Boston City Councilor-At-Large Michelle Wu, in a detailed study released Monday, is calling for the abolition of the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), the quasi-independent entity that exercises enormous economic and political influence citywide through its supervision of major residential and commercial development.
In its place, Wu is calling for the creation of a Planning Board and a Department of Planning inside City Hall that would handle long term city planning, development approvals and zoning changes under the joint oversight of the city council and the mayor.
With more oversight given to the city council, Wu hopes the new entities will focus on master planning — tackling issues like climate resiliency, long-term transportation infrastructure, and how to build housing to accommodate projected city growth — rather than one-off developments. She also hopes that it will make Boston’s zoning process more reflective of the desires and needs of the community.
Wu’s idea for creating a more robust department dedicated to long term planning, she said, is inspired by cities like Philadelphia and Seattle, both of which have master plans up through 2035 that are revised every one and five years, respectively.
The report, titled “Fixing Boston's Broken Development Process: Why & How to Abolish the BPDA,” has been in the works for nearly a year, said Wu, who is widely seen as a potential challenger to Mayor Marty Walsh in 2021. During his unsuccessful 2017 mayoral run, former City Councilor Tito Jackson made a similar, though less detailed, pitch to voters.
According to Wu, the BPDA is at the root of the city’s housing crisis, directly contributing to racial inequities and catering to well-connected developers rather than residents of communities that are being developed.
“I think the agency needs to be abolished, and that’s that,” Wu said in an interview with WGBH News. “It was set up at a time when the federal government was pushing urban renewal, and the goal was to demolish entire swaths of a city that were seen as the slums or blighted and put in new shiny buildings that the people who had been living there before couldn’t afford to come back to use.”
Mayor Marty Walsh said in a statement that during his first campaign he had "serious concerns" about the organization, which at the time was called the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA).
"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," he said. "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 and 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.”
Brian Golden, director of the BPDA, said in a written statement that Wu's proposal "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."
Golden also noted that the agency has created more than 100,000 jobs and 6,000 new income-restricted housing units since 2014.
“Under Mayor Walsh, the Boston Planning and Development Agency transformed from an agency stuck in the past to a vehicle for community engagement to guide inclusive growth that respects the history of each of Boston’s unique neighborhoods," he added. "Linking our planning and development review departments allows the city’s planners and development review staff the opportunity to work hand in hand, helping to ensure that new development fits within the context of a neighborhood and is responsive to the needs of the community."
The BRA was founded in 1957. Its mission was to take advantage of federal funds granted by the Housing Act of 1949 to help cities demolish slums and make them available for private development. In 1961, to helm the BRA, Mayor John Collins tapped urban planner Ed Logue, who had made a name for himself as an urban makeover artist in New Haven.
Logue supercharged the BRA by consolidating both planning and development under a single roof. He further consolidated political capital by making the BRA not only the conduit for a growing pool of federal funds, but in taking charge of where those funds would be spent.
Over the last several decades, the BRA has controlled everything from conceptualization to approving which plots would be built, while also controlling the flow of money towards development projects.
Throughout the mayoralties of Collins, Kevin White, Ray Flynn, Tom Menino, and now Marty Walsh, the BRA, which was rebranded as the BPDA in 2016, has been the most powerful force controlling construction and development in Boston. In 2016, when Walsh re-named the agency, he said he also planned to make it more receptive to community outreach and mend the often caustic relationship between developers and residents.
“It's not necessarily structural changes that are needed. It's internal changes, making sure that people's voices are heard internally and making sure that as we talk about planners, it's not a top-down approach, it's a bottom-up approach,” Walsh told WGBH News in 2016. “And I think you have to make sure we get all people included in the process.”
Wu argues that since its inception, the BPDA has not been aligned with the interests and needs of the city. Since the agency directly answers to the mayor, she said, the agency receives minimal to no input from the communities where land is being re-zoned and developed. And due to a requirement that the agency be funded through the revenue it generates from land sales, it has more incentive to approve commercial or luxury real estate projects rather than affordable housing units.
