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Wu Plans To Reform Boston's Zoning Code In 'A Sea Change' For City

Boston’s zoning code, a massive document that dictates what gets built in the city, hasn’t been fully overhauled since its inception in the 1960s.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced Wednesday that the Boston Planning & Development Agency would restructure its planning department to tackle a reform of the zoning code that could help make developments easier to advance. 

Speaking at her annual address to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, she cited inconsistencies and inequities in the code, which were highlighted in a report by Sara Bronin, a Cornell University professor and director of the National Zoning Atlas, the Boston Globe reported.

“One of the most impactful responsibilities of city government is to set the rules for how our neighborhoods grow,” Wu said in a statement. “But for decades, our system in Boston has been built on a confusing and inconsistent process of handing out exceptions. Reforming our planning process and zoning code will be a sea change for our city, helping to fulfill a commitment for predictability and equity to meet the needs of our communities.”

Wu said she believes the restructuring is necessary to amp up housing production across the city. On top of the zoning changes, Wu told the crowd that the city is “strongly considering a time-limited tax incentive program” to encourage housing development, the Boston Business Journal reported.

Like other cities around the country, Boston’s housing production has slowed due to rising interest rates and construction costs, as well as the city’s time-consuming zoning process. Through the proposed tax incentives, Wu said that she would like to see the more than 23,000 units of housing that have been permitted move forward with construction, the BBJ reported.

Through the restructuring Wu announced, the city will create zoning reform and zoning compliance teams and replace the neighborhood planning team with a new comprehensive planning team. Instead of focusing on neighborhoods, the comprehensive planning team will lead the Squares & Streets planning and zoning initiative, which will create mixed-use corridors along main streets in the city.

Boston's zoning and planning initiatives have evolved over the years, but instead of revamping the city's zoning code, officials have added hundreds of articles that have complicated the once-simple code. The zoning code today sits at 4,000 pages, which is 40% longer than New York City’s, according to the report.

“We take seriously the recommendations in the report and will tailor our response to Boston’s needs — including exploring how to build design recommendations into the code that improve equitable access but protect the ability for neighborhoods to maintain their unique character,” BPDA Chief of Planning Arthur Jemison said. “We need a solid policy foundation and a modern zoning code to enforce a structure of accountability for growth.”

This restructuring is just the latest in a chain of plans Wu has made to revamp the city's planning functions. In January, Wu announced that she planned to break up the BPDA and shift some responsibilities to the Mayor's Office of Housing and the newly created Planning Advisory Council.