By Seth Daniel
When Urban Renewal first came to the South End, it was the 1960s and plans had begun to form and agreements had been made to redevelop the aging neighborhood.
Many of the things one sees today are a product of Urban Renewal – things like the Boston Center for the Arts, Castle Square and the McKinley School. Those things are quite obvious, but a number of other things – known as Land Development Agreements (LDAs) are unseen and in many cases unknown to anyone currently working at the BPDA. They can be as important as affordable housing covenants or as mundane as maintaining backyards on existing homes, but they exist and can often be unknown until it comes time to take action on a property.
In many cases, property owners don’t even know their homes are under an LDA, and that could cause problems for them if they were to redevelop, sell or buy land in the South End.
That’s all about to change courtesy of some extremely diligent and hard work being conducted right now by a team of Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) staffers that for more than a year have been combing through old files, records, Registry documents and anything else that could be helpful.
“Unfortunately, Urban Renewal became a part of the BPDA long before computers,” said Allyson Quinn of the BPDA, one of the staffers charged with identifying LDAs. “There was no central database where the information was stored on all these agreements. For the past year and a half, we’ve been trying to find out everything we can about Urban Renewal. We’ve looked through employee files, boxes, Registry documents, Unindexed property, deeds and anything we can get our hands on and lining that up with our own records to understand what we do and don’t know about these restrictions.
“It’s like a puzzle with half the pieces upside down and some missing and some are stuck to the glue on your hands – and when you try to put it all together, it gets jumbled,” she continued.
Sonal Gandhi, a BPDA staffer who is also working on the project, said the project is labor intensive, but a clear priority for the agency and Mayor Martin Walsh.
“It is extremely important to get this right or as much as we can get it right,” she said. “This is a priority for the agency, the director and the mayor…We wanted to get this done in a quick and efficient manner.”
As part of the last Urban Renewal certification in 2016, the BPDA promised to catalog as many LDAs as they could find in all of the Urban Renewal Districts. Charlestown and the South End are the two neighborhoods with the most daunting amounts of LDAs, both known and unknown, because they contained the most government-owned land. LDAs were granted during Urban Renewal on deeds to many different kinds of properties, with stipulations tied to the property – often forever – on things like affordable housing, open space, maintaining backyards and educational uses.
Last week, the BPDA announced to the Sun that they have completed the South End cataloguing and have moved on to concentrate on Charlestown.
“We have completed the South End to the best of our ability,” said Gandhi. “We believe we’ve found as much information as we can ever know. It took many, many, many, many hours.”
Quinn said it was a daunting task and they’re glad to be done with it.
“It was exhausting, but now we feel confident that we have identified everything, it feels good to be done,” said Quinn. “It’s great to know we have a grip on that Urban Renewal area. New we have to get through the rest of them.”
Quinn said many of the LDAs in the South End are confusing and have changed over time, but a lot of them had to do with affordable housing and garden/open space. To date, they have found approximately 400 of them in the neighborhood, which is likely three or four times more than any other area.
“The exact number of them is difficult because it’s hard to put an exact number on them,” she said. “It’s in the 400 range, plus or minus. Some parcels changed over time and in some cases, six LDAs merged to become one. The tricky part is a lot of things were proposed, but many never happened. Now you have to find out what did happen. When you’re dealing with people who kept records in the 1960s and 1970s and these employees are long gone, it’s very difficult. I think we managed it well.”
Many of the LDA restrictions in the South End, they said, involve keeping open space for gardens. Many had worried at the outset that garden land had been lost, or could be lost, to development.
Quinn said all of the parcels with garden LDAs are intact.
“All of the garden parcels we ID’d are still garden parcels,” she said. “Even when it changed hands, the restrictions have still stayed in place.”
Meanwhile, a truly unique feature of the South End LDAs are traced to legendary neighborhood activist Mel King.
“One unique factor in the South End is Mel King,” said Quinn. “He was kind of a person and advocate for Urban Renewal. When they changed from the West End and looked at the South End…he fought that…He worked with the community and spurred civic engagement. Tent City was founded and that led to a CDC (Community Development Corporation). We see a lot of affordable housing components maintained in the South End (LDAs). They have their fair share of affordable housing and community gardens was another good feature of the South End.”
Quinn added that she is currently working on the South Cove area of the South End and Chinatown – which hugs either side of the Mass. Pike and contains key land blocks in the South End.
In the end, the goal is to have all of the agreements and restrictions they have found catalogued electronically and included in the City’s assessing database. The intention is to have a separate section on that site that would list any urban renewal agreements contained on any parcel in the City – linked to a database hosted on the BPDA website.
With that in place, Quinn and Gandhi said the new data would be useful not only to the BPDA, but also to the public – and especially any buyers or sellers.
“The last thing anyone wants to do is find they have something attached to the deed when they’re about to sign and purchase and sale agreement,” Quinn said. “If we can be helpful to people who work and live in the City, then we want to be able to bring them more access to this information.”
They anticipated they had about another year to go to finish the entire City, and in the meantime they will double check the data for the South End and go live with the new information when everything is complete.