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Developing the Future: Examining Michelle Wu’s Call for Abolishment

News & Features | October 28, 2019

“We can’t afford to maintain a complicated system that only the powerful & privileged can navigate.” This quote began City Councilor Michelle Wu’s Twitter thread on an early Monday morning. The thread addressed the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) and called for its complete abolishment.

The BPDA is a public, self-funded agency that oversees the urban planning and development for the City of Boston. Though they are not a department within the city government, they work closely with Mayor Martin Walsh and a five-person council chosen by the mayor. Some of their responsibilities include selling a large number of BPDA-owned land, overseeing Boston’s preparation for climate change, and approving private development plans. However, according to Wu, it is also an agency that lacks transparency and is holding steadfast to a structure that fosters inequality.

Until 2016, the BPDA was called the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). Under this name, the BRA had “a reputation as a heavy-handed bureaucracy that favored developers over the wishes of neighborhoods.” This reputation began to take form in 1953 when the BRA completely demolished Boston’s West End neighborhood. Where Massachusetts General Hospital now stands, there used to be a large, tight-knit Italian and Jewish community.

This urban renewal plan ignored loudly-voiced disapproval from the neighborhood and eventually displaced 2,700 families. While the BRA promised the community affordable housing and the ability to return to the West End after the redevelopment finished, most of the uprooted families could not afford to come back to an area that now catered to the upper-middle class. It wasn’t until 2015—50 years later—that the BRA issued a formal apology for the rapid gentrification of a vibrant and beloved community.

In an interview with the Tufts Observer, Wu said, “When we don’t have a plan for development, the units end up going where neighbors are least organized to push back.” Further emphasizing the importance of having an agency that supports lower-income neighborhoods, she added that “the burden of climate change or traffic congestion or inequality [often] fall[s] on communities of color and lower-income areas.” 

         The BPDA has not left its problems behind in the years since the West End urban renewal. A 2014 audit of the BRA revealed that there were layers of problems within the agency that resulted in developers getting away with not paying millions of dollars in lease payments and fees. Brian Golden, Chief Executive of the BPDA, held the internal operations of the BRA responsible, stating that the agency was a “mess.”

Walsh’s mayoral campaign in 2013 stressed the desperate need for reform within the BRA. Under his lead, the BRA became the BPDA. The rebranding of the BRA was much needed to rebuild not only the agency, but also the trust between the organization and the communities within Boston. 

Ella Brady, a senior studying Urban and Environmental Planning, brought up in an email that “rebranding the BPDA is a double-edged sword—it…moves away from the BRA’s problematic past, but erases the keyword ‘redevelopment,’” a term that is deeply connected to urban renewal and gentrification in the US.

The BPDA’s website states that their goals include “partnership with communities” and planning “Boston’s future while respecting its past.” When asked for a statement about Wu’s recent tweets, the BPDA provided a list of implemented reforms since their rebranding in 2014 under Walsh. In this email, they emphasized the ways they have “improved community engagement” and created greater “transparency and accessibility.”

Walsh has worked hard with the BPDA to implement clearer documentation, open feedback events, and an entire city-wide plan called Imagine Boston 2030, all to define their vision for Boston’s future. They’ve also established a small team of “Community Engagement Managers” who focus on building relationships and reaching out to new voices within areas they are planning to build on.

Walsh’s mayoral campaign has received donations from real estate development firms that work with the BPDA.

However, Justin Hollander, a Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts, pointed out that despite all of BPDA’s efforts, the very structural nature of having a planning agency operate independently creates little transparency. The general public “absolutely [does] not” have a good understanding of what the BPDA is doing. Hollander said, “there’s a trade-off between having an opaque, not very accountable independent agency and [a clear] one that is owned by the city…[on the other hand] there is efficiency under an independent agency” when it comes to planning and building.

