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BRA presses to extend its urban renewal powers

Columbus Avenue between Dartmouth and Yarmouth streets in Boston.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

On Tremont Street in the South End, you can drop $50 a plate on dinner at a fancy bistro. The downtown waterfront bristles with luxury condos at seven-figure prices. And a room Saturday at the Four Seasons Hotel facing the Public Garden will set you back $625.

Six decades ago, amid Boston's urban renewal push, the city declared those neighborhoods blighted. Now, despite considerable progress, the Boston Redevelopment Authority is seeking to extend the "blighted" designation for another decade in numerous urban renewal zones from Charlestown to Roxbury.

But the plan faces pushback from groups that wonder if the 1960s-era designation still applies in areas that have become some of Boston's most desirable.


BRA officials say the urban renewal designation is a tool that helps the city spruce up pockets still in need of help, for example, by letting them issue tax breaks or take property by eminent domain.

With the City Council ready to vote on the measure this fall, however, groups in the North End and South End have formally opposed the 10-year urban renewal extension. Others in the Fenway, Chinatown, and elsewhere are eyeing it warily. Some worry that blanket designations for entire neighborhoods amount to the sort of power grab by a BRA that Mayor Martin J. Walsh and director Brian Golden have pledged is a thing of the past.

The corner of Monument and Bunker Hill streets in Charlestown. The vast majority of the community lies in the BRA’s urban renewal zone.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

"The South End of 1962 bears absolutely no resemblance to the South End of 2015. Why is it you need these tools?" said Steve Fox, chairman of the South End Forum, an umbrella organization of neighborhood groups. "It's baffling."

Urban renewal may be a relic of the 1960s. But Golden calls it a key ingredient of development in modern-day Boston, too. It gives the BRA the ability to untangle the often complicated process of redeveloping old sites, like clearing titles on parcels whose owners have long disappeared. Without it, he said, a number of recent projects would not have happened. The designation helped change zoning to build the W Hotel on Stuart Street and to assemble land for the Bolling Building in Dudley Square.


"There are big things, valued by the city and by the community, that would have been very difficult to create without urban renewal tools," he said. "If you give up these tools, you're giving up some things you can't readily recreate."

As for the blighting, he argues, it's mainly a legal term and there are certainly pockets within all the zones that would still qualify.

"Blight [designation] is the key which unlocks the tools," he said. "In lay terms — and most of us are lay people — it doesn't make much sense. But it's the system and the statutes we inherited."

Still, many in the neighborhoods designated as urban renewal areas are wondering why some of the zones need to be so large. About 5 percent of Boston's land mass lies within an urban renewal zone, including the vast majority of the South End and Charlestown, much of downtown's waterfront, and a big chunk of the Fenway and Longwood Medical Area.

Globe Staff

But aside from a swath of Roxbury, the zones barely touch outlying neighborhoods, said Ford Cavallari, president of the North End Waterfront Residents Association. His group voted unanimously last week to oppose the extension.

"There are a lot of places in this city, like Widett Circle and East Boston, that need these tools," Cavallari said. "In already developed neighborhoods like ours there might be places that need a little help, but you don't need to declare the entire area an urban renewal zone."


Down the road, Golden said, the BRA is open to changing the boundaries, shrinking the zones in gentrified neighborhoods, and expanding them to places that need more redevelopment. But the city's urban renewal program is set to expire in April, so time is short to get the necessary approval from the City Council and the state, which must also sign off on urban renewal zones.

The BRA hopes to put the measure before the council this fall. At a meeting on the topic Tuesday, however, several members sounded skeptical.

"This is about urban renewal, but it's also about the relationship between the BRA and the community," said City Councilor Michelle Wu. "It's been a very general and vague conversation, and I think that's what's causing some of the anxiety."

Wu was one of several council members and community groups who raised the prospect of a shorter extension, perhaps for two years, so urban renewal zones could be considered as part of the Imagine Boston 2030 citywide planning process the BRA is launching. The trouble with that, Golden said, is that many projects take more than two years to execute, and developers want to know they can rely on the BRA's help.

And there are some community groups that note urban renewal tools give the BRA leverage to push private developers to include affordable housing or open space in their projects. That's why Inquilinos Boricuas en Accion, which was formed by South End residents fighting off displacement threatened by urban renewal in 1968, is supporting the extension this time around.


Rents are soaring in the gentrifying South End, said chief executive Vanessa Calderon-Rosado, and many longtime residents and businesses are being priced out. If the BRA can use its leverage to create more middle-class housing, she said, that would be a good thing. And while she understands suspicion about the BRA's history, what she's heard from Walsh and Golden gives her hope that the authority has changed.

Still, said Lydia Lowe, co-director of the Chinese Progressive Association in Chinatown, there's a lot of history to urban renewal and a lot of high-end development going on right now.

It will take a lot more conversation, she said, before groups like hers can get on board with more blight designations and urban renewal.

"I'm trying to believe them, but I think there's just a deep well of cynicism about all this," she said. "I need to see some real structural changes."

Tim Logan can be reached
at Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.