Michelle Wu Wants to Take a Wrecking Ball to the BPDA

She's got a plan that would completely change Boston's development process.

michelle wu

Photo via AP/Elise Amendola

Much like the Boston Redevelopment Authority a half century ago helped raze Boston’s vibrant West End, City Councilor Michelle Wu says it’s time to smash the Boston Planning & Development Agency to smithereens.

On Monday, Wu released a plan to “abolish” the powerful agency (which took on its new name after a rebranding effort in 2016) that would overhaul Boston’s unusual and decades-old system for how buildings are approved and built in the city. The plan would make the agency more accountable to the public at a time when the rising cost of housing has become a frontline issue in the city, Wu says, and put more power in city government’s hands to emphasize affordability, transportation, climate change readiness, and other concerns over maximizing profit and property tax revenue.

“We are a city of tremendous resources, and we can chart a better path forward by leaving behind outdated structures and removing barriers to participation,” Wu says in a statement. “Meeting our challenges with urgency and scale will require considering the interconnectedness of these issues and empowering everyone to take part. We can’t afford to maintain a complicated system that only the most privileged and powerful can navigate.”

The plan calls for a city government takeover of the BPDA, which currently operates as a private entity that reports to the mayor. In her vision for what could happen, all of the BPDA’s assets and its 252 full-time employees would be transferred to city offices, planning authority would be put under the control of a Planning Department, and a master planning process would be undertaken by a Planning Board. It also calls for abolishing “urban renewal areas,” the roughly 3,000 acres of city land in which the BPDA is given special powers and exemptions to rules in order to spur development.

Ultimately, fully unwinding the BPDA would require votes from the City Council and approval from the mayor’s office, as well as state legislation. Wu plans to hold a gathering Monday night at Union United Methodist Church in the South End, which she said would be the first of many “community listening sessions” held around the city. She also launched a website called AbolishtheBPDA.com.

The proposal has the support of former Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Jim Aloisi, who says in a statement that the BPDA “is not fully responsive to 21st century needs and realities.”

This new campaign more or less tees up a direct confrontation with the Walsh administration. Wu, who holds considerable sway on the City Council and was the top vote-getter in last month’s at-large preliminary election, is rumored to be eyeing a run against Walsh in 2021. She has also made other sweeping policy proposals, including adding residential parking permit fees and wiping out fares on the MBTA.

Walsh on Monday defended the way his office has handled the agency since he took office in 2014, including a master planning process that produced the city’s Imagine Boston 2030 plan in 2017. Under Walsh, the BPDA has sought to change the public’s perception of its role in development by rolling out new community engagement processes and making documents more easily accessible on the BPDA’s website, among other measures. It has also seen construction of some 30,000 units of housing, a fifth of which is “income-restricted,” according to the BPDA.

“When I first ran for Mayor, I had serious concerns about how decisions were made at the then-Boston Redevelopment Authority,” Walsh said in an emailed statement. “I immediately ordered an outside review of the BRA and put in place significant reforms to bring transparency, integrity and accountability to our development and planning processes across the city. We launched Boston’s first citywide plan in 50 years that, through the input of more than 15,000 residents, now serves as a framework to preserve and enhance our city. And it’s through Imagine Boston 2030 that the now-Boston Planning & Development Agency is running an unprecedented number of planning studies citywide where the community is our most important partner. Today, we have an agency that, for the first time, uses community engagement to guide growth that is inclusive and respects the history of each of our unique neighborhoods.”

BPDA Director Brian Golden also defended his agency’s work in a statement. “While there is still more work to do, I am proud of the progress that has been made to not only improve the development and planning process within the agency, but modernize outdated operational functions internally and externally,” he says. “Proposing to abolish the BPDA ignores the reality of the present day community-based planning agency, and discredits the hard working staff who are in our neighborhoods every single day engaging residents on how we prepare for Boston’s future.”