By Seth Daniel
When Urban Renewal first came to Charlestown, it was the 1960s and plans had begun to form and agreements had been made to redevelop the aging neighborhood.
Many of the things one sees today are a product of Urban Renewal in the Town – things like the Newtown development and the Harvard-Kent School. Those things are quite obvious, but a number of other things – known as Land Development Agreements (LDAs) are unseen and in many cases unknown to anyone currently working at the agency. They can be as important as affordable housing covenants or as mundane as maintaining backyards on homes, but they exist and can often be unknown until it comes time to take action on a property.
In many cases, property owners don’t even know their homes are under an LDA, and that could cause problems for them if they were to redevelop, sell or buy land in the Town.
That’s all about to change courtesy of some extremely diligent and hard work being conducted right now by a team of Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) staffers that for more than a year have been combing through old files, records, Registry documents and anything else that could be helpful.
“Unfortunately, Urban Renewal became a part of the BPDA long before computers,” said Allyson Quinn of the BPDA, one of the staffers charged with identifying LDAs. “There was no central database where the information was stored on all these agreements. For the past year and a half, we’ve been trying to find out everything we can about Urban Renewal. We’ve looked through employee files, boxes, Registry documents, Unindexed property, deeds and anything we can get our hands on and lining that up with our own records to understand what we do and don’t know about these restrictions.
“It’s like a puzzle with half the pieces upside down and some missing and some are stuck to the glue on your hands – and when you try to put it all together, it gets jumbled,” she continued.
Sonal Gandhi, a BPDA staffer who is also working on the project, said the project is labor intensive, but a clear priority for the agency and Mayor Martin Walsh.
“Our hope is to have Charlestown wrapped up later in the year,” she said. “The problem is we don’t know what we don’t know so that makes it really hard to put a timeline on it…It is extremely important to get this right or as much as we can get it right. This is a priority for the agency, the director and the mayor…We want to get this done in a quick and efficient manner.”
As part of the last Urban Renewal certification in 2016, the BPDA promised to catalog as many LDAs as they could find in all of the Urban Renewal Districts. Charlestown and the South End are the two neighborhoods with the most daunting amounts of LDAs, both known and unknown, because they contained the most government-owned land. LDAs were granted during Urban Renewal on deeds to many different kinds of properties, with stipulations tied to the property – often forever – on things like affordable housing, open space, maintaining backyards and educational uses.
Already, the BPDA has completed a cataloguing of the South End, and last month they moved full on into Charlestown to look at all the parcels there – excluding the Navy Yard, which is a special type of district.
In Charlestown, Quinn said they’ve found 105 LDAs since starting last month. In addition to the staffers, they have a legal intern who is completely devoted to investigating the deeds in the Town for any restrictions and agreements.
Most of what they’re finding in Charlestown is stipulations for backyard open space, or affordable housing requirements.
“A lot of the main stuff in Charlestown is open space,” said Quinn. “A lot of them are requirements for single-family homes. There was an Urban Renewal plan to create more of the suburban landscape there…A lot of the LDAs represent a single-family home requirement because of that. I wouldn’t necessarily say that now addresses the needs, but it does represent the spirit of what Charlestown aspired to be when the plan was created.”
A potential problem with the LDAs that are being found come within that same old suburban aspiration, where – for example – on Short Street LDAs exist that require backyards to remain for open space in a suburban type setup. However, with the population in Charlestown increasing and density being the preference now, those LDAs could get in the way of necessary and desirable housing expansions or construction.
In those cases, amendments could be made to the agreements, she said, but the first step in that direction is finding them all.
Another situation is that often projects on Urban Renewal parcels line up with the LDA, but don’t line up with the Zoning Code. That is another aspect they’re investigating as they search, she said.
In the end, however, the goal is to have all of the agreements and restrictions they have found catalogued electronically and included in the City’s assessing database. The intention is to have a separate section on that site that would list any urban renewal agreements contained on any parcel in the City – linked to a database hosted on the BPDA website.
With that in place, Quinn and Gandhi said the new data would be useful not only to the BPDA, but also to the public – and especially any buyers or sellers.
“The last thing anyone wants to do is find they have something attached to the deed when they’re about to sign and purchase and sale agreement,” Quinn said. “If we can be helpful to people who work and live in the City, then we want to be able to bring them more access to this information.”