Local Reaction to BRA Extension by City Council

April 1, 2016
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By Jordan Frias and Dan Murphy

The decision to allow the 14 urban renewal districts to extend for six more years by the City Council has caught the attention of several neighborhood associations who were not pleased with the outcome.

The urban renewal districts include the South End, Bay Village, Fenway and Park Plaza, (as well as the Downtown Waterfront, Charlestown, the North End, Chinatown, Roxbury, Government Center, North Station and the West End) and allow the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) to take eminent domain, assemble parcels and clear land titles in those districts at its discretion.

Ten of the 13 City Councilors voted in favor of the six-year extension on March 23 with Councilors Ayanna Pressley, Tito Jackson and Josh Zakim voting against the measure.

“We deeply respect the fact that [they] stuck to their guns,” Stephen Fox, chair of the South End Forum, said in regards to Pressley, Jackson and Zakim’s vote. “We wish the others would have taken a stance that is closer to the position of the neighborhood, but we recognize the political realities of their position.”

Fox said members of the Forum wanted the South End excluded from the urban renewal plan entirely, but were willing to accept a maximum extension of two years, if necessary.

The BRA originally sought a 10-year extension, but revised its proposal after a series of discussions with residents and City Councilors.

“With the number of projects that we’re looking at in the South End, we’re really shaking in our boots on whether or not anyone in the BRA will be willing to listen to us based on the history of how input from the community has come into play and has been accepted in the past,” he said. “The one positive of this is a willingness to shrink the size of the South End urban renewal zones at most or allow them to sunset after six years – that’s welcomed news if it actually happens.”

Similarly, the Ellis South End Neighborhood Association, had its specific concerns with the extension as well.

“The BRA, over time, has exhibited a tendency not to be totally transparent, and to be pretty strong-handed in pushing developments they want forward without listening to public opposition,” said Anthony Gordon, a Ellis South End Neighborhood Association board member and former chairman of its Development, Licensing and Zoning Committee. “We felt the BRA owed it to citizenry to clean up its act before any such extensions were granted.”

Sara Hurlehy, president of the Bay Village Neighborhood Association, was also displeased with the vote on urban renewal as she has not heard “any reasonable justification for its extension.”

“I was surprised. I understood there was a last minute compromise, but I still think that they did not take into account residents that very clearly articulated concerns from the majority of neighborhood associations,” she said, in regards to City Councilors who voted for the measure. “Ayanna Pressley has my vote going forward.”

Added Nancy Morrisroe, past president of the Bay Village Association and its acting senior vice president, said city neighborhoods included in the urban-renewal districts are “radically different” today.

“The existing plan was written and enacted more than 50 years ago, when many urban renewal zones suffered from urban blight,” Morrisroe said. “That’s the sole reason these zones were created to begin with, and that’s no longer the case.”

“We were not happy about it,” said Fenway Civic Association President Tim Horn. “There’s folks talking about a lawsuit and stuff, but I don’t think it’s going to be that dramatic.”

Horn was among the downtown neighborhood association chairs who wrote a letter in opposition of urban renewal to the City Councilors, calling for urban renewal “to expire on its natural date in April of 2016.”

“From the point of view of the people who passed it, they’re in neighborhoods that are not impacted by it,” he said. “We’re happy that the representatives from Fenway voted against it and that’s all we could ask for, I think.”

Marlene Meyer, former president of the West End Civic Association, said the BRA operates as a “black box” with no absolutely no public review or legal oversight.

“There’s no way to legally challenge anything the BRA does when they alter their internal process. There’s no planning per se that is publicly presented,” Meyer said. “The city has the same powers, but they are subject to public oversight and legal review.”

Meyer added that the BRA is the only remaining redevelopment authority in the U.S., yet other cities still foster successful development.

“The BRA hasn’t demonstrated any continuing need for these massive powers,” Meyer said. “After nearly 60 years, if they haven’t done all the renewal that needs to be done, there’s something wrong with agency.”

Even a downtown state representative chimed in on the extension, as State Rep. Jay Livingstone was very critical of the extension.

“It’s disappointing that the BRA hasn’t taken last 10 years to evaluate whether specific urban renewal districts need to continue, and I hope that it undertakes that evaluation in the next six years so that urban renewal districts for neighborhoods that have been fully developed can be ended,” he said.

The next step is for Mayor Martin Walsh and the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development to sign off on the approval in order for the six year extension to take effect in May.

The six-year compromise, drafted by City Councilor Bill Linehan and set to expire on April 30, 2022, comes with new oversight, requiring the BRA to notify the city council before taking any privately owned land via eminent domain in the urban renewal districts, and to re-examine the districts that have remained virtually unchanged since their creation in the 1960s.

Another stipulation of the six-year extension is that the BRA would be required to digitize all of its present and past land holdings, including several hundred land disposition agreements (LDAs).

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