Mayor Michelle Wu has a big vision for how Boston’s mechanisms for planning and development can shape the city for the century ahead.
Now, she has hired someone to execute that vision.
A longtime housing and urban planner who has worked in City Hall, on Beacon Hill, in Detroit, and in Washington, D.C., James Arthur Jemison II will start next month as Boston’s first chief of planning.
Along with overseeing the Boston Planning & Development Agency, Jemison will work with departments that traditionally have operated separately from City Hall’s ninth-floor real estate apparatus, but have major land-use needs of their own, including transportation, schools, libraries, environment, and more.
Bringing disparate groups with disparate ideas together has been a hallmark of Jemison’s three-decade-long career, according to interviews with past colleagues.
“There’s really nobody better for the city or for community-building than Arthur Jemison,” said Tom Ahern, who worked with Jemison at what was then known as the Boston Redevelopment Authority in the 1990s and is now managing partner at Five Corners Strategies. “That’s where Arthur excelled, really early on: being able to bring people who had really different points of view and getting them to coalesce around a common idea, even if it wasn’t their idea.”
Jemison, who is currently a senior official with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, is expected to play an outsized role in helping Wu fulfill a major campaign promise to overhaul the city’s real estate development process. His appointment comes less than a week after longtime Boston Planning & Development Agency director Brian Golden announced his resignation.
He will also become the administration’s point person on reforming the BPDA; the mayor plans to ask the agency’s board at its May 12 meeting to have Jemison serve as its director as well. He will not be paid additional compensation beyond his Cabinet salary of $179,000, and is expected to start as planning chief May 23.
Wu, in an interview, framed the appointment as critical to Boston’s economy — in how the city recovers from a pandemic that has allowed people to work from anywhere — while also meeting the urgency of climate change.
“Now is truly a pivotal moment, where our decisions around the built environment will shape whether our communities will thrive for the next 100 years,” Wu said. “We are at a turning point when it comes to our future as a coastal community, and one that has a window of opportunity to close gaps and ensure that everybody is sharing in the prosperity that we could build here. So this role is central, really, to the next several generations, and perhaps the next century in Boston.”
The new director comes at a time of big change for the BPDA, which Wu has long criticized as both a city councilor and mayoral candidate. Several top officials have departed in recent months, culminating with Golden’s announcement last week. Wu on Tuesday also named Devin Quirk, the BPDA’s director of real estate, as the city’s deputy chief of operations and organizational transformation. Quirk, who has worked for the city for a decade, will oversee the daily operations of the BPDA and work with Jemison and Wu on its reform.
After months of speculation about who might lead the BPDA, Jemison’s appointment won praise from various corners of the city. Former city councilor and mayoral candidate Tito Jackson in a tweet called him a “great pick . . . wise, intelligent, thoughtful, visionary and pragmatic,” while Tamara Small, CEO of real estate industry trade group NAIOP Massachusetts, said he brought valuable knowledge of Boston and existing relationships with many developers.
“Relationships are incredibly important in this role to ensure the development community believes in Boston and continues to invest in its future,” Small said in an e-mail. “We are thrilled to have him back in Boston and NAIOP looks forward to working with him to ensure continued housing production and economic development.”
An urban planner by training, Jemison, 51, brings a particular focus on neighborhood development and affordable housing — policy priorities for Wu. He also has proven adept at holding a high-profile City Hall job. Prior to joining HUD, Jemison worked for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan as director of housing and revitalization, and eventually became that city’s top planning and development executive.
Wu’s vision for real-estate development in Boston — which Jemison will be charged with implementing — aims to make the process more inclusive and equitable, emphasizing comprehensive planning over parcel-by-parcel approvals. Jemison, in an interview, echoed what Wu has signaled: that change is on the way, but it will be gradual.
“Each time that I’ve been involved in something where there was a lot of change involved, you really want to make sure that you’ve got all the scenarios identified, you’ve engaged your leadership, you’ve engaged the community, you’ve engaged the development interests, and you’re really measuring twice,” Jemison said. “Development takes years to do — years to conceive, years to execute. So you want to make sure that you have the right approach.”
That’s how Greg Bialecki remembers Jemison in the administration of Governor Deval Patrick. Bialecki was the state’s economic and housing secretary, when Jemison served as deputy director for the Department of Housing and Community Development. Jemison’s job was to take “big ideas” from the governor and implement them, similar to what Wu is asking Jemison to do now, Bialecki said.
”He fits in the mold of a pragmatic idealist,” said Bialecki, who is now a principal at Redgate, a Boston firm that is redeveloping South Boston’s massive L Street Power Station. “Even people who agree or disagree with him or the mayor’s policies on something, they will be able to have a very constructive conversation with him.”
Since the start of the Biden administration, Jemison has been serving as principal deputy assistant secretary at HUD, where he administers block grants, disaster recovery funds, and homelessness assistance grants. He was nominated to be assistant secretary in charge of public and Indian housing but had not yet been confirmed by the Senate.
He also worked at the Boston Housing Authority and at the BPDA’s predecessor as the planner for Roxbury in the late 1990s, with his work later spreading to Dorchester and Mattapan, all under then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino. Jemison, who is Black, grew up in Amherst, attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and received a master of city planning degree from MIT.
Jemison’s focus on affordable housing comes from personal experience: As a child in the 1980s, he spent five years living in a newly built apartment operated by the Amherst Housing Authority.
“This housing opportunity stabilized my family and made a difference in my life as affordable housing does for so many Americans. Making it work for more Americans has been my mission ever since I left that apartment for college,” Jemison recounted in testimony before a Senate committee last fall. “I know that well-designed and well-maintained public housing and rental assistance can work as part of the American safety net. I know this personally because I have lived it. I know it professionally because I have worked to make sure affordable housing is part of every development initiative in which I have been involved.”