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Questioning the Authority

Don't Fix What Isn't Broken

by Rebecca G. Barnes FAIA
Mayors personify a cost-benefit balance calculation through their actions, decisions, and policies, creating a kind of urban economic ecology. The administration of Thomas Menino wielded the Boston Redevelopment Authority as a principal tool for distributing the benefits of economic develop-ment, as have Boston's mayors since the BRA's creation in 1957. Neighborhoods, institutions, and downtown have unquestionably shared the benefits of the city's deployment and stewardship of economic and land-use resources.

​One wonders why the BRA is criticized so constantly. In fact, it should be: Its exercise of municipal power deserves watchful oversight. Our democracy works only when we engage each other in dialogue about our goals, our path to realizing those goals, the tools we use on the path, and how well the results embody our values­—including equity and wise use of resources. Whether the BRA is the best tool or even a good tool has been scrutinized from its inception without substantial alteration of its charter or practices.

Evidence of this successful balancing act is everywhere in the city. Look at the erasure of the Combat Zone and its replacement with a wide range of housing types and affordability, from Emerson College to Downtown Crossing; the health of the Back Bay, Chinatown, North and West Ends; and the city's crown jewels: its Emerald Necklace, Rose Kennedy Greenway, and Harbor Islands. Consider the focused planned development around new MBTA Silver and Indigo Line stations and continued development of Orange Line station areas. Note the consistent and continued efforts to successfully turn around Dudley Square and improve the vitality of neighborhood business districts as varied as Mattapan, Washington Street, Dorchester Avenue, and Allston.

That the Boston of 2014 is a kinder, safer, and more broadly attractive and accessible city than it ever has been almost goes without saying, but it shouldn't, because this is the proof of the pudding. The BRA brings together urban-planning and economic-development expertise and engages Boston's civic, business, and community leaders in its effort to shape the city physically, economically, socially, and culturally. Yes, there is politics throughout it all, and sometimes it stinks, but it also has been effectively focused on a vision. For Mayor Menino, it was a vision of all Bostonians sharing in the opportunities and benefits accruing from Boston's renaissance—of neighborhood investment fueled by downtown, Back Bay, Innovation District, and Big Dig investments.

One BRA elder I worked with used to assert that zoning is merely a guideline, believing more in the mitigations or deals that Boston uses to adjust development proposals and address the fine points of neighborhood and economic contexts. For Boston's new leadership, the vision may be articulated by a citywide strategic plan, as some have suggested; it may be articulated in detailed zoning and design review criteria worked out through a public consensus process, as some other cities do.

Still, zoning is but one of the many tools at hand. Good, professional urban planning enhances the city's ability to develop a shared vision and use its resources to achieve it. This requires a sense of mission and service in pursuit of excellence, as it has been within the BRA.

Some might counsel not to try to fix what works pretty well; just update it. Others say that the functions must be separated, isolating planning from development's dominant influence. The trick is to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Don't imagine that separating development from planning will result inevitably in a better use of resources, fairer outcomes, or a more beautiful and functional city. Those are results gained only from the exercise of political will and a deep understanding of the complex motivations and capacities essential to realizing a shared vision of the next Boston. ■


What's Wrong with 'As of Right'? 

by James G. Kostaras
Just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, I was invited to MIT to describe the Boston Redevelopment Authority to a large delegation of Russian urban planners led by Dr. Leonid Puterman, director of what was then Leningrad's powerful planning authority. Members of the Russian delegation marveled at the influence and the powers of the BRA—taking private property by eminent domain; buying, selling, and​ owning real estate; and dictating how private property could be used—all without having to be accountable to anyone except the mayor. They concluded that they could learn a lot from the BRA because it functioned like a former Soviet-era government agency (paraphrasing their words). The irony wasn't lost on me when one of the Russian apparatchiks admiringly referred to the BRA director as the "development czar."

The BRA is a formidable organization with broad powers to buy and sell property and grant tax concessions to encourage development. Through eminent domain, the BRA has amassed a large real estate portfolio, including the Charlestown Navy Yard, Rowes Wharf, and Quincy Market. No city in the United States has an organization like it. More than functioning as the city's planning regulator, the BRA is, in fact, a public-sector not-for-profit developer and real estate asset manager, self-financed by the proceeds from rent, ground leases, and equity from its real estate portfolio (not city taxpayers).

The BRA is also the city's planning and zoning agency, and combines these powers for even greater control over development by "negotiating" zoning. In theory (and in practice in many major cities), zoning dictates what you can build as of right, or under specific conditions, and serves as a tool to implement a comprehensive plan that reflects a public consensus about the city's future. By contrast, today in Boston, the BRA uses zoning as a starting point for a long, protracted negotiation. Skeptical citizens correctly demand transparency, reject insider deal making, and challenge institutions with concentrated discretionary powers to negotiate the rules—such as zoning. This is an outdated model of governance that doesn't inspire trust or resonate with the aspirations of 21st-century citizens.

It would be a mistake to eliminate the BRA, but it needs a new mission. It has all the right tools for the 21st century: a talented professional staff, financial resources, and a bundle of statutory powers that can be harnessed for the public interest. The BRA is ripe for reform, but unwinding it will require a careful transformation that does not undermine Boston's steadily improving economy.

So here's a road map for a new administration: Have the BRA create a new citywide strategic plan that involves people from every community in the long-term future of the city. Shift the BRA's planning functions into a new, separate city planning department, adequately funded through the city's operating budget, to regulate development and draft as-of-right zoning that reflects the intent of the strategic plan. And reenergize the BRA as a public not-for-profit developer to create jobs, housing affordable to all Bostonians, and entrepreneurial opportunities for economic growth.

A mission-driven BRA would have a big toolbox to jump-start new development in those remaining areas of the city with untapped potential for economic development, such as Dudley Square in Roxbury, Sullivan Square in Charlestown, and the neighborhoods along Dorchester's Fairmount Line. This is how the BRA transformed Boston from a city in economic decline in the 1960s to one of the most vibrant 21st-century cities in the nation—an inspiration for any ex-Soviet apparatchik. ■