Since its inception in 1957, the Boston Redevelopment Authority has been the city agency that people love to hate.
Of course, there has sometimes been good reason for that. The agency — now known as the Boston Planning and Development Agency, but forever the BRA to me — will forever be known as the sole city department to bulldoze an entire neighborhood. That was the West End, which met its fate in the early 1960s, in the name of “urban renewal.”
Even Marty Walsh wanted to do away with the agency, when he was running for mayor in 2013. (He quickly changed his mind upon becoming mayor, but we’ll get to that.)
Into this tradition of opponents enters Michelle Wu, city councilor and possible mayoral aspirant. Wu released a 67-page report last week laying out the why and how of getting rid of the BPDA. In her view, it is an autocratic and unresponsive bureaucracy that favors developers over ordinary citizens, prioritizes privilege over fairness, and perpetuates short-sighted decision-making over long-range planning.
To my mind, many of those claims are outdated or inflated. In fact, at this moment in the city’s history, abolishing the BPDA is a terrible idea (however effective it may be as a campaign rallying cry.)
The BRA/BPDA is a uniquely Boston institution. It combines powers under one roof that other cities typically spread among several agencies, often with more robust oversight. Because it is self-funding — mainly through the nearly $40 million a year it collects in leases at the Marine Industrial Park — the City Council has very little say over its operations.
Keep in mind that the current city bribery scandal largely involves the Zoning Board of Appeal, a different agency that deals with generally smaller developments.
The BRA did, in fact, have a long history of caring little about public opinion or neighborhood opposition. Strong-willed BRA directors like Stephen Coyle did what they wanted to do, and left it to others to soothe hurt community feelings.
Wu is absolutely right that this would be an unacceptable way to do business in 2019. But, really, it’s been years since it operated that way.
Reading the report, I was struck by how dated — not to mention familiar — many of its outrageous examples of overreach are. No one disputes that the BRA has a problematic history. But that isn’t a reason to get rid of it now.
Walsh, who campaigned on getting rid of the BRA, instead rebranded it. After complaining that the city had abandoned real planning in the 1960s, he established a long-term initiative, Imagine Boston 2030, to think about where the city is going. It’s true that the results of that project remain very much a work in progress, but untrue that Walsh changed the name and left it at that. It’s more responsive to the public now than it’s ever been.
Certainly, this city — like all booming cities — has a lot of work to do in figuring out how to grapple with such challenges as income inequality and climate change. Though Wu’s report is full of “peer cities” that have supposedly adopted more civic-minded approaches, their success is hard to gauge. (Whatever its development structure, no one would say San Francisco has figured out how to solve inequality.)
And it’s a little frustrating that the endpoint of all this interesting thinking is simply to call, in effect, for more process, more hearings. It’s not at all obvious to me that liquidating the BPDA and giving more power to the City Council will fix the frustrating lack of sustained development in Dudley Square, where yet another boom is pointedly leaving out communities of color.
Where is this city going, and who’s going to be able to live in it 10 years from now? That is the debate I wish we were having. Our “development process” may be part of that. But so are our values, our aspirations as a community, and our dreams.