South End Urban Renewal meeting scheduled for March

Saving the best for last, the long-awaited South End Urban Renewal review meeting has been scheduled for March 18, and will be led by Chris Breen – who has been conducting Urban Renewal meetings all over the city for the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) during the past year.
The exercise is to evaluate Urban Renewal in preparation for the expiration of the current extension, which was granted in 2016 and will run out in 2022.
Two of the most complicated areas for Urban Renewal are Charlestown and the South End, as they have so much Urban Renewal projects and land restrictions. With that in mind, they have been saved primarily for the last go-around before a final report is submitted to the City Council and the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).
In the South End, the history of Urban Renewal is a complicated one, and one that has been told through the lens of many eyes and perspectives – those who lost their properties, those who had to move, those who benefitted from the affordable housing, those who enjoy gardens that were created and those who found some improvement in the end.
Breen said the discussion about Urban Renewal citywide is one that ended up being a victory for everyone in the end – a learning experience, he said.
“The situation…effectively changed how the agency was run in terms of listening to residents and looking towards improvements,” he said. “The hardest part of Urban Renewal is the word Urban Renewal. If you look at the tools, they just help people develop property that could be difficult to develop.”
In the South End, a huge piece of the Urban Renewal puzzle will be focusing on land owned by the BPDA – a huge amount in both large and small tracts.
First on that list of properties is the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA), which is celebrating 50 years this May and is also going through a major transformation within its organization.
Under the BPDA lease, the use is restricted to “purposes for which metropolitan centers for the Arts are customarily used,” which was defined under the Urban Renewal Plan for the Parcel. If the BCA were to change the use away from an arts-focused institution, then they would need to approach the BPDA to renegotiate the lease. That lease between the BPDA and the BCA for the land was negotiated in 1973 and does not expire until 2053.  
While the land is owned by the BPDA, a portion of the buildings have been sold, as allowed in the original lease, and are no longer owned by the Agency. 
Kara Elliott-Ortega, chief of Arts and Culture at the BPDA, said they have been in discussion with the BCA for several months – chiefly to get perspective from artist and the BCA.
“Over the past two months, we have had several conversations with the BCA and have listened intently to the concerns of the artists involved,” she said. “We remain invested in the BCA’s mission to support artists, and we hope that moving forward the BCA is as beneficial to Boston’s artist community as possible.”
Aside from the BCA, some of the positives that Breen said they will discuss are the amenities from Urban Renewal such as schools like the Hurley K-8 and the Blackstone School, some of the community gardens, the City’s Community Centers, and other such things.
Even Breen’s own family story in Charlestown includes how his grandfather lost his home to Urban Renewal – a very painful process for many there – but he later ended up being able to secure a federal loan through Urban Renewal to buy the family home where Breen grew up.
That will also be presented alongside the time-intensive work that has been done over the last few years to catalog more then 300 Land Disposition Agreements (LDAs) in the South End. Searching old deeds and records, they have been able to include all of the LDAs, no matter how small, in the City’s digital zoning viewer. Many of the LDAs were unknown and were not included in zoning, whereby someone might think they can build housing by right according to the zoning, but an LDA also might exist to secure the property as open space. All of that is now clarified and available online for the first time.
The bottom line for most who attend the meeting will be whether or not the BPDA wants to keep Urban Renewal in place for the South End – a question that is controversial to many on both sides of the issue.
Breen said the agency is leaning towards a recommendation of keeping it, but the key will be hearing from the community in making that decision.
“We’re listening to what residents want first, but (extending) is something we’re seriously considering,” he said.

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