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shirley leung

The difficult task of finding the next BRA director

The Boston harbor. David L Ryan / Globe Staff/Globe Staff

It is one of the most exciting jobs in Boston, the opportunity to reshape the city skyline for the next half century with billions of investment at your disposal.

So why is it so hard for Marty Walsh to hire the next director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority?

Now I don’t mean to talk anyone out of the job, but if you’re interested, you should know what you’re getting into. The work is steeped in conflict -- pitting you between neighbors and developers, you and the mayor. And don’t forget, you would have another boss, John Barros, who as economic development chief also oversees the BRA in an arrangement that developers are still trying to figure out.


And it’s thankless. The director traditionally gets little of the credit for remaking the face of Boston; the mayor does. It’s also not much of a steppingstone to higher office or necessarily bigger and better things.

Sometimes retirement makes the most sense (Peter Meade), but more often than not you have to leave town to get a fresh start (Paul Barrett, John Palmieri, Marisa Lago).

Tom O’Brien has been among the more successful ex-directors who stayed local, but he bounced around before settling in as a big-time developer with projects such as the Government Center garage redevelopment and NorthPoint in Cambridge.

But Steve Coyle, the legendary BRA director under Ray Flynn, said the biggest mistake is focusing on the downsides.

“If you come in worrying about the conflicts – there are many – you are not going to be a matador if you are afraid of the bull,” Coyle said during a phone interview this week, chatting fondly for nearly an hour about his seven years as the BRA chief.

Now the story goes that Coyle originally turned down the job in 1983. Coyle was quite content, he recalled, living in California, eating sprouts and traveling the world as an executive for a design and planning firm. A few months later, Flynn came back at him, flying out and surprising Coyle at his San Francisco office. How could he say no?


Coyle is most proud of finding a site for the New England Holocaust Memorial near Fanueil Hall and the redevelopment of Charlestown Navy Yard.

“If you approach it as a great job, you are going to love it,” said Coyle who left in 1992 for his current job, chief executive of the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust in Washington.

For Coyle, there is really only one constituent the BRA director must stay true to.

“The key to succeeding in Boston is appreciating the city,” he said. “At the end of the day, you are working for the city – the city that was, the city that is, and the city that you are helping to create.”

Maybe that explains why Walsh seems in no hurry. The new mayor hasn’t hired a national search firm as he has done for other key positions. Administration officials say there are “active conversations,” with names of candidates being offered up. But it’s not like Walsh has a short list and is making calls to feel people out.

He is waiting for the results of an audit of BRA operations, which will be done sometime this month, and wants a permanent director by the summer. One reason for the slow pace is Walsh is happy with acting director Brian Golden and has been dropping his name more frequently in public to affirm that Golden is in charge for now. Word on the street is that Golden wants the job.


For Barrett, who succeeded Coyle, being the BRA director was “like being the Red Sox manager. Everybody thinks they have a better way of doing it, and you get second guessed.”

He didn’t last too long after Tom Menino took office in 1993, but it is still “the most fun job” Barrett has ever had. After Boston, he went on to become the economic development czar in Rhode Island. (Hold the jokes here.) Now back in Massachusetts, he’s an executive at a mortgage company and was an adviser to the Walsh campaign.

Being the next BRA director should not be the job people love to hate. It should be the job everybody wants.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.