About 20 years ago — after a lengthy and fun debate about the city’s development process, or lack thereof — Ted Landsmark handed me a little present.
It was a copy of the legislative bill that created the Boston Redevelopment Authority in the 1950s. He wanted me to see what the agency was intended to be, as opposed to what it had become. At the time, he was a City Hall official with a completely unrelated portfolio, and the BRA’s enabling legislation wasn’t most people’s idea of a good bedtime read. But even then the physical look of the city was never far from his thoughts.
Landsmark, of course, is famous for having been attacked on City Hall Plaza with an American flag in 1976, at the height of the busing controversy, targeted by busing foes because of his race. The picture of the attack quickly became an indelible image of the city. Yet it’s a measure of his far-ranging intellect and talent that this is now one of the least remarkable things about him.
He’s a lawyer, architect, and, for the past 17 years, president of the Boston Architectural College, a Back Bay fixture. He is also in limbo. He was Mayor’s Marty Walsh’s first announced appointee to the BRA board, but that is officially on hold as he negotiates a tense exit from his previous employer.
As the news of Landsmark’s appointment broke, he was said to have been fired from the architectural college, an unwelcome surprise for the new mayor. But Walsh, now satisfied that Landsmark’s departure isn’t the result of anything unsavory, fully intends to appoint him, once Landsmark and the college wrap up his severance negotiation.
In his desire to shake up the way the city handles development, Walsh wants to revamp the BRA board, which has been a rubber stamp for decades. Landsmark has spent a lot of time the past few years exploring the way other cities approach development, and believes Boston has a lot to learn from the rest of the world.
“When the mayor called and asked if I would help apply some of that stuff to Boston, it seemed like a great opportunity,” Landsmark said.
The city is in a great place for development, with an exploding waterfront and downtown and neighborhoods like Dudley Square poised to take off. But Walsh has made no secret that he wants to change how the BRA operates. For example, he doesn’t love the evolving Seaport District, at least not yet.
“I think he wants a waterfront that feels really accessible and not isolated from the rest of the city,” Landsmark said. “I know that he does have an aesthetic sense that has caused him to ask why we can’t have more creative architecture.”
Landsmark’s messy separation from the Boston Architectural College is said to stem from the school’s declining enrollment and financial woes. In plain English, there seems to be a feeling that Landsmark spent too much time at conferences in Barcelona and not enough time at Bunker Hill Community College recruiting students. For all I know, it’s fair criticism.
But Walsh doesn’t think those issues have anything to do with the job at the BRA. He inherited a crony-laden BRA board that had posted nearly 1,500 unanimous votes in a row. He wants to replace that with people who actually have ideas about the city. It’s audacious, wanting to install a board capable of exercising independence. But Landsmark fits his model perfectly.
One of Walsh’s great challenges will be facing down the anxieties of neighborhood groups who often view change warily. Walsh wants change, but the BRA has to learn to deliver it without steamrolling residents. Landsmark gets that, saying, “As neighborhoods change — and so many of them have — it’s important not to freeze them in a moment in tine that may not be appropriate for what it’s becoming.”
As far as I’m concerned, Landsmark’s appointment can’t become official soon enough.