Despite concerns from community activists, the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s bid to keep some of its most powerful development tools won a key approval Thursday.
The BRA board of directors voted to extend for 10 years the agency’s urban renewal powers over a big chunk of the city, including parts of downtown, the South End, and Charlestown that have improved dramatically since the program was launched five decades ago.
Now the matter will head to the Boston City Council, likely next month. The BRA’s powers — which include the right to authorize tax breaks and take property through eminent domain — are due to expire in April if not extended by the city and state.
The vote came after housing advocates and leaders of several groups in neighborhoods in the urban renewal zones urged a shorter extension of two or three years. That would give the city time to redefine the program, which was first designed to redevelop a very different city, said Victor Brogna of the North End Waterfront Residents Association.
“Urban renewal was created 50 years ago to address problems that existed then,” Brogna said. “The machinery of the 1950s is different. The problems are different. New machinery should be created.”
But the tools of urban renewal have become so integral to the BRA’s operations that agency officials say cutting them off now — despite vast improvements in the city — would be catastrophic.
“Urban renewal is to planning and development like a drill is to building a house,” said Corey Zehngebot, the BRA staffer in charge of the urban renewal project. “Development may happen without that tool, but there’s no guarantee that projects would be of high quality.”
As a “compromise,” Zehngebot said, the BRA will be updating the urban renewal program. But extending it for now for just two or three years — after a one-year extension passed last year — would create too much uncertainty, the agency said.
Others at the City Hall meeting were supportive of keeping urban renewal and its tools in place.
“This is smart, economically responsible development,” said Brian Doherty, treasurer of the Boston Metropolitan Building Trades Council. “That means thousands of jobs.”
In the end, the BRA board voted unanimously, with no debate, to approve the extension. Next up is the City Council, which could prove a tougher sell; in presentations earlier this year some Councilors voiced skepticism over the long-term extension. BRA officials said they will continue to talk with Council members about their concerns.
Meanwhile — and despite dozens of community meetings over the last year — critics said they still feel left out of the major decisions over development in Boston.
“As residents we feel like we have no voice,” said Samuel Hurtado, of South Boston. “Developers get their way over and over again.”