Council Questions Content of BRA Urban Renewal Extension Plan

February 12, 2016
By

By Jordan Frias

After a year of community outreach, public meetings and public engagement, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) appeared before the City Council’s Committee on Planning and Development on Tuesday, Feb. 9, to discuss urban renewal.

Urban renewal has been a contentious subject for residents, and neighborhood groups. At last week’s Charlestown Neighborhood Council meeting, members voted unanimously to ask that the BRA be dissolved. According to Corey Zehngebot, senior urban designer and architect for the BRA, while there has been negative comments during the yearlong process “the amount of support was overwhelmingly positive.”

The BRA board of directors recently approved a proposal to extend the use of urban renewal for another 10 years. The City Council will be asked to vote on the extension by April, before the current urban renewal agreement expires, which will then need approval from Mayor Martin Walsh and the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).

On Tuesday, City councilors questioned the agency about the necessity of urban renewal on behalf of their constituents who were not convinced.

“The Fenway and downtown seems pretty renewed and I hear regularly that there’s active development going on in these areas and people are generally happy about it,” Councilor Josh Zakim told the BRA.

BRA Director Brian Golden said “even the most affluent and desirable parcels” have a troubled history that could be better addressed by urban renewal.

Zakim made reference to a West End project that was tabled in January, then approved by the BRA board despite major public opposition from residents.

The project would allow Equity Residential to construct a 44-story luxury condominium building at the Garden Garage site.

Council President Michelle Wu also brought up the issue of trust from residents after acknowledging the BRA’s efforts to be more transparent about urban renewal during its yearlong outreach campaign.

“This was indeed a very, very through process,” she said, “but the crux of my concern is after listening to residents, the plan essentially remains unchanged.”

City Councilor-At-Large Ayanna Pressley said the issues of trust and equity give her great pause since areas like Mattapan, which could arguably benefit from urban renewal, are not included in the plan. This was echoed by Councilor Andrea Campbell, who represents Dorchester and Mattapan.

Zehngebot said that the agency is proposing a two-year action plan to accompany the 10-year extension that will address those issues and will allow for better explanation of how urban renewal is different than it was decades ago.

Councilor Tito Jackson challenged the BRA on its need to hold on to its urban renewal powers and asked for specifics on what the BRA could do that the City could not in regards to clearing land titles and eminent domain.

“Many of these powers should be moved over to us,” he said. “Why couldn’t the city hire the same lawyers and consultant to do those things?”

The BRA will present its findings from the community outreach process, its 2-year action plan and the proposal for a 10 year extension at a future meeting.