A bribery scandal may be hanging over Boston’s Zoning Board of Appeal, but you wouldn’t have known it at its regular biweekly meeting Tuesday
Property owners and their architects shuffled to the front of a dreary, crowded conference room in City Hall to get permission for their roof-decks and condo projects. Neighbors waited to comment, while lawyers and city staffers mingled in the hallway outside.
But there were signs this was no ordinary day at the board. It was the first meeting since federal prosecutors disclosed that longtime city employee John Lynch took a $50,000 bribe to influence a vote on a project in South Boston in 2017. And this one drew crews from local television news stations there; at one point, the board’s chairwoman, Christine Araujo, appeared taken aback when one television reporter placed a microphone in front of her.
“Did you want this here?” she asked the reporter. He did.
The zoning board meets every other Tuesday, and its agenda is typically lengthy, often taking half a day to get through. But last week City Councilor Michelle Wu had floated the idea of postponing Tuesday’s meeting until the Walsh administration had more information about the incident.
But since then, Mayor Martin J. Walsh tapped former federal prosecutor Brian Kelly to interview board members about the episode, accepted the resignation of one member — Dorchester real estate agent Craig Galvin — who had business ties to Lynch, and the former head of the city’s inspections department took a leave of absence because of connections he has to the South Boston project.
And Walsh has made clear that the engine room of the city’s real estate boom wasn’t going to stop churning away.
“There are timely projects before the board right now that will unfairly and negatively impact residents who have been waiting to improve their homes if they are not addressed,” Walsh said in a statement Monday.
Still, Wu is not alone in urging changes to the zoning board and how it functions. Councilor Matt O’Malley has raised the prospect of creating an ombudsman’s office help to ensure transparency at the board, which holds great sway over the look and feel of Boston’s neighborhoods. And on Tuesday, Council president Andrea Campbell called for the creation of an inspector general for the city, appointed by an independent board and tasked with “rooting out” corruption.
“Bostonians deserve a city government that is free of corruption and waste, grounded in transparency, and accountable to the people,” she said.
Neither those ideas nor the bribery scandal, which has roiled City Hall for nearly two weeks now came up Tuesday. The meeting turned out to be a mostly routine affair, with the zoning board approving dozens of projects. Galvin, who resigned his board position Sunday night after The Boston Globe reported his business ties to Lynch, was only briefly mentioned. “We offer him thanks for his years of service,” Araujo said in a brief statement. Then she moved on to the first item on the agenda: routine zoning extensions, like the vote that is at the center of the bribery case. The board approved four of them, with little discussion.
There was one hiccup: Board member Kerry Walsh Logue was absent, leaving the panel with just five members Tuesday, the minimum needed to pass most items. That meant a single “no” vote could scuttle a project, prompting several developers to request deferrals from the board.
“We’re going to wait for a full board,” said Tim Sheehan, who was representing a three-unit project in Charlestown.
Then there was James Christopher.
The son of William “Buddy” Christopher — Walsh’s longtime head of inspectional services and overseer of the board, who took an unpaid leave Friday — who now runs his father’s architecture firm, James Christopher, had three projects on the zoning board’s agenda Tuesday. He, too, requested deferrals until October, without specifying why. The younger Christopher, who appeared as the architect on the Southie condo project at the center of the scandal, declined to comment when approached by the Globe Tuesday.
Still, many projects did go forward, and nearly all were approved — a key step in a process that can stretch for months, or years, depending on the size of a development.
Boston builder Cabot, Cabot & Forbes has been working since 2017 on a condo-and- apartment project with 400-plus units on Kilmarnock Street in the Fenway. With the project on Tuesday’s agenda and a goal to break ground early next year, chief executive Jay Doherty saw no reason to pause — for either a scandal or a reduced board.
“We’ve done a lot of work on this with neighbors and the community. We’ve covered our bases,” Doherty said, after the project won unanimous approval. “We felt we had our best foot forward and we were ready to go.”