When it comes to fighting for progress in Boston, there’s a long history of people in power trying to label advocacy and hard work as being political in order to avoid accountability and distract from community demands for better leadership.
The Boston City Council recently voted to exercise our oversight authority to reshape the Zoning Board of Appeal for the better. This action has been criticized as being “about politics” and “pointless obstructionism.” But the misleading dismissals distract from necessary policy conversations about how business as usual harms our city. With a system characterized by broken promises, insider deals, and bribery and corruption charges, it’s Boston’s development approvals process that is political through and through.
Boston’s outdated zoning code hasn’t been comprehensively updated since it was written, in 1965. As such, nearly every new construction project requires multiple waivers for zoning violations from the zoning board. Just within the last year, the board granted 900 variances from the height, density, open space, and other land-use restrictions of the zoning code, and in recent years has approved more than 95 percent of variance requests on the agenda. The largest projects go through the Boston Planning and Development Agency so as to bypass zoning altogether.
The ZBA and BPDA create tremendous profit for those who know how to secure special development approvals or have the financial resources to hire a well-connected team to guide them through the complicated and sometimes arbitrary process. Each exception and waiver to the zoning code also contributes to configuring displacement, climate vulnerability, and traffic congestion across the region. Without consistent rules or accountability, the status quo of development in Boston continues to exacerbate racial and economic disparities across our neighborhoods.
In the past 12 months, Boston’s development process has been at the center of a federal corruption investigation implicating the zoning board. In the meantime, developers have been released from commitments to finance affordable housing in Chinatown, originally made in exchange for the sale of public land downtown to build a luxury tower without any onsite affordable units. Longstanding promises for parks and civic spaces in the Seaport District, established through years of planning meetings, have continued to evaporate. A small pocket community in Mattapan has been devastated as connected developers have used questionable technicalities to secure permits with no recourse from city agencies. East Boston continues to face a rush of new development that skirts affordability requirements, even as residents struggle against ever greater forces of displacement and the highest coronavirus rates in the city.
But calls to delay structural changes and dismiss community concerns have been emboldened by unchecked inaccuracies and a false narrative — that a flood of homeowners seeking minor approvals for home improvement projects will be stuck without relief unless the City Council immediately votes to reinstate the status quo. In reality, the majority of variance requests are from for-profit developers and investors, not homeowners undertaking minor renovations. Some have deceptively cited a backlog of requests after COVID-related meeting cancellations, but the wildly inflated number includes hundreds of projects that have yet to go through community process and are not ready for ZBA consideration.
No one should face undue delay from city bureaucratic processes. But when the ZBA struggles to approve specific projects due to the frequency of board members recusing themselves for conflicts of interest, and with four sudden board member resignations in the last year, that adds urgency for change, not business as usual.
Aligning private development with community needs for equity and resiliency is one of the most powerful roles of city government. By setting clear and consistent land-use rules defined through community planning and codified into an updated zoning code, cities can shape development to advance affordability, health, resiliency, and opportunity in every neighborhood.
The pandemic has underscored that we can no longer afford business as usual. When we fall short of meeting community needs — for stable housing, safe streets, open space, reliable transportation, food access, a healthy environment — everyone faces greater vulnerability. More than ever, we need to plan better and take action to reshape systems.
We won’t be deterred by attempts to block change through delay and fear-mongering. Boston must take every opportunity to move toward transparent, accountable, equitable development for public health and shared prosperity. That starts with using our votes and our voices to fight for a development approvals process that serves our communities.
Michelle Wu is a Boston city councilor.