Wu calls for abolishing Boston Planning and Development Agency
Vows to lead citywide effort to mobilize support for change
BOSTON CITY COUNCILOR Michelle Wu is jumping on a well-worn path of city leaders going back to Kevin White, calling for dissolution of the city’s redevelopment authority, which she says serves the interests of well-connected developers while locking residents out of important decision-making. But unlike those who have issued this call before her, including Mayor Marty Walsh, who vowed to overhaul the agency in his 2013 campaign but then balked after taking office, Wu says she’ll lead a community effort to drive the reform.
In a move that combines her bookish Harvard Law School background and the grassroots approach she’s taken to other issues, Wu is releasing a 67-page policy paper, complete with more than 200 footnotes, that makes the case for change, but says it will only happen through outside pressure, and vowed to mobilize a citizen campaign to demand reforms that she said the entrenched status quo always looks to block.
“The agency is not transparent, accountable, or guided by priorities that match the best interests of residents,” Wu said about the Boston Planning and Development Agency. “It’s guided by the goals and interests of developers, and the most connected developers at that.” She said maintaining the current structure for overseeing development is undercutting efforts to deal with everything from the city’s affordable housing crisis to transportation planning and dealing smartly with the effects of climate change.
Her call to replace the city development authority is the latest move by Wu to push the envelope on big issues affecting city residents. It comes on the heels of high-visibility efforts earlier this year to take on an MBTA fare hike and push other changes at the T, and is likely to further stoke speculation that Wu is not only working toward reelection in next month’s city council election, but gearing up for a challenge to Walsh when his mayoral term ends in two years.
The Boston Redevelopment Authority, the longtime name of the agency before a 2016 rebranding, was established in 1957 by the Legislature and City Council to take advantage of federal urban renewal funding made available to redevelop blighted areas. It often meant razing entire neighborhoods, as happened in the “New York streets” area of the South End and then, most famously, to what was then the working-class West End, now home to high-rise condos and apartment buildings.
Activists have argued for years that the super-powers given to the BRA, which operates outside the regular structure of city departments, are no longer appropriate in a time of rapid development, when the challenge is how best to manage growth, not how to jump-start investment amidst urban decay and population exodus.
“The BPDA has bolstered the city’s structural inequality to ensure that only a select few enjoy this unprecedented prosperity,” says the report Wu is releasing.
She says “scathing” audits in 2014 and 2015 revealed an agency that lacks accountability and is failing to even maintain an up-to-date inventory of its property assets and lease arrangements.
In 2016, the Walsh administration rechristened the BRA, whose name had become synonymous with heavy-handed urban renewal overreach, the Boston Planning and Development Agency. But Wu says the $670,000 spent on rebranding the agency did nothing to change its role. “The name has changed, but the concentration of power and the underlying goals of the agency remain the same, and they are today even more out of step with what residents need,” she said.
According to Wu’s report, Kevin White, while in office, proposed abolishing the BRA in 1970 and creating a separate, stand-alone city planning department. Since then, candidates for mayor, including Ray Flynn in 1983 and Walsh six years ago in his 2013 run for the open mayor’s seat, have made similar vows, but then largely backtracked. Developers have fiercely resisted calls for change, and once in office mayors have become loath to relinquish the extraordinary control the current structure vests in their office.
“The challenges facing Boston are serious and urgent, and minor revisions to the current development process and policy are not enough,” Wu says in the report. “Boston’s residents must take back control of their future and institute a democratic system of planning and development that sets a vision determined by the people, not developers driven by profit.”
She said the recent scandal involving the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal highlights the problems with a process driven by insiders and the lack of comprehensive planning has resulted in an outmoded zoning code that requires project-by-project approval for development of almost any size.
A former BPDA official pled guilty last month to accepting a $50,000 bribe to influence a Board of Appeal vote. “The problem is that because we have not had a citywide master plan that fed into zoning since 1965, Boston’s zoning code is functionally obsolete,” said Wu. “There really are no rules, and every new development is writing its own zoning. It’s complicated, it is inconsistent, and it’s ripe for corruption because it is a process driven by influence and relationships.”
Although state legislation would ultimately be needed to dissolve the BPDA, Wu said many steps could be taken by city government on its own, starting with transferring ownership of BPDA assets to the city and putting its employees on the city payroll. But any change would need the support of the mayor.
Wu says she’s undaunted by the fact that the idea of breaking up the redevelopment authority has often been floated, but never seriously pursued. She cited her call last year to consider making the T free to all riders. Wu said she faced “massive feedback, often derision” over her idea, with people asking how a transit system without fares would be paid for.
“Yet since we have been talking about this, look at what happened in Lawrence,” she said, referring to last month’s announcement that three bus lines in the city would be free for the next two years in an effort to boost ridership, thanks to $225,000 grant from the city to the local transit authority. “Since we put something on the table that’s aspirational, the range of what’s possible is now different.”
Wu said the change she thinks is needed won’t happen without lots of pressure from residents, and she plans to lead a public effort to rally support for doing away with the current city structure for handling development. On Monday night, she’s hosting the first of a series of public meetings on the issue in the South End to lay out her ideas and hear reaction from residents.
“When the issue is one of political power and deep structural change, it’s not enough to just try to persuade the politicians and decision-makers,” she said. “This really will require widespread community understanding and advocacy and participation in demanding something different.”
With the city election less than a month away, Wu will make the proposal a key part of her reelection campaign. Wu said she wants to be “fully transparent about policy and ideas I hope to move in the next term — and to ask for a mandate on those ideas.”Though talk of her larger political ambitions is rampant, Wu tamped down the suggestion that the call for development reform would become a cornerstone of a 2021 run for mayor.
“I’m focused on the next five weeks, and the need to try to push turnout as much as possible so people recognize how important the City Council is and how much progress could be made with a strong team of councilors who are ready to focus on the needs of the community,” she said.