BOSTON — It is difficult to overstate the role of the Boston Redevelopment Authority in the modern history of the city.
Its name suggests a staid, obscure bureaucracy. But the agency, birthed during the urban renewal push of the 1950s and endowed with considerable power, has had a profound and often controversial impact on the city’s topography.
It razed the West End. It coaxed construction of the Prudential Center. More recently, it has played a vital role in shaping the South Boston waterfront — a raging success by some lights and a soulless expanse by others.
For a certain class of civic leader, then — politician, developer, neighborhood activist — the fate of the agency is a matter of great import.
So while issues like education and public safety grab headlines in the city’s most competitive mayor’s race in a generation, the future of the BRA — and of Boston development, writ large — has quietly emerged as a significant issue in the forums and living room meet-and-greets that have dominated the early stages of the campaign.
There is agreement in some areas: all of the major candidates in the 12-person field have called for greater transparency at an agency often criticized for favoring the mayor’s preferred developers.
But City Councilor Felix Arroyo and Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative Executive Director John Barros have gone a step further: calling for a significant restructuring of the BRA.
In most cities, planning and development are handled by separate agencies with sometimes competing priorities; there is a natural tension between the long-range work of planning and the urgency of getting projects in the ground.
The BRA owes its power, in no small part, to a state law giving it authority in both realms. And the agency, critics say, too often short-circuits the process — building first and planning later.
The result, they say, is an ad hoc approach that’s yielded characterless towers in the Seaport District and an overabundance of luxury housing in Chinatown.
“It is such a good idea to include both planning and development in the same agency,” said Arroyo, at a recent forum in Brighton, “that no other city in the country does it.”
Arroyo and Barros say they would push for a state law stripping the BRA of its planning authority and shifting that power to a separate agency. Both argue the move would help the city engage in thoughtful comprehensive planning — and, in the process, give residents a better chance to shape their own neighborhoods.
“We need to create a more inclusive planning process in Boston so residents feel they have a seat at the table and their voice counts,” said Barros.
Other candidates have spoken more tentatively of separating the planning and development functions.
Construction executive and community activist Bill Walczak told WBUR he’s “open to the idea of splitting the BRA into two pieces” but has not yet decided if the agency’s shortcomings are a structural issue or simply a matter of leadership.
City Councilor John Connolly said the city needs to “remove the conflict of interest” that comes with integrated planning and development. But he said it’s not clear that planning must be removed from the BRA entirely.
Other mayoral candidates are skeptical of the reformist impulse — and none more than City Councilor Rob Consalvo.
“The city is at its highest standing in its history, right?” he said in a recent interview. “We have cranes all over the city dotting the skyline…So I’m confused as to what is so bad that [the BRA] is doing.”
And splitting the planning and development functions would be of little consequence, he argued, since both will remain under the auspices of the mayor.
“What does that accomplish?” Consalvo asked. “It’s going to be more transparent because you took [the planning function] off the ninth floor and put it on the seventh floor?”
Like Consalvo, Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley, state Rep. Marty Walsh and City Councilor Mike Ross say no structural change is required to improve the BRA. “It’s very simple: you need to plan first and build second,” said Ross. “It’s not about creating additional bureaucracies.”
BRA’s emergence as a power center traces back to 1960, when Mayor John Collins recruited city planner Ed Logue to take over the new agency.
Logue’s condition for taking the job: a state law that folded the city’s planning agency into the BRA, giving him broad powers.
He quickly made use of them, putting one-quarter of the city’s land in urban renewal districts and building Government Center and City Hall on the rubble of the old Scollay Square.
When urban renewal fell out of vogue, the agency took up its modern-day role of reviewing proposed development and serving as landlord — renting and selling city-owned property.
The BRA, which declined to comment for this story, has always been a reflection of the mayor’s personality and vision. Under Kevin White, downtown took precedence. Ray Flynn pushed more control to the neighborhoods.
Larry DiCara, a lawyer and former city councilor who has represented developers before the BRA, said it’s been a balance under outgoing Mayor Thomas Menino.
“But it’s a perilous balance,” he said, “because XYZ company can take their money and go to Atlanta or Houston or even Washington, D.C., and get stuff done much more quickly than they can in Boston.”
Decentralizing power and slowing down the process even further, DiCara argued, will make Boston less competitive in an increasingly competitive national and international marketplace.
Fred Salvucci, who began his career at the BRA and went on to serve as transportation adviser to White and secretary of transportation under Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, also cautioned against a shakeup at the agency.
Good development, he said, requires sound political judgment — a mayor who can fend off neighborhood NIMBYism where appropriate and incorporate local concerns when called for.
A faceless planning board, he argued, is not nearly as accountable as a mayor elected every four years. “It’s an imperfect world,” he said, “and I’d rather take my chances with democracy.”
Even the most critical mayoral candidates say they’ve seen the BRA work well in their backyards. Barros points to the agency’s record in the Dudley Street section of Roxbury. And Ross lauds the planning process in the Fenway, part of his council district.
There will be outside pressure on the new mayor, moreover, to keep the BRA strong. David Begelfer, CEO of Massachusetts NAIOP, an influential commercial real estate trade group, argued that the agency is not powerful enough.
Too often, he said, developers come to an agreement with the BRA only to be knocked about by a parks department demanding more green space or neighborhood groups that can delay a project endlessly.
But it is precisely that order of operations — win approval and then go the neighborhood — that angers critics of Boston’s development process.
Shirley Kressel, an urban designer and longtime critic of the BRA, said the agency needs to be eliminated altogether — “extirpated,” in her words. But she doubts that the new mayor, whoever it is, will push even incremental reform.
The power the agency affords the man or woman in the corner office, she says, is simply too great.
“You can have breakfast with a developer, promise him whatever the hell he wants and go out and make it legal,” she said. “It’s like a miracle, enough to make you religious.”