Abolishing BPDA should not be first priority

Fixing city’s broken development system should be goal

I SUPPORT Boston mayoral candidate Michelle Wu’s good government impulse to “fix Boston’s broken development system,” but worry that her plan to abolish the Boston Planning and Development Agency may very well be neither necessary nor helpful in accomplishing that goal. And as a legal matter, or even an administrative task, the “abolishing” part may not be as easy as it sounds – and focusing too closely on it may only distract from the “fixing” part.

What she will find up on the ninth floor of City Hall, where the Boston Redevelopment Authority moved in when City Hall was brand new, is not a single municipal agency. Instead, she will find a Frankenstein monster of municipal and state public and quasi-public entities that have, over time, been administratively cobbled together and now collectively call themselves the Boston Planning and Development Agency, or BPDA.

Primary among them, there is the actual BRA (which controls planning and development and is the thing we’re all really most interested in). But there is also the Economic Development and Industrial Corporation of Boston, which owns the Boston Marine Industrial Park in South Boston, for instance. The BPDA includes the Boston Industrial Development Finance Authority, which issues tax exempt bonds, and the Boston Local Development Corporation, which administers a small business revolving loan fund. There is the Office of Jobs and Community Services, which does workforce development, also under the BPDA umbrella. BPDA staff also advise the Boston Board of Zoning Appeal and the Boston Architectural Review Board.

Each of these entities has its own legislative charter and its own governing board, but all rely on the BPDA to support them. So there’s a lot more that goes on up there on the ninth floor than the public at large, or perhaps even a future administration, is aware of. (And by the way, you’d never be able to figure out any of this by looking at BPDA’s website, www.bostonplans.org.)

I have worked in, and for, a number of state and local public entities (including as a senior staff person at the BPDA for eight years), and I have experienced a few political transitions, both as interloper and holdover.

What will happen if Wu and her team succeed in taking office, and begin to try and “fix Boston’s broken development system,” is that they will find themselves buried in a mountain of paper, emails, thick briefing books, and other minutia and, if they’re not careful, endless meetings and other “time sucks” that will distract them from her primary goal – fixing Boston’s broken development system.

The alphabet soup of agencies will have to be understood, and possibly untangled, over time. The legal status of them all will take a while and a lot of effort to get a handle on, and bringing them all into alignment with her objectives even longer.

She should accept that that project won’t be accomplished quickly. For example, even just the one specific legal entity of the BRA, within the larger BPDA, is a creature of the state, not the city. Legally abolishing it, or even altering it, will require State House cooperation. But I hope she won’t allow herself to get tangled up in all that too soon.

The problem she identifies in her plan is not primarily the existence, or the legal structure, of the BPDA. And it is not necessary to abolish the BPDA to address it. The primary problem is that an agency that is today empowered to conduct the kind of city planning that occurs in every other city and town in the Commonwealth, and in all the great cities of the western world, has stubbornly refused to do it — for in excess of half a century.

As I wrote last summer, the major impediment to solving that problem – adopting a city plan, and a zoning code to implement it that is predictable, coherent, consistent, and fair – is that doing it would move the center of power around development away from the mayor’s office. Land use and development decisions would become more consistent and predictable, and therefore less political. And it is the rare elected official who is willing to cede power, especially when that power is so closely tied to the fundraising and political power of real estate developers, the law and consulting firms they hire, and the “get out the vote” abilities of the building trade unions.

The lack of a city plan, and a zoning code that leaves more to discretion than it should, combined with a culture of deference to real estate development interests over good planning practices, are things that can be corrected with vision and leadership — within the existing legal construct of the agency. Leading the agency in a direction that aligns with her vision may cost Wu some political support from the groups I’ve noted, but the regular citizens of Boston are hungry for it.

Meet the Author

Peter O'Connor

Lawyer and economic development consultant, Self-employed
The BPDA has a governing board to which the mayor has four out of five appointments (the governor has the fifth). These have fixed terms, so it will take some time to populate that board with people aligned with her vision. But I know from experience that the agency is a very staff-driven organization, and the mayor historically has chosen the BPDA director without resistance from the board. So she will be able to exercise the needed leadership within the existing structure.

I hope that, should she become “Mayor Wu,” she uses her power to achieve the vision for planning and development in Boston she has set out in her 2019 document. It’s called “Fixing Boston’s Broken Development Process – Why and How to Abolish the BPDA.” While the idea of “abolishing” the agency may have visceral appeal for many, especially those who feel wronged by the agency’s past failures and excesses, it shouldn’t be the primary task.  The “fixing” is what’s important.

Peter O’Connor is a former lawyer, government official, and Boston resident of 25 years, who now lives in Connecticut. He can be reached at PeterOConnorCT@gmail.com. He wrote an earlier piece for CommonWealth about Wu’s development plans.