2021 Boston elections

Michelle Wu says she’d begin work ‘right away’ to abolish the BPDA. What exactly does that mean?

"A transition of this scale would not happen overnight."

An aerial view of ONE CONGRESS tower under construction in Boston this past July. David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe

Michelle Wu says she’d begin work “right away” to abolish the Boston Planning and Development Agency, if she wins the city’s mayoral election Tuesday.

But what exactly does that process look like?

As with the history of the BPDA itself, it’s a bit complicated.

For over two years, Wu has called for abolishing the opaque, quasi-independent agency — a rebranded umbrella organization of the historically fraught Boston Redevelopment Authority — and replacing it with a municipal planning department that would overhaul Boston’s zoning code and launch a citywide masterplanning effort more focused on affordability, traffic mitigation, and resilience to climate change.

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As its own website says, the BPDA plays a “far reaching role in shaping the City.” The agency is tasked with permitting development projects that require exceptions to the city’s zoning code, as well as urban planning.

And while the BPDA has overseen a historic construction boom since its creation in 2016 under then-mayor Marty Walsh and launched neighborhood-level planning initiatives, Wu says the agency remains lacking in transparency, dominated by those with connections — especially to the mayor — and in need of “serious reform.”

“This is one of the drivers of almost every inequity that we see across the city, and so continuing to make sure that we are moving towards a clear, predictable, sustainable, and fair development process is a high priority,” Wu told reporters Monday afternoon on the eve of Election Day.

However, she has taken criticism from her opponent and fellow city councilor, Annissa Essaibi George, who agrees on the need for reform but argues that abolishing the BPDA would grind development to a halt — undermining efforts to build more affordable housing, as well as the city’s property tax base.

“Abolishing, doing away with something that’s midstream is not appropriate here in the city of Boston,” Essaibi George said during a debate last week.

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Essaibi George has also said she would create a new planning office separate from the BPDA within the first 100 days, in order to limit the influence of developers and make the process more accessible to residents. However, her plan has fewer details about how that office would be legally set up and empowered.

“We need fixes. We need reform. We need greater transparency in the process,” she said last week. “But abolishing and stopping it altogether is inappropriate.”

Wu says that’s a misrepresentation of her plan, which she has detailed in a 68-page manifesto.

“The surest way to stop development in Boston — to halt everything — is to keep doing what we’re doing,” she countered during the debate, pointing to the prohibitive cost of housing and the increasing impacts of climate change.

In fact, Boston doesn’t even have the power to outright abolish the BPDA.

The agency was originally created by both the Boston City Council and the Massachusetts Legislature over a half century ago in a bid to address declining population trends and facilitate controversial urban renewal efforts. As a result, legally abolishing the BPDA and returning planning board powers to the City of Boston would requires state approval, too.

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However, according to Wu, there are some steps the city can take itself.

Her plan calls for officially shifting the BPDA’s over 250 employees onto the city’s payroll, assigning them to a variety of departments. About a third would make up the newly created planning department, where they could begin to prepare masterplanning work — even if they wouldn’t yet have planning power.

In order to support the employee transfers, Wu’s plan says the BPDA should “immediately” begin redirecting grant money and other revenue, before transferring the deeds and leases of BPDA-managed property to the city.

Currently, the BPDA funds itself with the revenue it collects from the sales and leases of the property it manages. Wu says that returning it to city control would provide more oversight over the use of the land, in addition to revenue to support the new employees and planning department.

Other aspects of Wu’s plan would need legislation passed by state lawmakers, including ending the BPDA’s urban renewal powers and legally dissolving the agency.

According to Wu’s plan, the Boston City Council would also have to pass a home rule petition requesting permission from the state to give its new planning department power over planning, zoning, and development. And she says additional home rule petitions — which require sign-off from the State House and governor — would likely be necessary, too.

“A transition of this scale would not happen overnight,” Wu’s plan concedes, adding that “Boston cannot put development on hold while logistics are worked out.”

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“Inevitably this transition will impact decisions about development in the city, and protections should be put in place to preserve stability, to protect residents from a rush on development, and to communicate with developers about projects in the pipeline,” the plan says.

Whoever wins the election Tuesday will take office just two weeks later on Nov. 16, due to the city charter’s rule about vacancies filled by an acting mayor. And with winter approaching, Wu indicated that Mass. and Cass and the COVID-19 pandemic were atop her priorities list.

Wu wouldn’t set a specific timeline Monday for abolishing the BPDA, but said work would begin with personnel decisions.

“We’re gonna begin right away with building the team to oversee this process, ensuring that we are managing the current flow of proposed developments and growth in the city, while we are changing structures that guide that process,” she said of her BPDA plans.

Most of the initial work detailed in her plan would require action from within the BPDA. Asked on Monday if she’d keep BPDA Director Brian Golden, who has held the position since 2014, Wu declined to say.

“There are many conversations that I cannot even be having until well after tomorrow,” she said. “I look forward to digging in.”

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