Can This Man Blow up City Development without Destroying Boston?

Last year, Arthur Jemison took over the notoriously developer-friendly Boston Planning and Development Agency with the goal of reform. Can the MIT alum prevent the city from becoming an über-wealthy enclave without sacrificing its progress?

Photo by Ken Richardson

On a chilly morning last April, some of Boston’s most successful developers descended on Beacon Hill’s storied Francis Parkman House for an invite-only reception held by top city officials. After two years of social restrictions during the pandemic, it was no surprise that the 19th-century townhouse soon filled with the once-familiar din of businesspeople shaking hands and asking after one another’s families. Still, despite the celebratory atmosphere, an anxious undercurrent ran through the crowd as they waited to meet the man who could make or break their business in Boston: Arthur Jemison, Mayor Michelle Wu’s pick to lead the Boston Planning and Development Agency, the body that reviews and approves the city’s largest real estate projects.

The developers had reason to be worried. After all, Wu had staked her claim to the city’s top job on a promise to abolish the BPDA in her widely circulated 2019 white paper, in which the then–city councilor declared that the agency had “bolstered the city’s structural inequality to ensure that only a select few enjoy [Boston’s] unprecedented prosperity.” The people there that day nervously sipping coffee were among those select few, and they had not only prospered during the building boom but had also long-enjoyed the open-door policy that past mayors had maintained for decades. That door shut as soon as Wu took over. In her first six months as mayor, she declined to take any one-on-one meetings with developers, let alone engage in any of the after-hours schmoozing that has supposedly greased the skids for new projects over the years. As one developer recently complained to me, “Mayor Wu treats real estate people like a disease. She doesn’t want to get near us.”

What’s more, some developers warn that the org chart at the BPDA beneath Jemison troubles them. They say that since Wu has taken office, some of the most experienced people in the BPDA have left and been replaced with young, smart, yet inexperienced hires who don’t know how the agency works. (Wu says the demands of the pandemic and union negotiations with city workers have made it impossible for her to take one-on-one meetings with developers, while Jemison told me that “having a nice mix of old and new employees is what we’re targeting,” explaining that all the turnover is “a natural part of the process.”)

In addition, the new mayor appears committed to prioritizing community activists in the planning process. Sure, the businesspeople in the room were finally getting an audience with Wu, but they knew they had gotten second billing: This meeting was taking place the morning after the mayor had hosted a roundtable between her planning chief and the neighborhood denizens who have spent decades demanding that City Hall stop pandering to developers.

After a half hour of apprehensive mingling, the crowd that had reshaped Boston over the past three decades from a post-industrial also-ran into a global center of technology and science took their seats. Wu declared her ambition to create a more community-minded planning process, one that would correct the iniquities of the past. Then she introduced Jemison, who worked at the old Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) in the late ’90s during the early stages of a career that went on to include high-profile positions in the state and federal government, as well as several years as Detroit’s top planning official.

Jemison approached the podium, calm despite his audience’s uneasiness. He looked out on the crowd: In attendance were the giants of Boston’s real estate industry, including Thomas O’Brien of the HYM Investment Group, Joe Fallon of the Fallon Company, and Howard Cohen, founder and chairman of Beacon Communities. Half the audience were people Jemison recognized from his years in Massachusetts; the other half were debutantes to the local real estate scene.

As Jemison began to speak, there was no doubting the enormity of the task before him. He knew that reforming the system was unavoidable. Business as usual had left too many people behind during Boston’s resurgence, and the city needed more environmentally friendly and affordable housing. At the same time, some disgruntled developers were suggesting that taking their business from Boston to less-demanding regulatory environments such as New Hampshire would spare them the headache—and profit loss—of complying with Boston’s aggressive requirements, especially given the sky-high construction costs and rising interest rates that were making real estate projects increasingly difficult to get off the ground just about everywhere. If developers started running north for the border, no housing of any kind would get built. Jemison had to assure the crowd that the new regime wouldn’t turn Boston into a hostile place to build while at the same time selling them on Wu’s vision of reform.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. If Jemison fails to forge consensus and strike a balance between reform and the builders’ bottom lines, Boston could be faced with its pipeline of new projects running dry. The city garners a whopping 40 percent of its revenue from residential property taxes, and since it doesn’t have the power to raise those taxes without state approval, new buildings represent Boston’s primary avenue for growing the budget. A real estate slowdown would not only exacerbate the problematic dearth of housing, it could also jeopardize the city’s ability to offer basic services to its residents.

