THE BOSTON Redevelopment Authority has many critics, including Mayor-elect Marty Walsh, because of its ad hoc approach to development, an insensitivity to the importance of transparency, and a tendency to favor certain developers.
As a 17-year veteran of the BRA, serving as both senior architect and assistant director for economic development, I believe much of the criticism is deserved and will be addressed by the new mayor. But the problem is solvable not, as many vocal critics demand, by eliminating the agency, but by giving the BRA a new mission, delineated by a comprehensive citywide strategic plan. Creating such a plan would reenergize and reform the BRA from within. The last time Boston did a citywide master plan was in 1965.
A community-approved road map would eliminate random development decisions, increase transparency, and actually make Boston more attractive for investment. An ancillary effect would be the reform of virtually every other city economic development agency, each of which would also be guided by the plan. The idea of a long-range strategic plan serving as a guide for urban development is not a utopian vision but an eminently practical approach already adopted and operating in many American cities.
In cities with a strategic plan, zoning dictates what you can build as-of-right or under specific conditions, and serves as a tool to implement a comprehensive strategy that embodies the shared goals and aspirations of a community. By contrast, the BRA uses zoning as a starting point for a long, protracted negotiation. That must end.
Successful, dynamic cities need to be nimble and forward-looking in the 21st century. New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco have plans in place that anticipate challenges and opportunities in a competitive global economy. In 2007, New York City released PlaNYC, a plan “to prepare the city for one million more residents, strengthen the economy, combat climate change, and enhance the quality of life for all New Yorkers.” These are not “pie in the sky’’ planning exercises. New York is making PlaNYC into reality: projects like the High Line have spurred $2 billion of private investment and 12,000 new jobs. Investment in Hudson Yards is transforming an isolated open rail yard into a livable neighborhood with innovative architecture and imaginative new parks. Boston similarly needs a visionary plan for the 21st century.
Boston’s strategic plan should be holistic and face the city’s future directly and boldly. It should ask: What should Boston look like? The plan should expand the city’s innovation economy, and leverage downtown development to fund essential services in the city’s neighborhoods. It should consider new transportation, affordable housing, parks, environmental sustainability, and urban design. The plan should prepare Boston for contingencies such as sea level rise. It should identify the emerging growth industries that create good middle-class jobs. Zoning and land use policies should enhance economic opportunities that build a thriving economy.
Those who question the benefits of a comprehensive citywide plan fail to acknowledge the success of new approaches to strategic planning in cities around the world. Innovative software, digital visualization tools, and Web-based platforms make it possible to engage the public more constructively and efficiently. “Scenario thinking,” a method that some city and state governments use to make flexible long-term guidelines, can anticipate possible real estate market forces under different future scenarios.
A good strategic plan for Boston makes economic sense. It gives certainty to real estate developers, investors, and businesses looking to locate in the city. It specifies what can be built and what citizens will support. As-of-right zoning — with some reasonable flexibility — spares developers from rancorous, contentious community meetings where angry city residents go to battle against them and the BRA.
So, a word of advice to our next mayor: Tell the BRA to create a strategic citywide plan that engages as many citizens as possible — especially creative millennial-generation minds. Make sure the process is adequately funded and includes every economic group and geographic segment of the city.