The Boston Redevelopment Authority wants to convince you that urban renewal is a good thing. Kicking off this week is a series of public meetings to extend the BRA’s authority to control development using its enhanced powers over the zoning code. Urban renewal allows the BRA to clear property titles and seize privately owned land through eminent domain.
Urban renewal started with the American Housing Act of 1949 to boost post World War II redevelopment in America’s urban centers. The BRA targeted areas of “blight,” usually at the expense of poor and marginalized residents that were forced to relocate.
In Boston, the most well-known use of urban renewal was the clearing of nearly one-third of downtown, including the historic West End. This eventually made way for the Central Artery highway along with new municipal and commercial buildings such as those that make up Government Center. The West End Museum houses an exhibit, The Last Tenement, that recounts the story of what was later seen as an urban planning tragedy.
The North End was largely spared of urban renewal after the West End demolition through efforts to fight eminent domain by neighborhood activists and local lawmakers including the late State Rep. Michael A. Nazzaro, Jr. Over the decades, the public has dissuaded government from such broad urban renewal, but it has continued to be used on a smaller scale. And in some cases, urban renewal powers were used to enhance communities through the development of vacant lots as well as establishing public facilties and parkland. Along the waterfront, Christopher Columbus Park and Long Wharf are examples of open spaces created through urban renewal.
If extended, much of the Waterfront area (think Sargent’s Wharf, Harbor Garage, Hook Lobster, Long Wharf) would continue to be part of the BRA’s urban renewal area as well as the West End, North Station and Government Center. The BRA is highlighting “featured projects” as part of the requested extension with the development of the Boston Public Market, MBTA Station at Government Center and a new park at the Aquarium.
Several Boston neighborhoods are included in the current urban renewal zones as shown in the map. The larger neighborhoods in the review include Charlestown, South End, Fenway, Park Plaza and Washington Park.
Boston’s 2024 Olympics bid might also call upon the BRA’s urban renewal powers, including eminent domain, to make way for the proposed venues.
The last extension of the BRA’s urban renewal powers was in 2005 and is set to expire this year. A task force of neighborhood representatives is expected to provide advisory input along with stakeholders from the construction industry and building trades. The State has the final approval of any urban renewal power extension. The first public meeting is Tuesday, March 31, 2015 at 6:00 p.m., Boston City Hall, BRA Board Room, 9th Floor. More information is available at the BRA’s website.