BRA wins 6 more years for urban renewal in Council vote

Printed from:

BOSTON – The Boston City Council approved a six-year extension of the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s urban renewal tools to develop more than 3,000 acres of property in 14 different areas of the Hub.

Councilors voted 10-3 on Wednesday in favor of the extension, which is four years less than the agency sought. President Michelle Wu joined the majority, changing her position on the issue since the last meeting in which it was considered.

The Council required the agency to abide by a number of conditions, including reviewing district boundaries, particularly in the South End and Charlestown, notifying the Council about even minor modifications and about land takings using eminent domain, Wu said in a post on her page. The agency also must meet with the Council at least once every six months and provide it with an annual report on urban renewal activities, she said.

The agency’s urban renewal tool kit includes the power to designate blighted areas, rezone districts, use eminent domain to acquire property and provide tax breaks to spur development. The powers derive from the federal Housing Act of 1949 and were designed to help local officials revitalize America’s cities. Much of the agency’s efforts have focused on building housing and promoting economic development.

But in the 1950s and early 1960s, Boston used the authority under the federal act 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. The city also erased several blocks of low-income housing in the South End to clear space for industrial development.

The two actions displaced many poor residents and led to a commonly used term, “urban removal,” to characterize the activities. The BRA continues to deal with fallout from those early actions, and recently announced a plan to rebrand itself as a way to build greater trust in the community.

In her post, Wu indicated she still wants the agency to make significant internal reforms and insisted on several before she would vote for the six-year extension.

“I asked for full budget transparency,” she said, noting that “historically the BRA operations budget has been left out of city budget materials, and the only publicly available documents are top-level summaries recently posted to the BRA website.”

“After meeting with the new CFO of the BRA, I was comfortable with their commitment to financial transparency – presenting revenue sources, operations spending, capital projects, and staffing details at this year’s Council budget hearings,” Wu said, referring to the agency’s chief financial officer, or CFO.

By agreeing to meeting with the Council every six months, the BRA committed to a process that Wu said will be “enough for us to monitor the status of the inventory and redrawing boundaries, and it will also allow us to ensure participation and feedback from residents in affected areas.”

Mayor Marty Walsh asked the Council in February to sign off on a 10-year extension, which the agency said was needed because of the long time it can take to start and complete major projects. Walsh has voiced support for the agency, noting that in recent years it has used urban renewal only for development sought by neighborhoods, such as in Roxbury’s Dudley Square and Charlestown’s Navy Yard.

Other areas subject to the agency’s urban renewal efforts include parts of downtown, the South End, the Fenway and South Cove.

Historically, 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.

The negative perception of urban renewal in many places, not just Boston, was in many ways undeserved, the researchers said in a 2012 working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge.

“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.

Still, three of the four councilors who opposed an extension in the previous meeting – Tito Jackson, Ayanna Pressley and Josh Zakim – still voted against it Wednesday, Wu said. She said Jackson opposed it because of questions raised in audits of the agency and because so many people oppose urban renewal.

The next steps to extend the agency’s power, which is set to expire April 30, include Walsh and the BRA signing off on the extension, Wu said. From there, it goes to the state Department of Housing and Community Development for approval.