A Plea to End the Madness that is the Boston Redevelopment Agency


This fall, Boston will select its first new mayor in 20 years, as outgoing Mayor Thomas Menino has declined to seek reelection. In Boston Magazine, Rachel Slade proposes a bold plan for the new administration: scrap the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), the quasi-public agency that has controlled development in the Cradle of Liberty since the urban renewal era—when the city's plutocrats razed almost a third of the city. Slade argues Menino has used the agency to reward insiders and cronies who have built a series of disjointed, ugly buildings at great public expense.

This is no plea for laissez-faire; Slade wants a kinder, gentler, more communitarian redevelopment process that can deliver the kind of neighborhoods Boston destroyed in the first place. Be that as it may, the piece is worth a read for the history and tales of wrongdoing.

Here's Slade:

"[B]y by the mid-1960s, enthusiasm for [clearcutting neighborhoods] had waned, and by the early 1970s the federal urban-renewal program had ended, at which point the BRA had to come up with other ways to fund itself.

And so it started doing what it does today—reviewing and profiting from almost every single construction project in the city. It began to focus on its role as a developer and landlord, collecting fees and rents on the properties it owned, and selling land it had acquired through eminent domain to developers, at times without a public bidding process. The enterprise was so profitable that in 1987 the authority decided to remove itself from the city budget and become completely self-financed….

As of 2010, the BRA's annual operating budget was $50 million, much of it financed by development, and its employees earned an average of $93,000, which made them some of the highest-paid workers in City Hall.

And here's how that's been working out for Boston:

The waterfront story is a tale three decades in the making. In 1981, one of America's wealthiest families, the Pritzkers, assumed development rights to 21 acres of empty parking lots along the waterfront, and began to make forward-looking plans to develop the area. Working with several world-class architects, including Robert A. M. Stern, Frank Gehry, and Cesar Pelli, they imagined a lively new neighborhood, complete with plentiful housing, retail and office space, and a hotel. Under Menino's predecessor, Mayor Raymond Flynn, the project got BRA approval to build in 1987, but was then stalled when the previous owner of the property sued the Pritzkers over the terms of the sale.

By the time the project emerged from court, Boston was in the middle of an economic downturn, and work on it didn't resume until after the city's fortunes had begun to improve, in the mid-1990s. By then, though, Menino, a former BRA employee himself, was in power. What followed was a painfully protracted bargaining period in which everything—building heights, uses, entries, exits, and payback to the community—suddenly had to be renegotiated. Side deals, shifting alliances, and legal wranglings ensued. Astoundingly, years passed before Menino's BRA finally granted its approval for the project, by which point the Pritzkers were mired in unrelated legal troubles that kept them from beginning to build. By 2005, the family had put the land up for sale, but even then they tried to hold out for a buyer who would build the public amenities, housing, and green spaces they'd worked so hard to get approvals for. City Hall, meanwhile, doubled the property taxes on the land and threatened to pull the Pritzkers' parking-lot permits, effectively increasing pressure on the family to build or sell. In frustration, they sold—to Joe Fallon [a long-time friend of Menino's].

By then, the BRA had issued official development guidelines for the waterfront properties. Nevertheless, the authority allowed Fallon to embark on a quick, cheap, and almost immediately lucrative project: a bland 18-story glass office tower with an ornamental bump-out at its midsection, now known to some architects around town as the Barnacle. Fallon received some $62 million in state and city tax credits and subsidies—to finance the project and lure the biotech company Vertex away from Cambridge, a step toward the mayor's dream of creating an Innovation District.

The Boston Globe makes the argument for keeping the BRA—but maybe just changing the name to mix things up a bit—here.