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BRA At Center Stage Ahead Of Walsh Transition

BOSTON — One of the first things you notice in Boston these days is all the construction — the cranes dotting the skyline, surrounded by swanky new glass buildings.

It’s clear the city is in the midst of a building boom. And the powerful hand guiding all this wealth is an agency some would say rules this city: the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

The BRA, as it’s called, controls planning, zoning and development. And, because of that concentration of power, the agency is often criticized for being unpredictable and opaque.

The city’s new mayor, Marty Walsh, campaigned on promises that he would reform the BRA, but that’s not easy; it’s an institution with a long, entrenched legacy.

The BRA, Past And Present

The BRA was established in 1957.

“Boston was a much different city [then]. It was called a sick city, and a hopeless backwater,” said Jim Vrabel, a Boston historian who wrote “When in Boston: A Timeline and Almanac.”

The solution, officials at the time thought, was urban renewal.

“And the BRA was put in place to implement urban renewal strategies designed to try and turn this city around,” Vrabel said.

Vrabel knows the BRA well; he was a researcher and editor at the agency for 16 years.

Since those days of urban renewal, the BRA’s focus has shifted, but it’s still just as powerful.

During outgoing Mayor Thomas Menino’s reign, the city added about 80 million square feet of new development. That’s 11 percent of Boston’s total square footage.

This year alone, 37 projects broke ground.

Some would say Menino built his legacy with construction cranes, but with all this building come complaints. Over the weekend, The Boston Globe reported that the BRA had spent less than a quarter of what it should have collected from developers on affordable housing.

The BRA told WBUR some developers created affordable housing units rather than contributing to a housing fund.

The struggle for more affordable housing in the face of new luxury condos hits close to home for Lydia Lowe, who works with the Chinese Progressive Association.

“A lot of development decisions get made behind closed doors without the community, you know, having a voice in making those decisions,” she said.

When speaking with WBUR, Lowe pointed out multiple high rises around Chinatown that she said the community did not want.

“We go to the community meetings, hundreds of people testify, we sign petitions, and everything that we say falls on deaf ears,” she said.

Lowe says the BRA needs to be more transparent.

And during the recent mayoral election, many candidates echoed her concerns.

During a forum in October, Walsh said he would “weed away” the BRA.

“Right now in Boston there’s a lot of construction going on and under those cranes we have a lot of residential units,” Walsh told an audience at Roxbury Community College. But, he then added, “We’re not creating business opportunities.”

Walsh promised to create a new organization called the Boston Economic Development Authority to replace the BRA.

His new agency would split planning and development. It would allow the City Council more oversight, and focus on job creation. It would also offer more predictability and transparency.

But some saw his proposal as a threat to the existing order. Rumors quickly started circulating that the mayor-elect wanted to “blow up” the BRA.

Walsh says those were not his words.

“We want to make sure that as people are doing development in Boston, particularly the bigger developments, there’s predictability and, on behalf of the community, transparency,” he said. “You know some of this stuff happens today on projects, but not across the board.”

Walsh said the approval process needs to be standardized so that both developers and neighbors know what to expect.

In recent weeks, media outlets reported that Walsh was backpedaling on his promise to reform the BRA, but the mayor-elect insists that’s not true.

Change, he said, just can’t happen immediately.

“The BRA is more of a long-term goal process, because, you know, we don’t want to stop or hurt any type of business development in Boston as we’re currently going on now,” he said. “We probably are going to need — very likely are going to need — a legislative change.”

And legislative changes take time. Walsh said initially he’ll keep the current BRA structure and appoint new board members to keep the organization up and running. And then by late spring he hopes to start his reforms, so that his new Boston Economic Development Authority will be a reality by the end of his first year.

Worries About Changes To The BRA

In the last few months, the BRA board has been meeting twice a month to rubber stamp projects before Mayor Menino leaves office. Current BRA director Peter Meade says he’s leaving with Menino on Jan. 6.)

The flurry to pass proposals before the end of the Menino administration is partly because developers are wary of change.

None of the many developers we contacted agreed to be interviewed on the record.

So instead we turned to David Begelfer, who leads the Commercial Real Estate Development Association in Massachusetts.

“I don’t think that the process is broken,” he said. “It has worked quite well for many people. It hasn’t worked well for all people.”

But Begelfer says the process could be streamlined, made more predictable, with different agencies coordinating efforts, so that development doesn’t seem so ad-hoc.

“I think there’s a lot of uncertainty and sometimes projects can take many, many years,” he said. “And that is not necessarily in the best interest of the developer, nor is it in the best interest of the city.”

