Depoliticizing the development process in Boston

Right now, every project starts from scratch as a negotiation

CALLS TO ABOLISH the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) go back almost to its creation. City Councilor Michelle Wu is the latest to take up the quest to rid the city of one of its most hated bureaucracies (which many know by its former name, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, or BRA). Last year, she published something of a manifesto entitled “Fixing Boston’s Broken Development Process – Why and How to Abolish the BPDA.”

At 67 pages, it recounts many long-held grievances against the agency, dating to the era of urban renewal. While urban renewal was hardly an unqualified success, it is important to acknowledge that the conditions in Boston at that time were very different than today. Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen’s comprehensive new recounting of this period, Saving America’s Cities:  Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age, places urban renewal in the context of the panic that many community, government, and business leaders felt over the disinvestment and suburbanization that was then decimating the economic fortunes, and quality of life, of the citizens of Boston and cities nationwide.

But it was also during this time, nearly 60 years ago, that Boston last adopted a comprehensive city plan, and a zoning code with development standards to carry out a city plan. In 2017, the BPDA did publish a document bravely entitled “Imagine Boston 2030, A Plan for the Future of Boston.” Self-congratulatory in its recounting of the many public meetings that informed its creation, it has not, however, resulted in any significant rewriting of the zoning code to govern the development of the city, even in the rather vague image described in this “plan.”

Wu identifies the lack of any real comprehensive city planning since 1965 as being at the core of a development process that is “broken” – unpredictable, incoherent, inconsistent, and unfair. And fixing it will require more than abolishing the agency that oversees that process.

The Wu document calls for a zoning code that is more explicit about what development is permitted, and what is left to discretion. In Boston, every large development proposal is reviewed under a process managed by a community advisory committee, whose members are appointed by the mayor. Essentially, each one of the projects approved this way adopts a city plan and a zoning code specific to the project’s site. This review is also the point where different community groups attempt to squeeze public amenities out of the developer in exchange for their support. It is by its very nature a political process, where the characteristics of each large development are arrived at by negotiation.

Smaller development proposals, typically in the residential neighborhoods, are sent to the Zoning Board of Appeal to seek needed variances from the zoning code, based on whether the proponent has recruited more political support for the proposal than the opponents – which is the very definition of a political process.

Neither large project nor small project review is a predictable, coherent, consistent, or fair system for approving new development. Rather, every proposal is a fight between proponents and opponents, which takes place on a political battlefield with fuzzy legal boundaries and few rules of engagement.

A series of legislative special acts, dating back to the post-World War II period, allow Boston to operate under this political process, largely exempting it from the land use laws that govern the Commonwealth’s other cities and towns.

By definition, a political process is controlled by politicians, such as the mayor, who by law appoints the members of the Zoning Board of Appeal, four of the five members of the BPDA, and the members of citizens advisory committees. Politicians respond, we hope, to the wishes of the citizens they represent. But we also recognize that property owners and developers; the law firms, lobbyists, and consultants they hire; labor unions; and other politically powerful groups have an outsized influence on how political approvals are handed out at the City Council, the BPDA, and the Zoning Board of Appeal, just as they do at the State House and in Congress (because these groups provide cash, sign holders, and canvassers to reelection campaigns).

This is not to cast aspersions on any one elected official, or all of them for that matter. It is merely to acknowledge that political decisions are susceptible to influence by lobbyists and other insiders, for the benefit of themselves, their members, or their clients, as the case may be, and that this influence often does not benefit the community at large. It is not the person who is corrupt here, it is the process (a political process in the broadest sense of the word) that is corrupt — because it responds more willingly to special interests than to the citizenry as a whole.

Boston has a political development process because it works for the elected officials in power; their campaign fundraisers and supporters; and the lawyers, unions, and consultants who understand how the system works and how to influence it to their and their clients’ benefit. There is no incentive for them to change it. A more predictable, coherent, consistent, and fair system would look more like the one the law requires elsewhere in the Commonwealth. Granted, a 60-story office tower in Boston is not the same as a two-story medical office building in Braintree, and the greater impacts of the former argue for a more deliberative and thorough review. But that does not preclude a bit of city planning to determine where the citizens of Boston think a 60-story office tower is appropriate, before one is proposed.

The problem, therefore, is not the BPDA necessarily, but the process it administers. Consequently, abolishing the BPDA alone will not achieve the reforms that Wu and others, including myself, advocate. But as a start, removing the planning function from the BPDA (since they have, for 55 years, refused to do it anyway) would be a step in the right direction. A planning commission separate from the development bureaucracy, similar to every other city or town in Massachusetts, is more likely to provide a comprehensive city plan, and a zoning code to implement it.

Boston’s current development system puts politicians firmly in control, and once they have power politicians rarely surrender it without enormous public pressure. For this reason, the needed reforms to Boston’s political system of development will only come from a grassroots movement – perhaps led by a “good government” politician who is willing to advocate changes that will diminish his or her own power under the current system (and the power of the developers, consultants, unions, and other insiders who support their reelection campaigns).

Meet the Author

Peter O'Connor

Lawyer and economic development consultant, Self-employed
Michelle Wu seems to want to be that person. Time will tell if she has the political courage, and skill, to do it. I, for one, am rooting for her.

Peter O’Connor is a land use and real estate development lawyer and consultant.  He was a senior staff member of the BRA from 1997-2005, and Massachusetts Department of Transportation deputy secretary for real estate and economic development from 2009-2012. He can be reached at PeterOConnorBoston@gmail.com.