Why New Boston Looks Like an Office Park

Mayor Walsh wants to transform the BRA into a functioning member of society. There are a few more things we wish he’d put on his agenda.

As Mayor Walsh wraps up his first year in office, one way he’d like us to evaluate his tenure thus far is through his cleanup of the BRA (Boston Redevelopment Authority) and its companion piece, the EDIC (Economic Development Industrial Corporations)—a work that’s still in progress. The BRA/EDIC is Boston’s hopelessly conflicted, quasi-government development agency that controls nearly every aspect of real estate in the city, including planning, permitting, and zoning. I wrote about the authority in June 2013, when Mayor Menino still ruled it with an iron fist and detailed many of the ways he used the agency to wield his power. While reporting that story, it became ever more evident to me that no one, perhaps not even those at the BRA, really knew what was going on within the agency. Working with woefully antiquated computer systems and highly compartmentalized job duties, its staffers could barely track their own leases, let alone the massive multi-million dollar payments developers were supposed to pay in lieu of affordable units in their luxury residential projects. With little outside oversight, the BRA had most likely gone rogue.

In fact, that’s exactly what Mayor Walsh’s report, conducted by KPMG, uncovered earlier this year. Among other revelations, we learned that tenants on BRA/EDIC’s own properties (which are substantial) owed nearly $4.3 million in back-rent to the agency, and that no employee in living memory had ever received an evaluation. The BRA/EDIC was, in a word, fucked.

While municipal ineptitude shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone with opposable thumbs, this particular juggernaut will plague Boston for generations. The city’s population is expanding at an astonishing rate without any kind of overall plan. I repeat: There is no master plan for Boston. We haven’t done any meaningful citywide planning since 1965. For 50 years, we’ve been growing up, out, and all over the joint, without a roadmap. As our population doubles in the next few decades, the particulars of where those new people will all live and get around, is a complete mystery. (Well, actually, anyone who takes the T knows exactly how we’ll absorb our growing population: move deeper into the train—right under someone’s armpit—and stand clear of the closing doors.) In 2014, the BRA continued to approve more enormous development projects like a drunken parent handing out beer to teens—14.5 million additional square feet are going up right now.

Mayor Walsh doesn’t want to slow down Boston’s building boom—his stump speeches promised the simultaneous reining in of the BRA and unbridled development—which is why he called a handful of journalists into a chilly 9th floor BRA conference room with BRA chief Brian Golden and several other top City Hall staffers, on the day before New Year’s Eve. His mission was to detail how much the administration had learned about the BRA’s deficiencies in the past year, and how it would address those problems moving forward. Thanks to two informal audits, he’s identified many of the roots of the BRA/EDIC’s functional squalor. In response, the agency has upgraded its systems and started to collect its debts (though big-time developer Pappas still owes $295,000, but maybe Tim Pappas is too busy racing F-1 in Dubai to write a check to the city). The agency has also paid McKinsey $450,000 to prepare a report on its planning division and come up with a list of best practices, because, the BRA has never had a functioning planning department. It doesn’t know how one might work, so it’s paying an outside agency some nice pocket change to do the research and figure it out.

A big part of me wishes the upper level staff at the BRA did their own research in this regard. You know—take a field trip and chat up a few planners themselves. Get some crazy ideas in their heads about the power of planning and what it could do for this city. Dream a little; get creative. While reporting my BRA story, I had the opportunity to dig into San Francisco’s planning department and speak with its visionary leader, John Rahaim. Yes, he told me, San Francisco has a master plan, and spends all year, every year, constantly updating that plan to reflect the eternal transportation, demographic, and economic shifts that happen to every dynamic city.

Our brief conversation opened my eyes to what we could do here if planning had independence and cojones: protected retail districts designed to support local businesses and keep out predatory chains (on Newbury Street, perhaps?); proactive upzoning to encourage density where transportation can accommodate it; a collaborative approach to traffic and infrastructure planning; and finally, pockets of affordability built into the fabric of the city.

San Francisco isn’t perfect by any means—it’s more expensive than ever—but progressive planning at least tells us where we’re heading and why. It also offers one more critical thing that we don’t have: architectural beauty. In December, when anointing our new arts czar, Julie Burros, Mayor Walsh proclaimed that he wanted new Boston to look more like a world-class city and, presumably, less like an “office park in a suburb of Dallas,” a comparison Robert Campbell coined in the Globe. I’m down with that. Sure, architecture is a subjective art to a certain extent, but if you travel to…well, anywhere else, you’ll see how poorly our buildings stand up next to their contemporaries in other aspirational cities. Walsh says he wants to get some good-looking buildings going, but I’m not sure he knows how to do that. So here’s my recommendation:

Plan proactively and zone up so that developers can build viably by right, instead of fighting for every vertical foot. The result: a more predictable project timeline, which lenders greatly appreciate, freeing up more money for stronger, more convincing 21st century architecture.

1. Educate the BRA staff on design. Walsh mentioned that the people of Boston needed to learn more about architecture so that they could support attractive projects. I think that’s bullshit. I think those in City Hall who are planning and permitting should spend as much time tending to Boston’s streets as to learning about the design and construction of other cities. And I think the BRA should use its all-powerful tax-break, permitting, and urban renewal tools to pressure developers to up their architecture game. The result: informed decision-making and a legacy of thoughtful architecture for the next generations.

2. Seize planning responsibilities from the BRA and return it to its proper place as a city-run and city-funded agency. Planning is just one of 14 divisions in the BRA. Deciding the shape of Boston’s future is merely one part of this huge bureaucratic agency that funds itself…through development. Right now, planning is development’s bitch. Whatever development wants, planning gives. That’s because the BRA houses both—they’re inextricably linked—and planning gets smacked around whenever it tries to drive the bus. The result: progressive urban design.

In that conference room, we also learned that the BRA’s operating budget was $53 million (which is a difficult number to pin down—in 2012, according to an audit, its operating budget was more like $20 million) and that no one has given much thought to how we’ll handle Olympic planning and coordination within the BRA, if we win the bid. We also learned that the BRA is strongly endorsing (and financially assisting) the first air-rights project in a generation by going over the Pike in the Fenway. This could be a precedent-setting project on many levels, not the least of which should be aesthetic.

The mayor wants to demonstrate Boston’s newest priorities: transparency at the BRA, stellar planning, and more elegant construction. Terrific. For so many years, we had a mayor with an opposing agenda. By reaching out to journalists and sharing operational reports, Walsh and Golden have taken huge steps to correct past ills. But to really test their sincerity, let’s shine the spotlight on the projects recently approved and under consideration. Let’s make sure the BRA can answer questions like: “How does this project address Boston’s current and future needs?” and “How does this building speak, architecturally, to a 21st-century Boston?” and, last but not least, “Where’s that master plan?”