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.

In 2001, the BRA issued a request for proposals for the lot. The RFP allowed a tower, preferably residential, but required interested developers to also build a school on the site or to fund the construction of one elsewhere. Then, as now, Boston was short on housing (which is why property costs are so high). Eight developers submitted bids, and almost all worked for months to come up with plans that included housing. The high bid, $23 million, came from Lincoln Property.

Once the bids were in, though, something strange happened. According to several people working for the BRA at the time, its then-director, Mark Maloney, wouldn’t green-light a normal selection process, and nothing happened for months. Eventually, in 2003, the BRA board announced that Millennium Partners, which had been the lowest bidder, had been allowed to match Lincoln’s $23 million offer, and had won the bid. This was odd, because instead of housing, Millennium had proposed an office building, at a time when office vacancy rates were soaring. Jim Kostaras, a high-level manager who had been with the BRA for 17 years, and who had been the architect of the Hayward Place RFP, quit shortly thereafter.

One of the most vexing aspects of this story is that back in 2001 the BRA seized the Hayward Place lot from the city—an act that, because of the off-the-books nature of the authority, made all of the maneuverings for the deal much harder to follow. The city council itself only learned about the property transfer after the fact, from the newspapers, at which point it considered a lawsuit against the BRA. Frustrated, City Councilor James Kelly noted that $23 million, the amount Lincoln had been willing to pay the city, could have covered a quarter of Boston’s projected deficit at the time. Instead, the money was to be paid by Millennium directly to the BRA—and the city would get nothing. Maura A. Hennigan, an at-large member of the city council, would later tell the Globe, “After all is said and done, the ‘fair and open’ process we were supposed to have is not what happened here.”

In the decade that followed, Millennium ran the site as a parking lot, just as the city had, earning approximately $2.3 million a year for itself. According to a Finance Commission report, the developer did pay $537,000 a year in rent to the city for two years, but the lease, negotiated with the BRA, then allowed those payments to cease. Since 2005, the report went on to note, “the developer has been operating the parking lot and retaining all the revenue.” Construction on the project finally began this year.

Why didn’t Millennium build anything for a decade? It’s unclear. But media accounts of the affair have suggested that Millennium had no reason to build as long as it was making millions of dollars tax-free from the parking lot. Others close to the deal have suggested to me that Millennium didn’t want a multi-story building at the site that would block views from unsold units on the lower floors of the Ritz-Carlton Residences, a luxury-condo project it had built across the street.

Boston lost big in this exchange—all because, it would seem, the mayor wanted to do a favor for a friendly developer. Millennium, after all, was the first developer to build upscale housing in the former Combat Zone, a move that helped gentrify the area. This sort of quid pro quo is not unusual for a mayor who wants to reward those who help the city. But in this case it comes at an unreasonable cost. Boston lost the value of the Hayward Place property itself, by letting the BRA take ownership of it. It lost millions in parking revenue and property taxes. And, most important, it lost a rare opportunity to strengthen the civic fabric of downtown Boston, by building desperately needed classroom and housing space.

 

Unsurprisingly, the mayor’s people aren’t interested in taking power away from the BRA, which, they argue, has helped spur the remarkable period of expansion and prosperity that this city has witnessed in the past two decades. “It would be foolish,” Dot Joyce, the mayor’s press secretary, told me in an email, “to gut the engine of economic growth.”

The growth is undeniable. Just look at those cranes! But there’s a case to be made that Boston has thrived during these past two decades not because of the BRA but despite it. Imagine what this city would be like if the Pritzkers had been able to develop the waterfront 20 years ago, or if we’d focused on building good schools and housing at Hayward Place and other downtown locations.

Soon we’ll have our first new mayor in a generation, which means we’ll have a rare opportunity to change how we shape this city. The BRA isn’t mowing down neighborhoods anymore, of course. That’s good. But it does continue to favor the needs of developers over those of residents, and as a result the city is gradually becoming an undistinguished jumble of stumpy towers and super blocks. What’s getting lost is an attention to the quality and purpose of what’s being built. Who’s planning not for next year but 20 years from now? This is a question we need to ask ourselves—and our candidates for mayor—during this election year. Let’s just put it to them directly: Do you think it’s time to break up the BRA?

  • 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?