The Boston Redevelopment Authority is a bogeyman to many, a seemingly all-powerful agency that, depending on its position on any particular issue, can be the bane of everyone from neighborhood activists to developers to good-government types. It has its roots in a very different Boston — the dilapidated city that gave rise to the phenomenon of urban renewal — and can feel curiously dated today. “The BRA must go,” argues a piece in the current issue of Boston Magazine, pressing those running for mayor to get rid of the agency altogether.
That may or may not make a good campaign issue (I'm not persuaded debates over bureaucratic restructuring engage many voters), but a word of advice to those who would hold the office: Some reforms might be merited, but ceding away the mayor's power to control development would not only make a hash of your term, but might prove deeply hurtful to the city itself.
Granted, "redevelopment" is an anachronistic word and the failure to include "planning" in the BRA's name sends the wrong signal. So one easy reform is a title change: the Planning and Development Authority, perhaps. Another reform worth considering relates to the agency's funding. Right now, the authority both promotes and approves development, supporting itself from the revenues generated. That looks to be a conflict; some fear the BRA's interest in enriching its own coffers takes precedence over smart planning. Examples of that occurring are hard to find but still, in the world of politics, perception is critical.
The BRA was created by the Legislature in 1957 to try to spur development in a city that, like other cities across America, was dying. It spearheaded the razing of the West End, the creation of Government Center, and the development of the Prudential Center. Those projects did help revive Boston, but at a cost of unwarranted demolition, ugliness, and social upheaval. The blame for that lies more with the times than the BRA, however. Back then the conventional wisdom of planners and urban theorists boiled down to a belief that cities must be destroyed in order to be saved. Virtually no one subscribes to that view today.
The times may have changed but the BRA still has power, albeit with a bit of a wink and a nod. It is ostensibly independent of the city government, with its own board and a director, but in practice it reports to the mayor. That allows it to play two roles. Almost any development activity itself generates pushback. Change is hard, and resistance is strong, and the easiest thing for a politician to do is to cave to opponents. The BRA — under its guise of independence — provides cover to those who know development must occur but would prefer to avoid the political heat. On the other hand, if opposition is too strong, or if it appears that the direction of the authority is off kilter, it's relatively easy to get a decision reversed. Menino's done that many times, and the next mayor will undoubtedly have the same opportunities.
And if there were no BRA? Development would fragment and stall. NIMBYism would rule the city as opponents would find it ever easier to block things they didn't like. Absent a strong authority able to play developers off each other, projects would be piecemeal, disconnected from each other, and less in tune with the fabric of the neighborhoods in which they were located. Then too, with power dispersed, developers would reach out to influence local politicians and power brokers, trading favors and cutting deals for their approvals. At the same time, we'd probably get lots of pie-in-the-sky planning exercises, the kinds that sketch out wonderful alternatives that never materialize because the most important players — those who would actually pay for and build the projects — were not at the table.
Of course, for those who would like to see things remain as they are, all of this would be fine. Indeed, there's a term of art for their position. It's called the "1950s." That was the era of infighting, stagnation, and degeneration that created the conditions that gave us urban renewal in the first place. It's not an era to which Boston should return.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.