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Boston Redevelopment Authority changes aimed at transparency

Martin Desmarais

The administration of Mayor Martin Walsh announced changes to the Boston Redevelopment Authority last week officials say will bring greater transparency to the development process.

Brian Golden, acting director of the BRA, said the city felt an important step in improving its main development authority was to get information out to the public earlier in the development and approval process.

“Some of the controversy associated with the work that we do is because it is not well understood,” Golden said. “It is a real problem if there is no understanding and it makes it easier for people to infer the worst about us. In the 21st century one of the best ways to address people’s concerns that we are not open and transparent enough it to leverage technology to help shed a light on the BRA and what we do and how we do it.”

The city is focusing on using the BRA’s website as a better window into the approval process. In this way, the door is being opened to BRA board meeting votes, city zoning, available contracts, awarded bids and data on current Boston development.

A first step is making the BRA board meeting board memos available online 48 hours before monthly meetings. The board memos outline the final details of development projects, planning studies, development designations and other info that the BRA uses to make decisions. In the past, board meeting memos were not available until after meetings, meaning that the public was largely in the dark about what was being discussed.

The board memos, as well as meeting agendas, will also be tied in with the live video feed of meetings that is available via City of Boston TV. After meetings viewers can navigate through the video using the board memos and agenda and jump directly to the video that corresponds with the items they are interested in.

Requests for proposals, requests for quotations and contract bids for all Boston development projects will now all be available through a search engine that filters the information by status of project. Companies can also sign up for an email service that will provide updates when new requests and bids become available. The BRA will also create sub-contractor registration to reference those involved in projects.

The BRA is now sharing the data about development in Boston, including the total value of projects that are currently under construction and in the pipeline, on the Boston About Results page of the City of Boston website. The information will be displayed with open data graphs and metrics, and will appear alongside the data of several other City of Boston agencies. The platform includes additional metrics such as total square footage of development under construction in Boston, construction jobs created by new development, and total construction costs for all BRA-approved projects.

Lastly, the BRA has updated its BRA Zoning Viewer to give additional access to zoning and planning information for any area of the city.

Golden admits that in the past the public “really had to work to see what was going on” with the BRA’s development process, which often meant trekking down to BRA offices to look through paper documents and attending many meetings in person. This triggered criticism that certain actions and decisions were happening with little public knowledge.

“We are light years ahead in providing information online to people who are interested,” Golden said. “That is a radical difference in the quality of the transparency on really substantive core functions of the BRA.

“We think it is great because technology is a two-way street,” Golden added. “We can tell our story we can present facts more efficiently to all that are interested and we can explain ourselves and our decisions and hopefully get broader support from the public. You are going to be more empowered. If you object to the direction we are heading in on a given project or projects you have more information to challenge that direction. We are arming people with the information they need to make their case on development issues and we think that is a good thing. We are not afraid of that — we want people to have more information. The mayor wants people to have more information.”

Mayor Walsh called the efforts “critical changes” to the BRA’s information management systems.

“These advancements are increasing transparency and opening up the doors of the BRA business to the public,” he stated.

Lydia Lowe, director of the Chinese Progressive Association, and a critic of the BRA, who has called for drastic reform and even elimination of the development authority, says increased insight into what the BRA is doing is an improvement.

“I am encouraged that they are going in this more transparent direction but there is still a long way to go in terms of structural reform,” Lowe said.

Lowe says that just being armed with more information is not enough and that the BRA has to provide a consistent and valid path to consider community input.

According to Lowe, the status quo is that the BRA does not listen to public comment in its decision-making process on development. She stresses that the organization must change so that community input is meaningful in the development process.

“I think it is important that the residents at large have a voice,” Lowe said.

Another structural change that Lowe and her organization are calling for is a uniform policy that dictates how public land is developed. Being able to track all the public land and the proposals or potential projects on this land could start this process.

“We should really look at public land as a very precious resource that belongs to the people, and if it is not used for affordable housing or other kinds of community and public development, that is important to know,” Lowe said. “Some of this public land may be fine for commercial development, but do it through a transparent process and make sure revenues support public goals.”

As the BRA was announcing some of its changes last week, the Chinese Progressive Association held a protest at Millennium Place in Boston decrying Millennium Partners underpayment of $15 million in affordable housing fees and lack of meeting city employment standards.

Lowe still calls for the elimination of the BRA altogether. She supports replacing the BRA with an economic development agency and a city planning agency, but recognizes this is a longer-term reform.

Jeanne DuBois, executive director of Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation applauded the BRA’s new emphasis on transparency.

“I think the administration seems very sincere about opening things up with the BRA,” she said. “If the BRA can do things that make it easier, faster, clearer, that is all good.”

Ed Gaskin, executive director of Greater Grove Hall Main Streets, backed the BRA’s changes as helping small businesses.

“Improved access to information is critical for smaller businesses because they don’t have the resources to dedicate to trying to figure out what is going on and staying on top of it,” Gaskin said. “Historically, a lot of business opportunities at the BRA were not that well-publicized, so only a relatively small number of vendors were able to take advantage of the opportunities.

With the limited resources many small businesses have, any help the BRA can provide in the planning process is very important, he stressed.

“In the past it was not clear what the status of a project was or where it was in the cycle or how long the process would take. Access to real-time information could be a game-changer for small businesses,” Gaskin added.