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.
During the 1950s, downtown Boston looked very much like New York’s Lower East Side. Densely built tenements housed a racially diverse population made up largely of recent immigrants. Boston’s leaders at the time considered the neighborhoods in the area to be slums. And so in that decade a number of business leaders—among them Charles A. Coolidge, of the law firm Ropes and Gray; Gerald Blakeley, of the real estate firm Cabot, Cabot, and Forbes; Lloyd Brace, the president of the First National Bank of Boston; and Paul Clark, the chairman of John Hancock Mutual Insurance—began meeting secretly, in the vault of Boston Safe Deposit and Trust, with some of the city’s most powerful politicians. Formally called the Boston Coordinating Committee, the group became known as the Vault.
Like many business leaders around the country, the Vault’s members supported ambitious slum-clearance projects to revitalize Boston—something that the city’s existing housing authority lacked the power to carry out. The Vault joined a movement that was already afoot to wrest control of development from the city council and grant it to a new kind of redevelopment agency, one that would have unprecedented powers to seize property by eminent domain, and to effect quick and massive urban change.
To take advantage of federal and state urban-renewal grants, Massachusetts in 1957 officially authorized its cities to create redevelopment authorities, and the BRA was born. Shortly thereafter, over howls of protest, the authority razed nearly a third of the city, including the West End (displacing more than 7,500 residents).
In 1960, Boston’s new mayor, John Collins, inherited that razed land—which, for political reasons, he needed to redevelop quickly. So began the transformation of the BRA into the single, all-powerful agency that it is today, accountable only to the mayor. Collins’s first move was to recruit a Robert Moses–style city planner named Ed Logue to lead the authority. Logue agreed to accept the job under the condition that the existing city-planning agency be folded into the BRA, a move that would grant him broad, centralized powers. Right from the start, Logue set out to engage developers, find financing, and build, build, build. “When Collins came in as mayor, he wanted to make it clear that he was in charge,” says Fred Salvucci, a professor at MIT who worked under Logue at the BRA. “There was a dramatic fight to combine the agencies, with logrolling by Collins to get Logue hired.” Salvucci’s superior at the time summarized the new ethos like this: “Beat the natives out of their grass huts.”
In short order, the BRA became a one-stop shop for all the city’s planning and development needs. Its mission was clear. “Private interests will build, finance, and sell the most ambitious real estate program since our forefathers filled in the Back Bay a century ago,” John P. Ryan, a Vault member and one of the authority’s earliest officials, declared in 1961.
Under Logue’s direction, the BRA managed the infamous construction of Government Center and City Hall. Logue then began eyeing other neighborhoods, such as the North End. Why not do some slum clearance there? But by the mid-1960s, enthusiasm for such projects had waned, and by the early 1970s the federal urban-renewal program had ended, at which point the BRA had to come up with other ways to fund itself.
And so it started doing what it does today—reviewing and profiting from almost every single construction project in the city. It began to focus on its role as a developer and landlord, collecting fees and rents on the properties it owned, and selling land it had acquired through eminent domain to developers, at times without a public bidding process. The enterprise was so profitable that 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.
As of 2010, the BRA’s annual operating budget was $50 million, much of it financed by development, and its employees earned an average of $93,000, which made them some of the highest-paid workers in City Hall. (BRA employees are considered city workers, but their salaries come directly from the BRA’s private budget.) Because the authority is self-funded and reports only to the mayor’s office, no other public entity oversees its finances, with the exception of the tiny Boston Finance Commission, a city watchdog agency that simply doesn’t have the manpower to audit the BRA. So what we’ve got, says the outspoken Menino critic and former BRA employee Greg Selkoe, is an authority that works for the mayor but not for the rest of us.
Last fall, I decided to explore how the BRA works. I spoke to dozens of people, almost all of whom expressed anger and frustration with the authority, but few of whom were willing to talk on the record. One person who did was Herbert Gleason, who has practiced municipal and real estate law in the city since 1958. The BRA follows its own rules, Gleason said—rules that it makes itself. If I wanted to understand how the authority works, he told me, I should start with the obvious. “Focus,” he said, “on why everything being built in Boston is so mediocre.” He brought up what’s happening on the South Boston waterfront, where nondescript office and hotel buildings are shooting up left and right, in a manner that does nothing to foster any kind of neighborhood feeling or civic pride, and where development interests are trumping careful planning and design. It’s Atlanta built on Boston Harbor.
The waterfront story is a tale three decades in the making. In 1981, one of America’s wealthiest families, the Pritzkers, assumed development rights to 21 acres of empty parking lots along the waterfront, and began to make forward-looking plans to develop the area. Working with several world-class architects, including Robert A. M. Stern, Frank Gehry, and Cesar Pelli, they imagined a lively new neighborhood, complete with plentiful housing, retail and office space, and a hotel. Under Menino’s predecessor, Mayor Raymond Flynn, the project got BRA approval to build in 1987, but was then stalled when the previous owner of the property sued the Pritzkers over the terms of the sale.