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Michelle Wu wants to ‘abolish’ Boston Planning & Development Agency

Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu at a press conference earlier this year. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

For decades, Boston politicians pushing for change at City Hall have called for blowing up the powerful agency that oversees development.

Now it’s Michelle Wu’s turn.

The city councilor, considered by some as a strong potential challenger to Mayor Martin J. Walsh in two years, unveiled a sweeping plan Monday to “abolish” the Boston Planning & Development Agency.

Wu said she aims to create a city planning agency, update Boston’s decades-old zoning code, and ensure greater transparency in everything from community benefits agreements to corporate tax breaks.

The overall goal, she said, is to transfer power to govern the city’s growth from a bureaucracy that’s accountable mainly to the mayor to an agency driven by the wants and needs of everyday residents.


“If we are to be a city for all, then everyone needs to have a say,” Wu said. “This is about how we best empower people to be part of shaping our city’s growth.”

But Wu isn’t filing legislation, at least for now. On Monday, she submitted a lengthy report — a draft version she shared with the Globe ran 44 pages, plus footnotes — detailing the history of what was formerly called the Boston Redevelopment Authority, its current challenges, and a road map for changing it. She plans to host a series of neighborhood meetings and, eventually, City Council hearings, with a goal of building community and legislative support.

“This is meant to be the starting point of a conversation,” Wu said. “It’s an invitation for the public to weigh in.”

Any BPDA overhaul that makes it through the City Council would ultimately land on the desk of the mayor, and some elements would require approval from the Legislature. When Wu’s report came out Monday, Walsh quickly pointed to his efforts to reform the BRA, an agency that he also had criticized as a candidate.


“When I first ran for mayor, I had serious concerns about how decisions were made at the then-Boston Redevelopment Authority,” Walsh said in a statement. “Today, we have an agency that, for the first time, uses community engagement to guide growth that is inclusive and respects the history of each of our unique neighborhoods.”

Among those steps, Walsh commissioned a pair of outside audits that were sharply critical of the agency’s procedures and culture. He pledged to improve transparency — upgrading the agency’s website to include more detail on development proposals, for instance — and beefed up neighborhood planning. He even renamed the long-criticized BRA as the Boston Planning & Development Agency.

Still, as an historic building boom transforms many parts of the city, Walsh and the BPDA have come under growing fire for both the cost of housing and what critics say is overdevelopment. Those are symptoms of a planning process that’s broken, Wu said, and that prioritizes new tax revenue over the needs of neighborhoods and broader issues such as transportation, income inequality, and climate change.

“Boston is growing really fast,” she said. “And yet it seems the way we’re letting development happen is exacerbating our most urgent challenges.”

Wu’s push comes ahead of City Council elections next month — the third-term councilor is one of eight candidates vying for four at-large seats — and amid a bribery scandal that has drawn scrutiny of the city’s development permitting process.

Last week, Councilor Lydia Edwards filed legislation that would remake the Zoning Board of Appeal, the BPDA’s lower-profile cousin that rules on dozens of small- and mid-size projects every two weeks. Council President Andrea Campbell has sought the creation of an inspector general to weed out fraud and abuse at City Hall.


Wu has long been an advocate of greater transparency at the BPDA, challenging the extension of its urban renewal districts and needling it over high-profile deals like the sale of the city-owned Winthrop Square Garage.

An agency that was granted vast powers to remake a struggling Boston in the mid-20th century may itself need to be remade for a very different time, she said.

“We are no longer the Boston of the ’50s and ’60s,” Wu said. “We are a city that is bursting at the seams now, and we need ways for residents to help shape that.”

Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.