If all that sounds intimidating, Jemison isn’t cowed. Rather, rising to this sort of challenge is what drives him. “People making the decision every day to be together and to grow together: I’ve always wanted to be in the middle of that,” he told me. “Building that bridge.”

Photo via Franckreporter/Getty Images

Jemison has been building bridges since the start of his career. In 1995, several years after he first arrived in Boston from his hometown of Amherst to pursue a graduate degree in urban planning at MIT, he got a job with the Boston Housing Authority and the next year was assigned to the West Broadway Homes, a complex of subsidized apartments that were built in the late 1940s. By the time Jemison got to the BHA, West Broadway was three-quarters of the way through a massive renovation, and he was charged with cataloging input from residents about what to do with the dilapidated buildings that remained.

West Broadway had been conceived as a whites-only building, but began admitting people of color after the NAACP’s Boston Branch won a lawsuit against the city in 1988. Eight years later, Black men like Jemison still generally steered clear of Southie, but he had a job to do. Walking past West Broadway’s courtyard, he found his way to a conference room and opened the door. He was met with a cloud of cigarette smoke; inside, the women who had gathered immediately broke off their conversation. Like every week, Jemison took a seat and asked what the BHA could do to help. Though the first few meetings were tense, Jemison says, he eventually got to a point with the group where they could share a laugh as easily as they shared ideas for their building.

Despite the many obstacles Jemison encountered in those years, he looks back at the West Broadway Homes and confidently declares, “I know those moms with the Pall Malls liked me because they knew I was trying to help them.” It was a small victory in the grand scheme of things, but the ability of a Black man from out of town to win over the tenants of one of Boston’s last redoubts of segregation set a tone for Jemison’s career. Not only would he negotiate uncomfortable situations, he would figure out how to use them as a means of building trust and a sense of shared purpose.

Jemison’s approach to consensus-building was simple: show up, listen, and figure out where there was common ground. It worked during a four-year stint in Washington, DC, where he helped revive the city’s downtown, and then back in Boston at Massport, where he contributed to the renewal of Eastie’s waterfront. Nowhere was it more effective, though, than in Jackson Square. For decades, the neighborhood was struggling to recover from the battles of the 1960s and ’70s, when the BRA had bulldozed hundreds of homes and businesses to make way for the proposed Southwest Expressway. The community managed to stop that highway from being built, but even after the Orange Line was relocated to the corridor, empty lots dominated the neighborhood until the early 2000s, when three nonprofit developers teamed up to stitch the area back together.

The community had rebutted the earlier efforts of one of these three groups, Urban Edge, which tried to build a development that included a Kmart directly across from the T station. Fearing that the introduction of a big-box store would prove ruinous to the neighborhood’s small businesses, community leaders sent a letter to the city comparing the research the developer had done on the project site to “the studies on nicotine addiction done by the tobacco companies.”

The outcry stalled development for years—until, that is, the developers brought in Jemison in 2006 to ensure that their Jackson Square project became a reality. Working for a private consultancy called GLC Development, Jemison created a new, more collaborative process for the city, residents, and developers to negotiate achievable community benefits. This process helped developers avoid what Bart Mitchell of the Community Builders describes as the too-common pitfall of “over-promising and pissing people off” when they can’t deliver.

Though the neighborhood had previously been viewed as uniquely hostile to development, Jemison facilitated a negotiation process that left activists feeling so invested in the project proposal that a local teenager was the one who presented it to the BRA. “I don’t think he ever leaves somebody mad at him,” says Carol Gladstone, one of the founding partners of GLC. “It’s no drama. He takes all the input he needs and distills it down to something that’s common sense.”

Jemison left the private sector for Deval Patrick’s administration, where he ran a project to provide more housing for the state’s unhoused population, before heading to Detroit, where he eventually became the city’s top planning official. His work rekindling development in one of America’s most notoriously beleaguered cities made him a natural pick for a position at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development when President Joe Biden took the White House.

