The Authority

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.

boston redevelopment authority

Illustration by Ryan Heshka

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.

 

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  • Frederick Wright

    On the one hand, I agree with everything this article says about the BRA stifling development and keeping property prices, especially for residential properties, artificially high through their scarcity and landbanking policies. But I also think we need some sort of streamlined, centralized, and powerful group that can overcome the insane anti-development intransigence of various neighborhood committees. The same pearl-clutching imbeciles who faint if anyone proposes a restaurant serve a taco after 11pm.

    • susan holaday

      Cities that ‘work’ need residents and residents need places that stay open late. Late night dining is something many of us have wished for in this city for more than 35+ years!

      • Frederick Wright

        Absolutely I agree! I’m a city dweller through and through, and have lived on cities all over the planet. The provincialism of some of Boston’s residents is frankly astonishing. I attended a community meeting in the Leather District so I could hear some stroller-pushing breeders complain about revoking the 24 hour license for South Street Diner (our sole 24 hour restaurant) because their Little Precious Dylan or Dakota was being kept awake at night.

        Imagine if these entitled, overweaning yuppies actually had BRA-like powers to block construction of the new homes that we desperately need? I estimate that we are short about 100,000 housing units in Boston proper, and that kind of construction is bound to cause a little noise.

        • itsnoteasybeinggreen

          Stroller-pushing breeders. Like your parents were?

          I agree about the 100K-dwelling shortage. But that’s not what the BRA is trying to remedy. Not sure what is your point. Who’s to blame?

          • Frederick Wright

            I’m not suggesting that the BRA is trying to solve the housing crisis. Going by what is being allowed to be built, they are clearly expecting an invasion of extremely wealthy, eternally single agoraphobes content to live in 400 square foot micro-apartments. My concern is that without the BRA, nothing at all will be built. In face of well-organized community opposition to basically everything. So by all means, disband the BRA. It has outlived its usefulness and the Boston of today is not the same city the BRA was formed to help. But I hope that an effective counterbalance can be found to overcome community opposition to construction, licensing, building heights, and all the other myriad sure to arise from these all-powerful neighborhood associations.

          • Jake Wegmann

            That’s basically what’s happened in San Francisco. The author of the article is correct that San Francisco’s system isn’t inherently corrupt, in terms of developers wielding outsized influence. But it is dysfunctional in the sense that (wealthy) neighborhoods have tremendous power to stop anything they don’t like from being built, or at least to ensure that it takes years longer and costs far more than it should.

            This is contributing to the extreme housing crunch in SF that Aaron H describes — if new high-end housing for the wealthy doesn’t get built, then people with money (techies) squeeze out the low- and moderate-income households living in the existing housing stock.

            So Boston, whatever you do, don’t replicate that aspect of SF’s planning system once you abolish/restructure the BRA.

        • amian3

          I suppose it happens everywhere, but the weird need to change a neighborhood once you have moved there is baffling to me.
          I live in JP and am surrounded by new neighbors who seem to want to be in Brookline. I moved to JP for its funky artsy/hippy vibe. I realize Brookline is expensive but there are other neighborhoods to consider if you want a tidy neat residential area. Don’t move in and then try to change the things that make the neighborhood what it is. Think about it before you buy!

  • susan holaday

    It’s a good question, certainly. I’ve lived in the Charlestown Navy Yard since it opened in ’81 and have seen the BRA promised to develop the Yard into a thriving neighborhood. In fact, Partners Healthcare now owns much of the Navy Yard and while their presence is a good thing, we have, for too many years, needed more retail/commercial development here. There are very few services for residents, largely because the Mayor and the BRA consider the Navy Yard to be ‘Charlestown.’ Let’s just say city politics as usual rule and, alas, have kept us from becoming the vibrant area this should have been for more than 20 years. With Spaulding’s recent opening of a gorgeous hospital with landscaping that pays tribute to the history and traditions of the Navy Yard, some of us would like to see more development occur – more restaurants, services, offices are needed to make that happen.

    • blythe

      Thanks to Rachel Slade and Boston Magazine for having the guts to touch on this subject. There is so much more and I hope you will consider doing an expose, similar to the Globe’s Spotlight Series on the Taxi corruption.

      Susan, I too am a Navy Yard resident and you are right on with the shape of things here. As you probably know, the BRA recently approved the development of a large rental building with NO onsite parking – the very feature that the community and the Charlestown Neighborhood Council (CNC) agreed HAD to be included in any development. Lots of fishy goings-on behind the scenes – one of which was another developer who planned to build a more appropriately-sized building WITH parking, was turned down by the BRA, and a known friend of Menino got the job. Now another rental building development has been introduced (with no RFP by the way), and at the first meeting of the CNC, the packed-house overwhelmingly pushed for parking. In fact, the first question out of the gate by one citizen was whether or not the developer had a parking plan. The answer? Just guess.

      Menino has done some good things for the city but the incompetent BRA is an embarrassing failure. The cronyism is atrocious. Now that the mayor is on his way out, we will surely see that he will make good on all favors before he passes the torch and unacceptable buildings will be quickly approved. How can a city known for it’s vibrancy and highly-educated and creative population continue to operate this way? There must be long-term planning and there is none.
      It will be interesting to see where the current mayoral candidates stand on the future of the BRA.

