James "Arthur" Jemison II is a man with a mission. His job is to transform how Boston builds by radically restructuring the Boston Planning & Development Agency — the BPDA.

On the 2021 campaign trail, Mayor Michelle Wu termed the BPDA as "an anachronism plagued by lack of transparency and misguided priorities." She has long advocated for eliminating the agency altogether.

Chief of Planning
James Arthur Jemison II is Boston's inaugural Chief of Planning
Kwabena Shabu

Although the BPDA will be Jemison's base of operations, his title is new — and broader — as the city's chief of planning. He will take over the agency in mid-May when he wraps up his tenure as Primary Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Community Planning & Development.

In a telephone interview this week with GBH News, Jemison said implementing Wu's vision of a clearer and more community-focused review process will be key to his time on the job.

"The mayor's focus has been almost exclusively on the process and the way we do development, the way the community and developers participate in it," Jemison said when asked what will be most important about developments approved under his tenure.

Ensuring that there's a "transparent, predictable process for having development be proposed, reviewed and go into construction, and then, be evaluated for conformance with its commitments," is a major part of what will change, Jemison said, along with making sure developments fill needs as assessed by the city.

"I think the government's job is to, in part, regulate and help make sure that the market is performing in a fair and appropriate way," he said. "But another thing that the government has an opportunity to do is encourage the kind of development it wants to see."

Jemison pointed to the six years he spent leading Detroit's housing and planning departments prior to joining the Biden administration. Now, he says he's bringing his experience in Michigan marrying philanthropy and government back to Boston.

"You could just do a lot more than you might have been able to do alone — or with only one of those two forces being brought to bear," he said.

Jemison also worked within the Boston Planning and Development Agency, known then as the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), as a regional planner for Roxbury from 1998 to 2000. He hinted that a reassessment of the agency's procedures for community engagement is imminent.

Wu, who penned her "Why and How to Abolish the BPDA" campaign plan from her perch as the former chair of the council's Committee on Planning Development and Transportation, has advanced ideas including returning the agency’s property holdings back to the city, migrating the BPDA's functions back under City Council oversight and creating a planning department to reform the city's zoning code, making it more up-to-date and comprehensive.

Jemison said zoning code reform could open a path for developers to consider building different types of housing. In his view, that would help solve Boston's conundrum of needing more housing while also having strong local opposition to tall, dense, transit-oriented development in some of its best-known neighborhoods.

"Our effort to get more density of housing isn't just going to be something that takes place downtown, or in neighborhoods where the missing middle is possible," he said.

"I think there's a lot of interesting work that could be done on ADUs, or additional dwelling units, where families and other owners of single family, or two-family housing may be able to add units to their properties for their own use to help satisfy some of the market demands out there," he added. (ADUs are sometimes referred to as "in-law apartments.")

Jemison spent several years of his childhood living in Amherst public housing. Asked about how his experience reflects his approach to his new job, Jemison said it helped him understand the importance of affordable housing.

"Making sure that there's affordable housing and that affordability and the ability to succeed from affordable housing into other kinds of housing is just a very important thing to me," Jemison said. "And it's not just dollars and cents to me, but it's an essential part of why I'm doing the work and how I got interested in the work and why I think the workers are important."