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Boston Planning And Development Agency Would Dissolve Under Wu Proposal

Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, in a 2016 file photo (Elise Amendola/AP)
Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, in a 2016 file photo (Elise Amendola/AP)

Boston would overhaul its zoning code and dissolve the powerful Boston Planning and Development Agency under a sweeping proposal that City Councilor Michelle Wu unveiled Monday.

Wu's 54-page proposal comes as former BPDA official John Lynch awaits sentencing after pleading guilty to accepting a $50,000 bribe. In an interview, Wu said she had concluded that dramatic changes to Boston's real estate development system were necessary before Lynch was charged in August.

"The corruption case is more a symptom of what's wrong than the problem that we need to fix," she said.

Lynch has pleaded guilty to taking money from a real estate developer in exchange for influencing the vote of a Zoning Board of Appeals member. Federal prosecutors say the developer needed a zoning waiver to reap a $500,000 profit.

As Wu sees it, Boston's outdated zoning code invites abuses of power because far too many projects require waivers. The current system unfairly favors experienced and well-connected developers who know how to navigate bureaucracy, she contends.

An updated zoning code that allows more projects to qualify for permits without waivers would speed development and be more equitable, Wu says.

She argues that the BPDA, previously known as the Boston Redevelopment Authority, is a relic of the 1950s that has contributed to making the city unaffordable for many longtime residents by promoting new construction in neighborhoods that it considers blighted.

Wu also says the BPDA enjoys too much autonomy. As of 2015, it owned about 500 properties totaling 16 million to 18 million square feet, according to a review conducted by McKinsey & Co. consultants. The agency can make decisions about those properties without City Council oversight.

"We need to abolish the BPDA; we need to move away from a system of development where the process is based on special approvals and exceptions and one-off negotiations and instead empower communities to be part of planning a city that is actually livable for everyone," she said.

Wu's proposal calls for the city to reestablish a planning board, which has not existed since 1960. The board would oversee a master plan that is more detailed than the Imagine Boston 2030 plan that Mayor Marty Walsh's administration unveiled two years ago.

The planning board would assume some responsibilities of the BPDA, making it an important government body. Wu said she is open to appointed or elected board members.

Wu's proposal could face political obstacles. Because the BPDA was created by state law, dissolving the agency would require a home-rule petition approved by the Legislature. And Walsh might not support such a petition.

Walsh campaigned in 2013 on reforming the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and the agency has realized some of his goals under its current name, the Boston Planning and Development Agency.

"Today, we have an agency that, for the first time, uses community engagement to guide growth that is inclusive and respects the history of each of our unique neighborhoods," Walsh said in a statement Monday.

The mayor's contention that the BPDA is moving in the right direction suggests he may oppose scrapping the agency altogether, though a Walsh spokeswoman said he is still reviewing Wu's proposal.

Wu, a Democrat, is seeking reelection next month and is viewed by some political observers as a potential challenger to Walsh in 2021.

In a statement, BPDA Director Brian Golden conceded that "there is still more work to do" at his agency but said he is "proud of the progress that has been made to not only improve the development and planning process within the agency but modernize outdated operational functions internally and externally."

"Proposing to abolish the BPDA ignores the reality of the present-day, community-based planning agency, and discredits the hard-working staff who are in our neighborhoods every single day, engaging residents on how we prepare for Boston's future," Golden said.

Wu's proposal could face opposition from developers, too. Greg Vasil, president of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, said "it's always good for government to look at itself and critique itself" but added that he disagrees with Wu's dim view of development trends such as gentrification.

"Do people think that the way the city looks today is bad? I mean, that's my question," Vasil said. "I think the development that we have, in some ways, has been great for Boston. It means jobs. It means economic prosperity."

Related:

Callum Borchers Twitter Reporter
Callum covers the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.

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