BRA woos City Council to extend development power

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BOSTON – The Boston Redevelopment Authority’s bid to retain for 10 more years the power to reshape entire neighborhoods took center stage at a four-hour City Council hearing Thursday. But the council stopped short of delivering the favorable vote sought be the agency to extend the life of its urban renewal tool set.

While four of the 13 councilors rejected a decade-long extension, two of the four, including President Michelle Wu, suggested a much shorter timeframe, saying that the agency could use it to recast the program, according to the Boston Globe. It said two councilors supported giving the agency another 10 years to wield the power of designating blighted areas, using eminent domain for land-taking, and offering tax breaks to spur development.

Agency leaders said an extension of less than a decade would effectively prevent the BRA from starting new development projects, which can take from three to seven years or longer to complete. The program was given a one-year extension last year.

Thursday’s hearing was part of the agency’s campaign to proceed with development of 3,000 acres – about one-tenth of Boston proper – in parcels spread around the Hub, from Charlestown to Roxbury. The drive began in City Hall in 2014 and has since moved through public hearings last year. At least seven councilors must approve before the agency can seek an extension from the state, which the BRA is trying to accomplish before its current authorization ends in April.

Initiated by the federal government as part of the 1949 Housing Act and designed to help local officials revitalize America’s cities, urban renewal efforts have often focused on building housing and promoting economic development. In Boston, the power was used in the early 1960s to raze large parts of the city’s West End – then regarded as a slum – and convert Scollay Square, then a seedy entertainment district, into Government Center. Urban renewal also gives the city agency land-use controls and zoning powers.

Supporters include developers, construction companies and unions, as well as at least one architect and urban planning professional, James G. Kotaras.

“With renewed focus, the BRA can use the urban renewal law to revitalize communities for the benefit of current residents rather than pursue policies that lead to displacement and further gentrification,” Kostaras said in a recent essay published in the Globe.

A former BRA project director, he is a senior fellow at the Institute for International Urban Development in Cambridge and said his family “was a victim of urban renewal in the 1950s.” He said they were forced from their South End home to make way for industrial development, including a Boston Herald printing plant. Despite that legacy, he favors letting the BRA keep its urban renewal tools.

“The current BRA director, Brian Golden, has shown that he understands the opportunity the law presents for a new model of community redevelopment like the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative,” Kostaras wrote in the Globe. He noted that Golden last year apologized for the agency’s use of urban renewal to raze the West End and promised never to repeat that sort of abuse.

Federally funded urban renewal grants backed more than 2,100 projects nationwide before financing from Washington ended in 1974 and the program shifted to state governments, according to William J. Collins, a Vanderbilt University economist in Nashville, Tennessee, and Katharine L. Shester at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.  To many, the programs became known as “urban removal” because they often displaced residents in targeted areas, such as the Kostaras family in Boston’s South End.

But the researchers, in a working paper published in 2012 by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, said the negative perception was in many ways undeserved.

“Cities that were less constrained in their urban renewal participation had larger increases in property values, income, and population than similar cities that were more constrained,” Collins and Shester said in the paper. The programs, they added, often spurred “more central-city growth than otherwise would have occurred.”

Moreover, they said, “We find no evidence that the positive estimates of urban renewal effects are underpinned by changes in the observable characteristics of cities’ residents,” including that low-income residents were pushed out.

At Thursday’s hearing, several councilors pressed agency representatives on why the program has remained focused on neighborhoods that have become more affluent, such as the North End and South End, and suggested that more attention should be paid to developing parts of Roxbury and Mattapan. Some argued that the whole program needs more oversight, the Globe reported.

Wu, joined by Councilors Josh Zakim, Tito Jackson and Ayanna Pressley, said they wouldn’t support a 10-year extension. Three didn’t express a view, the newspaper said.

Some opponents, including Pressley, cited the BRA’s lack of accountability and transparency in the past. The agency under the late Mayor Tom Menino was often faulted for its operational methods, which in one high-profile case led to the shutdown of Filene’s Basement, one of the most popular retailers in Downtown Crossing, only to be replaced by a big hole for years. A 60-story tower is now being built on part of the site.

Some councilors, like Wu, said they would support a shorter extension of the agency’s urban renewal powers, suggesting two years during which the BRA could retool the program, the Globe said. Agency leaders said an extension of less than a decade would effectively prevent the agency from starting new development projects, which can take from three to seven years.

Recent BRA development has targeted the Charlestown Navy Yard for visitors and residents – such as signage and sailing or marina facilities – and Roxbury’s Dudley Square with community gardens and affordable senior housing.