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Mayoral Hopeful Michelle Wu On Abolishing The BPDA, Reviving Downtown And The Lab Boom

Boston At-Large City Councilor Michelle Wu isn’t shy about shaking up Boston’s development infrastructure, making the issue a linchpin of her mayoral campaign.

Wu on Wednesday will unveil the latest iteration of her affordable housing platform, which ties into her goals of restructuring City Hall — particularly the functions that directly oversee the real estate industry. Wu explained why in an interview with Bisnow on Monday, but the progressive mother of two also pitched an idea to revitalize the city's urban core, which she called "the key to our recovery."

“Let's facilitate conversations about how we can get on-site childcare in every one of our large office buildings so that when employees do come in person there, there's one less worry with being able to have your young kids on-site,” Wu said in a phone conversation. “There are lots of uses with the space as we recover that we can think about connecting the other parts of our infrastructure that are much needed in families’ lives."

Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu speaking at Union Church in the South End in 2019.

Wu, with $1.2M raised to date, leads the Democratic primary field of six candidates, including acting Mayor Kim Janey, in fundraising. She earned an endorsement from former professor and boss U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren in January. She trailed colleague At-Large Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George 22% to 18% in a poll released earlier this month, although 29% of voters remain undecided.

The Chicago native graduated from Harvard Law School and was elected to the Boston City Council in 2013 at the age of 28. She became the city’s first woman of color to serve as council president after being elected by her peers in 2016, and she lives in the Roslindale neighborhood.

She’s been willing to challenge long-standing city institutions like Boston’s Planning and Development Agency, which she proposed abolishing in a 72-page report released in 2019. Developers have given the least amount of campaign donations to Wu among the field, according to an April Boston Globe analysis.

Wu spoke about her affordable housing platform Monday at a press conference in front of the Egleston Square Branch of the Boston Public Library, a facility above which the city has mulled building housingBisnow spoke with Wu after her press conference about her vision for Boston if elected mayor, including her calls for development reform.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Bisnow: You said Monday, “We'll never get to closing our housing crisis just by allowing for the types of housing the private market would build and hope it trickles down.” You also said you'd spend $200M of federal relief funds for housing solutions including direct construction by the city and a rise in Inclusionary Development Policy requirements. As mayor, what other tools could you use to encourage developers to build affordable housing?

Wu: Thinking about density bonuses for affordability, about expedited permitting for deeply affordable projects that are proposed and just making sure that we are using all of our city assets. The redevelopment of libraries like the [Egleston Square Branch], community centers, municipal parking laws, Boston Housing Authority developments, making sure that we are integrating affordable housing into those public buildings as well. 

We will complete an audit of publicly owned facilities and parcels of land to identify places for supportive housing, to help with the crisis around homelessness in Boston, particularly around the intersection of homelessness and substance use, and thinking about how we can continue to champion a regional approach to how we are thinking about housing, beyond Boston as well. 

Thinking about how we direct payments received from the payment in lieu of tax pilot program toward homeownership and housing stability, first-generation homeownership programs with down payment assistance.

Bisnow: Boston in the past year has lost residents and tax revenue to the suburbs, as both employers and their employees have moved out of pricey downtown offices and apartments. As mayor, how you would induce people to return to downtown? Other cities have partnered with companies to offer incentives to return to offices. Should Boston explore a similar program?

Wu: This is the key to our recovery, and this is a central question that cities across the country are facing right now. As our patterns have changed, as our economy is changing, how do we ensure that we're building community so that Boston continues to be one of the cities that you can't miss out on? That you have to be here in person to enjoy the arts and culture and restaurant scene, the walkable communities and neighborhoods that have a mix of amenities and affordable living options. 

We need to create more housing to anchor those families who want to stay and be part of this incredible city.

Bisnow: Have you had any conversations with some of the city’s major office tenants and landlords? What are you hearing from local business leaders about return-to-office plans?

Wu: I've had a couple of conversations with some of our anchor employers in Boston, and the consensus is it's still a few months before many of our major companies are asking their employees to come back in person. 

Even in the September time frame, it will be at much-reduced capacity. Employees want to maintain some element of flexibility for working from home and being able to juggle everything with kids, not having to commute all the time and being efficient with how to have meetings in person, compared to what can be done remotely. 

We can use this moment, when there is uncertainty, especially in the downtown office market in Boston, to think about the underlying needs that can help lay the foundation for a healthy, sustainable economy in the long run as there are vacancies downtown. 

