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.
By the time the project emerged from court, Boston was in the middle of an economic downturn, and work on it didn’t resume until after the city’s fortunes had begun to improve, in the mid-1990s. By then, though, Menino, a former BRA employee himself, was in power. What followed was a painfully protracted bargaining period in which everything—building heights, uses, entries, exits, and payback to the community—suddenly had to be renegotiated. Side deals, shifting alliances, and legal wranglings ensued. Astoundingly, years passed before Menino’s BRA finally granted its approval for the project, by which point the Pritzkers were mired in unrelated legal troubles that kept them from beginning to build. By 2005, the family had put the land up for sale, but even then they tried to hold out for a buyer who would build the public amenities, housing, and green spaces they’d worked so hard to get approvals for. City Hall, meanwhile, doubled the property taxes on the land and threatened to pull the Pritzkers’ parking-lot permits, effectively increasing pressure on the family to build or sell. In frustration, they sold—to Joe Fallon.
By then, the BRA had issued official development guidelines for the waterfront properties. Nevertheless, the authority allowed Fallon to embark on a quick, cheap, and almost immediately lucrative project: a bland 18-story glass office tower with an ornamental bump-out at its midsection, now known to some architects around town as the Barnacle. Fallon received some $62 million in state and city tax credits and subsidies—to finance the project and lure the biotech company Vertex away from Cambridge, a step toward the mayor’s dream of creating an Innovation District.
This is what happens when you give one person the power to control planning, zoning, and development. But it isn’t how other cities operate. In reporting this story, I talked to urban planners who work or have worked in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Chicago, and Baltimore, and all of them confirmed that the BRA is an anomaly. All over the country, city-planning agencies work with their local communities to iron out what’s acceptable and what’s not—without factoring in specific developers’ interests. The result is more sensitive, careful, and complete neighborhood-building. When a developer buys a property, everyone—the community, the city, and the planners—has already thought through what should go there. The developer, in other words, doesn’t have to worry about an approvals process that can spiral out of control, and can instead focus on financing and design. Under this kind of system, the Pritzkers’ waterfront development would have been guided by preexisting zoning laws rather than an intensive and indeterminate bargaining period.
For an example of how other cities handle planning, consider San Francisco. Its planning department, funded by the city, updates a master plan every few years, looking at changes in population and growth to figure out where people are likely to go, and to determine how they’ll get around and what amenities they’ll need. The zoning is then updated to reflect any changes. Developers have no say. That’s the way it has to be, the city’s chief planner, John Rahaim, told me, because the San Francisco Bay Area expects to add two million people in the next 30 years. Only thoughtful planning, divorced from shortsighted development interests, can gracefully accommodate such growth.
I asked the BRA’s chief planner, Kairos Shen, why Boston does things differently. “Most planning departments are constantly updating their plans,” he told me, “and it becomes a very bureaucratic exercise. The BRA does not have a requirement to do a comprehensive plan. Instead, we work on specific plans in neighborhoods. We think this makes us more nimble. We have tried planning, but then we end up with a whole bookshelf of plans that are outdated” once a developer comes in.
Boston today is growing dramatically—according to the mayor’s office, more than twice as quickly as New York, and faster than San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Dallas. Where will everybody live, and how will they get from place to place? These are the questions that the BRA should be focusing on. But instead the authority is chasing down development opportunities like they’re going out of style.
Peter Meade, the BRA’s current director, told me about the time Menino called him a couple of years ago to offer him the job. “I said, ‘What do you need?’ And he said, ‘We need to get things done.’” Following that directive, Meade has made construction his priority. “Investors aren’t interested in a comprehensive master plan,” he said. “I’ve never been asked for it. They are interested in making sure that their project is going to go in a time limit that’s understood, that they’ll get a return on this date.”
There’s nothing illegal about all of this. But that doesn’t make it any less unsettling to discover just how much power the BRA places in the mayor’s hands. A case in point is Hayward Place, a Chinatown-area parking lot that the city seized after a 1990 bankruptcy case. Throughout the ’90s the city ran the lot itself, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in parking fees. But by the end of that decade, real estate was heating up, and the site looked like a choice development opportunity—one that would allow the mayor to address the city’s need for a new school and more housing.