A 'Few Lonely Cranks' Aren't to Blame

In his article, Growing Pains: Why Must a Few Lonely Cranks Decide the Future of Boston’s Buildings?, Northeastern University School of Architecture director George Thrush contends that the public process for development review is the obstacle to a flourishing Boston. This process, he asserts, is no more than the ravings of a tiny lunatic fringe who “somehow” have grasped the power to victimize big developers and stop major projects.

Interestingly, in an interview he gave in conjunction with his Northeastern conference, he describes it differently:

“… there has evolved a formal process to allow neighbors to be involved in the process that grants approvals to developers for their projects. Cities like Boston form public review panels composed of representative constituent groups before even considering a project for approval. Including the public in the process from the start serves to inoculate the city from excessive public disapproval down the road, and it is much more flexible than zoning.”

At the same time, he pointed out the downside of replacing comprehensive, long-term planning and predictable, equitable zoning with project-by-project adversarial engagement:

“We tend to respond to private developer proposals, rather than to produce a plan and invest in a desired outcome.”

However, the response to developer proposals is not citizen-driven but politically orchestrated. Zoning is kept restrictive to force big developers to do what they must to garner mayoral backing for their non-compliant (i.e., unlawful) proposals. The mayor hand-picks members of the “public review panels” so as to assure approval. The City of Boston (actually the Boston Redevelopment Authority [BRA], the only urban renewal authority in America that has managed to usurp the powers of the city’s planning board and zoning commission) convenes neighborhood meetings. These are managed so as to defuse community concerns — and to preempt lawsuits for spot zoning — by creating the illusion of a public process. Depending on the project, dozens to hundreds of residents attend, not just a few “lonely cranks” — that is, until the majority gives up in frustration. Yes, people tend to protest unlawful projects that they think will threaten property values or quality of life or environment, but they also come to express support, or request specific modifications. In the end, public comments, whether based on narrow self-interest or informed criteria, matter little; lawsuit-proof approval is assured by the BRA’s loophole-riddled zoning code.

Yet, Thrush chooses to criticize not the mayor or the BRA but the citizens, who are abused by this phony “public process.” In this about-turn from his interview opinion, the public process consists of a handful of self-selected, purposeless obstructionists who go around the city derailing critically important projects. In fact, stopping a major project is nearly impossible: Three well-known struggles were the Inner Belt Highway, Boston Properties’ proposed five towers next to the Public Garden and Common, and the demolition of historic Fenway Park — all “obstructions” that are now widely praised. What’s more, the projects he lists as endangered by public debate have already been approved, some with community support, some despite community opposition. Columbus Center was not stopped by the thousands of person-hours of public criticism. It was approved for construction but fell apart as its concealed schemes for massive public subsidy collapsed, culminating in a corruption scandal.

By defining the problem as “how to get the right public to participate” and “how to teach them what’s good,” he promotes iPad software that he’s creating with his Northeastern colleagues, part of which would help to create digital models of proposed projects and allow anyone to post a comment. (Thrush certainly is not alone in seeking these holy grails; see here and here.) Collecting more (and more informed) opinions won’t solve the underlying problem in Boston and other cities where real estate is the currency of wealth and power — because those making the decisions are not really interested in public input, nor in excellent city and regional development. Thrush is advancing a technological democratization of decision-making, but there is an underlying political problem, one that’s far more difficult and intractable and requires a different kind of solution.

When we have honest, responsible government, we can have intelligent, impact-based planning and effective, dependable regulation. Then citizens can stop wasting their time at false public meetings, and we can get the wise development we need for a sustainable future.