Let's facilitate conversations about how we can get on-site childcare in every one of our large office buildings so that when employees do come in person there, there's one less worry with being able to have your young kids on-site, just as we do in City Hall; we have had that on-site childcare for 30 years now. There are lots of uses with the space as we recover that we can think about connecting the other parts of our infrastructure that are much needed in families’ lives.

Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, who is running for mayor in 2021.

Bisnow: Boston has seen a life sciences development boom across the city of both ground up and office conversions, sometimes in neighborhoods where labs are new property types like South Boston, Fenway and Allston/Brighton. How do you think the rapid life sciences boom has affected these neighborhoods?

Wu: Boston celebrates one of the most enviable life sciences clusters anywhere in the world, and we've seen that lead the way during the recovery with our local expertise, managing the pandemic and the development of one of the crucial vaccines right here in this region.  We can lean into this strength as one of our competitive advantages in Boston. 

We need to make sure that the development and growth of the sector is in line with the planning for our neighborhoods and our communities. Often these buildings have different specifications. They require a good amount of space and there are extra height requirements, all the mechanicals that are required. It can be complicated when our zoning code is quite outdated and therefore the only way to have conversations about what makes sense is to go through an extensive, unpredictable community process. There needs to be clearer zoning requirements upfront to set the rules, and to then hold developers to those rules, with more clarity and a streamlined process after that.

Bisnow: You chair Boston’s Planning, Development and Transportation Committee, which will have a hearing on the topic of life sciences development and community inclusion. Why should the city introduce more oversight for lab development? How would more oversight affect the demand for lab development in Boston?

Wu: The key is to create predictability for all stakeholders involved. I think sometimes when people say 'oversight,' it conjures up the image of more individual meetings, more public comment sessions. The system that we have now is already one of the most complex and opaque anywhere in the country when it comes to development approvals and the types of oversight that are occurring.

We don't have a clear plan for the city when our Zoning Board of Appeals and the BPDA effectively are creating the plan through exceptions to the rules. That's what makes it complicated and inconsistent. It's not that we need more process, it's that we need feedback to be codified into rules earlier on so that there can be a clear sense of where the city is headed from all sides.

Bisnow: Your “Abolish the BPDA” plan, introduced in 2019, calls for a new Planning Department to replace Boston’s BPDA and ZBA and resemble the structure seen in other municipalities. Since the plan was unveiled, how have developers and other officials reacted to the plan?

Wu: Developers and residents and community members who I've spoken to are pretty much in consensus that we as a city need to get to the point where there's a clear set of rules to guide development, and a zoning code that is updated that matches the needs in communities today from housing affordability to transportation access to climate resiliency.

The concerns that I hear most often are just around what it means for predictability in the development pipeline. During that transition, as we are going through a community-wide master planning process, how do we ensure that we continue to see our economy strong and create jobs and opportunity.

This is a central feature of this election cycle and this campaign, ensuring that we can get to a place where housing affordability is at the heart of all that we're talking about, because this is really the top issue that is affecting families across the city.

Bisnow: Your report also describes Boston’s lack of a citywide master plan since the 1960s. How would a new master plan align developers and communities? 

Wu: I've had countless conversations with people, experts, community members who have been involved in master planning services in other parts of the country and urban planners who do this for a living. A plan is not a static document that goes on a shelf and then you can just follow that from then on. It's really about creating the mechanisms for every community in the city to have a voice in shaping our future and how Boston grows, and the trade-offs that do need to be made in that process. 

A master planning process is about engaging residents in an iterative ongoing conversation about how we get the zoning code and the larger community needs that reflect what's happening today, and where we need to be in the future. I think Boston over the last several decades has had many conversations that are similar to that, but they have not led to codifying any changes in our zoning code.

We do need to get to a place where we are clarifying and we're reducing some of the soft costs of development that are eating up affordability and eating into the resources that should be available to invest in infrastructure. And that requires updating the rules which have been long out of date and are basically obsolete by now.

Bisnow: What are some of those soft costs that are eating into investment and affordability resources?

Wu: When there's a two- to five- to 10-year process to get approvals, the costs of the attorneys and consultants and managing that process are significant in the overall budget. We could have a system where affordability was higher, the climate resiliency requirements were clearer, transportation planning was more closely integrated, and then there would be a more streamlined process that would be much more efficient and match what community members hope for.