Three of the most senior remaining staffers at the Boston Planning and Development Agency are departing by summer’s end, the latest in a rolling wave of exits that have many in Boston’s real estate world worried that the agency that oversees big development in Boston has become woefully understaffed.
Chief of staff Heather Campisano and director of planning Lauren Shurtleff will leave City Hall at the end of August, while director of communications Bonnie McGilpin will leave at the end of the month. Together, the three women have a combined 45 years of experience in the city’s powerful real-estate agency.
“I want to express my sincere thanks for their tireless work in continuing to make the city of Boston a thriving city and their commitment to this agency over their careers here,” wrote Arthur Jemison, BPDA director and city planning chief, in an e-mail to agency staff late Wednesday. “They have served in critical positions and have made a major difference for Boston, and we appreciate all of their hard work.”
The departures come as the BPDA has been bleeding staff, with 101 departures since 2020, including former director Brian Golden this spring. The agency has 236 regular employees on staff as of July.
The BPDA lists nearly three dozen job openings, including several senior positions, and the agency’s Twitter account, @BostonPlans, has tweeted about hiring five times since May. In June, Jemison told members of commercial real estate industry group NAIOP that the agency’s reduced levels of staff were hampering its ability “to push planning first the way that the mayor has asked.”
“We are struggling with the 43 million square feet under review today,” Jemison said. “We don’t have the current staff to drive the agenda the way we need to, and we don’t have the staff we need to fully implement and help you implement and manage the development pipeline.”
In his e-mail Wednesday, Jemison said the BPDA had hired “close to 30″ people since he took over in May, and would continue to “add capacity to our existing and talented staff.” He also framed this week’s departures as part of the usual evolution of city agencies when a new mayor takes office. Wu was sworn in as Boston’s mayor in mid-November.
“I also want to recognize that when there is a change in executive leadership of the city there are changes that take place in the leadership of major departments and in the positions that lead them,” he wrote. “A changing of the guard of this kind is a natural part of transition to a new administration.”
Wu’s office deferred comment to the BPDA.
Wu famously campaigned on abolishing the powerful agency, issuing a white paper in 2019 titled “Fixing Boston’s Broken Development Process: Why and How to Abolish the BPDA.” Jemison, at the NAIOP June meeting, acknowledged “we’ve heard a lot about words like ‘abolishment,’” but said he’d “like to focus people’s attention on those things sort of below that line.”
The often-controversial Boston Redevelopment Authority was created by the Boston City Council and the state Legislature in 1957, and its formal legal dissolution would require action by the state. But there are many things a mayor can do to refocus its efforts, short of dissolving it entirely, and Wu and Jemison have pledged a renewed focus on neighborhood planning efforts.
The staffing challenges have greatly slowed the pace of development approvals, which has frustrated many real estate executives in Boston. Many say they understand those staffing challenges, but are fed up with a lack of direction — particularly when projects representing billions’ of dollars worth of development are on the line — as well as a lack of certainty regarding whether Wu will continue with her plan to abolish the agency. Complicating matters, the rapidly shifting economy and a post-pandemic real estate landscape has raised many questions about the future of urban development in cities such as Boston.
All three of the executives who resigned Wednesday rose to their positions under Wu’s predecessor, Martin J. Walsh. Campisano started her career at the then-BRA as an intern in 1999 and was named chief of staff in 2014. Shurtleff started as a planner at the then-BRA in 2007, and has served as director of planning since 2019. McGilpin, an alumna of Governor Deval Patrick’s office, served as Walsh’s press secretary before taking the lead communications role at the BPDA in 2016.
“I have been so lucky to spend nearly eight years at City Hall, where I have learned, grown, and had the privilege of working alongside so many dedicated public servants committed to improving the lives of Boston residents and creating a stronger, more resilient and equitable city,” McGilpin wrote in an e-mail to reporters Wednesday afternoon.
In a departure e-mail from Campisano, obtained by the Globe, she said her proudest achievement was the “transformational work” the agency has undergone since Walsh tapped Golden to be director in 2014 that resulted “in a more inclusive, transparent and efficient agency.”
In Shurtleff’s tenure, she guided projects including the revitalized Christian Science Plaza and Winthrop Center, and her departure e-mail acknowledged how the planning and development work the BPDA does is at the center of many of the city’s biggest challenges: climate change, housing, mobility, and “building a more connected and inclusive city.”
“Change is difficult — and the work we do by nature is entirely about change,” Shurtleff wrote in an e-mail to BPDA staff obtained by the Globe.
Other top BPDA officials who have departed since Walsh left office include Golden, the agency’s director of development review Jon Greeley, and its general counsel. A number of development staffers — who shepherd projects through community review — have also departed. Few have been replaced, though last week the Wu administration announced Diana Fernandez Bibeau, a senior associate landscape architect at Watertown-based design firm Sasaki, as its deputy chief of urban design.