But Begelfer does worry about one idea that came up during the campaign: more community involvement. He says the neighborhood process is already is too open-ended, with neighbors sometimes dictating the height and density of buildings, which he says should be the city’s job.

Business leaders and some city officials have expressed concern that the new mayor’s proposals might unintentionally slow down development.

“The city depends very heavily on the property tax for two-thirds of its operating revenue,” explained Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-backed watchdog agency that promotes more efficient government.

For Tyler, development is the lifeblood of city revenue.

“And, if it becomes too difficult or too time-consuming to be able to present a proposal and have it be approved and be able to start construction, the money will go to another city, it’s really that simple,” he said.

Walsh insists he doesn’t want to put the brakes on development.

“My intent is not to slow things down,” he said. “My intent is to continue. You know, I want to do economic growth in Boston. I think there are certain neighborhoods in the city that might not want certain developments, so that’s something where the transparency piece is going to come into play.”

Transparency is a word that came up frequently in conversations for this story. It’s an area nearly everyone agreed has room for improvement.

Historian Vrabel said the agency needs to realize it’s not operating in the Boston of the 1950s anymore, which means it doesn’t need to court developers; they’ll come here on their own.

“To me, the challenge for the BRA is to set the rules for growth,” he said. “To show people that growth is good. That there are ways that growth isn’t just about profits for developers and it’s not just about gentrification, but there are ways that growth can help people stay in their neighborhoods, that growth can help lift all boats.”

He said finding that balance is the challenge for the new mayor.

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  • Samuel Sitar

    modernizing existing buildings is part of that too.

  • CircusMcGurkus

    There is little worse than becoming active in one’s community, joining forces with neighbors, and seeking the best possible future together only to have every single comment, concern, and real data number ignored by the governing body to approve poor construction plans. Rather than seeking to halt development, often neighbors merely seek to make projects comply with (a) the BRA’s own master plan for the neighborhood and (b) the RFP that facilitated the sale to begin with.

    As one example, there is ZERO community support for Nuestra Comunidad’s plans for Bartlett Yards near Dudley Square (as an aside, the only “support” provided at the BRA was for the owner of Nuestra’s partner in the venture – and it was all personal support for him which is fine but irrelevant to the planned proposal which will mire Roxbury in poverty for decades to come if allowed to proceed no matter how upstanding one of the developers is – there was no support for the director of Nuestra itself which clearly holds the reins). Not only does Nuestra lack the finances, gravitas and ability to complete the construction plans, but they are starting with constructing (hideously ugly) rental units that by all accounts should be the LAST piece of the project (and attractive, not out of scale monstrosities as planned). Add to that the problem of soil contamination that the BRA did not address, the exceedingly high number of deed-restricted affordable units in an area deluged with deed-restricted affordable units, the ambiguous tenants for the projected commercial space despite voiced concerns about empty retail space in other projects run by this organization and the poor track record of this organization and there is a recipe for disaster that the BRA chose to approve regardless.

    Just as they did in Chinatown, Roxbury community members wrote letters in opposition (not to ANY construction but the the specific – though still vague – plans provided to the community), stood up in opposition at the BRA, sent petitions, showed up in opposition for the zoning piece but were told that it would not go that day and then there was NO NOTICE about the actual zoning board “approval” so were denied any voice at all. Members of Roxbury even offered to meet with Nuestra to work on improving the planned design and structure – everything from aesthetics to financing to determining the proper number of affordable units and the roll out of the home ownership piece to developing sustainable tenants for the retail spaces – as well as to address concerns about the fact that this is a brownfield site with inadequate funding now held by the organization to clean it fully prior to building any housing. All for naught.

    The BRA could not care less about what we had to say and Nuestra does not have any concerns about what we have to say. Yet they will rely nearly 100% on public funds or matches to public grants in order to put a shovel in the ground. That is, they want our tax dollars to destroy our neighborhood and the BRA is fine with that. Our elected officials can be a final bulwark by denying federal or state funds and/or by denying tax breaks – they would do this if they felt their seat were in jeopardy or if they were prepared to demonstrate the Constitution’s wisdom in providing them with the power of the purse (hint; to tax fairly and finance appropriate plans). How this – or any other similar – project can EVER receive ANY public funding is beyond comprehension.

    The BRA needs to be overhauled. Regular people need a voice NOT to halt development but to ensure a Boston where everyone is welcome and no one gets left behind. Any improvements to the BRA MUST include critical thinkers, progressive advocates and fearless leaders in order to plan and develop and build a Boston where people are welcome to live, play, work and visit.

  • The Roadster

    Collectivists attack individuals by claiming that they are greedy while asserting that collectivists are somehow solely altruistic.

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