City council must stand up to Boston Redevelopment Authority
by Shirley Kressel
December 15, 2004 was a happy day for the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). Under intense pressure from the BRA and Mayor Thomas Menino, the Boston City Council voted away its power over the term limits of the BRA’s 40-year Urban Renewal Plans (URP), which are set to expire over the course of the next decade. Now, the BRA is trying to eliminate the last remaining oversight over URP terms: review by the state Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). After years of petitioning the DHCD for even short “minor modification” extensions, the BRA is now telling DHCD that it doesn’t have jurisdiction because long-term extensions aren’t “major modifications.” This, of course, contradicts the BRA determination — written right into the order originally submitted to council — that they are indeed major and do require DHCD approval. Boston’s urban renewal plans were originally authorized by the city council under the post-war Federal Housing Act of 1949 (also known as the Urban Renewal Act) that aimed to eliminate urban “blight” in cities around the country by funding the taking of land and property via eminent domain. The federal program ended in the 1970s but continues under state oversight. In Boston, we’re still living with the bad ideas (the construction of City Hall Plaza to name just one) that came from the dismantling of the West End and Scollay Square. But the true failures of urban renewal plans become obvious when the deals and developers are scrutinized. Much of the land taking occurred in lower-income neighborhoods populated by minorities. Buildings were demolished and the land sold to favored developers for luxury housing and office towers.To listen to the BRA and its defenders, one would believe that eminent domain takings are a thing of the past. But the BRA has completed more than 200 takings since 1990. In areas designated for urban renewal, the BRA can take land and funnel it to favored developers without public oversight (such as part of the site for the South End BioLab to the Boston University Medical Center, and Hayward Place to Millennium). It can take buildings and evict tenants for the owners (as it tried to do at the Ames Building, 1 Court Street). It can take city property without paying a dime and control all sale or lease arrangements (Hayward Place, and City Hall Plaza — yes, taken again in 1996, this time from the taxpayers). It can eliminate all zoning on a site by adding adjacent land it has taken for the developer and designating the site a “U-District" (Loews Hotel in Park Plaza Area). It can share the profits of development it regulates, becoming an “equity partner” (Rowes Wharf) or take an “anti-speculation fee” after assisting speculation (Back Bay’s Piano Row property assembled by Henry Kara, the market value of which went from $2.5 to $14 million with the addition of a White Fund parcel the BRA took from the city for Kara and a U-District, yielding a 20 percent cut to the BRA; it is now to be an Emerson dorm. The George White Fund is a public charitable trust bequeathed to the city in 1922; its land and buildings are supposed to be used for city agencies or non-profit organizations. When the parcel was originally taken, it was for a hotel development, not Emerson College.). It also regulates development on its own land (South Station air rights).Through eminent domain, the BRA has amassed a huge land empire of its own, over 400 parcels on 250 acres, exempt from property tax. When URPs expire, these properties, for which the BRA was meant to be the custodian until they were assigned for redevelopment, should be conveyed to the city, which authorized their taking under the URPs. The city should get the sale or lease proceeds, and get them back on the property tax rolls.But if the BRA gets its way, these plans will never expire. Last October, Mayor Thomas Menino asked the council to approve a proposal for a decade-long extension of all the URPs. It included language changing the council’s powers over URPs, most significantly replacing the council’s oversight of “major” modifications with a new power to approve URP changes allowing a density increase of more than 7.5 percent over the potential square footage of construction in the URP area. District Two City Councilor James Kelly and his Committee on Planning and Economic Development delivered an approving majority (At-Large Councilors Maura Henningan and Felix Arroyo, District Seven Councilor Chuck Turner and District Four Councilor Charles Yancey all opposed the measure), boasting that the council had won more oversight over the BRA. In fact, the council gained no power, and lost what little it had. It’s hard to believe that the councilors who voted for this change didn’t understand this at the time, but their new “power” is meaningless: URP “potential density” has never been calculated — in fact, it is impossible to calculate. As a result, the council now no longer has any authority over major modifications of URPs — including the extension of such plans, since the extension of a plan is, in and of itself, a major modification. Why is the continuation of these obsolete, decades old URPs so important to the BRA and the mayor? Well, Boston’s URPs cover about 15 percent of the city, including most of the city’s prime areas for development. Control over profits from development and land speculation in these areas brings huge financial benefits to the BRA and political power to the mayor, whom the BRA serves. The BRA (unlike any other renewal agency in the country) is also the city’s planning and zoning agency, and combines these powers for even greater control over development. Further, the existence of the URPs also legitimizes the BRA. Without the BRA’s original raison d’etre, people might start to question why we still have an urban renewal authority, and why it’s running the city’s planning and zoning.So far, the state doesn’t seem as willing our city councilors — who acted out of ignorance, complicity, or cowardice — to forego oversight over the URP extensions, rejecting the BRA’s self-contradictory argument. But DHCD is a champion of urban renewal, and simply demands individual requests for extending each URP as its term expires, rather than agreeing to an advance blanket extension. DHCD already granted a 60-day extension for five soon-to-expire URPs, to give the BRA time to submit individual requests. They will probably be approved, since local pre-approval is in place. So what does all of this mean for the South End? Well, the 625-acre South End URP was set to expire in December 2005. Thanks to the council’s vote, it may never expire. So the threat of eminent domain will continue to create uncertainty for property owners, tenants and potential investors. The only way we’ll be free of this is to elect city councilors who will find a way to re-enfranchise the council and protect us. Shirley Kressel, a landscape architect and urban designer, is one of the founders of the Alliance of Boston Neighborhoods. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.