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Michelle Wu Wants To Abolish The BPDA. The Walsh Administration Is Fighting Back

The person many local politicos see as Boston Mayor Martin Walsh’s biggest threat for re-election in 2021 wants to do away with the agency that oversees most of the city’s major real estate developments.

Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu speaks in 2019 about her proposal to abolish the BPDA.

Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu released a 70-page plan Monday outlining how the city could dismantle the Boston Planning & Development Agency and replace it with a modernized zoning code, greater transparency and accountability to constituents, and an entirely new planning agency. Boston’s last comprehensive zoning update came in 1964.

Wu officially kicked off the “Abolish the BPDA” campaign Monday night at a standing-room-only listening session at the Union Church in the South End. But while her plan detailed why and how to abolish the BPDA, the city councilor stressed what comes next is up to Bostonians. 

“This is nowhere near the stage of having a legislative document to present for a vote or hearing,” Wu said Monday night. “It’s up to you all to come up with what should replace [the BPDA].”

In what she billed as the “first of many” listening sessions, Wu walked attendees through the role and 62-year history of the BPDA, formerly known as the Boston Redevelopment Agency. The agency has a history of what Wu sees as overreach, including a push for urban renewal in the 1960s that razed much of Boston’s West End and came close to similarly demolishing the South End, Charlestown, Roxbury and other parts of the urban core. 

Boston’s decades-old zoning has also led to the city’s complex planning and approval process where a project goes through a series of community meetings and hearings before various planning and zoning boards before getting a green light. The review period is longer in Boston than other cities because navigating rules and codes from the 1960s adds more complexity to the planning and approval process, Wu said.

“When it’s so complicated, the people who can get through the process either really know it well and know the people really well or have the resources to pay someone who knows it and the people really well,” Wu said.

Construction in Boston's Seaport neighborhood

By finally updating the city’s zoning guidelines with front-loaded constituent input on where certain types of developments could go, Wu said there wouldn’t need to be so many neighborhood hearings after a project is pitched. 

“Over the course of 60 years, the [BPDA] structure is a barrier keeping Boston from its highest potential,” Wu said. “The only way for residents to have a say is by opposing projects rather than a system where citywide planning incorporates public input at the front end.”

Wu is not the first Boston politician to publicly call for a change to Boston’s planning and development process. Former Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson, who ran against Walsh in 2017, called for dismantling the BPDA. Even Walsh, when he first ran for mayor in 2013, campaigned on the promise he’d bring greater transparency to what was then the BRA. 

Walsh said Monday he has kept that promise since taking office. 

“When I first ran for Mayor, I had serious concerns about how decisions were made at the then-Boston Redevelopment Authority,” the mayor said in a prepared statement. “I immediately ordered an outside review of the BRA and put in place significant reforms to bring transparency, integrity and accountability to our development and planning processes across the city.”

Boston City Hall

Walsh launched an internal audit of the then-BRA that showed how the agency was disorganized and not enforcing deals laid out with developers. The agency has since adopted technology-based solutions for better record-keeping and has a web-based tracker of all the agency’s 126 leases and 1,100 lease documents. 

The Walsh administration and the BPDA also responded Monday to Wu’s abolishment push by outlining BPDA reforms that have been enacted since 2014 to improve community engagement, transparency and accountability.

The BPDA now hosts walking tours, workshops and “chat with a planner” events on top of regular town hall meetings, officials said. All BPDA board meetings are televised, and every BPDA division apart from the research department has had a change to senior staff since 2013.

While urban renewal legislation is still on the books, the administration also noted it is a more checked, nuanced process today than it was in the 1960s. The BPDA gives an update on its urban renewal process to the Boston City Council every six months.

The Walsh administration also launched the citywide Imagine Boston 2030 master plan based around future housing, transportation and climate change needs.

“We launched Boston’s first citywide plan in 50 years that, through the input of more than 15,000 residents, now serves as a framework to preserve and enhance our city,” Walsh said. “And it’s through Imagine Boston 2030 that the now-Boston Planning & Development Agency is running an unprecedented number of planning studies citywide where the community is our most important partner. Today, we have an agency that, for the first time, uses community engagement to guide growth that is inclusive and respects the history of each of our unique neighborhoods.”

Wu noted Monday night that, while the Imagine Boston 2030 plan is a guideline based on resident feedback, it is not an actual citywide master plan with zoning changes to which developers can be held accountable. 

BPDA Director Brian Golden weighed in earlier in the day, saying that, under Walsh, the BPDA had “transformed from an agency stuck in the past to a vehicle for community engagement.” Developments approved by the BPDA since 2014 have created more than 100,000 jobs and nearly 6,000 income-restricted residential units, Golden said. 

“While there is still more work to do, I am proud of the progress that has been made to not only improve the development and planning process within the agency, but modernize outdated operational functions internally and externally,” Golden said in a statement. “Proposing to abolish the BPDA ignores the reality of the present day community-based planning agency, and discredits the hard working staff who are in our neighborhoods every single day engaging residents on how we prepare for Boston’s future.”