Business

BRA says building boom to continue in 2015

Agency pledges more openness

Brian Golden was named BRA director earlier this month after spending most of 2014 in the role on an interim basis.
Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/File
Brian Golden was named BRA director earlier this month after spending most of 2014 in the role on an interim basis.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority said Tuesday that 2014 will go down as one of the most active years for real estate development in city history and predicted the tide that is reshaping the urban landscape will continue into next year.

In all, the BRA approved construction projects totaling more than $3 billion in 2014. Adding those to ongoing projects approved in prior years, the city had more than three times the total in square footage of development underway in 2014 than just two years earlier.

“There’s probably never been a year like it,” said Brian Golden, who was named BRA director earlier this month after spending most of 2014 in the role on an interim basis.

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Golden and Mayor Martin J. Walsh issued a retrospective on their first year in office Tuesday and pledged to make the powerful authority more open and responsive to the public.

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For example, Walsh said, the BRA soon will commit to public meetings and a 10-day comment period to hear from the public before projects can be approved.

Walsh also said the BRA will address its failing as a landlord by charging higher rents on some of its property and doing a better job of collecting from delinquent tenants. An audit the accounting firm KPMG conducted for Walsh found the BRA had failed to collect $5.1 million in lease payments and fees.

The audit painted a portrait of an inept bureaucracy fumbling its way through basic operations, such as collecting rent, tracking payments, and ensuring that developers follow through on promises to improve public land.

While confronting these shortcomings, the BRA still managed to oversee what might be a record year for construction in Boston, a period that saw cranes and gleaming new buildings sprouting regularly in the Seaport District and other neighborhoods.

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The BRA kicked off 2014 by green-lighting a massive expansion of the Landmark Center in the Fenway that involves demolishing a parking garage and office-retail complex at the site of the former Sears Roebuck & Co. warehouse to make room for 550 luxury apartments, a Wegmans grocery store, 110,000 square feet of restaurants and other stores, and 15,000 square feet of new office space.

The Landmark Center project was submitted while Thomas M. Menino was still mayor, but it was the first big development project approved during Walsh’s tenure — a signal the new mayor welcomed the building boom that is changing the face of Boston.

“One of the fears people had in the beginning when I got elected was we were going to stop development in the city of Boston,” Walsh said. “We haven’t stopped. We’ve kept it going. But we’ve made adjustments, and we’re still going to make more adjustments going forward.”

Boston’s momentum is undeniable but comes with risks, said Anthony Flint, a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge. “Boston has become as white-hot as New York or San Francisco and faces the same challenges: gentrification, displacement, real estate speculation, homelessness, and inequality,” Flint said.

“The top categories that will likely keep the BRA up at night are familiar ones: housing and transportation.”

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By sheer numbers, the BRA would seem to have housing under control; it approved 4,150 new residential units this year. Yet many are planned as luxury apartments and condominiums that will be out of reach for most city residents.

“Everybody wants more housing, but at what price point?” said Gregory Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. “You need housing that’s affordable — not necessarily by the classic government definition — but working-class housing.”

In October, Walsh unveiled a sweeping housing plan that calls for 53,000 new units by 2030, including 20,000 for middle-income residents.

His plan would ease zoning restrictions and offer financial incentives to encourage construction of taller buildings in the outlying neighborhoods.

To help achieve that goal, Golden suggested Tuesday that the BRA will more frequently require developers to set aside units priced below market.

Among other changes, Golden said, the BRA plans to conduct more business in the public eye. He cited the controversial sale of an easement on Yawkey Way and air rights over Lansdowne Street to the Boston Red Sox in 2013 — when Menino was mayor — as an example of what the authority will avoid in the future.

Beyond his and Walsh’s dissatisfaction with the terms of the deal — a fixed price of $7.3 million, with no share of the revenue the Red Sox earn on the public properties — Golden said the negotiation process was too secretive.

There were no public hearings before the BRA board voted to approve the sale.

“Our goal has been to learn from it and to make sure that something like that doesn’t happen again,” Golden said.

Red Sox principal owner John W. Henry also owns The Boston Globe.

Some of Walsh’s changes at the BRA were swift and concrete during his first year in office. In March, he fired 14 BRA employees and eliminated the entire division of business development, just one year after its creation. Intended to help the city attract and retain companies, the unit did not fit into the BRA’s core mission of planning and development, he said at the time.

In addition, the mayor took away control of a $20 million affordable housing fund that is financed by development fees and reassigned it to the Department of Neighborhood Development.

Walsh’s lack of faith in the BRA’s ability to administer the fund foreshadowed the damning results of the KPMG audit, which officials used to build the framework of their plan for 2015 and beyond.

Already, Golden said, the BRA has updated its record-keeping software and hired new staff to help end lax collections that previously allowed tenants to shortchange the city by millions of dollars. Outstanding payments have been reduced to $948,000.

A more thorough analysis of the BRA’s planning division is underway, with the findings expected in April.

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.