To be or not to BRA: Is that the question?
Peter M. O’Connor examines some of the key issues surrounding the BRA
During the mayoral primary, the future of the Boston Redevelopment Authority emerged as a hot topic, and rightly so, as the BRA touches on our lives in so many ways. People love to hate the BRA, and it’s been that way almost since its inception. And while there’s a long history of the BRA behaving in ways that leave a bad taste in the mouths of at least some people, it has also come light years in that regard. I don’t think anyone believes that something like the bulldozing of the West End, for example, could ever happen today. Still, the issue seems to have become whether or not to “blow up the BRA.” What follows is a look at some of the key issues surrounding the BRA.
Transparency is not just a problem at the BRA, and this is why we have public process, public board meetings, and a Public Records Law, for instance. Still, a government agency’s staff can play fast and loose with the rules if determined to do so, and the public knows it. This is not just a problem for the BRA, it is a problem throughout government, which requires vigilance on the part of the citizens that the government serves, and on the part its leaders. But, as has been suggested, “blowing up the BRA” would not necessarily mean that development decisions will thereafter be more open and transparent. Without a board of directors meeting publicly and overseeing BRA staff, it is actually more likely, not less so, that important decisions will be made outside the public view.
The BRA might also pursue a public education initiative. They do from time to time put out brochures and pamphlets explaining the planning and development review process, but maybe a public information campaign in other forms, such as videos on its web site and presentations at neighborhood association meetings would help people get more comfortable with the process. I can hear the groaning on the ninth floor of City Hall now, and it would be a lot of extra work, but some steps like this might just restore confidence on the part of some of the skeptics.
Politics is how we choose our leaders, and there have been, and will to some extent always be, politics in the administration of government – both party politics and petty politics. The BRA was set up, in part, precisely to protect against the intrusion of politics, as much as anything can, into the planning and development process. How, then, does the demise of the BRA, with a board of directors meeting publicly (with one of the 5 members appointed by the governor and not the mayor), address the concern that a mayor can insert politics into the process?
Perhaps one step that might increase people’s confidence about who is benefitting from BRA decisions is to have the BRA compile a report quarterly, or twice a year, of the contracts awarded, developer designations made, and properties leased or sold, explaining who the individuals are who have benefitted. Much of this information is required in the form of a so-called “40J” filing by law anyway, but compiling the data and making it easily available to the public, on the BRA website for instance, would demonstrate to the public that the BRA is not hiding information from them. If some people feel there is favoritism or behind the scenes sweetheart deal-making going on, the information would all be there to connect the dots.
PLANNING AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT UNDER ONE ROOF
Skeptics argue that planning should be removed from the BRA and put under the direct control of the mayor. But on further inspection, this is counterintuitive. Of course every city needs a master plan, or a general vision, of what is appropriate for where. Otherwise you become Houston. But the developments that happen in Boston and other major cities are complicated. Housing, office, and retail markets are changing all the time – as are the financial markets that fund them – and don’t necessarily line up precisely with what a city planner may have envisioned, often many years before. Developers, their financiers, and investors can’t, and won’t, act in accordance with a plan that doesn’t align with market conditions. Furthermore, each proposed development doesn’t take place in a vacuum, it occurs in an urban environment that is dynamic and looks different today than it did yesterday.
Why then, would you not want the planners at the table when a new development is being proposed? The fact that the planners and the project review staff at the BRA sit on opposite ends of the hallway is bad enough. If they were not on the same floor, reporting to the same director, it would be an enormous bureaucratic project to get them to cooperate. If, as I’ve heard it described, “planning without development is an academic exercise, but development without planning is a disaster,” then it is not only an advantage, but practically a requirement, that the two disciplines reside, and work, together.
Even the BRA’s worst critics must grudgingly acknowledge the active construction sites from Downtown Crossing to the Fenway, from the South Boston waterfront to the Bulfinch Triangle. Other cities of Boston’s size would fall all over themselves to be in our position in that regard. Which is not to say that there are not a myriad of development issues to be addressed, among them: the negative effects of gentrification, the need for more affordable housing, how to finance needed investment in public transit and other infrastructure to support a densely populated city, and how to encourage investment in other neighborhoods that have not yet benefited.
How true the accusations that have been made against the BRA are is almost not as important as the fact that there are citizens, perhaps even the candidates themselves, who believe them. If a governmental function is perceived by the public to be flawed, that is as much a problem as the actual flaw itself, and has to be addressed to maintain the public’s confidence. The suggestions I’ve made in that regard are hardly panaceas, but could be a few small steps toward that goal.
Ensuring the transparency, legitimacy and effectiveness of the planning and development process has been an on-going challenge for past administrations, and will be again for the next. But let us not be distracted by what seems like the easy fix of “blowing up the BRA.”To be, or not to BRA. That is not really the question.
Peter O’Connor is a real estate and economic development lawyer in Boston and a former deputy secretary of MassDOT and former general counsel of the BRA/EDIC. He can be reached at email@example.com.