Let’s Get To Work Abolish the BPDA: Six Steps Mayor Wu Can Take Now

By Dwaign Tyndal, Executive Director, ACE

I was thrilled that Michelle Wu made abolishing the Boston Planning and Development Agency a key part of her winning mayoral platform.

ACE and other housing justice advocates have been calling to get rid of the BPDA for a long time — and to transfer its land to City control, and create a real Planning Department that answers to the people of Boston.

While the BPDA isn’t the neighborhood-bulldozer it once was, the agency is a tool of top-down power, overruling neighborhood input and bolstering inequality. Instead of shaping Boston neighborhoods to meet residents’ needs — things like better transit, more permanently affordable housing, green spaces and neighborhood amenities — developments are proposed by for-profit developers, pitched to the BPDA in a black box, and selected based on special zoning exceptions and hearings, by a board that prioritizes its own income.  This process gives extra influence to existing political power structures, while leaving low-income, marginalized folks excluded from an opaque process.

Now that she’s in office, Mayor Wu is likely to hear every manner of denial, distraction, and delay tactics from the developers who have benefited the most from the lack of transparency and unaccountability of the BPDA. She should ignore them. 

Fully breaking up and re-establishing democratic control over the powers of the BPDA will take state authorization, but there’s plenty the City can do first. We’re calling on Mayor Wu to stick to her guns and move forward quickly toward a better planning process for our City.

Here are the six actions that City Hall should begin pursuing immediately:

The BPDA currently funds itself from rental and sale income of the publicly-owned real estate. This creates perverse incentives to develop or sell land that could be serving the public good in other ways.

This could be done through (1) a full dissolution decision, (2) sunsetting many urban renewal areas, and/or (3) delegating renewal implementation powers to the City.

The BPDA can unilaterally declare communities to be “blighted” or “decadent,” giving the agency extraordinary powers (remembered in destruction of neighborhoods like the West End). This can’t be immediately changed, but the BPDA should announce an end to these powers in 2022 and begin to delegate these powers to other City agencies.

Inclusionary Development Policy allows the BPDA to set affordable housing and other social and environmental requirements. But the agency’s need to prioritize revenue, rather than affordable housing, means a real city department would do better to meet the people’s needs.

Boston’s Zoning Code was last overhauled in 1964, which means most projects require exceptions. that creates uncertainty, cost, a difficult process for many residents, and potential for discriminiation and corruption. The Zoning Code should be updated to match periodic Master Plans, created with community input.

Economic development planning — affecting business and manufacturing properties — should be more transparent and accountable to the public. Some of this can immediately be transferred to other agencies.

The BPDA determines when and how to offer businesses huge discounts on taxes, as an incentive for building in a certain way or relocating to Boston. This ability should return to a transparent and publicly accountable department, so the public can weigh in on how this money is being spent and see if it was worth it.

Mayor Wu was elected with a truly historic margin — the most votes a Boston mayor has received in decades. That wasn’t despite her bold plans with the BPDA. She won because of these bold plans.

Now, it’s time to put her plans in motion. It’s time to start abolishing the BPDA and building something better.

For more details, please refer to this legal memo: Potential Legal Pathways to Abolish the BPDA

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