The BRA, Boston’s Redevelopment Authority, oversees every move in the gamed of rebuilding Boston. It began life as a tyranny, in the 1950s, one man dictating “slum clearance” and the like; but over the last 60 years it has devolved into the opposite : a decider whose decisions are made by, or overturned by, a phantasmal entity called “the community,” which said chimera most decidedly is not.
Recently a very well informed source told me that City hall has found a way to get around the power now wielded by “the community”at the “community hearings” required by the BRA’s project approval process. I shall tell you all about it; but before I do, a few words more about that project approval process bear discussing:
BRA project approval requires the following tests: ( 1 ) architect’s plans ( 2 ) design review ( 3 ) zoning issues ( 4 ) “community” hearing ( 5 ) revision of project to comport with community objections ( 6 ) project approval by the Board — which step may or may not require an actual hearing. “Small projects” seldom require it; big ones seldom do not.
Developers understand these steps very well. (Those who don’t, do not get very far.) “Community” approval is the sticking place. Opponents of a project always show up’ supporters rarely do. Projects in South Boston, Dorchester, Allandale, West Roxbury, and Egleston Square demonstrate just how fatal “community” opposition can be.
I put “community” in quotes because it’s almost a given that those who oppose a project speak for a very small portion of the actual community — a concept which, in my mind, includes those who work in a neighborhood as well as those who reside in it. I’ve seen restaurants opposed by “the community,” when in fact said eatery would provide jobs to the neighborhood as well as amenity.
“Community” opposition at BRA hearings has in some cases broached issues way beyond actual project matters. In one City Council district I’ve seen demands made of developers on who to hire, at what wage; in one case, the developer was told to hire union workers and to allow that union to organize his workers. There may be a case for assuring these things; but a BRA project hearing is hardly the venue. The issue at a BRA hearing is the project itself, not reform of the entire society.
I’ve attended hundreds of BRA “community” hearings. The mindset of opponents is that the property in question is, basically theirs; that the developer who actually owns the property, and whose capital is at risk in it, operates at sufferance by an un-elected, self-chosen body of project vigilantes.
This mindset is hardly exceptional. It’s almost the norm. No wonder that the City may — if my source has the story right — have devised an alternative review procedure. It goes like this : ( 1 ) most projects require obtaining relief from the City’s zoning code ( 2 ) when someone seeks a zoning “variance,” abutters to the property have an automatic right to object. ( 3 ) “abutter” has always meant “owner of an immediately adjoining property.” You are an abutter if your property line is at any point the variance seeker’s property line also. ( 4 ) now, says my source, the City has changed the meaning of “abutter” for the purposes of zoning issues. Abutters will now include every property owner whose lot line comes within 200 or 300 feet of the variance seeker’s property line
At first look this change seems to make it harder, not easier, for a developer. But not so. Because the zoning variance is such a crucial issue, and because the Zoning Board of Appeal exercises its variance discretion vigorously, the increase in abutter numbers stops nothing; meanwhile, the enlarged abutter group creates a special interest within the potential “community” opposition.
The expanded abutter group has potential, also, to become “the community” for project hearing purposes. Whatever the involvement of local anti-development activists may be, the formal local opinion registered will be that of the enlarged abutter group — and not only at zoning variance hearings, crucial though they are.
One further point : Mayor Walsh has also established the planning and concept organization called “Imagine Boston 2030” and given it a website which has become the opinion point for thousands of Bostonians — far more than show up at all the BRA “Community” hearings combined. In the microcosm and the big picture, the City is cutting itself free of the anti-development ties that have hog-tied it for so long.
— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere