Imagine Boston 2030L

^ (L) Imagine Boston 2030 — trumping the BRA ? (R) Brian Golden, the new BRA Director

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Mayor Walsh has moved recently to change the way the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) operates. We applaud his moves.

First, he replaced the BRA’s long time chief planner Kairos Shen, whose tenure began in 2002. (To read the full story of Shen’s removal, click this link : ) Shen was a Menino man to the core, as were the two BRA board members that Walsh replaced this week:

“Out are two who served for years during the administration of the late mayor Thomas M. Menino: Consuelo Gonzales-Thornell, a construction company owner on the board since 1989, and former Reebok executive Paul Foster, appointed in 2006.In their place, Walsh nominated Priscilla Rojas, an audit manager at John Hancock, and Carol Downs, the co-owner of a popular restaurant in Jamaica Plain.”

A recent audit — the second by Walsh — of BRA administration found it “dysfunctional” :

All of these moves and critiques of the agency that governs all of Boston building and development point to a dramatic re-purposing. And there is indeed much to be re-purposed. The agency’s community-input design review process has lost its point, as almost all design review meetings are commanded by people who either oppose the project or want it built to their purposes, not the developer’s. There have been disputes about affordable housing, which Walsh wants to build much more of. Some meetings have clamored for more, some meetings for less, some even for none at all.

Local politicians, taking advantage of the current BRA “public meeting” conditions, have made demands of developers that stretch the envelope, even rip it to shreds; projects have ended up cancelled as a result.

The Boston 2024 Olympics Plan, tenuous already because the Bid Committee didn’t really expect to be picked by the IOC  and was palpably unready, has been nitpicked almost to death by opponents at design review meetings which evince, in terminally toxic  form, the distortions endemic to the current state of BRA design review.

To any observer with any sense of  BRA history, the current situation cannot continue. Developers cannot have their rights as risk investors vitiated by project opponents. A proponent shouldn’t have to move heaven and earth to crowd a design meeting with its supporters — as Roxbury Latin School recently had to do — in order to not see its years of planning come to naught. Yet that is where we are, because, 60 years ago, the BRA of Mayor Collins’s years held absolute power to wipe out entire neighborhoods — power that bit by bit and protest by protest was wrested from it, to the point that now the opposite incoherence prevails.

At the same time that Walsh has moved to take the BRA in a direction of his choosing, he has initiated an entirely separate City Plan, ImagineBoston2030 — a movement with its own, quite different public comment accommodation and its own agenda, including the building of 53,000 units of housing by 2030. For 2030, the community input -process is being handled online, via the Mayor’s interface website, and in person at “IdeaThons.” Thousands of Bostonians have given 2030 their personal feedback.

Walsh’s direct approach to publicizing 2030 circumvents the BRA design review meeting, captured as most of them are by opponents of projects, yet at the same time is the opposite of the dictatorial BRA of 1960. This way, the Mayor gets the City he wants, and gets it without imposing his vision idiosyncratically, favoring one developer over another, as Menino often did.

My guess right now is that Walsh envisions ImagineBoston2030 establishing the vision, the plans, and the public support for seeing them happen, leaving the BRA review process to play a purely design and zoning role. If this is Walsh’s goal, it’s entirely deserving of our support — and yours.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere