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BRA report touts reforms

Agency responds to audit findings

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO

Accountability and transparency are the new stated goals at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, according to a new year-in-review report issued by Mayor Martin Walsh and BRA Director Brian Golden last month.

In the past year, under new leadership and a new mayoral administration, the agency has shaken up staffing, undergone an outside performance review, implemented new policies and new technology and tightened up management of funds such as the “linkage” and “inclusionary development” fees collected from developers of large residential and commercial projects.

These changes are described in a 20-page BRA report called “Building the New Boston Redevelopment Authority” released on Jan. 21. The improvement efforts come after last July’s audit commissioned by Walsh and conducted by the accounting firm KPMG highlighted failures of management and oversight by the BRA and its sister agency, the Economic Development Industrial Corp (EDIC). These failures meant millions of dollars in affordable housing funds owed to the city by developers went uncollected, untracked and unspent. In addition, the BRA has been criticized over the years for being an overly friendly “rubber stamp” for developers and not forthcoming enough about its plans for land parcels.

“We don’t seek to erase past blemishes or hide our faults. We seek to learn from them,” Golden says in the report’s introduction, mentioning 20th-century urban renewal strategies that razed entire neighborhoods, and policies and systems at the agency that have “lagged woefully behind.”

Now the agency wants to transform itself and its image.

“What we really want to do is get the message out that we are an agency that is changing for the better,” said BRA spokesperson Nicholas Martin. “In the past we may have shied away from criticism and scrutiny — but we want people to scrutinize us.”

One of the first changes after the KPMG report was shifting management of Inclusionary Development Policy funds — collected from residential project developers who opt to meet their affordable housing requirements by paying into the fund instead of constructing affordable units onsite — to the Department of Neighborhood Development. The BRA will maintain control of developer compliance with IDP requirements, while DND, led by Housing Chief Sheila Dillon, will control how and where the funding is used for offsite affordable housing creation.

Changes have also been made to the way the BRA conducts the development review process under “Article 80” of the city’s zoning code. Article 80 spells out community meeting and public comment period requirements for development projects and hospital and college Institutional Master Plans. In 2014, the BRA’s board of directors moved to strengthen rules for designating zoning overlay districts and to flag possible conflicts of interest sooner by requiring earlier disclosure of all individuals who have a financial interest in a project.

Closing loopholes

The report also covers efforts toward greater transparency in land transfers. In the past, loopholes allowed the BRA in some cases to take or transfer property without public notification and a community process. Martin cited as an example the BRA’s granting to Fenway Park permanent rights to use Yawkey Way and Lansdowne Street. The deal in 2013, under former Mayor Thomas Menino and former BRA Director Peter Meade, was done without public input and with little review even by BRA board members. According to the report, as of August 2014, the BRA’s new policy requires developers requesting land takings and transfers to submit to stricter documentation and a public public comment process in advance of Board action.

Golden, a former state representative from Brighton, was named acting director of the BRA shortly after Walsh assumed office in January, 2014, filling the seat vacated when Meade retired. Walsh formally appointed Golden to the director role in December.

Other personnel changes in 2014 included the elimination of the Business Development division, the placement of the BRA under Economic Development Chief John Barros, and hiring of a director of development review and policy, a compliance program manager, a lease administrator and a new general counsel. Changes to the BRA Board include the appointment by Walsh of Ted Landsmark, former president of the Boston Architectural College as a new board member and Timothy Burke as board chairman.

The KMPG audit cited numerous ways in which the BRA was lagging in modern data handling. The BRA report highlights improvements and projects underway, including a new website and new online systems for Article 80 document submission, public access to parcel and zoning information and viewing of BRA board meetings and related documents.

Affordability challenges

Boston had an extraordinarily busy year in development, with $4 billion in new construction breaking ground in 2014. Developments currently under construction total 14.5 million square feet, more than triple the amount in 2012, according to the report. Boston’s population is projected to keep growing in the coming decades, and the city’s new housing plan released last fall calls for creation of 53,000 new units of housing in 15 years. Challenges in this endeavor include ensuring that a good portion of those housing units will be affordable to low-income and middle-income residents, despite a market that continues to encourage luxury development.

In addition to improvements to the collection process, local housing advocates would like to see increases to the amount of money developers pay into the IDP fund for affordable housing.

The Boston Tenant Coalition is pushing for an increase in IDP requirements, raising the affordable housing requirement for large developments from 15 percent to 25 percent and increasing the fee paid by developers who opt out of building affordable units onsite. The current fee of $200,000 per unit does not cover the actual cost of producing new units. BTC and other groups, such as the Chinese Progressive Association, also want to see IDP funds earmarked for affordable housing in the specific neighborhoods where the large development is occurring, and for planning and development to be more inclusive and democratic.

“We are seeing all this development going up along with rising rents and displacement. It’s key we update this policy to help address further Boston’s extreme housing crisis,” said BTC Executive Director Kathy Brown.

Mayor Walsh’s office addressed the IDP reform topic in an e-mail to the Banner, stating, “A key component of [our] housing strategy is growing Boston’s affordable housing stock for the city’s workforce. The Inclusionary Development Policy is a powerful tool that is in place to meet that need. It has generated millions of dollars to create thousands of affordable housing units. Mayor Walsh recognizes that there is room for the policy to work even better for the City of Boston, and we are currently undertaking a comprehensive analysis of it. When that analysis is complete, we will share it with the development community and the city’s affordable housing advocates for feedback.”

Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a fiscal watchdog group, told the Banner the fact that Mayor Walsh commissioned this review and has instituted operational reviews of eight other departments is a good sign.

“[Walsh] wants to ‘kick the tires’ and see how things are working and how they could be done better. You’d expect this from the first new city administration in 20 years,” he said. “But then it’s their responsibility to take the recommendations and do something with them.”

Tyler said the BRA’s end-of-year report is indicative of the new BRA leadership’s desire to make the agency more efficient and responsive. Still, he would like to see further outside evaluations to assess outcomes.

“It’s a worthwhile report, in terms of giving an update, but some of the things are still planned, so I think they’ll need a 2nd year report and a 3rd year report to show whether things are being done,” he said.

City councilor Tito Jackson, too, is encouraged at the mayor’s willingness to have an audit, and said it is “critical” to examine all of the BRA’s funding sources and ensure land dispositions are yielding benefits to city neighborhoods.

“I am very pleased that the audit has found substantial amounts of money owed to the city and that the BRA has worked to recover those dollars,” Jackson told the Banner. “The future of the BRA should be deeply connected with the needs of the people of Boston. Changes should be premised on community input and neighborhood involvement.”

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