It was that role that brought him back to Boston last February to oversee a federal census of the city’s unhoused population. Late into the night, Jemison walked from alleyway to alleyway downtown, talking with people who had nowhere else to go. This was the first time Mayor Wu had met Jemison, and she was impressed. “It was amazing to see someone who was in such a high-level position at the federal level still passionate about how those policies would connect with people who needed housing and were living on the street in the cold,” she says. Wu had found her new planning chief.

Helming the BPDA, the long-criticized agency that Mayor Wu promised to abolish, Arthur Jemison has his work cut out for him.

Days after Jemison settled into his new job in Boston this past June, he was back at a familiar place, standing in Jackson Square for an apartment-building ribbon-cutting ceremony at 25 Amory Street. It was much more than a celebration of one building’s debut, however. The ceremony was a tribute to the square’s transformation, which seemed to have reached a tipping point. Where once the vacant lots at the corner of Centre Street and Columbus Avenue represented a gash dividing Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, the intersection was now anchored by a handsome mid-rise apartment building with a daycare on the first floor—definitely not a Kmart. Upstairs, 10 of the building’s 103 units were specifically designated for the formerly unhoused. Across the street, two sites representing another 175 affordable homes were under construction, and 25 Amory itself had just added 44 designated affordable units to the mix, most of them large enough for a family to occupy.

It was a poignant moment for Jemison to see the consummation of the collaborative effort he participated in nearly two decades ago during his stint in the private sector. “It took all of us working together to execute the [Jackson Square] project,” Jemison remembers thinking at the ceremony. Still, Jemison wasn’t there to look in the rearview mirror, but to contemplate how this success could be replicated citywide.

Making the kind of transparent, collaborative process used in Jackson Square standard operating procedure across all of Boston means moving away from reviewing individual projects one at a time and toward a neighborhood-wide approach that allows citizens to give input into the overall direction of the community, rather than having the same fights about affordable housing and green space for every new building that gets proposed. “People are tired of going to meetings every single night,” Wu says of her conversations with both community leaders and developers, “rallying over and over and over again without any predictability about where the process would end up.” Worse still, sometimes the victories residents achieve through those meetings don’t materialize. As longtime Fort Point resident Steve Hollinger says, “The obligations and commitments made during permitting are routinely amended out with no accountability.”

Over the summer, Jemison got to test-drive a more holistic approach to development in Allston and Brighton, overseeing the completion of a neighborhood study for the Western Avenue corridor. “Chief Jemison showed a lot of leadership,” says Tony D’Isidoro, the head of the Allston Civic Association. “They had countless workshops and meetings, community input, the whole nine yards.” These sorts of neighborhood studies were a common feature of the Walsh administration; the difference is that the BPDA is now seeking to make neighborhood plans legally binding, rather than simple recommendations developers can opt into.

Of course, changing up business as usual risks driving developers out of Boston entirely. That fear is what state Senator Lydia Edwards—who worked on fair housing when she was on the city council—says animated Mayor Marty Walsh’s deference to the builders. “I could give a rat’s ass,” Edwards says of those concerns. “If they’re building for everybody except the poor or the middle class or people of color, then the fact that they would stop causing harm is okay by me.”

Jemison, though, is sensitive to the risk of losing developers to more lax markets like New Hampshire. He knows that to be effective and benefit the city, any changes the BPDA makes will have to empower not just community groups but developers too—after all, they’re the ones who actually put up the money to finance the city’s growth. To figure out how to bring developers and activists together around the common cause of reform, Jemison rehearsed the sorts of conversations he’d need to have with both groups during internal BPDA meetings. Prataap Patrose, who has worked at the agency since the 1980s and now serves as a senior adviser to Jemison, says this involved a somewhat unconventional role-playing technique. “He’d play the developer for a minute and then play the mayor for a minute,” Patrose says. “What he wanted to see was, How will the staff react if a developer said this or the mayor said this or a community member said that? He wanted to know so that he could go be an advocate for the staff when he’s out there talking to all those different interest groups. In my many years at the agency, I’ve never seen a director be so transparent about their decision-making process.”

