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Council cautious on BRA urban renewal request

City council cautious on BRA request for urban renewal extension

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Council cautious on BRA urban renewal request
Councilor Michael Flaherty (left) questioned city and BRA representatives. Councilor Bill Linehan (right) convened the hearing.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority appeared before the city council during a recent public hearing to request a ten-year extension of its urban renewal powers, set to expire in April. City councilors were largely lukewarm to the proposal.

Urban renewal comprises several powers, the most controversial of which is the ability to seize land by eminent domain. In an attempt to combat years of mistrust engendered in many communities subjected to urban renewal, the BRA spent the past year conducting community outreach to build support for their request.

In Dec. 2015, the BRA board of directors unanimously voted to seek extension and in Feb. 2016, Mayor Martin Walsh threw his support behind them, urging councilors to vote for the extension.

Urban revenue

Brian Golden, director of the BRA, presented urban renewal as an important driver of the city’s economy and funder of its public services.

Golden told the council that renewal powers are critical to preparing large, complicated projects — especially in downtown areas — to the point where developers then can proceed. Developers may be scared away if they have to navigate those legal, economic and political complexities on their own, he said.

Such development, said Golden and city Chief of Economic Development John Barros, fuels Boston’s economy, paying for public goods such as education and public safety

“More than half of the new revenue coming into the city every year is a result of significant new development,” Golden said. “That’s where growth in the city budget comes from. That’s where we pay for police, fire, education.”

During public testimony, Joe Bamberg, senior project manager at the Boston Housing Authority, credited urban renewal with allowing for quick movement on projects necessary to meet federal Department of Housing and Urban Development grant deadlines.

Vanishing restrictions

Ten percent of Boston’s land is subject to urban renewal powers, and while noting that some residents had requested expanding or shrinking the affected area, Golden said any boundary changes would be complicated. The reason: As urban renewal domains are altered, agreements over land use within them may be affected, and the BRA has not sufficiently analyzed its records to assess the potential impact.

When the BRA transfers parcels to private ownership, the authority may impose stipulations about the land’s use — for example, an affordable housing requirement. In some of these agreements, the stipulations come with a lifetime — for instance 40 years — but in the vast majority, Golden said, the restrictions exist only so long as the site continues to be in an urban renewal area. According to Janet Carlson, first assistant general counsel for the BRA, 90 to 95 percent of the land dispositions agreement restrictions would expire with urban renewal.

The BRA does not know what the effect of this loss will be. In some cases, the restrictions may no longer be necessary; in others, new mechanisms may need to be established to maintain them, Golden said. The BRA has files on all the LDA parcels but only now is starting to organize them in a way that allows for their analysis, Carlson said. The process, Golden said, will take two years.

“It involves a substantial amount of staff time and resources, both of which we are prepared to invest over the next two years to accomplish this task in regard to boundaries,” Golden said. “[We] need a full and accurate understanding of the land that the Boston Redevelopment Authority actually owns and what can be done within it and what limitations are on it. To that end we’ll begin by creating a comprehensive inventory of all our assets.”

Several councilors rebuked the BRA for failing to provide information about the impact of these changes — something the councilors said would play a key role in their judgment of the extension request.

Two vs. ten years

Four councilors — Tito Jackson, Ayanna Pressley, Josh Zakim and Council President Michelle Wu — said that the case for a ten-year extension was not compelling.

However, Pressley expressed interest in including Mattapan under urban renewal’s boundaries, and Wu and Zakim said they could support a two-year extension.

“From my perspectives there is a strong reason why the legislation for urban renewal was written with an expiration data and a sunset clause,” Wu said. “These tools can create additional opportunities and increased economic development, but they also supersede community feedback in a lot of cases, and they have in the past.”

She proposed a shorter extension, with a task force or commission created to monitor the process and receive regular reports. “I believe this is the only way for the council to responsibly extend urban renewal,” she said.

Golden warned against a short extension, saying it may create too much uncertainty for developers, whose projects often take many years.

“The notion of the BRA only having these tools available in two year increments is a real problem because it clouds the development horizon. If someone’s talking about building a half-million dollar development and there’s a possibility that those tools will not be there two years hence, it could have a chilling effect,” he said.

Perpetual powers?

When the BRA was granted urban renewal powers in 1949 as part of a federal program to stimulate redevelopment after World War II, such powers were intended to be temporary. In 2005, facing expiration of these powers, the BRA sought and received a ten-year extension. At the time, the reauthorization process was largely seen as hustled through with minimal chance for public input or city council review. In 2015, the BRA secured a yearlong extension.

Councilors Michael Flaherty questioned if the BRA, at any point, anticipates it will no longer need the powers, or if it will request extensions every decade.

“Does the BRA envision a day when urban renewal will no longer be needed?” Flaherty asked.

Golden acknowledged that not all areas need to be continually subject to urban renewal powers, and said that if the BRA returns to the council in ten years asking for power extensions, it will be with a “radically different proposal.” In its request, the BRA seeks extension over 14 of the 16 areas currently affected.

A fundamental question arose over the whether urban renewal is a tool to have access to and deployed only when it becomes clear that development goals cannot be completed without it, or a default tool to have ever-ready in case need for it arises.

During public testimony, the president of the North End /Waterfront Residents’ Association charged that the BRA needs to create both a strategy and vision, and then determine what powers are necessary: “Why not plan first and reauthorize later?”

Golden, however, said that it is critical to have the powers so the BRA is equipped to take advantage of any opportunity.

“If we have these tools, we use them on a continual basis to affect positive development,” he said. “If you take them away, if they lapse or sunset and large projects are knocking on our door … they may need one of these tools and we won’t have them, and that’s our concern.”

Separate stances

During public testimony, construction and hospitality workers credited urban renewal with providing them jobs. Representatives of large institutions — including the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Boston City Lights Performing Arts School — and the real estate sector spoke in support of the urban renewal process, as well. However, members of neighborhood associations, including those from the South End, North End/Waterfront and Bay Village, opposed a ten-year extension. Some said the powers no longer were needed or that they did not trust the BRA to use them appropriately.

The BRA will need the support of seven council members for the extension to pass. While some opposed such a move, Councilor Frank Baker said difficulty getting a large project underway inspired him support urban renewal as a useful development tool.

“I’m leaning toward supporting this,” he said. “I think we need this tool.”

Councilor Bill Linehan, chair of the Committee on Planning and Development, which convened the hearing, said he was undecided.