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.

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.

  • 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.

  • 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?