Opinion

DANTE RAMOS

Urban renewal? BRA debate goes retro

The Boston Public Market opened in July.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff

The Boston Public Market opened in July.

If Brian Golden and Corey Zehngebot were selling the exact same policy under any name but “urban renewal,” they’d make more headway among Boston’s wary grass-roots activists, who remember what that phrase used to mean.

Golden is director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the muscular agency that’s been reshaping the city’s physical form for more than a half-century. Zehngebot is an architect and urban designer; she’s also leading the BRA’s push for a 10-year extension of its urban renewal programs, most of which expire next April. These are the same mechanisms by which the agency bulldozed a supposedly blighted West End, beginning in the late 1950s, and replaced it with sterile buildings and parking lots.

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For reasons that I’ll get to, Golden and Zehngebot deserve the benefit of the doubt now. Still, there’s something bizarre and retro about the entire discussion.

The state’s urban renewal law gives the BRA, and similar agencies in other municipalities, the ability to declare certain areas as blighted, to assemble potential development sites through eminent domain, and to clear the titles of parcels with murky histories. To city planners, these are highly useful powers.

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Still, private developers and neighborhood leaders alike roll their eyes at the very phrase “urban renewal,” which has come to connote inflexible top-down development schemes. Yesterday’s blighted area is today’s ideal of density and walkability, and the ghosts of the West End haunt the BRA now.

Located across the street from a federal office building and not far from the area’s last surviving tenement, the West End Museum is a monument to bygone BRA officials’ high-handedness. At an event there late last month, Golden made a formal apology for what his predecessors did to the neighborhood. Meanwhile, Zehngebot and BRA staffers had put together a small exhibit that admits to past excesses but also seeks to rebrand urban renewal as a force for greater vibrancy and resiliency.

At public meetings, Zehngebot stresses that past urban renewal programs were fueled by a stream of federal money that dried up long ago. She points to recent projects such as the Boston Public Market and the Bruce G. Bolling Municipal Building, the city’s savvy reincarnation of the former Ferdinand department store in Roxbury, as evidence of a more enlightened use of BRA prerogatives.

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Yet the agency can’t shake its old image as “a mega-monster real estate development company,” as an audience member at a BRA forum Monday memorably called it. Boston’s official roster of urban renewal zones dates mostly to the ’60s. As if frozen in amber, it includes the gentrified South End, while excluding areas of Mattapan and Dorchester that need more public and private investment.

The proposed 10-year extension would require the approval of a skeptical City Council, and it presents a dilemma for Mayor Marty Walsh, who’s committed to a fresh master plan for Boston and has called for a more straightforward approach to development in the city.

Veteran BRA watcher Shirley Kressel argues that the agency’s vast behind-the-scenes powers, and the complexity of many decisions it makes, can conceal huge favors for the well-connected. She’s right. The BRA audits that Walsh ordered upon taking office last year weren’t just a PR move; the agency wasn’t keeping track of lease fees, deed restrictions, and other concessions it had extracted from developers.

The audits implicitly repudiated former mayor Tom Menino’s hyper-interventionist, case-by-case approach to development. Ironically, urban renewal’s main selling point now is that it gives the city discretionary tools to promote projects that the standard rules wouldn’t permit.

For better or worse, though, urban renewal has become marbled into how the BRA operates. Boston is at the height of the most active development cycle in decades — a cycle that’s created opportunities to build out whole new areas of the city. Suddenly hemming in the BRA’s authority, after all these years, could prove highly disruptive.

“This day of reckoning for urban renewal was always coming,” Golden says in an interview. But he also cites the Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm.”

The agency could help its cause by seeking a shorter extension. While Walsh needs time to reorganize the BRA, and the agency needs time to assess whether an old state law meets current needs, Boston residents also need a stronger signal that the city won’t keep extending the existing policy decade after decade.

Private developers and neighborhood leaders alike roll their eyes at the very phrase ‘urban renewal.’

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Still, is the BRA nefarious, or is it just an unwieldy bureaucracy that’s still adapting to a smaller role in city life? Is the greater danger that the BRA will prey on unsuspecting neighborhoods — or that, by throwing the development process into confusion at a time of historically low interest rates, a city with a chronic housing shortage will miss out on chances to create more living space?

Boston, and the BRA, learned from the West End tragedy. Old laws deserve new scrutiny, but so do old fears.

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.
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