In Boston’s often combative world of big-time real estate development, full of characters with deep pockets and the egos to match, Brian Golden was something of an anomaly.
A calm and steadfast presence, rarely ruffled by the sometimes intense critiques lobbed at his Boston Planning & Development Agency by politicians and residents alike, Golden oversaw City Hall’s ninth floor for eight years, becoming the longest-tenured director in the development agency’s six-plus-decade history. Until Thursday, when Golden announced his resignation.
The move wasn’t unexpected. New mayors typically anoint a new head of the city’s powerful real estate arm; indeed Golden was one of the few top aides to former mayor Martin J. Walsh still serving in City Hall five months after Mayor Michelle Wu took office.
But his departure leaves many questions as the city revs back up from the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from the basic question of who might replace him to broader inquiries about what role the BPDA might play under a new mayor who once vowed to “abolish” the agency.
At a BPDA board meeting Thursday, though, the focus was on thanking Golden for his eight years at the helm, and his role stabilizing the agency while also refereeing a building boom that transformed big chunks of the city and spurred some 90 million square feet of new development. He even changed the much-maligned Boston Redevelopment Authority’s name.
“Under your direction, in a broad stroke, this agency went from being a 20th century organization to being a 21st century organization,” said board member Carol Downs. “That took a tremendous amount of effort and leadership from everybody at the agency, and also set up the agency and the city for tremendous success going forward. I think in the future ... your tenure here will be looked at as a really very, very successful time for the BPDA.”
Wu seems to have substantial changes in mind.
In January, she announced her administration would hire a Chief of Planning, who could sit atop the city’s planning and development apparatus. The cabinet-level post would “have primary responsibility for driving the Mayor’s vision for planning that advances the goals of a more equitable, resilient, transit-oriented, and affordable city,” the city said. Wu administration officials have been interviewing candidates for a chief but have not announced a finalist.
As a city councilor, Wu was a persistent critic of the BPDA, particularly on issues of transparency, which sometimes put her and Golden at odds. And upon taking office as mayor one of her first major moves in development was to redo a controversial downtown harbor plan that, under Walsh, the BPDA had spent years crafting.
When asked about Golden’s resignation Thursday morning, Wu said: “I’m very grateful to Director Golden for his years of service to the city and the BPDA. I reached out earlier to wish him well in his next steps.”
Many in Boston’s commercial development community have privately expressed frustration at what they perceive as Wu’s lack of communication with the industry. However, Wu has invited a select group of developers to gather at the city-owned Parkman House on Beacon Hill later this month to meet with members of her cabinet, as well as BPDA representatives, “to share ideas on the role of development in the City’s equitable recovery from the pandemic,” according to copies of the invitation obtained by the Globe.
It was not clear if that meeting will include whoever replaces Golden atop the BPDA.
Golden first came to the BPDA in 2009. An attorney and former state representative from Boston’s Allston-Brighton neighborhood, Golden also held state and federal posts under Governor Mitt Romney and President George W. Bush. He’s also a longtime reserve officer in the US Army, serving on active duty as recently as last month.
In 2009, then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino named him executive director/secretary of what was then the BRA, and he took the top job on an acting basis when Walsh — a former colleague of Golden’s in the State House — took office in 2014. Walsh, who had campaigned on replacing the BRA with a city economic development authority, named Golden permanent director later that year.
Golden’s appointment came at a tumultuous time for the powerful agency, which decades prior had infamously razed the city’s West End neighborhood and was widely criticized for a lack of transparency. A withering independent audit, ordered shortly after Walsh took office, painted the BRA as an outdated and mismanaged organization, with no idea how much land it owned, how much rent it was owed (and by whom), and no clear accountability or compliance structure.
Under Golden, the agency undertook sweeping changes, taking on the the tedious task of converting more than 100,000 hard copy paper documents into digital format, streamlining the management of inclusionary development funding that goes toward the construction of affordable housing and more.
The agency also expanded focus on planning, launching neighborhood-focused planning areas across the city as well as broader citywide plans on transportation, climate, and overall growth — Go Boston 2030, Climate Ready Boston, and Imagine Boston 2030, respectively. All the while, Boston’s building boom continued, with major mixed-use projects, skyscrapers and other developments popping up in almost every neighborhood.
Golden is the latest in a string of top officials to depart the BPDA since Walsh left office to become President Biden’s labor secretary. Few if any of those jobs have yet been filled. In 2019, Golden was a finalist for the top job at the Massachusetts Port Authority, and his name has been linked to other high-profile development positions in recent months.
While a few top Walsh aides have stayed on to serve in the new administration, most have departed City Hall — either during Kim Janey’s stint as acting mayor or since Wu’s election in November. In an e-mail to BPDA staff Thursday, Golden said he wished the new administration well.
“As I depart from City Hall, I wish Mayor Wu and her team great success in their stewardship of Boston,” he wrote, echoing those sentiments in his address to the BPDA board Thursday afternoon.
“I’m proud of our work. I hope that everyone who has been part of this is proud too,” Golden said at Thursday’s meeting. “Wherever I go, please know that I will always be rooting for the work that this agency and its professionals do for the people of Boston.”
Emma Platoff of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.