Boston Mayor Martin Walsh released an audit last week that shows the city’s development arm riddled by disarray and dysfunction. The report shows the Boston Redevelopment Authority struggling with its most basic functions, like collecting fees and lease payments it’s owed, and enforcing the commitments it extracts from real estate developers. The audit found that the city is owed millions in unpaid fees and lease payments.
Walsh labeled the report alarming and disturbing. The new mayor said he would set to work scrubbing the finances of the BRA, the agency that controls virtually all real estate development in Boston. Still, fixing the BRA’s porous books and creaky technology infrastructure is only half the job. The agency’s financial woes run so deep that they’ve overshadowed a simple, but pivotal, fact buried in the audit: The BRA isn’t set up to do the job it’s supposed to do, because its focus is upside-down.
The BRA audit notes that the agency isn’t doing the kind of city planning it should be doing, because planning efforts get squeezed in around tight budgets, instead of happening based on need. The audit raises the point almost in passing, but it has enormous consequences. It means the BRA isn’t equipped to do the kind of work Walsh has said it needs to do.
The BRA is the most powerful agency in City Hall, but it appears to have a hard time just tying its own shoelaces. The agency’s compliance desk can’t keep track of when checks arrive, when checks are due, or when other city agencies take actions that should trigger sizable payments from developers. The city extracts major concessions from developers, but without a way of tracking enforcement, the concessions essentially run on the honor system.
These are major lapses, and Walsh is right to seize on them. But shoddy bookkeeping can be cleaned up easily. The BRA’s problems run deeper. The agency often does its job amid simmering conflict with residents. Its work is more difficult than it has to be, because Boston is full of outdated zoning, and the BRA hasn’t been able to stay ahead of developers in most neighborhoods. This would be the case even if the BRA were keeping tabs on developers and cashing all the checks it’s owed.
The BRA audit argues that funding at the agency has been driving strategy, rather than strategy driving funding. In practice, this means that advance planning is driven by budgets, not needs. Limited planning means the bulk of the BRA’s work is reactive and conflict-laden, not proactive. When the BRA doesn’t have the money to rewrite outdated zoning rules, developers are in the position of rezoning the city piecemeal, block by block, building by building.
In the place of widespread planning, the BRA has dispensed piecemeal, ad hoc zoning decisions. Piecemeal zoning means developers can’t do anything until they obtain city approvals. They’re held at the BRA’s mercy.
If City Hall isn’t putting the necessary money into planning, everything in a development proposal is up for negotiation. And when everything’s up for negotiation, everything’s fodder for conflict. The relationship between the BRA and city neighborhoods is loaded with tension. From the downtown to Hyde Park, and from South Boston to Jamaica Plain, development reviews that should be routine get dragged out interminably, with predictable battles over housing, parking, and the heights of buildings.
Walsh has said he wants to update neighborhood zoning every decade, but the BRA hasn’t even been willing to spend the money to get ahead of conflicts that it knows are looming. That point gets lost amid the financial wreckage of last week’s BRA audit, but it can’t stay lost for long.Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.