How much will Mayor Michelle Wu’s plan to abolish the Boston Planning and Development Agency and create a new city planning department cost? How will the agency’s planners define their new priorities of “resilience, affordability and equity?” And what does this all mean for the livelihoods of the hundreds of BPDA employees who have been caught up in precarity since Wu’s election?
Those were just some of the many questions posed by nearly every member of Boston’s City Council to BPDA leadership Monday afternoon, in a committee hearing that was technically focused on one element of Wu’s broad plan to shake up the city’s approach to real estate development but ended up sparking a multihour discussion about the effort’s details — or lack thereof.
Strengthening how Bostonians can participate in the often-exhausting process of debating real estate development is important — but it’s also crucial to understand how a process that centers on affordability, resilience, and equity would function in practice, said Councilor at Large Ruthzee Louijeune.
“It sounds good, and I know it may sound good to residents, but we want to make sure that it’s actually going to lead to a material change into how things are being done at the BPDA, and to make sure that residents who often feel like they’re being railroaded by developers feel like they have a fair voice in this process,” Louijeune said. “We all know that there’s a lot happening with this.”
Indeed, the committee hearing — which lasted nearly 3½ hours and brought commentary from 12 of Boston’s 13 city councilors — follows a mid-February BPDA board meeting where members unanimously voted to table Wu’s executive order that would start “immediately implementing planning and development reforms,” saying they did not have a clear enough idea of what the proposed reforms actually were.
At Monday’s hearing, BPDA leadership including director Arthur Jemison, deputy chief Devin Quirk, and newly appointed general counsel Lisa E. Herrington discussed changing the BPDA’s original 1957 state charter from one that allows real estate development “in areas which are considered to be decadent, substandard or blighted open space” to one that, in Wu’s words, “must reflect the possibilities for our brightest future — from affordable housing and racial equity, to climate resilience and healthy, connected communities.”
One of the first steps in that proposed change is formally sunsetting urban renewal, a tool most notoriously used in the mid 20th-century by the then-Boston Redevelopment Authority to wipe out and rebuild entire neighborhoods of the city, but which recently has been a key surgical instrument to preserve affordable housing. Wu would prohibit the BPDA from using urban renewal to combat “blight, decadence, or substandard housing” — but retain its power to “enforce restrictions that protect community assets,” such as agreements that protect income-restricted housing across the city.
A shift away from a legal definition of “blight” makes sense in today’s Boston, “which is anything but blighted,” said District 8 Councilor Kenzie Bok.
“The kind of shift that is being contemplated here in the legislation, where we get to move the agency away from those old frameworks . . . that have done a lot of harm, while also preserving these critical tools for a muscular public interest in the 21st century — it’s really got to be the goal,” Bok said.
BPDA leadership asked the council committee to approve the act with a vote on Wednesday, but that request drew quick pushback from councilors who wanted more specific information about the proposed changes.
“If we’re changing the entire way we do business, I think we should know all the details,” said District 3 Councilor Frank Baker. “I just don’t think we’re ready for a vote on Wednesday.”
Making changes to the BPDA in a way that’s “sufficiently thought out and planned out” is crucial, District 5 Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said, given the city’s reliance on property taxes for services and its overall fiscal health. Every councilor is “very aware” of how the substantial majority of Boston’s overall revenue comes from property taxes, Arroyo said. A whopping 74 percent of Boston’s revenue is budgeted to come from property taxes in fiscal 2023; comparatively, general property taxes comprised around 30 percent of New York City’s revenues in the same time period.
“As goes development, goes the city of Boston, frankly,” Arroyo said.
Councilors have spoken with lawmakers in cities including Seattle, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York and found that re-crafting the processes behind real estate development tend to draw fire from all sides, Arroyo said. (Most of those cities have some form of rent control. The council is scheduled to discuss Wu’s proposed rent control plan at a hearing Thursday.)
“Basically what we found is no one city has claim to a development process that they are actually enthusiastic supporters of,” Arroyo said. “You almost have to create a plan that nobody likes to create a fair process.”
The council committee will discuss the issue again at a working session Friday.
Catherine Carlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bycathcarlock.