Examining Urban Renewal and talking about its future in the South End will begin with a virtual meeting by the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) on Oct. 8 at 6 p.m. – a subject with a history that is complicated, successful and frightening all at the same time.
BPDA Project Manager Chris Breen has been all over the City for the last 18 months reviewing with the community the various UR areas brought about in the late 1960s by the federal government program that Boston bought into for reviving the core of the city as so many fled to the suburbs. Breen said the South End is likely one of the most complicated and complex areas to dissect for the sake of Urban Renewal, with more than 400 UR parcels now cataloged and some 200 development projects that came out of the effort. However, the review is required and a recommendation about whether to keep UR, get rid of UR or adjust the South End boundaries will need to be made before the current renewal expires in April 2022.
“People hear the word Urban Renewal and that’s probably the worst part of Urban Renewal, those two words, because it recalls past government overreach,” he said. “When you look closer at what it is, they are just development tools that help drive economies and community benefits. Then when they are developed, those same tools protect these developments and uses.”
The South End has a long history, he said, of putting its imprint on UR. After bulldozing New York Streets in the 1950s under a previous, but similar, program, many in the neighborhood in the late 1960s weren’t about to let that happen again.
Enter Mel King and several other activitsts.
Breen said the history of South End UR shows how the former Boston Redevelopment Agency (BRA) came into the community to try to stoke economic development and lure people from the suburbs back into the City, but instead the community defined it eventually as a plan that provided affordable housing, community gardens, schools and parks – all of which have protections on them through UR Land Disposition Agreements (LDAs).
“You see activists like Mel King rise up and they’re fighting for affordability and their plan is completely different from the City’s UR plan of economic development and getting rich people to come back into the city…There are so many properties here in the South End Urban Renewal Plan protected by that plan. The South End has the largest amount of Affordable Housing in the City and it’s because of that Urban Renewal Plan…The South End story is about the power of the people and the community pushing back and deciding on their own plan…The UR process created 16 separate neighborhood groups that stood up against the BRA.”
Breen said that process created 3,400 affordable rentals, 316 affordable condos and 800 market rate units.
Breen also said the conversation will eventually be about what the future holds for the South End, which is complicated as those LDA protections in the UR plan would go away if UR goes away. The City Council in 2016 was not in favor of extending UR and gave the BPDA an additional six years – with many understanding that those UR powers would finally expire in 2022. However, for places like the South End, Breen said there could be a case made for keeping it, or even adjusting the boundaries.
“If UR goes away, some of the protections go away with height, land use or affordability,” he said. “Even with the recent Harriet Tubman House being an as-of-right project, there were mitigation and community benefits included because the public had a stake in it. We were able to have them put in the first floor community space…There is still a need for Urban Renewal.”
He said other new uses could be for climate resiliency and flood prevention, using the Agency’s own land holdings to help calm flooding and plan for future flood mitigation projects under a new UR plan – as well as being a tool to enforce equity in developments.
The meeting on Oct. 8 will be online via Zoom. There will likely be more meetings to dive deep into the potential of getting rid of, keeping or adjusting the South End UR Plan. Breen said he also will be taking neighborhood walks in the coming months with residents to review parts of the plan.
A report to the state Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) is due around March 2021, there will be final conversations scheduled to be had in the South End in the Fall of 2021, and the current designation will expire in April 2022.