“We’re not aligning all of the resources and the goals to be able to make a difference,” Wu said. “The way that we’re doing development now is exacerbating income inequality, is exacerbating congestion and traffic, is exacerbating our climate resiliency struggles [and] making affordability a lot more difficult.”
Wu is concerned that the lack of community engagement in development is increasing racial inequities within the city. According to a 2018 report by the Institute for Policy Studies, of 1,805 luxury condo units the study looked at, 64 percent do not claim a residential exemption, and in 2015 no black or Latino families received a mortgage loan in the Seaport or Fenway neighborhoods.
The explosion of luxury condo developments in the last decade has also reduced the stock of affordable housing in proportion to population increases leading to gentrification that has largely displaced communities of color, according to a report published in May by the Boston Foundation.
One idea Wu floated in the report is to create a model Community Benefits Agreement for the city. Model Community Benefits Agreements are contracts between developers and communities that require developers to provide a certain set of community benefits based on the size and scope of a project in exchange for being allowed to build; cities like Portland, Oregon and Detroit have been using them since 2012.
“‘Where do you see people of color in the city?’ is a pretty distressing question if you’re asking it in all parts of the city,” Wu said. “We see in Boston that it’s not just segregation by race in different neighborhoods of the city, but it’s also that the stratification of income lines up exactly along racial lines.”
In the report, Wu references “scandal after scandal, audit after audit,” seemingly referring to several recent controversies involving former members of the BPDA, ZBA and the Inspectional Services Department (ISD). On Sept. 12, John Lynch pleaded guilty to receiving a $50,000 bribe from a developer in exchange for influencing the vote of a Zoning Board of Approval in 2017. As the investigation into Lynch’s bribery was underway, Walsh aide William Christopher resigned from his position due to being the original architect for the development at the center of the bribery scandal. Christopher had been the head of the ISD for five years.
Earlier in September, ZBA member Craig Galvin, who was appointed by Walsh in 2016, abruptly resigned. An investigation by WGBH News found several instances of Galvin voting to approve a development project he would later go on to act as a real estate broker for, though Galvin has not been officially implicated in any wrongdoing and did not mention a reason for resigning.
Wu does not implicate Walsh in the scandals, but she says she does take grievance with the fact that the BPDA and ZBA are heavily influenced by the mayor, with little role for oversight from the city council. She said that she hopes that an independent Planning Board and Planning Department will be more responsive to the council, and thus the needs of the city.
In addition to eliminating the BPDA, Wu is also calling for the end of Urban Renewal Areas. Not only would this mean eliminating the city’s ability to demolish homes in an area considered “blighted,” it would also remove the ability of the city to fast track an approval for a development without including a public comment period. While Wu does not explicitly state a plan for how the city will increase public participation in development, she has said the city should make use of technology like email notifications and the city website to make the public more aware of when public hearings are occurring in their neighborhoods. In the report, Wu also cites New York City’s method of empowering local community boards based throughout neighborhoods as an efficient way of receiving community feedback.
If implemented, Wu’s proposal could have dramatic, long-term impacts on the revenue the city collects. In fiscal year 2020, 71 percent of the city’s budget was generated via property taxes. Wu, however, said that her proposals are not meant to stymie or end development, but to make sure that development is attuned to the needs of residents rather than a small cable of private interests.
“What replaces what we have now is not about stopping development,” Wu said. “It’s not about ending the ability for new growth to happen in the city, but just to manage it in a way that it aligns with the city’s long term goals and its future.”
Wu said she understands that the project is ambitious and will require working with the state legislature to officially disband the BPDA. But, she is concerned that Boston is at a precarious point in the city’s history. Wu said that while the city is enjoying a surplus of wealth in economic and cultural talent, a lack of long term planning will render Boston stagnant in a few decades compared to cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia and New York.
“Every other city in the country is looking to Boston, coveting our economic resources, our educational institutions, the level of activism of people wanting to be involved, and housing is another example where we have the resources, but we’re not addressing the issues on the front end,” Wu said. “We’re waiting and being proactive rather than planning and setting out a vision of how this all fits together.”
This story has been updated to include statements from Mayor Marty Walsh and BPDA Director Brian Golden.