For the first time, Boston will ask developers to disclose who they’re working with on major real estate projects, as part of an effort to diversify the city’s largely white and male development industry.
The new policy, approved Thursday by the Boston Planning and Development Agency, falls short of the diversity requirements that some had been pushing, but signifies a major step toward allowing more communities to benefit from the city’s real estate boom, officials said.
Boston becomes the first city in the country to ask every private developer to disclose their commitments to diversity and inclusion, administration officials said. The hope is that disclosure, in and of itself, will prod development teams to diversify their ranks and their approach to projects. Eventually the policy could be incorporated into city zoning.
“This is about setting a standard across the board that this is an important metric of how development impacts our communities,” said Mayor Michelle Wu. “Not just in height and square footage, but in creating opportunities and building wealth in our communities.”
Diversity disclosure is a familiar concept for developers bidding on publicly owned land parcels in Boston. The city has used diversity, equity, and inclusion plans as a key criteria to score proposals for city-owned land for the past four years, and since 2018 has awarded 11 development projects to diverse development teams — a figure that represents just a fraction of the overall private development pipeline in the city. The quasi-public Massachusetts Port Authority has also incorporated those goals into its selection criteria for a number of Massport-owned sites, including the Seaport’s new Omni hotel.
The plan unveiled Thursday would extend the idea to the much-larger pool of privately owned real estate developments, though it would not be a requirement, simply a request, due to legal questions about what the city can mandate on private sites.
Diversity disclosures for projects on publicly owned land have already reaped dividends, said Colleen Fonseca, executive director of the Builders of Color Coalition. The BPDA’s move to encourage them on privately owned projects will help “forge a more equitable path to prosperity,” she said.
City housing chief Sheila Dillon said collecting data on developers’ diversity plans will be an invaluable tool to show both what the city is doing right and where it can improve. For too long, she said, real estate development hasn’t helped enough neighborhoods, families, and businesses.
“Real estate should benefit more people in the city of Boston,” Dillon said.
Diversity is one of a series of factors that the BPDA is beginning to fold into the way it works under the leadership of new director Arthur Jemison, who is also the city’s chief of planning. It’s also how the BPDA will measure its own impact, Jemison said in an interview. Yes, square footage, housing units, and affordability are important factors in a development plan, he said — but so are the people behind the scenes designing and implementing a project.
“It begins to identify a set of expectations that we hope become very common,” Jemison said.
Unlike on publicly owned parcels, the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion disclosure will not be used to score or evaluate private real estate projects that come up for city approval — at least for now — but will be used “for informational purposes to understand disparities in the real estate market.” The disclosure would ask developers to “include economic participation, employment, and management roles by people of color, women,” and certified minority- and women-owned business enterprises.
The BPDA will examine the disclosures provided over the next six to nine months, Jemison said. That will allow it to collect best practices to refine the policy and eventually incorporate it into zoning.
Segun Idowu, the city’s chief of economic opportunity and inclusion, said a policy change to BPDA’s Article 80 process — which is how most large real estate projects are reviewed by the city — would make sure that many who have been excluded from the real estate development process are able to participate in projects. It pushes back, Idowu said, against the narrative of Boston as a city where “you have to know someone who knows someone who knows someone to get in the front door.”
“This is essentially blasting the front door open,” Idowu said. “If you want to work in the city, here’s the path.”
Related Beal’s pitch for a life-science facility at 22 Drydock Ave. in the Seaport was a project on public land that included a DEI disclosure. Stephen Faber, an executive vice president at Related, said that by engaging with a more diverse community in the early stages of planning, the developer has a richer perspective. The DEI disclosure requirement for a city-owned plot of land encourages developers to engage with communities they may not have connected with in the past, he said, and that creates future opportunities down the line.
“If we are charged, or have the privilege, of creating a significant public benefit as part of a development — we now have to think about . . . making that significant benefit available to everyone in the city,” Faber said.
Former Massachusetts Gaming Commission chairman Steve Crosby has been leading an effort to prompt the BPDA to consider diversity in its large project reviews. His group, known as the Civic Action Project, teamed up with the Boston Society for Architecture to submit this concept to the BPDA earlier this year. The main goal behind their effort was to better diversify Boston’s largely white, largely male development community.
Crosby recognizes that what the BPDA is advancing falls short of what he had pushed for, but also said he understands the legal questions.
“What they’re doing is taking the biggest step you can take short of mandating,” Crosby said. “Simply by raising it, it will make people think about it. It is bound to have some positive impact, simply by having a disclosure requirement rather than having an approval requirement.”
What the BPDA does is sure to be watched closely by officials in other Massachusetts cities. Crosby has been in touch with officials in Salem, Cambridge, and Lynn about the issue, for example. He expects to convene a working group next month to address some of the challenges to designing the diversity requirements.
The BPDA board will vote on the measure at its meeting Thursday evening.
Jon Chesto of the Globe staff contributed to this report.