Boston seeks to rebrand a trust-challenged development agency

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BOSTON – Mayor Marty Walsh, acting just days after the City Council failed to extend urban renewal powers wielded by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, announced a plan to refocus the agency and improve public trust in its operations.

The BRA’s identity, mission and values will be overhauled under the initiative, which will include hiring an outside consultant to provide strategic advice, according to a statement from the mayor’s office.

“While we have implemented significant change at the Boston Redevelopment Authority over the past two years, 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 statement. “Creating a new identity for the Boston Redevelopment Authority will be an important symbol of change that underscores this progress.”

Earlier this month, four of the council’s 13 members, including President Michelle Wu, refused to back a 10-year extension of the BRA’s urban renewal powers, citing concerns about how the city’s primary planning and development agency operates and where it has focused its efforts. Walsh, in a speech a few days later to the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, cited the agency’s importance in spurring large-scale development in areas like the South Boston Seaport District.

“Urban renewal tools unlock projects with transformative public benefits,” Walsh said. “They are projects that the private market by itself cannot produce. But they bring ongoing private investment in their wake.”

Despite a legacy of projects that razed entire neighborhoods and forced out local residents, Walsh said the BRA has in recent years has used urban renewal tools only for development sought by neighborhoods such as in Roxbury’s Dudley Square and Charlestown’s Navy Yard.

“It’s truly a new day at the BRA,” Walsh said.

But today the mayor indicated more needs to be done. In particular, the consultant will work with the agency on finding ways to inspire “greater trust and confidence” in what it does, according to the statement. It noted that in the past two years, new leaders have been placed in key positions and new policies have been enacted to provide better accountability for land takings and transfers.

The move to reshape the BRA’s image came on the same day that Dig Boston published a story questioning the city’s transfer of a downtown parking garage to the agency where a new office or residential tower may rise. The garage, closed for years, fronts on Winthrop Square, between Downtown Crossing and Post Office Square in the Financial District. The story, by builder and one-time mayoral candidate Kevin McCrea, questioned the decision to give the property to the BRA for development last year, without setting deadlines or establishing what the city would get in return.

“As a result, the BRA can do whatever it wants with the property, for as long as it wants, and extract whatever fees it deems necessary,” McCrea said in the article. “Later, when that’s all done, the authority will kick whatever’s left to the city’s general fund.”