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?