Mayor Michelle Wu promised to abolish the BPDA when she was campaigning for mayor. / Photo via the Boston Globe/Getty Images

The general mood of Boston’s real estate developers had rarely been gloomier than when they met Jemison in April at the Parkman House. Over the past two years, they’d been forced to adapt to an array of new building requirements in Boston—and for some, keeping all of those balls in the air while still turning a profit was becoming untenable, especially as interest rates and the price of construction materials soared. “Very few deals pencil out at this moment,” says the Mount Vernon Company’s Bruce Percelay. “When you layer in requirements for additional affordable housing, neighborhood mitigation costs, and the protracted permitting process, the incentives to build new housing are being seriously diminished.”

Nevertheless, as Jemison’s resonant baritone voice filled the Parkman House, laying out his vision for the BPDA, even some of the most skeptical builders began to find themselves nodding along. Jemison told those assembled before him that the needs of the city had changed profoundly since the 1950s, when the agency was first created. Jemison remarked that while the tools might be similar, and the desire is similar, the objectives are different. Before, the agency’s priority had been to appease private interests looking to invest in a city that needed a boost. Now, Boston was contending with the “challenges of strength,” namely the need to combat displacement caused by spiking housing costs.

Eager to get their few moments with him, members of the crowd approached Jemison as soon as he finished speaking. Jemison chatted with old acquaintances like Fallon, Cohen, Percelay, and Don Peebles and introduced himself to new faces like Herby Duverné. HYM’s O’Brien, who first hired Jemison at the Boston Redevelopment Authority to do community outreach in Roxbury when O’Brien was serving as the agency’s director in the ’90s, was impressed with his protégé’s performance. Since the Parkman House meeting, he’s come to see how the reforms Mayor Wu has tasked Jemison with carrying out could end up relieving much of the builders’ anxiety. “She’s trying to create a more predictable planning process,” O’Brien says. “When you say that out loud, that is absolutely a pro-business agenda.”

Of course, it would take more than a good speech to get the developers fully on board. As soon as he officially took over the BPDA, Jemison organized a marathon of meetings and public commitments for himself, appearing at not just formal real estate ribbon-cuttings like the one for 25 Amory Street but also major social events for developers, like the United Way’s annual Real Estate Breakfast, which was held at the Lawn on D in October. “He’s out all the time, he listens to projects, he moves things forward,” says Richard Taylor, a veteran of the city’s real estate scene. “I don’t know when he sleeps, frankly.”

When it came to actually getting stalled projects moving forward, Jemison had a big, early win when he broke the stalemate that had emerged between Harvard and the Allston community over the university’s multibillion-dollar Enterprise Research Campus. Harvard and its development partner, Tishman Speyer, had filed their first detailed plans for the campus expansion back in January 2021. After close to a year’s worth of negotiations with the neighborhood’s residents, a citizen task force issued a 25-page letter to the city that October spelling out a range of objections to the proposal, including the low percentage of its 345 apartments that would be designated as affordable. Wu began meeting with officials at Harvard about addressing the community’s concerns shortly after she took office, but despite months of back and forth, it wasn’t until Jemison got involved with the discussions that the university began to budge.

In June, a special meeting was called in the Eagle Room at City Hall. Steps away from Wu’s desk, the mayor and Jemison sat down with members of the Harvard-Allston Task Force, elected officials from the neighborhood, and representatives from both Harvard and Tishman Speyer, with the conference room’s namesake bronze eagle providing a suitably grandiose backdrop to the discussion. After Jemison articulated the city’s desire to get the project moving, Mayor Wu turned not to Tishman’s Michelle Adams, who was seated directly next to her, but instead to the community representatives, including Tony D’Isidoro, for comment.

D’Isidoro reiterated the need for more affordable housing in the development. The Harvard-Allston Task Force believed that the current 17 percent commitment was unacceptable and wanted to see that proportion boosted to 33 percent. Jemison jumped in. “Here’s a proposal that we think confirms a lot of the things you guys have been fighting for,” he said, before running through a list of concessions that Tishman and Harvard were prepared to make. With regard to the housing mix, they were willing to push the affordable housing commitment up to 25 percent.

