Wu appoints new planning director
Jemison charged with remaking BPDA
On the campaign trail, candidate Michelle Wu pledged to break apart the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), separating the planning function from the process of approving individual development projects.
This week, the mayor appears to have taken one step closer to that goal, bringing on as her new chief of planning former Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) staff member Arthur Jemison, who most recently served as deputy assistant secretary at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
While Jemison’s title underscores Wu’s plan to prioritize planning in the city’s development process, for the immediate future, Jemison will take the reins from outgoing BPDA Director Brian Golden, who leaves at the end of the month.
Jemison, who will be the first person of color to lead the BPDA, said he’s looking forward to the job.
“I’m excited about it,” he said. “It’s a big opportunity to come back to a city I care about and implement some exciting changes.”
Jemison and Wu face a tall order in their bid to remake the development process in Boston. Founded in 1957 by the Boston City Council and the Legislature, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, as the BPDA was called until 2014, was charged with working with businesses and real estate developers to guide development in a city that was in the midst of urban disinvestment and white flight.
It was established as a quasi-governmental agency, separate from city government, with the authority to take land by eminent domain, sell it to real estate developers and grant tax concessions aimed at encouraging development.
While the agency was instrumental in transforming Boston from a post-industrial backwater and increasing real estate values, it also was responsible for the demolition of neighborhoods such as the West End, the New York Streets area and Castle Square, in each case displacing low-income residents. During the 1960s, Blacks derisively referred to urban renewal as “Negro Removal.”
In recent years, the BPDA has presided over an unprecedented rise in construction in the city, with luxury apartment and condominium complexes, office buildings and, in the last few years, a profusion of lab spaces rising throughout the city. This wave of development, accompanied by gentrification of formerly working-class and middle-class neighborhoods and by rising rents that are now second only to those in San Francisco, has caused some in the city to question the capability of the BPDA to conduct comprehensive planning.
Jemison said that during the coming months, he will conduct an assessment of the agency with an eye toward how it can better serve the city. Part of process of remaking real estate development in the city will include conversations with city residents.
“We’re going to take the time to engage the community and developers,” he said.
Jemison said he and Wu do not have a time frame for the transformation of the BPDA or a set idea of what form the entity will take. To dissolve the agency, the city would need approval from the state legislature. The land the BPDA owns and the leases it collects on land it owns would likely transfer to the city.
As Jemison points out, there are ongoing development processes that the agency will likely have to see to completion.
“There are some projects that will move forward in the next six months,” he said.
At the end of the BPDA’s transformation process Jemison said, the city should have a comprehensive zoning plan that takes into account the planning needs of the city’s Transportation Department, Office of Housing, Boston Public Schools and other departments.
The new plan will help ensure predictability and transparency in the city’s development processes, in contrast to the current case-by-case processes where development most often happens through variances to existing zoning codes.
Even without the carrot-and-stick approach baked into zoning variances, Jamison said, the city can still extract concessions from developers.
“There are going to be parts of the city where zoning will allow for larger envelopes,” he said. “In exchange for that, we’ll be asking for the things that the mayor has been talking about — affordability, resilience,” he said. “When planning is working, you’re able to do that.”
In the coming months, Jemison hopes to meet with people in Boston’s communities to solicit their ideas on how to remake the city’s development process.
“If we’re doing in-person meetings, people can expect to see me around, talking to people and observing,” he said. “They can expect to see some engagement about what we’re thinking about moving forward.”
Jemison said he doesn’t expect the work will be easy.
“We’ve had a system that has been there for 70 years,” he said. “We can’t change that in six months. But I can say that in six months, I can give you a calendar for when the change will happen.”