Boston city planner terminated, leaving at end of month

Kairos Shen has worked in City Hall for 22 years in a tenure that spanned two mayors and seven directors of the redevelopment authority.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff/File 2008

Kairos Shen has worked in City Hall for 22 years in a tenure that spanned two mayors and seven directors of the redevelopment authority.

To understand the legacy of Boston’s longtime planner, Kairos Shen, is to understand how the cobblestone and brick of a nearly 400-year-old city can meld with the glass and steel of a skyscraper.

Shen’s fingerprints can be found in the urbane grit of Fort Point’s Congress Street, the modern sparkle of Fan Pier, on the seats atop the Green Monster that helped preserve Fenway Park. His influence will endure — even if he is soon destined to leave his post — as evidenced by the flock of construction cranes looming above the city.


“I don’t think you’d point to one building and say that was Kairos,” said James E. Rooney, a friend and executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, who first met Shen nearly two decades ago at City Hall. “You’d point to an ability that most of us don’t have to understand how different pieces of architecture work together.”

On Wednesday, the administration of Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced that Shen was being fired from the Boston Redevelopment Authority after 22 years. His dismissal as chief planner comes as Walsh’s administration seeks to put its own imprint on the city.

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“I did not reach this conclusion lightly,” wrote the redevelopment authority’s director, Brian P. Golden, in an e-mail sent to staff. “As we embark on an effort to develop our first citywide plan in 50 years, I believe that it is the appropriate time to bring in a fresh set of eyes to lead this work on behalf of the BRA and the Walsh administration.”

In the sometimes revolving door of redevelopment authority directors, Shen has been a constant, wielding tremendous power and proving uncommonly shrewd at navigating the politics of City Hall. He has sought to balance the demands of developers, the concerns of residents, and the aesthetic sensibility of an architect. Shen has fought battles with his intellect and unfailing civility, an attribute amplified by a hint of a British accent that lingers from his childhood in Hong Kong.

Shen’s last stand at City Hall, though, became uncharacteristically messy. He was under pressure to resign but refused, and the standoff became public. The Globe reported Monday that Shen had asked to be fired so he could take advantage of a little-used statute that could double his pension.


Under a law designed to compensate employees for politically motivated firings, Shen could apply to increase his pension to $71,000 annually. The 50-year-old could begin collecting the benefit immediately and receive it for the rest of his life. Through a spokesman, Shen declined to comment Wednesday.

Tad Read, a senior planner with the redevelopment authority, has been appointed acting director of planning, Golden said. Read has worked for the agency since 2007 and has been involved in several neighborhood planning projects, including the Columbia Point Master Plan and the Melnea Cass Boulevard Design Project, according to the e-mail.

Planning directors of the nation’s largest cities meet at a conference each year in Cambridge, and Shen’s peers hold him in high regard, according to Jerold Kayden, a professor of urban planning and design at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

“Compared to many planning directors nationwide, Kairos has enjoyed a very long run,” Kayden said. “To me, it is no slight to Kairos, and quite frankly not all that surprising, that new leadership would want to choose someone else.”

Shen earned a master’s degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and started at the redevelopment authority shortly after Thomas M. Menino became mayor, in 1993.

One of Shen’s first projects was the convention center in South Boston. He became director of planning for the redevelopment authority in 2002 and was named the city’s chief planner in 2008. Shen essentially reported to Menino, who reveled in micromanaging development. But Shen also knew how to influence the strong-willed mayor.

“What do I know about architecture?” Menino told the Globe magazine in a 2008 profile of Shen. “Kairos is a respected, outstanding planner and urban designer. He’s been my go-to guy. . . . I rely on him because I have total trust in his creativity and his judgment.”

That trust gave Shen influence beyond that of a typical city planner.

“He had really a huge amount of power at the BRA,” said developer John Rosenthal, whose latest project is the $550 million Fenway Center. “Every design went through Kairos. He was very direct. He would tell you what he liked and what he didn’t like.”

With his authority, Shen had a “tremendously positive impact” on Boston, said Alex Krieger, a Harvard Graduate School of Design professor. But as chief city planner, he was also in a position to draw the ire of community groups, developers, and architects.

“He would ask you always to try to make things better — choose a better material, orient the ground floor in a better way, make a finer entrance, create some more open space,” Krieger said. “He could occasionally be a bit stubborn if he felt something was important.”

Some developers and designers felt he could be too stubborn. The same could go for community groups.

“I found Kairos pretty easy to work with, but I didn’t always agree with him,” said Steve Hollinger, an artist and inventor who has lived in Fort Point for 25 years and was active during the neighborhood’s development fights. “In Boston, there are a lot forces at work in the planning that aren’t necessarily driven by the director of planning.”

Shen possesses the artistic eye of an architect who values history. At Fenway Park, he worked closely with the Red Sox on an expansion that preserved a century-old institution. His impact is evident in bold changes such as the Green Monster seats and subtle flourishes, such as the statues of players on Van Ness Street. (The principal owner of the Red Sox, John Henry, also owns the Boston Globe.)

“He was an important figure at an important stage of the evolution of the Red Sox in Boston,” said Larry Lucchino, the team’s president and chief executive officer. “He had a strong sense of creativity that we recognized and were guided by on a variety of things. He’s also just a good guy.”

Andrew Ryan can be reached at
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