Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Banker & Tradesman article about development

Paul McMorrow writes a good article for this weeks Banker & Tradesman. The difference between Flaherty, Yoon and I should be obvious. Whereas I have been outspoken for years about the BRA, they have been mum, despite the fact they have the power to introduce legislation to curtail the power of the BRA and to make it more transparent. Notice that neither of them have a specific plan they have put forward, just that 'we need to do better and have more community involvement'. That isn't a concrete proposal.

I am proposing real reform: eliminating the BRA and putting citizen control back over planning and development in the City. In 2005, I offered Michael Flaherty an olive branch to be able to renegotiate the deal he worked out behind closed doors with the BRA. He said to me "Who needs control over the BRA?" Indeed.

Menino’s Foes Shun Development Power
When It Comes To City’s Development, Mayoral Candidates Spout Same Criticism

By Paul McMorrow
March 9, 2009

The three declared candidates for mayor of Boston come from markedly different backgrounds, but on development matters, they speak like they’re reading from a shared script.

Each wants to strip the Boston Redevelopment Authority of its planning functions. Each rails against the politicization of development deals, big and small. And each is betting that, in exchange for a hands-off approach from the fifth floor of City Hall, developers will be willing to submit their plans to more intense scrutiny from neighborhood interests.

And, thus, the metric for judging the development agendas of Michael Flaherty, Sam Yoon and Kevin McCrea isn’t found in marked policy differences. It’s in rhetorical flourishes.

“They say the markets are frozen – the only thing that’s frozen here is the mayor’s vision, for the past 16 years,” said Flaherty, the longtime at-large city councilor.

Remarkably, the Southie pol was once seen as Mayor Tom Menino’s preferred successor. [And in a January 2006 letter to the BRA obtained by Banker & Tradesman, Flaherty wrote about the Lovejoy Wharf project, “I commend the vision of the mayor and the Boston Redevelopment Authority.” A Flaherty spokesman said, “The mayor works hard but it doesn’t mean that he’s always right.”]

No longer. The mayor helped push Flaherty out of the City Council presidency three years ago, and since then, Flaherty has staked out ground as one of Menino’s most vocal critics on development matters. The mayor’s plans to move City Hall and build a 1,000-foot tower in Winthrop Square have been two favorite targets.

Hizzoner’s Boston, Flaherty now charges, is a rats’ nest of opacity and favoritism.

“Good plans die on the vine, or they have to travel a different course,” he said. “The issue is they change the rules in the middle of the game, depending on who the players are. They never stick to the plan. In their angst to get shovels in the ground, they’re letting development dictate planning.”
Harsh Words For His Honor

“It’s an understatement to say that development is way too political. It gets in the way of us being the city we know we can be,” said Yoon, a two-term at-large councilor from Dorchester.

Yoon, a former affordable housing developer with the Asian Community Development Corporation, is fiercely critical of the BRA. He contends that the city’s planning and development agency uses neighborhood charettes as “a check off a political checklist,” calls the Chinatown Master Plan “a document that keeps the community busy,” and says the BRA’s planners “know they’re entirely subservient to political interests.” And he lays all of that at Menino’s feet.

“You can’t disentangle the person from the system,” Yoon said.

“This city is run like a banana republic,” charged Kevin McCrea, the South End developer, owner of Wabash Construction, and self-proclaimed good government crusader. “There are no rules. The BRA can change the rules for any project, anywhere. That doesn’t promote business. It kills business.”

Four years ago, McCrea ran for City Council and made headlines for his Harley motorcycle and his brash, no-holds-barred blog, which he used to dish campaign trail gossip and level heavy accusations at City Hall. Since that time, McCrea has successfully sued Flaherty’s City Council for Open Meeting Law violations, and has honed an acrid critique of the Menino administration. (A recent blog entry was headlined, “Mayor Menino doesn’t believe in Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press, or sharing,” and accused the mayor of raising the assessment on his home by $700,000 as payback for criticisms he leveled during that 2005 campaign.)

“The zoning code is for sale,” McCrea alleged. “Nobody wants to come to Boston. No big, open, legitimate corporation wants to get involved in these backroom deals. You shouldn’t have to get anyone’s blessing or kiss any pinky ring.”

All three contenders cite Hayward Place as a prime example of City Hall politics derailing development. (The $23 million downtown parcel was a parking lot when Millennium Partners won it in a tortuous bid nearly eight years ago, and it remains one today.) “They were wired, and it sends a signal,” Yoon said. “I was talking to a REIT recently, and they were saying, ‘Boston has so much potential, but we can’t figure it out [politically].’” The mayor’s office did not provide comment before deadline.

Flaherty wants a separate city planning agency because, he said, the BRA appears “incapable of performing its planning responsibilities.” He said he’d try to recruit corporate headquarters to Boston, execute a “true citywide and neighborhood-specific plan, based on the needs of the neighborhood, and stick to it,” broadcast BRA and Zoning Board of Appeals meetings on television and the Internet, and impose a “defined start and finish” to the Article 80 project review process.

Flaherty also pitched “a contract with the community” during development review, “where promises made are promises kept, and reasonable concerns of a neighborhood are reflected in the final submission.”

It’s McCrea’s intention to “eliminate” the BRA, replacing it with “a planning and zoning commission that’s accountable to the citizens.” The agency, he said, has “allowed the mayor to do all his development dirty work with none of the responsibility.”

“Philosophically,” he said, “I don’t think the state or city government should get very involved in commercial projects. If you have a level field, and honest, open, transparent permitting process and zoning bylaws, it allows capitalism to thrive.”

He also wants to sell off all excess city- and BRA-owned land, beginning with Hayward Place and the Winthrop Square garage. The proceeds would bridge the city’s budget gap, he contends.

Yoon, another advocate of severing planning from the BRA, said he would bring what he called a “community development approach” toward building. He would stress collaboration, process and transparency.

“It’s not that difficult to get,” he said. “You can’t have all of everything.”

An example of a good project, he said, is the Metropolitan, the Boston tower that the Asian CDC developed with Edward A. Fish Assoc.

“It’s built, it’s occupied and it satisfied a lot of masters. If you accept height and density in a neighborhood like Chinatown, you have the resources to cross-subsidize affordable housing.”

He added, “In our city, the stakeholders are brought in 10 at a time and listened to very selectively, according to one person’s whim. You have to respect and believe in the process because good process makes a better project. You learn to differentiate the voices of distraction and delay, who have nothing positive to offer, from the voices that need to be listened to. When you listen to those people, and let them into the front seat of a project, you get a good project.”

BRA Director John Palmieri said Friday he provided a list of dozens of residents who have worked with the agency on thorny projects ,and brushed off the rancor as election year posturing.

“Candidates will look for ways to criticize the work that government does. It’s part of government, it’s part of the deal. These anecdotes float around, but they’re an unfair characterization of the work we do.”

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