  • HanaPeg

    As we were sitting next to ICA with our cup of Barrington coffee this morning, we looked back at Fort Point, past the immediate construction and I reminiscent about our first visits to this neighborhood, then quiet and full of mystique. I remember enjoying the FPAC and 300 Summer gallery shows and being surprised that there aren’t more galleries.
    With all the recent hype and development, things have not changed for the better, on the contrary. This so much touted “artist” neighborhood’s recent development only uses the “arts” for marketing, in the same way “innovation” is being misused. There is no balance and no real mixture in the recent area development. We see plenty of new restaurants and bars, but no galleries and art spaces, no retail (existing retail pushed out), quickly rising cost of living, tiny “Innovative” apartments, cleverly/ridiculously priced. A gigantic cafeteria.
    I clench every time I hear about preserving historic Fort Point; because it makes me think of those beautiful old buildings that had to come down to make room for the bigger, taller boring new ones. It all reminds me of the bubble artificially created by real estate developers
    in and around Miami (Design district for one). Shortsighted. Inflated and burst.
    If our city is not allowed to grow organically according to people’s needs and wants the way the best cities did throughout the history, why can’t we learn from the many great – and bad – examples of city planning? What we get now is “neighborhoods” (not in the real sense of the word) and buildings nobody can be proud of, because it
    is all in hands of developers, and a missed opportunity for having an
    interesting, innovative, livable, workable, and lovable part of town with
    real-size live/work spaces and galleries and art spaces at the store-level, open to public.
    My recent (end of March 2013) email to the BRA in support of our fight
    for public art space in Fort Point (since then, we lost two
    theater/concert spaces).

  • Mary Cooney

    A thoughtful summary of the troubling history of the authority that can only disband itself. Reform is key in order for proper planning to guide economic development. Then on to reform the ISD and ZBA that holds neighborhoods hostage with arbitrary and capricious decisions.

  • itsnoteasybeinggreen

    Excellent story — and still just the tip of the iceberg! The BRA has deprived us not only of good planning and honest government, but billions of dollars it bleeds from the taxpayers for its own benefit and the benefit of favored developers. We have a once-in-a-generation chance to elect a mayor and city councilors who will get rid of this corrupt parasite; all it takes is a home rule petition in the state house. (The state of California recently abolished all its redevelopment authorities!) Then we can re-establish a real planning department, and make the permitting and zoning agencies function lawfully. This should be the litmus test for every candidate, because nothing else can get done here until we get back our government.

  • anonymous architect

    Sure the West End destruction was long-ago, but the South Bay Shopping Center is a recent insult to positive urban design. The walk-score will always be low in that area because of the suburban mentality that allowed it.

  • Aaron H.

    I have to take issue with the use of San Francisco as a planning/zoning model here if that is in fact the intention of the author. I live in Boston but my family has been in SF and/or the Peninsula for over a century. If you want to see the ultimate example in the US of gentrification, evisceration of the middle class and exploding property values take in what is happening out there. The way things are going San Francisco will eventually be renamed TwitterFacebookGoogleopolis. “Thoughtful planning, divorced from shortsighted development interests”? Hardly. Say what you will about the BRA but don’t point to other major cities and their planning policies as some sort of template for solving problems that are specific to the particular political, demographic & cultural history of Boston.

  • bosslugger

    Get rid of the unions and your problems will start to go away. Unfortunately no mayor in Boston will ever be elected without them. The city is, was, and will always be held hostage to unions and those that cater to them.

  • ProPeople

    The BRA recommends zoning changes for developments before environmental impact studies are done and tells the community that the studies will be done on individual projects. But, by that point the zoning has been changed and the projects go ahead.

    This happened in Brighton and includes building a 500-car garage and two fixed-wall stadiums with high-intensity lights in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Community members wrote hundreds of letters to the BRA and testified for hours begging the BRA board not to let this go ahead. After all that, the BRA board voted unanimously in favor the Boston College development with so much as a single question or word of discussion.

    The BRA recommended the zoning changes to the Zoning Commission, which also approved it. Funny thing is the Zoning Commission is part of the BRA. So is the Boston Civic Design Commission, which approves designs. Who sits on that? Architects and developers whose work it approves!

    Last, since the BRA owns more than 300 parcels in Boston http://www.bostonredevelopmentauthority.org/rebold/ParcelsRO.asp

    I think Boston residents deserve to know how many of these were given to the BRA straight out of Boston coffers.

  • brazildj

    This is mostly an informative and illuminating report but this statistic:

    “…Shortly thereafter, over howls of protest, the authority razed nearly a third of the city…”

    …seems highly questionable. Surely you mean maybe a third of the downtown urban core? The city of Boston covers close to 90 square miles. I don’t think 30 square miles were razed.

  • http://www.twitter.com/zacmacinnes Zac Macinnes

    Enlightening piece. I think Philadelphia still has its Development Authority in tact too – not exactly an urban model Boston should be imitating.

    I disagree somewhat that development in the past twenty years has been so visually displeasing. I’m from Texas, and the Innovation District is a far cry from the zombie suburban office parks that could have been built.

    • kclo3

      But Philadelphia, unlike Boston, didn’t quash its planning department and turn it over to the PRA, instead letting Ed Bacon turn it into the most civic-minded planning authority in the urban renewal era. Nowadays the Planning Commission conducts district master plans with the community and manages most development proposals while the PRA is relegated to managing and selling blighted city-owned parcels to responsible developers.

  • Brien

    “…in 1987 the authority decided to remove itself from the city budget and become completely self-financed. In other words, it would go off the books.”

    If the BRA is not part of city government, why is the BRA afforded any authority over city development? Why do they collect funding that the city should be collecting? Under what legal and ethical grounds is the BRA allowed to exist and operate the way it does?