Photo by Chris Faraone
Last Thursday, Boston City Councilors heard arguments from honchos with the Boston Redevelopment Authority who are pushing for a 10-year extension of the agency’s urban renewal powers. Those powers allow the BRA to develop land that it considers “blighted” and to employ eminent domain authority in seizing privately owned lots.
In his attempt to renew urban renewal in Boston, BRA Director Brian Golden faced opposition from Councilors Michelle Wu, Tito Jackson, Ayanna Pressley, and Josh Zakim, all of whom criticized the agency on a number of fronts. Gripes included the fact that the BRA does not have a comprehensive list of all of its properties. Despite controlling millions of square feet of land, there is no database through which officials and the public can identify exact coordinates and other pertinent details. Building such a database could take years. Councilor Jackson came down especially hard on the BRA for this enormous oversight during Thursday’s hearing.
“I think therein lies an issue relative to efficiency of the agency,” Jackson said. “We’re saying we give the planning and development functions of the city of Boston [to] an agency where it’s going take two years to get paperwork in order that we knew needed to be in order for [the City Council] to make a decision.”
Rest assured, BRA lawyers say the paperwork is in order—it’s just not digitized or in any way ready for any kind of analysis. In 2016!
Jackson went on to acknowledge how some of the fastest developments around the city are happening outside of urban renewal, like in the Seaport and East Boston. In her turn, Councilor Pressley pointed out that Eastie and the South End are experiencing rapid development without the involvement of the BRA’s urban renewal powers. So what gives?
BRA Director Golden seems to have made earnest efforts to listen to community voices, and he’s proposing a closer relationship between the BRA and City Council. During his short reign, he has already pitched promising proposals to make the BRA a more accountable and transparent body. But in the long and fraught history of the troubled authority—and considering that other cities dismantled their urban renewal outfits decades ago—Golden’s outreach may be too little, too late.
Moreover, it might be time to ask ourselves—and I believe some members of the Council are doing this—do we need the BRA or urban renewal for the city to reap the benefits of large-scale, complex development projects? The answer is tied up in what powers the city has to take land and give it to private interests, something that is unique to the BRA. But Boston, and urban areas throughout the country, are experiencing a complete reversal of the flight to the suburbs, which was the climate under which urban renewal was developed in the first place.
With everyone from college graduates to empty nesters competing for increasingly limited housing stock, the economic and development climate in Boston is completely unrecognizable to that of the 1950s when the BRA was conceived. Why, then, are we looking to retrofit this organization rather than dreaming up something entirely different, something more appropriate, lean, and, dare I say, innovative?
Perhaps that’s too extreme a change to pull off fast enough to catch this moment of development and to impact the current squeeze in the housing market. Maybe it’s even too late. But if the BRA’s urban renewal powers are extended, the agency heads need to look at how they can not only do what they’ve always done much better and with more transparency, but also what they can do to ensure that Boston’s low- to middle-income populations aren’t all driven out before Boston wises up.