Golden is doing a good job, but he has not made any decisions about a permanent director.

Walsh has said he wants an arms-length relationship with the BRA, giving it more authority to make community planning decisions without political interference. But the BRA has spent two decades under the direction of Menino, who routinely met with developers and became intimately involved in the details and design of real estate projects.

Gregory Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, said changes at the BRA will continue to create some confusion for developers, who need a predictable process for costly, complicated projects.

“Real estate industry people want certainty, and when things change it can be unsettling,” Vasil said. “But the process we’re going through now is inevitable, based on the fact that we have our first new mayor in 20 years.”

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