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Mayor Walsh announces reform for Boston Redevelopment Authority

In response to two years of feedback from the Boston community, Mayor Martin Walsh announced reforms to the Boston Redevelopment Authority in an effort to create better relations between the agency and the people of Boston. PHOTO BY KRISHNA SHARMA/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF
In response to two years of feedback from the Boston community, Mayor Martin Walsh announced reforms to the Boston Redevelopment Authority in an effort to create better relations between the agency and the people of Boston. PHOTO BY KRISHNA SHARMA/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

In an effort to establish trust in city planning, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh announced a plan Tuesday to reform the identity of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, according to a Tuesday press release.

“This initiative will establish an identity, mission, and values for the organization that are reflective of the Walsh Administration’s commitment to smart and sound urban planning and positive economic development, and that are reflective of the critical reforms already underway,” the release stated.

Walsh announced that the agency will strive toward a goal of transparency and accountability.

“This is another opportunity to improve city government and take a hard look at an agency that has a difficult legacy to overcome,” Walsh said in the release. “The Boston Redevelopment Authority will be an important symbol of change that underscores this progress.”

According to the release, the initiative will redefine the agency’s identity as well as “inspire greater trust and confidence in the city’s planning agency.”

Gina Physic, a spokesperson for the BRA, explained how necessary the reforms are.

“There were a series of audits that took place in 2014 that did not produce the best of results and kind of showed some inconsistencies in reporting,” Physic said. “We’ve been at this for two years, making sure that we take these positive steps and really make sure that we are turning around how the agency is viewed, because it has changed quite a bit.”

Physic also described the next steps in the organization’s process of transformation.

“We are looking to hire a strategic advisor to help craft an organizational identity and brand strategy that is more in line with the image we are trying to project under Mayor Walsh,” Physic said. “Then, we’re looking to hire the consultants during the spring and have a plan in place by fall.”

According to Physic, the goal of the reforms is to “make sure that [the BRA is] accountable in communication, in engaging the community more.”

Barry Bluestone, director of the Northeastern University Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, said the relationship between the city and the BRA is already showing improvement.

“The agency is becoming much more efficient and certainly has under this mayor,” Bluestone said. “We can see it under the billions of dollars of buildings which are going up, and my impression from meeting the developers is that they are finding it easier to work with the city today than it has been in the past.”

Bluestone said the initiative is in the best interest of the City of Boston.

“They are doing their due diligence and looking at each of these projects and seeing whether it’s good for the city as a whole,” Bluestone said. “Having a better relationship … between the developers and the city ultimately will be good for the city.”

Bluestone also discussed how the BRA’s new transparency initiative will directly affect the residents of Boston.

“It’s important for the residents of the city to understand all the projects that are going up and to see how they fit in with the needs of the community,” Bluestone said. “That’s where the BRA is moving, so that more of our private space has public aspects to those private spaces, so that all can enjoy the city, not just the very well-to-do who can afford those high rents.”

Several Boston residents shared their opinions about shedding a light on city government actions.

Daniel Meyer, 30, of the North End, said he values transparency in government.

“If the job is to make everything more transparent and honest, then I’m all for it,” he said. “The government is supposed to be for the people and it affects all of us, so I’m glad they’re trying to improve.”

Susan Simmons, 49, of Back Bay, said she believes the city will succeed in making improvements.

“I trust Walsh and his people,” she said. “If he wants to do something, he will do it, and I believe accountability is important to him. It’s good to hear that the city is working on it.”

Janet Onyak, 37, of Brighton, said citizens should be able to become involved with agencies like the BRA.

“If it’s possible, yes,” she said. “We should at least have the opportunity.”

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  1. The BRA was not created to be a planning agency. It was authorized by its enabling legislation to identify “blighted” neighborhoods (i.e., occupied by poor, black, immigrant and other “undesirables”), drive them out by taking the land under them by eminent domain and tearing down their homes and businesses and schools, hand it over “cleared” to mayoral cronies without bidding, free of zoning and taxes, to rebuild for more worthy people. This was called “revitalization.” Also “Negro Removal.” Today it is “gentrification.” Also “Negro Removal.”

    As one BRA director testified to the Boston City Council, “The BRA was created to throw the people off the land and do the dirty things, and keep the mayor’s hands clean to protect him from political retribution.” He also said, “The BRA works for developers.” A City lawyer explained thus: “The BRA makes everything that’s illegal, legal.” That what the BRA was meant to be: the mayor’s personal Department of Dirty Tricks, a machine for legitimizing corruption and piracy free of political or legal risk. And that is what it still is today. No “reforms” will change the basic structure and mission.

    In 1960, then-mayor John Collins got state legislation handing the BRA the City’s planning function (we are the only city in America to make its urban renewal agency also its planning board), thus sidelining our legislative branch, the City Council (which had, ironically, created the BRA only 3 years earlier), normally the overseer of municipal planning and zoning ordinances. The purpose was to ensure that NO ONE did planning, lest it interfere with any projects desired by said cronies.

    So Boston has had no city planning since 1960, and never will. These periodic “transformations” of the BRA into a “better” planning agency, more transparent (but not more accountable) and sensitive and efficient and wonderful, are merely a pretense, to confuse and mislead the citizens and the City Councilors into continuing its Urban Renewal Plan powers – having nothing to do with planning – consisting of the municipal powers of blight-finding, eminent domain taking, and zoning, wielded by the BRA free of normal government accountability, political or legal. This pretense is kept up with collaboration from the real estate profiteers, misguided construction union workers thinking the BRA “creates” development, scared and/or misinformed and/or bought neighborhood residents, and academics in expansionist institutions like the Longwood Medical Center members, Harvard, BU, NEU and other empire-building universities. This article appears to be a product of the BRA/Mayor’s public relations machinery, exploiting the press of a major imperial university.

    For over half a century the BRA has been very effective in helping the mayor’s development cronies end-run the city’s zoning (which it writes, another pretense) and tax laws. The Urban Renewal and planning board powers deny the citizens legal recourse to virtually everything it does. The BRA likes to say, “We are bulletproof in court.”

    By sawing off our legislative and judicial branches, the BRA leaves us with an imperial mayor, whom developers fund to keep in office and whom citizens are afraid to criticize or run against.

    The BRA was not meant to last forever. Part of a nationwide urban renewal strategy, it was intended to have 40 years of “martial law” (anything goes!) powers to revive the stagnant post-suburban-flight city. It was an experiment by desperate and opportunistic and callous and racist/classist politicians, and it failed miserably, by financial, social and city-building criteria. Federal money stopped in 1973, and the nation’s redevelopment authorities have lived on as parasites on the municipalities, feeding and being fed by the corruption machine.

    California recently abolished its whole urban redevelopment empire, over 400 agencies, finally unable to tolerate this cesspool of corruption and drain on the public treasury. When will Massachusetts do the same? Boston should take leadership. Abolish the BRA and restore normal, accountable city planning and development regulation. It won’t be perfect; there will always be corruption in politics. But at least it won’t be risk-free.