Sixty years after it was used to reshape big swaths of the city, Boston is scrapping urban renewal.
Mayor Michelle Wu on Monday asked the City Council to begin “sunsetting” five of the city’s 14 active urban renewal plan areas, with the goal of winding down all of the plans by the end of this year.
A powerful urban development tool granted to the then-Boston Redevelopment Authority in the late 1950s, urban renewal has been the city’s primary mechanism to take so-called “blighted” property by eminent domain, and was key to the wholesale razing of the West End, Scollay Square, and parts of the South End and Roxbury in the 1950s and ′60s. More recently, however, the re-named Boston Planning and Development Agency has implemented its urban renewal powers in a more surgical way, using them to help preserve affordable housing in Roxbury and Charlestown and assisting a new operator to purchase a North End nursing home.
Still, the association with widespread clearance of neighborhoods gave the program a reputation it has never overcome. Ending it is “part of a broader effort to move past the tool’s legacy of displacement and neighborhood destruction, and build transparency and accountability to community members,” Wu wrote in a Feb. 28 letter to the Boston City Council. “My administration is committed to putting equity at the forefront of planning and development decisions and the sunsetting of urban renewal in Boston should be viewed through this lens.”
The issue last came up in 2015, as the then-BRA’s urban renewal powers were set to expire. The Walsh administration pushed to extend them, saying that although it understood how the tool had been misused in the past, it could be used for bettering communities and neighborhoods. The next year, Wu — who then served as president of the Boston City Council — was one of 10 councilors to vote in favor of the extension, but only after negotiating stronger City Council oversight and a six-year extension rather than 10.
Since then, the agency says it has regularly kept the City Council up to date on urban renewal parcels, and asked neighbors to share thoughts on future possibilities at future urban renewal sites.
Wu has asked the City Council to “expeditiously” grant an eight-month extension of urban renewal plan areas in Fenway, Campus High School, South Cove, Charlestown, Downtown Waterfront/Faneuil Hall, Government Center, South End, and Washington Park “to solidify the big-picture transition,” and to immediately sunset five active urban renewal areas in Park Plaza, Brunswick King, and Kittredge Square, as well as areas between School and Franklin streets and Boylston and Essex streets in the city’s central business district.
The 14 urban renewal districts include a combined 1,300 parcels, “some of which provide protections for affordable housing, open space, and other land use provisions,” Wu’s letter to the City Council said. She has also said she’s aiming to soon hire a chief of planning who would “be critical to setting the direction for urban renewal sunsetting and larger structural reforms” within the BPDA, Wu said. Wu campaigned on abolishing the BPDA.