Letter from Boston: It’s the Pedestrian-Oriented Small Commercial Districts, Stupid

Tom “Mayor-for-Life” Menino made a name for himself as a pothole-fixing regular guy with a thing for green building. He’s a popular four-termer who’s set to become the longest serving mayor in Boston’s history, so it came as little surprise recently when he started thinking legacy, evincing SimCity–like ambition with his scheme for relocating City Hall and his support for an ally’s thousand-foot office tower in the financial district.

That these moves were debatable on functional and aesthetic grounds—and that they would entail razing a pair of Modernist icons, Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles’s City Hall and Paul Rudolph’s Blue Cross Blue Shield Building—didn’t seem to matter. Menino is firmly entrenched in a “strong mayor” system that gives him serious leverage over development.

But there’s a recession on and it’s an election year, and he now finds himself on the defensive about open construction pits and cronyism. Stroll through the Downtown Crossing shopping area, or the Allston neighborhood where Harvard University has banked land for its campus expansion, and you can’t miss the craters and idle construction equipment.

This has handed Menino’s challengers ammunition. His rivals are calling for major reforms or outright elimination of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), a 300-person semi-autonomous, self-funding bureaucratic giant with an annual budget of $17 million. Menino says he’d like to add transportation to the agency’s portfolio of urban planning and economic development. (The mayor appoints the BRA’s director and four of its five board members. He also appoints the Zoning Board of Appeals.)

The BRA, the rare urban-renewal authority to assume city-planning powers, is a vestige of mid-20th-century “slum clearance” efforts. It’s notorious for having bulldozed the old West End neighborhood. It still wields the power of eminent domain and controls major swaths of the city. The authority also has the power to grant tax concessions.

The mayoral hopefuls, a pair of city councilors and a general contractor/good-government crusader, are airing many common complaints about the BRA. The litany is familiar: decades of ad hoc planning and overly political and developer-friendly decision making have left the city without cohesive neighborhoods, short of affordable housing, and starved for tax revenue. The city goes begging to developers for amenities and basic services by way of compensation for zoning waivers, public coffers remain low, and residents’ quality of life edges downward. Even developers find the arbitrary, project-by-project approach tough to work with.

“It’s a tool of the mayor, which is incredibly political and poisons the debate about planning,” says Sam Yoon, a city councilor with a decade’s experience developing affordable housing. Yoon says he’d push for a home rule petition to revamp the state’s enabling legislation and essentially split off economic development and planning groups. [Update: Yoon has now filed legislation to essentially transfer the BRA’s powers and assets to city government with the creation of a Department of Community Development & Planning.] Michael Flaherty, another council member and a former prosecutor, takes a similar tack, pledging stronger strategic planning and a review of the zoning code.

Meanwhile, contractor Kevin McCrea is a one-man band of open-meeting lawsuits and detailed screeds against the BRA. “It simply should be eliminated,” he says. “We have to terminate those expiring and obsolete urban-renewal plans, return the planning and zoning powers to real city departments like everyone else has, and pry from its clutches all those service programs and grants that it plunders.”

BRA officials dismiss the charges as overheated campaign rhetoric. “We balance the needs of growth in the city with neighborhood concerns,” says communications director Susan Elsbree. “Is the process always perfect? No, but we’re in the middle.”

It’s not clear that the proposed reforms would lessen the tilt toward development, since Boston relies heavily on property taxes and there would still be pressure to green-light projects, according to David Luberoff, the executive director of Harvard’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston. “And there’s campaigning versus governing,” he says. “Ray Flynn [mayor from 1984 to 1993] ran as neighborhood populist, but in office he made it clear that the BRA’s statutory power wasn’t going to change.”

Still, the dual roles–economic development and planning–tend to favor the business development community, notes Michael Southworth, a design professor at UC Berkeley and the co-author, with Susan Southworth, of the AIA Guide to Boston. But, he adds, citizen reaction against BRA schemes has sparked positive action in the past, including the formation of some of the first historic districts in the country.

Menino is still the favorite this fall, but along with jobs, schools, and public safety, he will have to debate the finer points of urban planning, ordinarily an eye-glazing topic for the general public, but one that hits home in this recession-wracked city.

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