The agency that’s responsible for managing Boston’s building boom has a new name, logo and set of strategies for connecting with its constituencies.
But as it sheds its 59-year-old handle in favor of the Boston Planning & Development Agency, it’s facing a fresh round of questions about its powerful role shaping the city’s landscape.
The Boston Redevelopment Authority was formed in 1957 to put federal urban renewal funds to work, including an infamous slum clearance program that leveled the West End neighborhood to make way for new highways and high-rises.
The flow of federal funding has long since dried up, but critics say Boston neighborhoods are under siege today from market forces pushing up rents and forcing out longtime residents. Others cite poor BRA planning in development hotspots such as the Seaport, with a paltry public realm and overwhelmed transportation network.
Transparency Improves Under Walsh Administration
Officials unveiled the new name and logo following a 14-week study by Boston-based design consultants Continuum. Other elements of the $670,000 project include ways to improve communication with residents, foster inclusiveness, build partnerships with outside groups and improve internal evaluations.
Adding “planning” to the name reflects the agency’s increased emphasis on that role, Director Brian Golden said, after having hired six new full-time planners in the past year.
While the late Boston Mayor Thomas Menino was known for his hands-on role reviewing development, the BRA’s approach has changed since Mayor Martin Walsh took office in 2014, according to observers. Walsh’s selection of Golden, a former state representative from Brighton, as the permanent director has set a new tone, said Victor Brogna, an attorney and member of the North End/Waterfront Residents’ Association.
“With Brian Golden, the BRA has become more open and more approachable,” Brogna said. “Not necessarily warm and fuzzy, but something along those lines.”
Golden last year formally apologized to West Enders for the agency’s role in displacing neighborhood residents during urban renewal. But five months later, the BRA board of directors approved Equity Residential’s proposal for a 44-story apartment tower on the Garden Garage site on Lomasney Way. The yes vote despite opposition from hundreds of West End residents dampened hopes of a more responsive BRA, Brogna said.
“Community issues have not been consistently heard and acknowledged by the BRA,” he said.
Walsh appoints four of the agency’s five directors; Gov. Charlie Baker controls the fifth seat.
With new development spilling into lower-income neighborhoods, another battleground has formed in Jamaica Plain and Roxbury over potential rezoning of the Southwest Corridor. A BRA draft report released in July estimated that 381 renter households in the area are at risk of being displaced.
The study, called Plan: JP/Rox, sets a goal of 30 percent affordable units in an estimated 4,051 new housing units that could be built in the neighborhood. Developers would get density bonuses in exchange for approval of taller structures, tied to the percentage of affordable units.
Neighborhood activists say the affordability goals are too low, and they wasted little time putting their stamp of disapproval at the conclusion of a city hall plaza ceremony to spotlight the agency’s new image Tuesday. Protesters unfurled a banner blasting the BPDA as the “Boston Planned Displacement Agency” and chanted demands for 70 percent income-restricted housing in new developments.
Spokeswoman Danielle Sommer said the group amped up their tactics after the BRA ignored their arguments during a series of community meetings earlier this year.
“When we started, nobody was yelling. There weren’t protest signs. People were speaking their minds,” Sommer said. “We’d go to meeting after meeting, we’d make the same points and nothing would change. And people got frustrated. So that idea that these plans are people-centric, I’d attest that’s highly inaccurate.”
Planning And Permitting Roles Defended
The city’s planning board was folded into the BRA’s authority in the early 1960s. Critics say development proposals end up influencing planning decisions, with proposals reviewed on parcel-by-parcel basis and neighborhood-wide impacts taking a backseat.
When Cronin Group, the owner of the Whiskey Priest and Atlantic Beer Garden property in South Boston, filed plans for a 22-story condo tower this year, the BRA amended a 16-year-old waterfront plan to accommodate the development. The Conservation Law Foundation has threatened legal action to block the project, citing state Chapter 91 regulations preserving waterfront public access.
Similar objections to piecemeal decision-making have been raised about the ongoing review of Chiofaro Cos.’ plans for two skyscrapers at the Harbor Garage site on East India Row.
Golden defended the agency’s dual role as planning and permitting authority.
“We very rarely run into people who think it would get better if we split it,” he said. “The mayor was open to thinking about it differently in 2014, but we agree that making sure that planners have direct input constantly into Article 80 (large project review) conversations and decision-making and community presentations is a good thing.”
With home prices spiraling, the Walsh administration last year set new rules for inclusion of affordable units in new housing developments including higher fees for developers who opt to support affordable housing off-site. Administration officials said the guidelines strike a balance between affordability goals and ensuring that projects can obtain private financing.
With luxury apartments and condos continuing to comprise the majority of new projects, the new policy doesn’t outweigh the displacement pressures, said Richard Giordano, community organizing director for the Fenway Community Development Corp.
“They seem to be planning for all the new Bostonians,” Giordano said. “Even with the tougher inclusionary development rules, the vast majority of what they’re building is luxury. But somebody has to do planning that creates more affordable units for people who are living here already.”
Golden said it’s important to encourage new development for affluent residents to ease supply-and-demand pressures.
“If we don’t create housing for a new population of Boston and new arrivals, there will be greater displacement and gentrification,” he said. “The pressure on existing housing stock will be untenable, and we have to create more housing stock to take the sting out of that and take the pressure out of where people live now.”