         Even with Walsh’s changes and efforts for greater transparency, scandal seems to follow the BPDA. On August 30, 2019, John Lynch, the Assistant Director of Real Estate—a division within the BPDA—plead guilty to tax fraud and accepting a $50,000 bribe. This bribe was given by a developer in exchange for influencing a vote in May, 2017 that resulted in a $500,000 profit for the developer. 

On September 11, 2019, a BPDA-conducted meeting erupted into chaos as the public expressed their anger over the replacement of the Harriet Tubman House with luxury condos. The Harriet Tubman House is one of the last remaining vestiges of African-American history in a gentrified South End. It serves as a community center for young African-Americans. But the funds required to keep this center open no longer exist, and the development plans have been filed with the BPDA. While a sale may be necessary, people have asked that they should facilitate the process and find buyers who “intend to use [the land] for its original, intended purpose.” 

“We need community engagement to drive everything, and right now the agency has lost trust with the community,” Wu explained to the Tufts Observer. She launched #AbolishTheBPDA after serving as the chair of the Committee on Planning, Development, and Transportation for the past two years. “I am reporting back in terms of the work that I’ve been doing…I believe it is important to…transparently state what my goals are for actions in the new term,” she said. 

“It became clear that the structure of the agency itself is one that is meant to facilitate development and rapid large-scale development at the expense of community voices. And at a time where we have really urgent problems to solve, we need to change the structure in big ways too,” Wu said. The BPDA guided under Walsh’s vision is still “not enough,” Wu stated. “The plans aren’t implemented in a way that has accountability,” she continues, plans must be executed “in a much more intentional big-picture way.”

Having an independent agency controlling both planning and development is a bit unusual, though not out of place. Hollander brings up that Pittsburg operates their planning and development like Boston does and cites that around “10 percent of other cities have their planning outside their government because city government is subjected to a lot of rules and public hearings.” However, a lot of big cities, both within and outside of Massachusetts, have these planning and development processes operating separately, and the planning committee is within the city government. 

Wu divides her new proposal into three steps, modeling her idea after cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, whose structures have separated planning from development. Her first step involves “transferring personnel and assets…back to democratic control” so that all BPDA employees are now working for the City of Boston. The second step is to “end urban renewal areas,” privately owned properties purchased and taken by the BPDA, razed, then re-distributed to selected developers to be repurposed. The final step addresses the way “the BPDA can [currently] select a developer, tenant, or purchaser without public process.” 

Wu proposes that the BPDA should comply with how other large urban renewal plans proceed under state law—a method that involves at least a hearing, public outreach, City Council approval, and conformity to a community’s general plan. After the proposal’s release, Wu says that “people are excited to engage in a big picture conversation that is more reactive and centered on community.”

However, her proposal faces some criticisms. Golden said in a statement in response to Wu’s tweets: “Proposing to abolish the BPDA ignores the reality of the present day community-based planning.” He maintains that the BPDA has made progress to “improve the development and planning process within the agency” and has “modernized outdated operational functions internally and externally.”

Hollander also said that what Wu is proposing is a “fundamental reshaping” of an entire agency and that the “odds that this proposal goes through is low” due to past practices. He stated that “Wu is probably right” when it comes to her reasons for pushing the abolishment of the BPDA, “but is it going to happen? Probably not.” When it comes to addressing the problems such as lower-income housing and traffic issues, Hollander explains that “the structure makes it so that the BPDA is directly accountable to only the mayor. The BPDA can’t solve all those problems, it is the mayor’s responsibility to do this.” 

Boston’s next mayor will decide how these problems are addressed. In response to whether her plan is feasible, Wu said that, “it would take a conversation and grassroots mobilization across the city.” This report currently acts “as a starting point to have this conversation with more specific and more detailed proposal to come through community feedback.”

While it may seem like an impossible task, there seems to be a general consensus that something in the BPDA needs to change. The landscape of urban policy and urban development is constantly evolving. Whether this advancement means abolishment or further reform has yet to be determined. However, as Wu said in her tweets, “The stakes are too high to preserve the status quo.”