In a move that could reshape development in neighborhoods across Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu on Monday proposed replacing nearly every member of the city’s influential Zoning Board of Appeal, nominating a new slate of community developers, neighborhood organizers, and construction union representatives.
The 14-member board rules on everything from roof-decks to midsized apartment buildings — because nearly every real estate project in the city runs afoul of Boston’s decades-old zoning code in one way or another and thus requires a zoning variance — and has enormous sway over what gets built and where. But the ZBA has come under fire for years for what critics say is arbitrary and opaque decision-making and, at times, for rejecting projects that have been approved by other city agencies.
Wu said Monday that changing the makeup of the ZBA is one step in a long-term plan to overhaul the city’s planning, development, and zoning approvals process.
“We are at a critical point for our city’s growth and recovery, and the ZBA has an important role to play in that,” Wu said. “We wanted to ensure that our slate could represent the diversity of our communities, the talents across our neighborhoods, and the expertise in how to build a forward-looking vision and plan for growth.”
As a city councilor, Wu was a frequent critic of the board, especially in the wake of a 2019 bribery scandal that sent a city official to federal prison and led to a ZBA member’s resignation. During her mayoral campaign, Wu said ethical reforms issued by former mayor Martin J. Walsh did not go far enough to restore public trust.
Wu’s changes to the ZBA were not unexpected. All but one member of the current ZBA are in “holdover” status, acting under expired terms, meaning the mayor could replace them at will. Chair Christine Araujo has served on the board since 1998.
Some housing advocates in the city have decried the ZBA for what they deem an arbitrary approval process, with some projects moving forward but not others, such as a proposed 31-unit apartment complex at 4198 Washington St. in Roslindale Square.
WalkUP Roslindale, a nonprofit neighborhood group focused on transit-oriented housing, wrote an open letter to Wu in March calling for her to appoint new members to the ZBA after the board “rejected multiple new 4-story buildings proposed on Washington Street in or near Roslindale Square” and called for additional parking spots for the projects.
“From a neighborhood perspective, you basically can’t get anything built — from an apartment or a condo building of any real scale, down to adding a dormer to your house — without going through the Zoning Board of Appeal,” said Rob Orthman, chair of the housing and development committee for WalkUP Roslindale. “It’s become, in this city, in a lot of ways, the de facto planning board.”
But no zoning code is perfect, and it’s the job of zoning boards to weigh each individual project that comes before it, said Karla Chaffee, a real estate attorney at Nixon Peabody in Boston. And the volume of work facing the ZBA is substantial, Chaffee notes. She sits on the zoning board in Rowley, where the board may receive a few requests every few months. The ZBA, for its part, has approved 395 projects and denied 72 since the start of the year, according to a Boston Globe analysis.
“Without a zoning board of appeal, you could see many projects, many important projects driving Boston’s economy, not being able to proceed,” Chaffee said. “Until the zoning code is perfect — which is an almost impossible status, I think, for any community — there is always going to be a need to work with and handle dimensional variations through a board.”
An overhaul of Boston’s real estate development review process has been a key focus for Wu, who ran on abolishing the Boston Planning & Development Agency and, while on the City Council, held up several ZBA appointments. The new ZBA members “will work closely” with her newly appointed chief of planning Arthur Jemison, the city said in a release Monday.
“Together, we can aim to reduce reliance on variances as the BPDA prioritizes planning-(led) development,” Jemison said in a release.
Wu is proposing to keep three current ZBA members — Hansy Better Barraza, Sherry Dong, and Jeanne Pinado — and replace 10 others. Kerry Walsh Logue, a representative of the Building Trades Employers’ Association from South Boston, has a term limit that expires in November. Logue is the only ZBA member with an active term; the remaining 11 members — all appointed by Walsh or his predecessor Thomas M. Menino — have “holdover” status.
The new ZBA will be thoughtful about density, and whether proposed projects make sense in their proposed locations, said Pinado, a longtime nonprofit housing developer who now works for real estate brokerage Colliers.
“I would hope that the BPDA is serious about neighborhood planning that results in new zoning,” Pinado said. “And I would hope to see less on the agenda as a result.”
The appointees will need approval by the City Council, and a vote is on the council’s Wednesday agenda. The group includes at-large mayoral nominees and representatives from neighborhood organizations, as well as nominees from building trade groups and other real estate industry organizations, as is established under state law, with seven “primary” members and seven alternates.