Known for being home to Emerson College, the Four Season Hotel, the Chinatown Trade Building and a vibrant theatre culture, the Park Plaza Urban Renewal area has been turned around over the past decade into a vibrant downtown area of Boston.
This Urban Renewal Area might be the first zone that the city will let expire after meeting the goals first laid out by the Park Plaza Renewal Project in the 1970s.
The announcement came from Brian Golden, director of the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), during the third, biannual Urban Renewal Update to the Boston City Council on Friday, March 2. Golden stated that there have been initial talks with BPDA staff of letting the Park Plaza Urban Renewal zone go.
“We still need to have conversations with the Council and with the neighborhood, but we have been looking at the future of Park Plaza,” said Golden. “If we had to pick one for termination, it’s probably go to be Park Plaza because most of the goals have been accomplished.”
In August 2016, the Commonwealth’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) approved the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s (BRA, now BPDA), request to extend the agency’s urban renewal powers in plan areas that cover over 3,000 acres of the city.
The urban renewal zones include parts of Charlestown, the Fenway, Chinatown, the South End, Roxbury, the Downtown Waterfront, the West End, North Station area and Government Center.
The extension allows the BRA to maintain these powers, which are used for planning and economic development purposes, for another six years, until April 2022.
“One of the reasons why we fought for the extension for all of the urban renewals zones was to make sure we were comfortable with analyzing the data and results,” said Golden. “But we’ve come to the conclusion that Park Plaza might be able to go away.”
The basic objectives of the Park Plaza Urban Renewal Plan as laid out by the 1977 BRA report include providing a new “intown” residential community in the heart of the city with the goal of eliminating blighted conditions in the neighborhood.
Planning objectives included providing a lively mix of residential and daytime and evening activities, scaling new developments to correspond with the nearby parks, and eliminating excess and confusing roadways by replacing them with an efficient, safe, and adequate new road system.
The project area was laid to be devoted to residential, hotel, office, parking and commercial uses.
The Park Plaza Urban Renewal Plan must be maintained for 40 years after its approval from the Boston City Council and the Mayor of the City of Boston. Many of the parcels were renewed in the early 2000s for an extension of between 10 to 40 years.
It is the only state plan with no federal involvement, and was written differently from other urban renewal projects.
“The Park Plaza Urban Renewal Plan has succeeded in large measure because it created a public process, through the Park Plaza CAC (Citizen Advisory Committee), that gave community organizations – including the Friends of the Public Garden – a seat at the table to provide the kind of input that allowed development in the adjacent area while protecting the Boston Common and Public Garden from excessive shadow,” said Liz Vizza, executive director of the Friends of the Public Garden. “The threat from the original massive Park Plaza plan of 1971 and opposition by the Friends and other citizen activists brought attention to the needs of the parks, the risks that the planned development posed to them, and the importance of protecting these greenspaces as the City grew.”
Urban renewal dates back to the American Housing Act of 1949, when the federal government began to invest great sums of money to redevelop cities that were rapidly declining after World War II.
Early urban renewal efforts attempted to tackle widespread blight by assembling land to develop massive infrastructure and public facilities, usually at the expense of displacing poor and marginalized residents.
According to the BPDA, today, urban renewal is used in a much more nuanced manner to help create vibrant neighborhoods.
“It has many negative associations historically, both here at the city and externally with the people of Boston” said Golden. “Urban renewal today is a much different tool and is used in a much different fashion than in the 1950s and ‘60s. We exercise powers in a much more sophisticated and sensitive manner – but, without these tools development might not be possible.”
Since their first biannual meeting with the Boston City Council, the BPDA has been working on cataloging Land Disposition Agreements (LDA), which are deeds and or restricted parcels of land. Some may be owned by the BPDA or under a long-term lease for development.
The LDA inventory project continues and staff has been thinking through how to make it all accessible online. It is scheduled to be completed by August 2019.
Councilor Michelle Wu asked if the BPDA will be able to meet the deadline, along with having a public process to finalize the LDA boundaries and making possible changes, but Golden said it probably won’t be until after they’ve done their research.
“Fundamentally, it could be bumpy both with City Hall and when we go out in the neighborhoods to identify the adjustments with the boundaries,” said Golden. “Either way, the state is requiring we do come up with a community engagement plan.”
Wu continued to ask how accessible the LDA documents would be once they are put online.
Golden said the original idea was to have the viewer of the LDA’s linked directly to the related documents at the State’s Registry of Deeds but, over the past year, a lot of legal and technical problems have risen.
It appears that the links to the documents might breed more confusion because of the complexity and number of records that viewers would have to sift through. Golden said, “Ultimately, it’s not going to provide meaningful information even though we thought it could.”
Instead, if somebody is looking for more information on a parcel of land, they will be able to send an e-mail to BPDA staff, which will in return explain the documents and how they work together.
Wu had some qualms about e-mailing the pdfs and links when they could just be available if someone wants to look at them.
“Even it is something that requires an extra foundation of knowledge – I know the universe of folks is relatively small – they shouldn’t have to e-mail,” said Wu.
But, Golden said every time the issue is brought up with staff, a catalogue of problems comes up.
Ford Cavallari, chairman of Alliance of Downtown Civic Associations (ADCO), said he agreed with Wu’s comments.
Cavallari said that there is a lot of knowledge in people’s heads but there needs to be a way to get that online and easily accessible because if every time someone has a query it will take up senior managements time, when they have other important things to be doing.
“If there is a way to tabular form the LDAs that illicit some of the information like key issues such as dates that would be helpful,” said Cavallari. “For example we are working on saving a North End nursing home that Partners wanted to sell, but we intercepted it because there was an LDA. It was excruciating hard to find out there even was a LDA.”
Cavallari said they would like key deadline dates to pop out because the nursing home missed its extension deadline because the date was buried in a pdf file, and it is likely the same thing can occur in similar situation elsewhere in the City.
“Instead of creating some files no one ever looks at you should create something that helps the entire process,” said Cavallari. “We should never have a neighborhood lose a nursing home or affordable housing because they didn’t know the deadline date.”
Richard Giordano of the Fenway Community Development Corporation said a quick list or summary of key information such as address, date of expiration, number of units and whether it is privately owned or not could help track and manage a lot of affordable housing in the city.
“I’ve had multiple conversations on this, but since the department was created in 1957, most of its history up to its present day was an analogue agency in a digital world, but, now we’re transforming that,” said Golden.
The BPDA will meet back with the Boston City Council six months from now for their next biannual check-in.