Rather than maintaining a typical negotiating game face, D’Isidoro and the other task force members were jubilant. “That was the first test of a major development,” says Richard Taylor, who—in addition to being a developer—is the director of the Center for Real Estate at Suffolk University. “Arthur came in and got it done in fairly short order.” Within weeks, Tishman had gone public with its revised plan, backed by D’Isidoro and the rest of the task force, and the megaproject was approved by the BPDA’s board.

Rather than shy away from mediating between antsy developers and emboldened community members, Jemison says he revels in the pressure coming from both sides.

Jemison may have made considerable headway in his short time on the job, but he still faces a tall building to climb when it comes to executing the full suite of reforms Wu has promised.

Take a look at the math. The city of Boston, Wu has said, is on pace for its population of 675,000 to grow to more than 800,000, the size it peaked at in 1950. To get there, the city will have to add more than 50,000 housing units—and that’s before taking into consideration the backlog of homes Boston needs to build to account for its share of the statewide 200,000-unit shortfall that has produced the current affordability crisis. For Boston to reach that mark over the next decade, housing production will have to nearly double from the 3,000-odd units that are currently built every year.

Jemison is unshaken by the magnitude of the transformation that kind of growth will require. “How do we do the things that add up to the big change? That’s what I’ve been focused on,” he says. “There’s not a moment where someone says a really big yes. There are moments where people say a lot of little yeses.” One of the cities Jemison told me the BPDA is looking to as a model is Seattle, which undertook a series of incremental zoning reforms between 2017 and and 2019, and is on the way to hitting a five-year record in new apartment construction.

Of course, updating Boston’s woefully antiquated zoning and streamlining the planning process won’t have much of an effect if the local housing market is derailed by the broader economy. Given how lofty interest rates and construction costs have become, the ability of builders to keep up with demand is already beginning to fray. “Even if you can find a construction loan,” says developer O’Brien, “a new residential project does not work. It might be that small buildings across the city—three, four, five-unit projects—work, but the projects that were 100 units, 150 units, 250 units, those do not underwrite today.”

Complicating matters further are the extra costs associated with the reforms that are already in place. When I raised the concern to Jemison that even more new rules would put a damper on Boston’s growth, he was empathetic but unapologetic. “The thing [developers are] most scared of is the lack of predictability of the system,” he said, adding that engaging the community from the outset as the BPDA seeks to rezone and create whole neighborhood plans will alleviate that anxiety. These plans, he says, will give developers a clear roadmap that allows them to move through the permitting process faster. Wu’s pre-election plan to abolish the BPDA also called for streamlining the permitting process, so it’s all done through one office instead of at multiple agencies. Since time is money in the real estate world, Jemison believes that increased predictability and streamlining may even create savings that offset the more stringent requirements around housing and climate resiliency. “If you’re spending your own money to do the equity portion of the development, losing six months creates a huge amount of anxiety,” he notes.

Rather than shy away from mediating between antsy developers and emboldened community members, Jemison says he revels in the pressure that’s being applied to him from both sides. In any city, some constituencies welcome reform, while others are slow to budge. “Bringing those people together around an idea of change that they can get behind is something I feel like I’ve spent time implementing as a staff person, a department head, and a leader of other department heads,” he says. Put another way, this is the work he’s been doing at every stage of his career, from finding common ground with those raspy-voiced residents in Southie to breaking stalemates in Jackson Square and Allston. Now, Jemison has a chance to build a legacy that leaves the city a more equitable place than he found it when he first arrived here 30 years ago. “This is the city where I came of age, where my mentors taught me to do the work,” Jemison says. “Someone asked me at one of those events this summer, ‘Why did you come back?’ I said, ‘If Boston’s going to change, I need to be part of it changing.’”

Still, critical questions loom over the agency: What happens if the permitting process is completely reworked and the city is fully rezoned, yet Boston still can’t build enough housing? What else can be done to prevent the city from becoming a rarefied enclave of the über-wealthy? What if the developers make good on their threats and flee? These concerns often make their way into meetings at the BPDA. But when the conversation comes to a quavering standstill, Jemison will look around the table with a coy smile and ask, “Are we having fun?” Sometimes he gets laughs, sometimes eyerolls. But he always answers his own question with the same reply: “I’m having fun.”

First published in the print edition of the January 2023 issue, with the headline “Under Construction.”