In mayoral races, BPDA is often a punching bag
Four years ago, Martin J. Walsh ran for mayor pledging to remake the Boston Redevelopment Authority so the powerful agency would become more open and responsive to the people it serves.
Today, City Councilor Tito Jackson is saying pretty much the same thing in his campaign for mayor against Walsh. He’s promising to dismantle what’s now known as the Boston Planning & Development Agency “on day one” of his administration.
It’s not much of a surprise. There may be no punching bag in city politics quite like the BPDA — or the BRA, as many still call it — despite a $670,000 rebranding effort Walsh launched last year.
The quasi-governmental agency, which referees major real estate development in Boston, has long been a lightning rod for criticism. The BPDA is regularly excoriated by residents who say it’s on the side of developers. Those same developers blast the agency for being capricious or slow — though such remarks typically are made in private. And come election time, it has proven a popular cudgel to beat on the mayor, who appoints its director, senior staff, and most of the board.
“This comes up every election,” said Matt Kiefer, a veteran development attorney at Goulston & Storrs. “If the BPDA is doing their job, everyone dislikes them equally.”
Which is not to say some of the disdain hasn’t been deserved.
During the Menino era, the BRA developed a reputation for closed-door decision-making and a sense that developers favored by the mayor won fast approvals, while other projects languished in regulatory limbo. That only deepened the distrust from neighborhood groups that dated to the agency’s creation — and heavy-handed 1960s urban renewal projects such as the razing and redevelopment of the West End. In some cases, funds pledged by developers for affordable housing and other civic needs went uncollected.
Not long after taking office in 2014, Walsh replaced much of the agency’s senior staff. He also named former state representative — and BRA higher-up during the later Menino years — Brian Golden to be executive director. Next, he commissioned a pair of outside audits that painted the BRA’s inner workings as dysfunctional. Last year, he spent $670,000 to hire the design firm Continuum to “re-envision” the agency, a process that — among other things — led to the new name.
More important, observers say, Walsh’s BPDA has become more accessible to residents, by posting most project documents online, maintaining an active social media presence, and by holding public meetings across the city almost every weeknight. In the midst of an epic building boom, those changes are giving residents more say about what goes on in their neighborhoods, said Steve Fox, who heads the community group South End Forum.
“In the past, the BRA was kind of like this big decision-making body sitting on the 9th floor of City Hall that was impenetrable except to developers,” Fox said. “Brian Golden has done an extraordinary job of reversing that.”
The BPDA can still feel a bit like an insider’s club. A stream of developers, architects, and their politically wired consultants are regularly ushered through the agency’s reception area for closed-door appointments with staff. The monthly board meeting is a who’s who of the city’s real estate scene, marked by huddled sidebars in the hallway. And in keeping with tradition from the Menino years, most developers still vet their projects at City Hall long before airing them publicly.
But, observers say, the agency these days makes a genuine effort to get neighborhood input, with several community meetings now routine on even mid-size developments. The agency also runs what it calls “science fair style” planning sessions to foster small-group conversations, not just presentations from a podium.
In addition, the BPDA has been appointing a wider range of voices to the neighborhood boards that review most projects, said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association — including many who are skeptical of major real estate developments.
“I don’t always find it easy. I have felt outnumbered at certain points,” said Mainzer-Cohen, whose group represents several Back Bay developers. “But we’re talking about Boston voters who wanted something different at the BPDA. They are getting it.”
The agency is also trying to be more predictable, Golden said, by putting more focus on planning.
It has added seven full-time staffers to the planning division, he said, and is hiring three more. The agency has written new zoning rules for growing corridors in South Boston, Jamaica Plain, and Roxbury, with similar projects launching in Dorchester, Roxbury and — eventually — Downtown Crossing. The idea, Golden said, is to draw clear regulations, with community input.
“It’s more of a planning agency now,” said George Thrush, an architecture professor at Northeastern University. “The name change — adding ‘planning’ — is not superficial. It’s meaningful.”
It hasn’t always been easy. The so-called JP/Rox plan, which would allow more than 3,700 housing units to be built between Egleston Square and Forest Hills, dragged through dozens of meetings over more than two years and still resulted in loud protests from activists demanding more affordable housing. Plans for the downtown waterfront area bogged down amid disputes over developer Don Chiofaro’s proposed tower on the site of the Boston Harbor Garage.
Those kind of debates, observers say, fuel concern that the structure of the BPDA — which controls both planning and development — could give developers too much sway over neighborhood plans. It’s a common critique, and one Jackson echoes.
Were he mayor, he said at a recent debate, he’d split planning off into its own department, answerable to the City Council.
That would be a smart move, said veteran Chinatown activist Lydia Lowe. But it’s not likely to happen. Just as Walsh ran against the BRA four years ago, Jackson, and any future challengers, will beat up on the powerful agency, she said — until they get their hands on the steering wheel.
“Everybody wants a different BRA before they become mayor,” Lowe said. “Then they become mayor, and they realize what you can do through the BRA. If you don’t reform the structure, it’s always going to be subject to whoever is in charge at City Hall.”