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Walsh seeks to extend city’s urban renewal powers

Boston has used rules and tactics afforded under the rubric of “urban renewal” guidelines to transform its skyline and neighborhoods since the 1960s.GLOBE STAFF FILE/Boston Globe

Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s promise of a more transparent Boston Redevelopment Authority is about to be put to the test.

His administration is seeking state approval to extend 15 of the city’s 18 urban renewal districts for another decade, allowing the BRA to use eminent domain powers, tax breaks, and other tools to shape development.

Newly appointed BRA director Brian Golden acknowledged Tuesday that the authority has abused those powers in the past — by bulldozing whole neighborhoods in the 1950s and ’60s and more recently by being less than forthcoming about its financial dealings with developers and other parties.

But Golden pledged that the BRA will use urban renewal powers more sparingly in coming years to build moderately priced housing and promote business growth in neighborhoods. He also said citizens will have more input on zoning decisions and the use of public property.


“We will show people that we are a people’s BRA, not just a developers’ BRA,” Golden said in a meeting with reporters. “We will show them that with our deeds, not just our words.”

The efforts to extend urban renewal will offer the first window on promises by Walsh and Golden to reform the BRA and change the way it handles development. In his comments Tuesday, Golden said the authority must work to improve the quality of the city’s architecture and neighborhoods, while continuing to pursue economic growth.

“If we do this well, we can demonstrate that we’re not just about getting big things built that enrich developers,” he said. “We can also get a more beautiful world-class city developed that benefits people.”

BRA officials said they will brief the City Council on its plans to extend urban renewal districts on Wednesday.

Most of those districts are set to expire in April, but the BRA will seek a yearlong reprieve to solicit public comment about how its priorities for those areas should change. Then, it will seek state approval to extend its urban renewal powers for another decade.


BRA officials said they will not pursue extensions for a small section of Allston and the area around the Ritz-Carlton Hotel & Residences downtown because development goals in those areas have been achieved.

But it will seek to preserve urban renewal powers in 15 areas stretching from Charlestown to the Fenway, and to parts of Roxbury and Dorchester. Overall, the districts cover about 3,000 acres, or about 10 percent of the city.

Launched in the 1950s to revitalize blighted city centers, urban renewal ignited fierce controversy in Boston over the demolition of the old West End neighborhood, which was redeveloped into a series of high-rise apartment towers.

The BRA razed the West End in the late 1950s, displacing thousands of families to permit construction of the Charles River Park high-rise apartments.The Boston Globe

It also led to the creation of Government Center in place of Scollay Square, construction of the Prudential Center, and the revitalization of Faneuil Hall marketplace.

Federal funding for such projects dried up in the mid-1970s, but the BRA has continued to use urban renewal powers to shape development in the city. The authority has used those powers to take control of property, grant tax breaks to spur development, and alter zoning rules to permit larger projects in select locations.

In recent years, the BRA has used those tools to build the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown and the Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury. It also used them in the widely criticized deal to give the Red Sox a permanent easement to use Yawkey Way on game days.


Critics have accused the authority of using its powers to benefit certain developers or projects supported by previous mayoral administrations. Golden largely accepted that criticism on Tuesday, saying that the BRA should use urban renewal more judiciously and do a better job of explaining its policy decisions.

“People don’t think of the BRA as an agency with a soul,” he said. “They think of it as maybe a dark, menacing presence with tremendous power, and that historically that power hasn’t always been used wisely. We want to turn the corner on that perception.”

The BRA’s last effort to extend its urban renewal powers in 2004 led to allegations of back-room dealing between authority officials and city councilors. A Superior Court ruling found that some of those dealings constituted violations of the state’s Open Meeting Law.

But officials said Wednesday’s briefing with the City Council will be the start of a yearlong effort to rethink the BRA’s approach and create a more open discussion with affected neighborhoods.

“It will allow us to take a fresh look at the BRA and how it’s operating,” said City Council president Bill Linehan. “We need to fully understand how they intend to use these powers and see if the extensions are warranted.”

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.