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Three-and-a-half years after then-City Councilor Michelle Wu first put forward a plan to rework the Boston Planning and Development Agency, the Boston City Council has made the first step toward fulfilling the mayor’s vision to restructure how exactly Boston builds.
On Wednesday, councilors voted 11-2 to advance Wu’s home-rule petition that, if enacted, would abolish the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Economic Development Industrial Corporation of Boston to formally establish, in law, the agency as the BPDA, as it has been known since 2016.
More so, the petition would bring an end to “urban renewal,” the government strategy of wiping out what officials consider to be blighted areas and properties put in motion following World War II. The BRA was established as the city’s regulating authority for the effort in 1957.
Locally, the practice left an indelible mark on Boston, particularly in the development of City Hall Plaza and Government Center over the former Scollay Square and the leveling of the city’s West End neighborhood. Thousands of residents, especially immigrants, working class families, and communities of color, were displaced as a result of those projects and others brought about in the age of urban renewal.
Through the petition, Wu is seeking to refine the scope of the BPDA, narrowing it to three principles: resiliency, affordability, and equity.
With council approval, a signature from Wu will send the petition up to Beacon Hill, to seek approval from the state Legislature and Gov. Maura Healey.
On Wednesday, Wu said the goal is to make Boston’s planning process more predictable and sustainable. The petition approved by the council focuses on modernizing the legal language that defines the BPDA’s mission, she said.
“Rather than keep us pinned to a 1950s-, 1960s-era focus on getting rid of so-called urban blight and decay, this is about saying that we’re going to use the full force of city government to address the needs that we have today, that are very urgent still,” the mayor told reporters outside the City Council chamber.
“So as we sunset the old way of doing things…this is about ensuring that we have the approach in the interim that will match what we need to address in the community now,” she added.
For years, Wu has pitched the need for zoning law reform and the development of a citywide master plan, arguing the city’s current patchwork of zoning laws has left the project approval process to operate on an unpredictable, case-by-case basis.
Each new development is essentially “writing its own zoning code,” she said in 2019.
In her “State of the City” address earlier this year, Wu said Boston’s historic building boom over the past decade failed to benefit all of the city’s diverse communities, and planning failed to account for vital aspects linked to growth, from community stability and affordability to transit and sustainability.
“I think that this is ultimately the first step in a really long process to make sure that we are restoring the powers of the City of Boston but also of our constituents when it comes to planning and development in the city,” Councilor Kendra Lara said about the home-rule petition Wednesday.
Though the petition’s council passage marked a step forward on a key platform policy for Wu, there remains a long road ahead for the mayor to bring her reform plans to full fruition.
Similar to a rising skyscraper, Wu will have to move brick by brick.
She reiterated Wednesday the vote was only one piece of a multi-year-long process to retool the BPDA, with steps that include not only zoning reform, but also organizational changes within the agency.
Part of that latter component includes transferring the over 250 employees of the currently quasi-public BPDA onto the City Hall payroll.
City Council President Ed Flynn said a key part of these transitions needs to include an open dialogue with residents to ensure the public knows and understands what exactly these changes mean, especially for public employees.
“Employees of EDIC are asking about how this impacts them and their retirement. I think those are important questions,” Flynn added. “We still have a lot of work to do on that issue and making sure that employees at the BPDA, EDIC are treated fairly during this process.”
Wu has also begun some of the work that does not require weigh in from the Legislature.
In January, she signed an executive order to create the Planning Advisory Council to begin considering changes to the planning code and moving planning operations from the BPDA to a newly established City Planning and Design Department.
Wu said BPDA staff is also now wrapping up various neighborhood planning processes. The takeaways from each will be codified into zoning policies.
Of course, the home-rule petition is also not yet law.
State lawmakers will have to sign off to formally abolish the BRA, since the agency was initially created by both the Boston City Council and the state Legislature over six decades ago.
City officials will soon be watching closely how things shake up at the State House, not only for the future of the BPDA, but also a second, monumental home-rule petition filed by Wu that the council passed in a separate 11-2 vote Wednesday. (Councilors Frank Baker and Erin Murphy opposed both proposals.)
That petition would bring rent stabilization to Boston, capping annual rent increases at 10%, at most, among other renter protections.
Home-rule petitions have a track record of little success, historically speaking. But the Wu administration says it has been in communication with the Boston delegation, and Wu emphasized how state lawmakers and city officials represent the same constituents and their concerns.
“I think we all share the urgency in knowing that this can’t stand for Boston,” the mayor said. “We cannot be a place where people get pushed out from the communities that they want to continue contributing to. So we’ll make that case up at the State House, and we are going to go up strong, with a big voice from city government.”
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