The Boston City Council voted 10-3 this week to approve a six-year extension of controversial urban renewal powers by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. The special authority covers 14 districts throughout the city, including the Downtown Waterfront, West End, Government Center and North Station area.
The length of the extension was reduced from the ten years the BRA had requested and comes with some additional oversight by the council, including semi-annual updates and financial transparency requirements for development agreements.
Originally intended to improve blighted areas with fast-track authority, including eminent domain, the urban renewal extension has been questioned in gentrified areas, such as the downtown neighborhoods while other lower-income areas are not included.
A highlight of the extension review process was the apology by BRA Director Brian Golden for the demotion of the West End. The BRA’s current iteration of urban renewal focuses on economic development and encouraging affordable housing.
“The agency measures the success of this approval not only in terms of the extension length, but also in the process’ ability to function as relationship-building with the public and with the City Council. Success was achieved on both accounts and the BRA is deeply appreciative of the enormous time and energy spent engaging the agency on this issue,” said the BRA in a statement after the council approval.
The North End / Waterfront Residents’ Association (NEWRA) strongly opposed the longer extension, advocating for only two years to encourage further reform and an eventual sunsetting of the special urban renewal powers. The group questioned the need for such a lengthly extension, given that the city already has similar powers, including that of eminent domain. NEWRA’s Chair of Zoning, Licensing and Construction Committee, Victor Brogna, wrote in a letter:
After all this time, we still have no idea why extension of urban renewal is necessary or even desirable, since the Council has never been told what it is that the BRA intends to do with the 14 urban renewal plans it seeks to extend.
At the City Council, opposing the extension were Josh Zakim (Beacon Hill, Back Bay Fenway), Tito Jackson (Roxbury) and at-large councilor Ayanna Pressley. Sal LaMattina (North End, Charlestown, East Boston) supported the request while asking for a review of current boundaries to exclude the largely completed Charlestown Navy Yard area while potentially adding East Boston. After previously questioning the extension length, President Michelle Wu voted in favor largely due to the new conditions.
“I was comfortable with their commitment to financial transparency–presenting revenue sources, operations spending, capital projects, and staffing details at this year’s Council budget hearings–and to seriously explore Article 80 reforms with the Council. Most importantly, the BRA agreed to come before the Council every 6 months, which I believe is frequent enough for us to monitor the status of the inventory and redrawing boundaries, and it will also allow us to ensure participation and feedback from residents in affected areas,” said City Council President Michelle Wu in a meeting report.
The City Council approval is a major step toward receiving the extension which now goes to the State’s Department of Housing and Community Development.