While awaiting confirmation in 1971 to become the third Boston Redevelopment Authority director to serve during Mayor Kevin White’s first term, Robert T. Kenney paused to contemplate a reporter’s question of why he agreed to take a job that two others had filled for such short tenures.
Before that January day he had enjoyed considerable success running the city’s Public Facilities Department. On his watch several schools were built, along with libraries and police and fire stations. White wanted to give more responsibility to Mr. Kenney, whom he praised for his “imagination and his willingness to innovate.” But that would mean switching jobs in an election year. Mr. Kenney would take over the BRA when the looming ballot box made his work more political than usual. What was the appeal? “I guess it’s the challenge,” he told the Globe.
Over his next nearly six years leading the BRA, Mr. Kenney helped change the look, feel, and character of Boston. One project in particular, the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, provided a much-needed spark for downtown development when it opened to great fanfare in 1976.
“That was a major breakthrough in terms of urban retail centers in this country,” said Bob Walsh, who succeeded Mr. Kenney as BRA director. “While Kevin White gets proper credit because he was mayor at the time, I can tell you with certainty that it would not have happened without Bob Kenney involved.”
Mr. Kenney, who went on to found and run Kenney Development Co., died of kidney ailments March 11 in the Clark House Nursing Center at Fox Hill Village in Westwood. He was 80 and had divided his time between Boston and Quechee, Vt.
The Faneuil Hall project helped spur construction and increase the marketability of office buildings along State Street “at a time when Boston really needed to see some growth,” Walsh said. He also praised Mr. Kenney’s leadership in redeveloping the Charlestown Navy Yard into “an entire neighborhood of mixed-use development — housing, condos, restaurants, office space.”
“I just always loved the cut of his jib,” said Thomas P. O’Neill III, who was lieutenant governor of Massachusetts during the end of Mr. Kenney’s tenure as BRA chief. In building upon what his predecessors had begun, Mr. Kenney “modernized the city as not only the BRA director, but as an architect of the New Boston,” O’Neill said.
Discussions of legacy often focus on large projects, O’Neill added, but the effect of someone such as Mr. Kenney ripples through the city and through succeeding decades. “People don’t remember this,” he said, “but there weren’t seven restaurants in town that you would have gone to before Bob Kenney.”
With larger proposals, Mr. Kenney “had this unbelievable tenacity for tackling a very complicated project and getting his teeth in it and not letting go,” said his son Robert of Wellesley. And yet with a project such as the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Mr. Kenney “spent most of his life deflecting all accolades back to the mayor,” his son added.
Mr. Kenney afforded the mayor such courtesies even though they didn’t always agree. In 1974, White took the Park Plaza development project away from Mr. Kenney and gave the responsibilities to one of Mr. Kenney’s subordinates.
When Mr. Kenney left the BRA near the end of 1976, a Globe editorial praised his work, and he was matter-of-fact about the politics behind the parting of ways. “I don’t understand the whys and wherefores, either,” he told the Globe. “I stopped speculating on them after I became 40.”
His BRA legacy, meanwhile, also included enlivening the city with new parks. “It’s become a hackneyed phrase, but Boston is a walking city and we felt it was now important to create a whole series of pedestrian amenities, partially to knit the city together but also to encourage people to walk,” he told the Globe in November 1975, adding that “weaving or linking the city together with walkways and mini-parks will foster this.”
The middle of three children, Mr. Kenney grew up in Belmont, a son of Raymond Kenney and the former Gertrude McManus. As a student at Boston College High School’s former location in the South End, Mr. Kenney once sat in an auditorium listening to Mayor James Michael Curley address the students. The school kept high standards, Mr. Kenney recalled in a 2005 interview: “If your marks weren’t up to snuff, the principal would read them out loud . . . with comments.”
With their respective development companies, Mr. Kenney and Walsh, who also is a BC High alumnus, converted the old school building into condominiums decades later.
Mr. Kenney graduated from Boston College High School, from Boston College, and from Harvard Business School. He also served as a Navy supply officer, stationed on a destroyer.
While at Boston College, he met Kathleen Whalen, whom he married in 1959.
Mr. Kenney began his career as manager of financial analysis for Ludlow Corp. and moved in 1965 to the Price Waterhouse accounting firm. “He was the quintessential numbers guy,” his son said. “He got numbers like nobody’s business.”
Whether in private industry or the public sector, which he entered in 1968 as Boston’s public facilities director, Mr. Kenney “was an incredibly bright guy — usually the brightest guy in the room, yet you would never know it,” his son said. “He was a man of very few words. When he spoke, he didn’t go on and on and on. He was very direct, and he could solve problems faster than anybody I knew. Half of us would be sitting there just trying to get to point b and he was already at z.”
A service has been held for Mr. Kenney, who in addition to his wife and son leaves two other sons, Peter of Philadelphia and Christopher of Sherborn; a brother, Raymond of Woburn; a sister, Virginia Kennedy of Belmont; and nine grandchildren.
Along with his development work, Mr. Kenney formerly chaired the Boston Harbor Association and the Boston-Kyoto Sister City Foundation, and he was on the boards of the Wang Center for the Performing Arts and the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority.
And though he was involved with lasting projects that totaled nearly $2 billion over the course of his career, Mr. Kenney was very comfortable with small-scale ventures. “One of my fondest memories is playing golf with Bob,” Walsh said. “We always had a $2 bet.”
Having lived in Wollaston and Boston for many years, Mr. Kenney liked spending time in an 1850 farmhouse he bought in Quechee, where “he fancied himself a gentleman farmer because one of the local farmers used to tap the maple trees on the property,” his son Robert said.
Mr. Kenney repackaged the gallon of syrup the farmer gave him each year into individual portions he labeled “Bob’s Best” and handed them out at Christmas, each the perfect size for a single pancake.
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.