A look at the BRA and city building

By and large, the Seaport District lacks distinction

Eighth in a series

The Hynes Administration put the brakes on Boston’s mid-century slide, and put into place new ways of doing business in the city. Two initiatives arising from what Hynes began stand out for their lasting importance and influence on the city. Property tax assessments were reformed, ending the Robin Hood approach to taxing real property that Curley was so devoted to, and development and planning were consolidated and organized in order to establish a more transparent, predictable process that (on paper at least) would be independent of the politics of the mayor’s office.

The appearance of 21st century downtown Boston, the buildings and the industrial clusters that keep our economy moving, is largely the work of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. For better or worse, it has been the BRA that has had the most influence over city planning and development decision-making since mid-20th century. Created by an act of the Legislature in 1957, the BRA may be one of the city’s least understood, most reviled, and underappreciated agencies.

The BRA has played an essential role in Boston’s resurgence as an important, modern, investment-worthy city. In its early years, it was an important way to provide investors and developers with a predictable process that took them out of an unreliable and too often corrupt process. Professionals in architecture and design and planning were hired to review projects and ensure that developers conformed to a level of quality and high standards – this at least was the theory. The BRA was a necessity for Boston in the post-Curley era, and it remains an important vehicle for planned development. It is a useful political foil, enabling many worthy but controversial proposals to work their way through to approval. Without the BRA, it would be too easy for good projects to fail because of uninformed criticism, or worse, opposition based on “not-in-my-backyard-ism.” It has sometimes worked, and it has sometimes failed, in large part because the BRA is subject to a number of variables, including how well it is led and whether and how deeply the mayor decides to micromanage its efforts.

The future of the BRA has become a topic of conversation in this year’s mayoral race, and this is no surprise because it is, and historically has been, the city’s most powerful agency and most durable change agent. Everything the BRA does, by definition, touches upon the public realm and therefore becomes a lightning rod attracting a range of public attention from informed public citizens, noisy gadflies, and everyone in between. The BRA on its best day brings high level design review to projects that will not cause undue delay but that will maintain a level of quality and take into account a variety of important ancillary considerations, including access to public transportation and quality of life considerations (light, air, and shadow impacts on the public realm). The BRA on its worst day can reward mayoral allies and look the other way when those allies build uninspired or outright ugly buildings. This dichotomy has frustrated citizen activists for decades.

There does not appear to be a consensus among BRA critics about either the problem or the solution. A number of civic and political leaders have called for the abolition of the BRA. Others call for “reform.” Some opponents of the BRA raise concerns about mayoral interference, insider deals, and community brush-offs. Others decry what they perceive as a lack of transparency or a failure to take community perspectives fully into account. Still others call for a return of planning and development decision-making to the mayor’s office, supported by ample community input. This latter point of view assumes wrongly that mayors before 1957 were actively or wisely engaged in city planning. It also assumes that an elected mayor will be more responsive to local community activists, and that the BRA is largely an unaccountable bureaucracy. This assumption ignores history, as no mayor ever left the BRA to its own devices. Mayors control the BRA fully, and have done since the days of John Hynes and the first BRA director, Kane Simonian. What seems clear is that there is no commonly held view regarding what process or structure would replace the BRA if a new mayor decided to do away with it. The right approach to evaluating whether and how to reform or restructure the BRA ought to come from a process that begins by identifying a consensus-based list of performance metrics that one would expect the BRA to meet, and finding a way to objectively measure its performance. The exercise is more nuanced that you might think.

The reality, and here I speak from direct experience as the former head of a major state agency, is that good decision-making, even in a democracy, often depends less on rules and public process and more on the judgment of those with access to power. It’s people, not institutions, that can really make a difference. This is (and ought to be) a depressing truism because it implies that what really matters is largely fortuitous: the chance that every now and then the right person will be appointed to do the job – and be given the authority to actually make things happen.

The current BRA director, Peter Meade (disclosure: he is a personal friend) has tapped into a lifetime of public and private sector experience and civic engagement to demonstrate that even in a bad economy, and in the waning days of an administration, the BRA can be an effective engine for growth. The $630 million redevelopment of the old Filenes store in downtown crossing is back on track (thanks in part to the Menino administration’s agreement to give the developer a $7.8 million tax break), the former Borders Bookstore on Washington Street is a vibrant new Walgreens concept store, the Innovation District is taking off, and important new projects are slated for East Boston, the South End, and the Back Bay. The BRA recently approved a plan for a 58-story residential and hotel tower in the Back Bay near the Christian Science Center, and a redevelopment of the Government Center Garage complex is in the making.

A new mayor can usher in a new era of rapprochement between the BRA and the city’s residents, one that takes steps toward a more open, transparent, and inclusive approach to planning and decision-making, perhaps even making more use of technology to bring proposals and options directly to impacted or interested citizens. The BRA ought to act as a filter for community input, responding to legitimate concerns and requiring site-sensitive development. The BRA may not have a flawless record of community engagement and city planning, but no system is perfect, and it is unthinkable that in Boston today, or in the future, any mayor or BRA director can (or would want to) ride roughshod over the will of the citizens.

Of course, public consensus is not required to build a great city. The Paris that we know and love today, the elegant, charming, memorable, humanly-scaled city, is a product of 19th century despotism, the creation of Louis Napoleon and Baron Haussmann. They didn’t have community meetings in Paris, nor did they follow the niceties of eminent domain, when tens of thousands of buildings were razed to make way for the grand boulevards and plazas that created the striking legibility of the romantic city we admire today. City planning by fiat can also go badly. Mussolini’s attempt to modernize Rome, mercifully cut short by the exigencies of his penchant for invading weaker nations, has not worn well with age. And while New York is a great world city, no one today would argue that the city building approach employed by Robert Moses during most of the last century was either appropriate or successful (if success is defined as neighborhood-friendly transportation planning or inspired public architecture). On the whole, public consensus is more likely to achieve better and lasting results than a process that ignores the public, Paris notwithstanding.

Meet the Author

And a larger challenge lies ahead: Boston’s planners need to think about where the next generation of development opportunities will be, and encourage growth that responds to emerging needs. Such growth needs to go hand-in-hand with the development or affirmation of a clear sense of place. That sense of place – the clear sense that you are in Boston and all that means – is in my view lacking in the Seaport District. This district continues to be a development project in the making, with a lot of activity. Sadly, most of the recent development has been so architecturally generic that, depending on where you stand, you might think you are in any urban environment in America. I was sitting recently in a building in the heart of the Seaport District. Looking out the window, I was taken aback by what I saw – the buildings in view could have been anywhere in America, or Canada for that matter. Interestingly, the public and non-profit sectors have done a better job expressing a sense of place than the private sector. With the singular exceptions of the Convention Center, the ICA, and the Federal Courthouse (which I’ve come to like), much of what has been built in the Seaport District lacks distinction and there isn’t a single new privately built structure that offers a strong sense of place.

Mayor John Collins once remarked that he didn’t like the Prudential Center tower, and thought the building was uninspired, but he agreed to it because it was a “loss leader” for a city that, in the early 1960s, was begging for construction of tall buildings. Boston isn’t a city that needs to go begging for construction any longer, and we should set clear markers about design quality. The missed opportunity of the Seaport District should be a caution to the next leaders of the city, and an inspiration to not settle for second rate design. Boston deserves better, and Boston can attract better.

Jim Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation. His most recent book is The Vidal Lecture.