The Boston Redevelopment Authority’s push to extend its urban renewal powers for another decade met stiff resistance Thursday from city councilors who said the program requires more oversight and asked why it is still focused on well-off neighborhoods and not those that need help.
Four City Council members said that they will not vote for a 10-year extension of the program, which has been renewed repeatedly since its creation in the 1960s. Several other members at a committee hearing on the issue were noncommittal.
The BRA needs a majority of the council to vote yes if it hopes to get state approval to extend the program before it expires at the end of April. That means seven “yes” votes on the 13-member council, a number that BRA director Brian Golden said after the hearing that he was hopeful he could reach.
“We of course hope we can get unanimous support,” he said. “But if we can persuade a majority of the council, that’s what we’ll do.”
At stake is the BRA’s ability to declare land as blighted, take property by eminent domain, and wield other development tools in areas accounting for about one-tenth of the city from Charlestown to Roxbury. The authority says it needs those powers to help complicated development projects.
Although two members spoke in favor of an extension and three others took no position, four members — council president Michelle Wu, Tito Jackson, Ayanna Pressley, and Josh Zakim — all said they opposed a 10-year extension.
Of those, some said they would support a two-year extension that gave the BRA time to revamp the program, while others asked why urban renewal is still focused on many now-wealthy neighborhoods of the city – such as the South End and North End – not areas such as Mattapan and Roxbury. All four raised questions about renewing such vast powers for an agency that has long been viewed in some corners of the city as unaccountable to residents or the City Council.
“This is an issue of trust, trust that the BRA is looking to rebuild, or in some instances to establish,” said Pressley. “I just can’t take this leap of faith.”
The four-hour hearing came after a year-long BRA campaign of community meetings and public outreach to explain the program. The agency acknowledges that “urban renewal” is associated with some of Boston’s worst planning excesses of the 20th century, such as the razing of the West End. But, they argue, it has become an essential ingredient of the modern city, helping the BRA piece together parcels of land and clear long-muddied titles.
“Big projects in an old city are very complex. The economics and the politics and the deed issues can be very challenging,” Golden said. “If we do not have these tools to help them, complicated ones may suffer. They may not be built.”
The BRA had a lot of supporters at the public hearing. Representatives of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Longwood Medical Area spoke up in favor. So did a few nonprofits that have used urban renewal to spur real estate deals, and a number of union construction workers. Joe Larkin, principal at development firm Millennium Partners, said many of his recent projects, including the Millennium Tower being finished at Downtown Crossing, simply wouldn’t have happened without urban renewal tools.
“These projects are complicated to do,” Larkin said. “We want to keep them going.”
But civic groups from a number of the neighborhoods that are actually covered by urban renewal said they would like to see the program scaled back, if not eliminated. Declaring the entire South End as blighted to foster its redevelopment may have made sense in the 1960s, said Steve Fox, head of the South End Forum, a neighborhood group. But things have changed.
“We would like to see urban renewal for the entire South End gone. That’s the bottom line,” Fox said. “People are watching this issue and they don’t really understand the re-authorization.”
Golden said the BRA is open to amending boundaries of the urban renewal zones, which are largely unchanged since they were created five decades ago, to better reflect the needs of today’s Boston. That could include shrinking the South End zone and adding places that need more help, such as Mattapan. But, he said, that’s a complex legal process and takes time.
As for the two-year extension proposed by Wu, that’s a nonstarter, Golden said. Big development projects take years to get off the ground, and the uncertainty created by a short extension would cause problems.
“That will put a cloud over development decisions,” he said. “You need these tools over a long period of time.”
So the BRA plans to push ahead with its extension as is, for the most part: 10 years, with current boundaries, and promises of more transparency in the future. Whether it can push that through the council remains to be seen. Like several of his colleagues, council member Bill Linehan, who has a key role as chairman of the committee that is considering the bill, said he hasn’t yet made up his mind.
“You want 10 years. I understand that,” Linehan told Golden. “Some of our members want less. For me, the jury’s still out.”