Brand Scramble: The BRA Has a New Name—Does It Matter?

Boston’s planning and development agency has a new identity. Is one of the city’s most powerful offices just playing word games, or is real change afoot?

bra to bpda

Photograph via iStock

On the list of Boston’s most feared and disliked city departments—parking, tax collection, you name it—arguably none has provoked as much mind-bending fury as the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Long synonymous in the public’s mind with bulldozed neighborhoods and backroom deals that benefited a few favored developers, even the agency’s location suggests its members want to stay as far away from residents as possible, with its offices squirreled away inside the penthouse suite at City Hall, high up on the ninth floor.

The BRA, of course, knows all of this perfectly well. So what do you do if you have an image problem and you want the public to perceive you differently? When in trouble, rebrand. And make sure to use as much inoffensive language and as many euphemisms as possible.

bra to bpda logos

The organization’s old identity (above) underwent a full gut rehab (below) earlier this year.

Which is pretty much what the BRA has done, taking a page out of the crisis-management handbook and renaming itself the Boston Planning & Development Agency, or BPDA. Please note the addition of the generally positive yet vague word planning, as well as the change from authority to the far friendlier agency. After all, “authority’s a very strong word,” director Brian Golden says. “It sounds ominous and potentially oppressive, and I know that it’s how some people have perceived the organization in the past.”

Eager to shed its tarnished skin, the BPDA recently inked a hefty $670,000 rebranding deal with the design firm Continuum. Now the question before the agency is: How much steel-wooled scrubbing will it take to freshen up an institution so deeply distrusted by the people it serves?

The BPDA is determined to find out. Emerging from its six-figure chrysalis, the agency has abandoned its decades-old orange tangram logo and all-caps bravado for a gentler bluish blob you’d sooner expect from a trendy coworking space than a building authority with eminent domain at its disposal. Still, it is trying. “I can’t see around corners,” Golden says, “but I do hope that in five and 10 years from now, people who had experience with the BRA in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and early 21st century would say that this is a far more sensitive organization. And by sensitive, I mean that we really did care about getting planning right.”

The new, cuddlier-looking BPDA is already facing its first test in Roxbury. The agency has big plans for Dudley Square—where developers are looking to capitalize on the 1.2 million square feet of undeveloped, publicly owned land—including a potential 25-story, mixed-use tower. But it’s encountering strong opposition from the community and from City Councilor Tito Jackson, who says that once again, the city is going forward with ambitious plans with little input from the people affected. He calls the BPDA’s planning initiative for Dudley Square the “absolute antithesis” of how it ought to reintroduce itself, and has demanded that Golden suspend “Plan Dudley” until a housing study is conducted. “[We] will not…allow our neighborhood to be run over,” Jackson says, or “to be planned by people who haven’t sat at the table with the folks who” live there.

These optics are hardly ideal. For a lesson in how not to charm unhappy customers, the BPDA need look no further than the cable and Internet behemoth Comcast. In 2010, the company changed the name of its cable services to Xfinity in a rebranding effort to overcome years of notoriously bad customer service, only to muddy the new name with a record-breaking $2.3 million fine for improperly charging customers—not to mention all of those continued consumer complaints.

As for the BPDA, Golden says his staff is still sifting through the “logistical hassle” of ordering new business cards and committing to memory the agency’s new name, which angry residents have already suggested stands for “Boston Planned Displacement Agency.” It remains to be seen what other changes will actually take place way up there on the ninth floor.