In a meeting that packed the South End’s Union United Church on Monday with residents from all over the city, Councilor Michelle Wu presented a bold, 75-page plan to abolish the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) – formerly the Boston Redevelopment Agency (BRA).
The meeting came together quickly, within about three days, and the report was released earlier on Monday. However, the movement she is tapping into goes back decades and generations as Bostonians old and new have expressed frustrations with the agency – particularly in the last few years as the Urban Renewal process is supposedly winding down. For Wu, the plan came out of that Urban Renewal process whereby the Council granted the six additional years, and she has been chairing meetings with the BPDA on how that extension process is winding down – or not.
A recent report by the BPDA and submitted to the state, followed up by a meeting with Wu and the Council, seemed to suggest that many Urban Renewal Areas – including Charlestown and the South End (the two largest) – would not conclude by end of the six-year extension.
It seemed to be the last straw for Wu.
“Those extraordinary powers granted to them came with an expiration date of 40 years,” she told the crowd. “They expected 40 years would be a significant amount of time to exercise their program…What happened is when an entity is created, it’s hard to make it go away. We got to 2015 and they wanted another 10-year extension…In their most recent report, they’ve indicated the largest areas will not expire. The largest ones will likely seek an extension. The South End is the largest and Charlestown is the second largest.”
The meeting was met with applause at many steps for Wu’s presentation, which was done outside of her official City Council platform and paid for with campaign funds. Those in the audience came from Charlestown, the South End, South Boston, Dorchester, Hyde Park, Downtown and East Boston. Some Councilors, like Michael Flaherty, were there in support – with him being a long-time advocate of abolishing the BPDA in favor of a stand-alone public planning department.
The meeting was, Wu said, the beginning of a dialog to abolish the BPDA and have the public begin to talk about what should replace it. “This is nowhere near the stage of having a piece of legislation or a document to put up for a vote or approval or even a hearing,” she said.
“This is about reporting back what I’ve learned in an attempt to start a process that will hopefully model what should replace the BPDA. It would be an iterative, inclusive, community-driven process. It really is left up to you all to shape what that is and what the processes would be to make sure everyone has a say in building this new organization.”
But not everyone – particularly some in the Boston delegation at the State House and at the BPDA – prefer her idea.
State Rep. Dan Ryan said the report painted the City as a terrible place, and he said the important land covenants being worked out in the larger areas like Charlestown and the South End are important to preserve.
“Until I began reading Councilor Michelle Wu’s report on abolishing the BPDA, I did not realize Boston was such a dire place to live and work,” he said. “This document certainly didn’t come out of the Committee on Travel and Tourism. I have a legislative obligation to maintain the hundreds, if not thousands, of affordable apartments and amenities created through BPDA land disposition agreements, deeds and other contracts. This is why I testified to grant the Urban Renewal extension four years ago. Mishawum, Newtowne – all of our elderly housing – could be in jeopardy if the right agreements are not in place to protect these units.”
Likewise, the BPDA and Mayor Walsh responded to the meeting by touting the changes and accomplishments at the Agency since they took over.
Director Brian Golden said since 2014, the BPDA has created more than 100,000 jobs and more than 6,000 income-restricted units. They also created the 2017 Imagine Boston plan, which engaged 15,000 people.
“While there is still more work to do, I am 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,” he said. “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.”
Mayor Walsh said he had serious concerns about the BPDA when becoming mayor, but believes that a community-driven process has been instituted.
“When I first ran for Mayor, I had serious concerns about how decisions were made at the then-Boston Redevelopment Authority,” he said. “I immediately ordered an outside review of the BRA and put in place significant reforms to bring transparency, integrity and accountability to our development and planning processes across the city…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.”
But people at the meeting, and many in the public square, seem to be fed up with the Agency.
“I’ve lived in the South End for 54 years,” said Herb Hershfang. “I’ve seen firsthand what the BRA has done and none of it deserves commendation. They need to be abolished.”
Said Councilor Flaherty, “People are meeting-ed out. You could be out two or three nights a week on development. They take the bait that their input will shape a project and then they find out they just aren’t heard. They have given up. People have given up on this.”
Ellen Kitzis from the Charlestown Preservation Society said the recent Master Plan process with the BPDA has been frustrating, and another reason some other sort of planning agency should be considered.
“We’re in the early process of it, but the BPDA says they have no inkling of how to do a Master Plan,” she said. “They’ve said they don’t do Master Plans. They do strategic plans. It has been a frustrating situation. The process didn’t start well, and we’re in it now.”
That frustration wasn’t lost on Wu.
“It has so long been identified as something that is not serving Boston to the best that residents can be served,” she said. “In 1970, in 1983 and in 2013, the mayoral campaigns really included and focused on this as a point to want to change the structure, but what I hope my report highlights is explaining why it hasn’t happened.”
Wu said the first reason she found was because the City is so dependent on property tax – particularly commercial taxes. With 71 percent of last year’s revenues coming from the property tax, she said there is pressure to keep feeding the development pipeline for new revenues as the demand for City services increases.
Another key step, she said, is to begin to unwind the Agency by transferring its assets – the property it owns and the leases it holds – back to the City. That income stream could fund a group of planners who could then go out and really create Master Plans for the city.
“The BPDA holds assets and property, whether buildings with leases or garages or the Marine Industrial Park, the BPDA holds property in the city and off the City books,” she said. “It’s what funds their operations. Step one would be to transfer that property back to the City books and with Council oversight on the budget side. That would also create the revenues that would grow and transfer the planning staff to build out an infrastructure that leads to a Master Plan of all these issues.”
Finally, a key step for Wu, is to end Urban Renewal – the one thing that likely triggered her desire to present the report so publicly and with such a splash.
“If you look at a map, most of these URAs don’t line up with the places we are finding difficulty in jump-starting development or seeing revitalization,” she said. “And, many of the places where there is a lot of development aren’t covered by these areas. So, it’s really a mismatch of Boston’s needs today and the conditions that were put in place when this agency was created decades ago.”
Wu indicated there would be follow ups to the report, but for now, she has let it sink into the minds of folks all over the city.