Urban Renewal Meeting Will Be About Listening, Talking about Results

Saving the best for last, the long-awaited Charlestown Urban Renewal review meeting has been scheduled for Feb. 27, and will be led by Charlestown’s Chris Breen – who has been conducting Urban Renewal meetings all over the city for the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) during the past year.

The exercise is to evaluate Urban Renewal in preparation for the expiration of the current extension, which was granted in 2016 and will run out in 2022.

Two of the most complicated areas for Urban Renewal are Charlestown and the South End, as they have so much Urban Renewal projects and land restrictions. With that in mind, they have been saved primarily for the last go-around before a final report is submitted to the City Council and the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).

In Charlestown, the history of Urban Renewal is a complicated one, and one that has been told through the lens of many eyes and perspectives – those who lost their properties, those who had to move and those who found some improvement in the end.

Breen said the discussion about Urban Renewal in Charlestown is one that ended up being a victory for everyone in the end – a learning experience, he said.

“The situation in Charlestown effectively changed how the agency was run in terms of listening to residents and looking towards improvements,” he said. “We’ll look at how Charlestown was affected by Urban Renewal and how Charlestown affected Urban Renewal…The hardest part of Urban Renewal is the word Urban Renewal. If you look at the tools, they just help people develop property that could be difficult to develop.”

Breen said the history of Urban Renewal in Charlestown is one that needs to be told through this process. He said the original plan in 1960 was not well received. It was a plan presented by the former Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) that included demolishing about three-fourths of the Town. Residents fought hard against it over several years and defeated the plan in the end. In 1965, a new plan was presented that Breen said focused more on the input from residents.

“A lot of what was in the plan were things the neighborhood fought for and represented a change for the BRA,” he said. “It’s a story that needs to be told. Former Mayor Collins said Charlestown got the best deal regarding Urban Renewal or any neighborhood because they fought for what they wanted.”

Some of the positives that Breen said they will discuss are the amenities from Urban Renewal such as schools like the Harvard Kent, the parks like Eden Street, the Charlestown Community Center, Gardens for Charlestown and the Bunker Hill Community College.

Even Breen’s own family story includes how his grandfather lost his home to Urban Renewal – a very painful process for many in the Town – but ended up being able to secure a federal loan through Urban Renewal to buy the family home where Breen grew up.

That will also be presented alongside the time-intensive work that has been done over the last few years to catalog more then 300 Land Disposition Agreements (LDAs). Searching old deeds and records, they have been able to include all of the LDAs, no matter how small, in the City’s digital zoning viewer. Already, he said, they have enforced a little-known LDA for open space that was to be developed by right.

“There has been a situation in Charlestown where someone appeared to be able to build by right on a parcel, but there was an unknown LDA for parking or open space only,” he said. “Many residents came out and wanted to keep it, so we enforced the LDA. There are so many properties that have LDAs that go beyond the zoning code. We’ve identified them all now, and have them publicly accessible on the zoning viewer.”

The bottom line for most who attend the meeting will be whether or not the BPDA wants to keep Urban Renewal in place for Charlestown – a question that is controversial to many on both sides of the issue.

Breen said the agency is leaning towards that recommendation, but the key will be hearing from the community.

“We’re listening to what residents want first, but (extending) is something we’re seriously considering,” he said.

The Charlestown Urban Renewal meeting will take place on Thursday, Feb. 27, in the Knights of Columbus Father Mahoney Hall, 6 p.m.

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