Michelle Wu is ready to remake the system for remaking Boston

LOOKED AT ONE WAY, Michelle Wu concedes, it’s pretty eye-glazing stuff. “I bet if you ask most residents around the city, what are you worried about most, I don’t know if you’d find anyone who would say it’s the zoning code,” she said on this week’s episode of The Codcast

But Boston’s millennial mayor, who made revamping the city’s development and planning system a centerpiece of her 2021 campaign, does a good job reframing the issue in a way that makes it less about the arcana of setback requirements and height limits and more about our grander vision for the Boston of the future.

“The things that we do worry about most – housing affordability or the threats to climate or air quality, whether you can get to and from where you need to go through reliable transportation systems and infrastructure – that is all related to how we make decisions about what’s needed where,” she said. “And so we’ve for a long time had a system that is much more oriented towards deciding and making changes around the edges, to proposals that are put in front of us that developers or others want to put forward. But when we make decisions in isolation, even when we get it right, it doesn’t connect with the larger vision and needs of our city in the long term. And so this is really pushing to have a structure and set of rules that will help us get to be the city that shares the opportunities with everyone.”  

Wu first issued a call four years ago to scrap the Boston Planning and Development Agency – the rebranded name for the Boston Redevelopment Authority. She followed a long line of city leaders in railing against a system put in place in the late 1950s when Boston was an economic backwater struggling to attract investment. Unlike her predecessors, Wu seems intent on actually doing something about it. 

At the center of the changes she vows to make is separating development approval from city planning. What we have now under the BPDA umbrella is “an amalgamation, a kind of mishmash of different functions that have been layered onto this agency over many decades, often shaped by the political desires of that moment or a pressing economic need,” Wu said. “It’s haphazard and it is based on all of these efforts that push towards cronyism and an uneven, inconsistent kind of development of the city.”

Wu intends to create a separate planning office as a regular function of city government and move much of the development approval there as well – the BPDA exists as a semi-independent, state-authorized government authority.  

Wu pushed back against the idea that development review and approval could get bogged down in more City Hall process or become overly politicized with the City Council exercising funding control over functions Wu would move to the regular city budget.  

“I’m not sure it’s possible to have more process on development than we do right now,” she said. With an antiquated zoning code that has not been comprehensively updated since 1965, Wu said more than 90 percent of new construction projects in Boston now require some kind of special approval or exception from existing zoning rules, a situation that has made development beholden to insider influence and the subject of never-ending, one-off neighborhood battles. 

There are “community leaders who are going to two, three community meetings a week, sometimes multiple on the same night or trading off just so that they can cover everything because of the scale and pace of abutters’ meetings attached to everything, when in fact that is the sign of a broken system,” she said. 

Wu said the community should be closely involved in development review, but at a very different point than is now the case. It should happen as part of the broad rewrite of the city’s zoning code that she wants to oversee, Wu said, not in an endless string of neighborhood skirmishes.  

“Planning should be the process of collectively weighing the trade-offs. Do we keep a parcel as open space and necessary parkland, or do we turn it into affordable housing, which we badly need? And making those trade-offs and changing the rules and setting them as zoning is a process that hasn’t been happening in the city in terms of a long-term look ahead,” she said. “We have to take the responsibility of having the hard conversations and then changing the rules so that they apply to everyone. And then, as of right, we’ll be able to grow by tens of thousands of housing units,” said Wu, who said in her State of the City speech last month that she wants to see Boston return to the population peak of 800,000 residents it had in the 1950s. 

In the latest step in her effort to overhaul the development and planning process, Wu announced last Friday a nine-member advisory committee of real estate and civic leaders to make recommendations on changes to the portion of the zoning code that covers larger projects – those greater than 20,000 square feet or with more than 15 housing units. 

She also filed a proposal last month with the City Council, which also needs approval from the Legislature and governor, that would revamp the BPDA’s urban renewal powers. But Wu insisted that much of the overhaul she has promised can begin taking place without state approval. 

“The bulk of the structural transitions – the zoning changes, the building up of planning as an interconnected function with the rest of the city government – that is happening right now,” she said. “And it does not require any other layer of government’s approvals to do that.” 



Records requests unanswered: The state’s DAs ignore many requests for public records, according to appeals of those seeking documents. Critics say the DAs are not living up to their job of upholding the law, but the DAs say they are swamped with requests and doing their best. 

Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, thinks the problem may be worse than the appeals numbers suggest. “While these numbers are concerning, the amount of requests that go ignored is likely even higher,” Silverman says.  “Not all cases are appealed. Not all requesters dig in and fight for the information they need.  I fear what’s represented here is only part of the story.

“As the largest and busiest prosecutor’s office in New England we receive a huge volume of public records requests, and we do our best to comply,” said a statement issued by a spokesman for Suffolk County DA Kevin Hayden.  “Our response times are affected by the volume, complexity, and cost of the requests and the staffing available to handle them.  We certainly recognize there is room for improvement.” Read more.

Missing the mark: Monthly state tax revenues missed the forecasted growth mark for the first time since June 2020, which could have an impact on tax cut discussions. Read more.


Widett worries: Ethan Finlan, Jarred Johnson, and Matt Robare of TransitMatters say the MBTA’s plans for more commuter rail storage at Widett Circle don’t make sense. They favor consolidating bus and rail facilities there. Read more

A cost of going electric: Paul D. Craney of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance and Nick Murray of the Maine Policy Institute say the rush to electrify everything has its own environmental costs. Maine, they say, should get ready to mine its massive deposits of lithium, a key ingredient of batteries. Read more.

Not embracing ‘The Embrace’: Kevin Peterson of the New Democracy Coalition criticizes  “The Embrace” sculpture on Boston Common for being opaque and far removed from expectations of common people. Read more.

Getting to yes: Jerrold Oppenheim, Carl Gustin, and Theo MacGregor say developing a consensus on Massachusetts’ response to climate change requires all parties to collaborate and find a way to get to yes. Read more.




Gov. Maura Healey’s agenda when it comes to criminal justice issues remains fuzzy. (Boston Globe) CommonWealth reported last week on the one clear move she has made that reform advocates took note of: retaining Terrence Reidy, who served as secretary of public safety under Gov. Charlie Baker, for the same role in her cabinet. 


A powerful earthquake has killed at least 2,100 people in Turkey and Syria, and the death toll is expected to rise. (New York Times)


New Hampshire’s popular Republican governor, Chris Sununu, is eyeing a run for president. (Boston Globe


Woburn teachers end their strike, averting a second week of no school. (WBUR) A Globe editorial rips a legislative effort being led by the Massachusetts Teachers Association to legalize public-sector strikes, which are currently against state law. Gov. Maura Healey says she is “not a fan” of the idea of granting public school teachers the right to strike. (Boston Herald)


The MBTA’s Alewife stop on the Red Line will remain closed all week as repairs are made after a car rammed a concrete barrier in the station garage on Saturday. (Boston Globe


The Supreme Judicial Court will hear cases challenging sentences of life without parole. (Gloucester Times)

Worcester police officers will begin wearing body cameras on February 27. (MassLive

Court interpreters, who haven’t had a raise in their per diem pay since 2006, are considering a walk-out. (Boston Globe


The official 7-day, non-discounted cost of a Boston Globe print subscription hits $2,340 a year, but actual prices appear to vary considerably. The price overall has been rising rapidly. (Media Nation)

Larry Parnass, managing editor of the Berkshire Eagle, is moving over to The Republican, replacing Cynthia Simison as executive editor. (MassLive)