Mention the phrase “urban renewal” to someone who lives in the Boston area, and it’s a near certainty they’ll think of the West End, the working-class, multi-ethnic neighborhood that was demolished in the name of progress half a century ago.

That act was one of Boston’s defining political sins—an example of what can happen when civic leaders are allowed to take extraordinary means to pursue what they believe are enlightened ends.

Which makes Brian Golden’s job especially tough. Golden is the director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which oversees development and planning in the city, and has additional urban renewal powers in several neighborhoods. A half-century ago, the BRA used those powers, including eminent domain, to level the old West End. Now, they’re about to expire. But the BRA is trying to get them extended.

“When you look around the city of Boston in recent years, you can go to the neighborhoods, you can go to the core of downtown, and you can see some of our work using urban-renewal tools to achieve really positive outcomes,” Golden said.

“I’ll be first to acknowledge, as just about everybody at the BRA [does], that these tools, especially in the fifties and sixties, were terribly misused,” he added. “This was, ‘We’ve got to destroy the village to save the village’ attitudes. We’re out of that business.”

For over a year now, Golden and his colleagues have been pushing for a 10-year extension of 14 urban-renewal plans areas around Boston. They’ve made their case at a series of public meetings, during which they’ve stressed urban renewal’s upside.

For example, Golden says that urban renewal lets the BRA force developers to act on more than just a desire for profit. 

“You might be required to build only affordable housing,” he said. “You might be required to dedicate all or part of it to open space. There might be a requirement that you put a certain type of business in the property you redevelop—for instance, a minority- or woman-owned business.”                                                                                            

At one of those public meetings, Golden actually apologized for the West End’s destruction—the first time anyone from the BRA actually took that step.

Asked if all that outreach has worked, Golden offered a measured reply.

“We don’t have unanimity—we don’t have heaven on earth,” he said. “We realize it’s always going to be an imperfect outcome. We’d love unanimity, but the BRA has some significant past controversy attached to it, and some people will never be able to reconcile themselves to it. And I appreciate that and respect it.”

If the memory of the West End’s destruction is an obstacle for Golden and the BRA, so is terminology. Urban renewal powers can only exist in areas that are deemed “blighted.” As it seeks an extension, the BRA wants that label applied to booming neighborhoods like the Fenway, the South End, and the downtown Waterfront, including part of the North End.

Golden argues that blight doesn’t always mean what we think it does. Instead, it can refer to any condition that makes development difficult. But critics aren’t buying it.

“We’re on the Boston waterfront now, and this area was truly blighted—no one lived here except the rats,” said Ford Cavallari, the head of the North End Waterfront Residents Association. “Warehouses, many of which were abandoned. You could understand why you’d want some extraordinary powers. And that era is long gone. Long gone."

Last year, Cavallari’s group unanimously voted to oppose the BRA’s request for 10-year urban renewal extension. When it comes to blight, he says, the BRA is trying to retrofit a term whose meaning is clear.

Cavallari also argues that in today’s Boston, no one should be able to take property by eminent domain with no right of appeal. And he claims the conversations the BRA has been having are one sided.

“They’ve essentially done a road show,” Cavallari said. “They’ve presented their plan. They’ve told you the way they want it. And residents asking questions, they told you why you’re wrong."

But the BRA also seems to be listening. After pushing for ten more years of urban renewal power, it recently indicated would be okay with seven. The Boston City Council is scheduled to take up the matter on Wednesday—and there are indications that for several councilors, even that reduced figure may be too much.