In Boston development circles, Michelle Wu can be a polarizing figure.
Some believe she would, if elected mayor, let construction grind to a halt in order to reform the Boston Planning & Development Agency. Others predict wearing the mantle of mayor would calibrate Wu’s ambitious goals with the realities of the office, just like every mayor before her.
The conventional wisdom is that Annissa Essaibi George would be more friendly to development, but even she is proposing changes somewhat similar to those in Wu’s platform. Either way, after seven years of Martin J. Walsh, the next mayor will likely bring a change of scene to the BPDA offices on the ninth floor of City Hall.
“Clearly the BPDA needs some work,” said Ted Tye, managing partner of National Development, who has gotten to know both Wu and Essaibi George shepherding Boston projects such as the Ink Block and redevelopment of the Midtown Hotel. “Whether Michelle is talking about more radically blowing it up, or Annissa remaking it and bringing in new leadership, they in the end may not be that far from each other.”
Both Wu and Essaibi George want to create a more predictable and inclusive process for approving big projects. They also want to address the housing crisis, climate resiliency, and equity with a new sense of urgency that will most likely make development more expensive and challenging in Boston. Both want to make rental housing more affordable, and both have proposed significant changes to the powerful BPDA.
But it is Wu’s rhetoric, and her record, that have made some developers particularly anxious. For decades, would-be mayors have bashed the BPDA, but as a city councilor, Wu was long a vocal critic, even authoring a 68-page report in 2019 titled: “Fixing Boston’s Broken Development Process: Why and How to Abolish the BPDA.”
The Harvard-trained lawyer has not been afraid to stand in the way of development. It was Wu who raised concerns about whether a soccer stadium was the best use of a prime city-owned parcel near Widett Circle — perhaps just enough to send Robert Kraft and his New England Revolution team back to the drawing board. As City Council president, she held up the redevelopment of the city-owned Winthrop Square garage, saying the community process was rushed on such an important project.
And when a corruption scandal engulfed the Zoning Board of Appeal and Wu was unsatisfied with Walsh’s response, she spent months blocking new appointments to the board, stalling approvals for many small and midsize projects.
As a mayoral candidate, Wu has only leaned further into her people-over-developers reputation by being the only candidate to lend her unabashed support to rent control.
Essaibi George’s record on development is less clear; she spent her time on the council immersed in issues of education, homelessness, mental health, and substance abuse. But her mayoral run has provided a window into her views.
Development plays a critical role in achieving Essaibi George’s equity agenda, which she revealed in a 46-page plan released last week. In her first 100 days as mayor, she pledged to increase so-called linkage fees that commercial developers pay toward affordable housing, and to boost funding to the city’s voucher program and rental relief fund.
Longer term, Essaibi George wants to offer incentives for developers to build housing especially for the middle-income market, and increase the so-called Inclusionary Development Policy requirements — the amount of new housing that must be set aside at below market rents — from 13 percent to 20 percent, as is currently required on many projects in Cambridge and Somerville.
Essaibi George also wants to separate planning from development, and in her first 100 days she said she would create a planning office independent of the BPDA. Separating planning and zoning from the review and approval of projects can reduce the amount of influence developers and their interests have in the process.
“It is not about abolishing and dismantling the process,” explained Essaibi George. “When we shut down the opportunity to grow and strengthen economically, we shut down jobs.”
Still, real estate leaders who have gotten to know Wu over the years say she understands too much is at stake to let development in Boston languish. Property taxes make up about 73 percent of the city budget, and if Wu wants to fulfill her agenda on climate resiliency, affordable housing, and equity, she’ll need the development community’s help.
“She’s a smart, thoughtful person who thinks a lot about policy. As a policy matter, she knows the city relies on development to move forward,” said Matt Kiefer, a veteran development lawyer at Goulston & Storrs. “If you want to solve problems, you need development to pay for it.”
In an interview, Wu said she remains committed to development reform and she thinks developers are ready for it too.
“Boston has one of if not the most complex and opaque and in many ways arbitrary development approval processes anywhere in the country,” Wu said. “I have not spoken to a single developer who thinks it’s working smoothly and transparently.”
Wu said that many builders have figured out how to work the system by hiring a team of consultants and attorneys who have the right connections to City Hall. That type of process has shut out people who don’t have the same kind of resources and networks from participating in one of the city’s biggest economic engines.
“We are one of the most unequal cities in the country,” she said. “I firmly believe that one of the biggest ways we exacerbate inequities in Boston is through our development process.”
So does day one of a Wu administration mean the BPDA is gone in one fell swoop? Hardly. Reform would be gradual, Wu acknowledged. But what she will do immediately if she wins is to appoint a new chief of planning who will report directly to her.
Wu is taking a similar approach with rent control, which might be better described as rent stabilization.
She has talked about modeling Boston’s program off a law that took effect in Oregon in 2019, which caps annual rent increases at 7 percent, plus inflation. Even that could not happen overnight, because it would require state legislation to overturn the 1994 ballot initiative outlawing rent control. In the meantime, Wu’s plan to keep more residents in their homes relies on what the city has already been doing, such as using federal funds for rent relief and making housing affordable through deed restrictions and partnerships.
Essaibi George opposes rent control because she believes it could hurt the city’s economic recovery. She calls it a “failed experiment” and says she’d rather focus on creating more housing at affordable price points and more opportunities to help people own homes.
“It is not something that will encourage future investment, it is not something that will encourage future growth,” said Essaibi George of rent control, “and it is not something that will create jobs for our city’s residents.”
Perhaps Essaibi George’s biggest flashpoint is her husband, Douglas George, a longtime landlord and housing developer in Boston. She will have to reassure the public he won’t get special treatment if she becomes mayor. A Globe story in July raised concerns about conflicts of interest Essaibi George had as councilor with her husband’s development projects.
Since then, her campaign has hired an ethics attorney, obtained an opinion from the state Ethics Commission, and set up guard rails, pledging that he will not have direct contact with the city, such as going before the zoning board, and that she won’t be directly involved in his business, as well as designating an ombudsman.
“What we’ve put in place is a policy that goes beyond the state Ethics Commission opinion and regulation,” Essaibi George said.
In the last open mayoral race, in 2013, both Walsh and his opponent John Connolly vowed to overhaul the city’s planning and development process, a campaign promise that sent tremors through the real estate community. Once in office, Walsh quickly replaced much of the staff, commissioned audits, and rebranded the powerful agency that drives the process. The Walsh administration did more master planning, made the process more accessible to the community, set ambitious housing goals, and hired the BPDA’s first director of diversity and equity.
But if anything, the pace of building only accelerated, with Walsh — eager to hit those housing goals — approving large projects in far-flung corners of the city in a way his predecessors did not.
Perhaps this time — with the election of Boston’s first woman and first person of color as mayor — will be different. Or maybe not.
“History tells us people were scared of Marty Walsh,” said Susan Tracy, a former state legislator who serves as a consultant on development projects in Boston. “History tells us ultimately when you become the mayor of Boston you have to look at the city holistically.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.