From Roxbury through Chinatown and over in the Seaport, a push to diversify Boston’s development industry is starting to reach critical mass. A new wave of companies and investors is launching projects and winning lucrative contracts to design, build, and manage them. It’s a striking shift, in just a few years, for a sector in this city that has long been overwhelmingly white.
But there’s a big catch, a glaring omission.
For the most part, these projects all sit on publicly owned land, where Massport or some other state or city agency can set the criteria to choose who develops them, and prioritize diversity.
The vast majority of real estate projects, however, hinge on transactions between two private owners, and there’s no way for government to mandate who builds them. For the doors of the clubby development world to swing wide open, there needs to be another option.
Now, here comes an approach that might provide one.
A new iteration of what has become known as the “Massport Model” — this one is dubbed the “CommonWealth Development Model” — was submitted last month to the Boston Planning & Development Agency and it would make diversity and inclusion a factor in all large-project approvals, much like traffic and environmental impacts are now.
Developers would have to submit a plan to the city for how they would address this issue. They could meet inclusion criteria by having people of color as equity investors, for example, or as professional services providers on their project team. Another alternative: show that a percentage of space would be set aside for community uses or local retailers. Or maybe the developers could establish internships and mentorships, or prove they would create a path of success for kids, from urban schools to lifelong careers. Some of these ideas are becoming increasingly common on large projects, but this proposal would codify them, and make clear they’re expected as part of the package for all significant construction projects.
The idea comes from a seemingly unlikely source: Steve Crosby, former chairman of the Mass. Gaming Commission.
It arose out of conversations at the Civic Action Project, a volunteer effort run by Crosby and two other older white dudes, George Bachrach (the previous head of the Environmental League of Massachusetts) and Ira Jackson (most recently an executive vice president at Brandeis University). These three, all essentially retired, launched the Civic Action Project in 2019 to help cultivate a new, more diverse generation of civic leaders in the city. Those efforts now include a boot camp of sorts for politicians and executives, to help demystify Boston’s power structure and explain all its levers and pulleys.
Lately, the troika started looking for a policy mission as well. They noticed how the so-called Massport Model initially drew nearly 40 people of color to invest in the $550 million Omni hotel that opened last year, in the Seaport District. The BPDA started scoring bidders for city-owned land on the diversity of their project teams in 2018, and has done so with seven parcels so far; neighborhood entrepreneurs are lining up for the redevelopment of a long empty site on Tremont Street across from the Orange Line, in part because the BPDA will count diversity toward 25 percent of the scoring when it picks a winning bid. And, for the first time, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation successfully used the Massport Model last week, by selecting a proposal from two Black-owned development firms instead of the highest offer, for a Kneeland Street property near Chinatown, left over from the Big Dig.
It didn’t take long for Crosby to see the Massport Model’s big shortcoming — that it does almost nothing to diversify private-sector deals. (One notable exception: Harvard University used this concept as it picked the development team for the first phase of its Enterprise Research Campus in Allston.) So Crosby approached the Boston Society for Architecture last fall to help craft a proposal for large-project reviews in Boston. There was some initial skepticism among the architects: Who is this guy, and why is he dabbling in development policy? But they quickly realized they have the same goal as Crosby. They drafted various options for achieving the objectives of the Massport Model, but on the private side, and they began sharing their ideas with the BPDA.
So what do city officials think?
It’s hard to know for sure. The BPDA is in a state of flux, with new mayor Michelle Wu on the hunt for a planning director. And while Wu has made diversity a top priority for her administration, it remains to be seen whether she will embrace this concept. For its part, the BPDA issued a statement saying it is committed to ensuring the development process brings opportunities to build wealth for people and communities that have historically been left out of Boston’s building boom, and that it will continue to review the CommonWealth proposal.
While this might not work in every city, Crosby doesn’t plan to stop with Boston. He has already had similar discussions with the mayors of Cambridge and Salem. He has also met with housing and economic development aides in the Baker administration about further improving the diversity of the state’s business deals.
Richard Taylor, a prominent Black developer who is advising Crosby and helped find investors for the Omni, expects some private-sector skepticism.
He remembers the doubters when the Massport Model was first suggested. Would there be enough minority investors and subcontractors owned by people of color to meet the demand? However, those early fears that this push could slow development appear to have been unfounded: The Omni property as well as two other Massport sites in the Seaport all drew competitive bids, as did that Kneeland Street site. Boston remains a hot enough market that developers will find a way to diversify, Taylor said, if they are nudged in that direction.
Should that nudge happen, don’t expect much resistance from NAIOP Massachusetts, the development industry’s main lobbying group.
Chief executive Tamara Small said the industry has been trying to improve its diversity and inclusion, even without mandates. While she hasn’t seen the CommonWealth model details yet, she doesn’t think it’s unreasonable to include diversity as a factor in Boston’s large-project reviews.
Here’s how you know the times are changing: The development industry seems ready to embrace what was once seen as a radical idea. And for the stragglers, the CommonWealth Development Model might just give the needed push to finally fling open those closed doors.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.