In this town, the Boston Redevelopment Authority rules supreme. Accountable only to the mayor, it exerts total control over zoning, planning, and development—an anachronistic concentration of power not found anywhere else in the country. As the Menino era draws to a close, it’s time for the agency to go.
They’re all over town, those construction cranes: clustered around Fenway Park, rising up in South Boston, hovering over Downtown Crossing. Economists and politicians tell us they’re an omen of good times ahead. They may be right, but development in Boston is such a bizarrely twisted affair that most of those involved in it don’t want to talk about how it actually happens, except in the vaguest of terms. And what they especially don’t want to talk about is the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Nothing does more to kill a conversation with architects or developers around here than asking them about their dealings with the BRA.
If the name Boston Redevelopment Authority sounds like some kind of Eisenhower-era holdover, that’s because it is. The authority was founded in the late 1950s to shepherd federal grant money into massive urban-renewal projects at a time when Boston, like many other American cities, had yet to fully bounce back from the ravages of the Great Depression. Confronted with blighted urban centers, officials across the nation created powerful development authorities that allowed cities, even in the face of local objections, to clear out problem areas and then rebuild them however they saw fit. Entire neighborhoods were razed in the name of progress, and thousands of families were displaced.
By the 1970s the folly of this approach was apparent. Development authorities around the country were disbanded, or their planning departments and zoning boards were separated from their development arms. But Boston bucked that trend, and an all-powerful authority operates here to this day. Why? Because this town’s mayors, most recently Mayor Menino, have long recognized that the BRA gives them unusual power to shape the city exactly as they want. The record shows that during his two decades in power, Menino has used the authority to create a tangled web of favors for and from certain developers, and that those relationships have been bad for Boston. Much-needed housing and civic buildings haven’t been built. Characterless towers have gone up on prime waterfront lots. And planning ideas that could have transformed the city into a national model for 21st-century development have died on the vine.
As you might imagine, Menino doesn’t agree. When I asked his office to comment about the BRA, his press secretary, Dot Joyce, sent me figures outlining Boston’s remarkable growth over the past two decades—which has included, she wrote, the creation of 93,083 jobs and more than 21,000 new housing units; a doubling of the number of hotel rooms; the construction of 12.5 million square feet of office space; and, since 2005, more than $24 billion in building development. “The way Boston does business is working,” she told me, “and it has put Boston head and shoulders above the rest of the country.”
Perhaps, but year after year stories have appeared in the local media documenting questionable deals involving developers and the BRA. Just this past April, the Globe ran a front-page article detailing how the developer Joe Fallon, a friend of Menino’s for more than 30 years, was given extraordinary latitude in 2012 to develop Marine Industrial Park, a valuable city-owned waterfront property. No one else, it turned out, had even had the opportunity to bid on the parcel. The BRA board, with four of its five members appointed by Menino, approved the arrangement within 90 seconds. “I had no influence on it—I didn’t even know about it,” Menino told the Globe. “I found out after the fact. Joe Fallon has done nothing wrong. No one’s done anything wrong.”
While that may be so, the fact is that the BRA allows mayors to steer projects to developers who please them and away from those who do not. Its power is so great that no mayor can resist its appeal. It’s not unlike the ring at the heart of The Lord of the Rings: If you make it your own and harness its powers, you can do almost anything you want. But eventually, inevitably, those powers will corrupt you. Which is why Menino should be the last mayor who’s ever allowed to wield them.