As Urban Renewal Meetings Begin, Advocates Surprised by Talk of Extensions

The Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) will be coming out to the neighborhoods, including the South End, Back Bay and Fenway, in the coming months to discuss its recent efforts under Urban Renewal and the possibility of expanding boundaries and extending time periods.

City Councilors and BPDA officials met on Friday morning, May 10, at City Hall for the bi-annual briefing on Urban Renewal following the six-year time extension granted in 2016 by the Council. As part of that extension, the BPDA has to submit a recommendation to the state by August about what it intends to do when that extension runs out – an action plan – and it also had to inventory all of the properties it owns and Land Disposition Agreements (LDAs) that are in place on private and public properties across the 16 Urban Renewal Areas. With those tasks now accomplished, and a report due to the state by August, the BPDA is ready to take the show on the road.

The South End, Fenway and Park Plaza are three of 16 Urban Renewal areas across the city christened in the 1960s, and they contain some of the largest swaths of Urban Renewal territory in Boston.

BPDA staffers Chris Breen and Devin Quirk will be heading up the effort citywide, and both told Councilor Michelle Wu and District 2 Councilor Ed Flynn they plan to go out to the communities to talk about future plans immediately.

“I’ll be putting together a presentation and be going out to all 16 Urban Renewal areas across the City,” said Breen. “I plan to have 16 community meetings…The community engagement will largely be taking place in three phases…We are the city we are because of Urban Renewal and I’m trying to go out to all 16 areas. I don’t know if that’s been done ever.”

The South End and Fenway would not be in the first phase of the meetings, Breen said, but Park Plaza would be. In fact, the South End – one of the largest and most complicated Urban Renewal areas – would be lumped in with Charlestown, Government Center, Washington Park and the West End at the end of the process.

Quirk said they will be looking to accomplish several things, including a background on Urban Renewal, an action plan, a review of the Land Disposition Agreements (LDAs) in a particular area, and proposed boundary changes or any extension or sunset of a particular area.

The tenor of the discussion was a shock to several advocates in the audience.

Most said they had expected the Urban Renewal conversations to be about how to end the process – to sunset virtually every district.

“The elephant in the room here is that the Urban Renewal zones are edifications of the late 1950s and early 1960s and were never intended to last this long,” said Fred Cavalieri, chair of the Alliance of Downtown Civic Organizaitons (ADCO). “The last 10-year renewal, which became a six-year renewal because it was the first time there was push back…I feel a lot of the process here is intended to memorialize these Urban Renewal Zones and not get rid of them…Our associations want a sunset on these areas, including West End, North Station, South Station, Park Plaza, South Cove, South End and Fenway. We want them gone. We see there is no need for them. If we need to transfer LDAs, let’s do that. I don’t want to get rid of the BRA; I want the BRA to move forward, not backward.”

Elliott Laffer, of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB) said he was surprised there wasn’t more discussion of sunsetting the areas.

“This is a tool that was misused at its birth and most things misused at birth don’t get better,” he said. “We need to clean up the debris and get rid of them. We need the City’s planning agency to think about planning.”

Rich Giordano, executive director of the Fenway CDC, was likewise thrown for a loop with the discussion of possibly extending the time and boundaries for Urban Renewal.

“I mistakenly thought the focus of this process was how to end Urban Renewal processes, not to extend them,” he said. “To learn that we could come out of this with an extension is pretty surprising…We don’t need Urban Renewal. In my view, the development we’re getting is not the development we need. We can reverse that if we plan better.”

In the South End, Fenway and Park Plaza, an end to Urban Renewal was seen as a near certain thing after the six-year extension in 2016. However, much of the discussion at Friday’s meeting centered on some of the risks that could be involved in sunsetting an area, and very little was talked about in relation to how a zone as big as the South End would be closed out.

“In different Urban Renewal areas there are different types of Land Use agreements,” said Quirk. “We would want to discuss the risks of what sunsetting Urban Renewal would mean for those agreements.”

In most of the downtown neighborhood areas, a major concern was the inventory of property and LDAs.

Over the past two years, Breen and other BPDA staffers have been poring through old records and Registry documents to catalog electronically all of the agreements that were put on properties during the early Urban Renewal periods. Many people and organizations own land with Urban Renewal LDAs in effect and don’t even know it. Any meetings in the South End would likely be focused on rolling out all of those LDAs that have been found in the two-year inventory process.

Wu and Flynn did have some concerns about the timing of the community meetings, saying that it didn’t make sense to make a progress report to the state before finishing up community meetings in places like Charlestown.

“It seems like this would take a lot more time and you should start earlier,” said Wu. “I don’t think enough time has been allocated to go property by property in a place like the South End.”

Councilor Flynn said Urban Renewal is a powerful tool, and it has been abused in the past, and that story must be told, he said, along with the positive things that have been done.

“In the end, I always think of my friend Jim Campano of the West End and the residents of the West End that were pushed out of the city by Urban Renewal,” he said. “That’ where I’m coming from…People who were displaced even as kids at the age of 3 – that stays with them all their lives. We need to always remember that we’re talking about people when we make decisions. We have to treat everyone fairly and with respect.”

Said Breen, who lives in Charlestown, “My grandfather was actually displaced by Urban Renewal and my mother, too. I’ve heard the stories all my life and understand the pain. When I came to work at the BPDA, my whole family asked me why I would do that. I came to work here because the people on the ninth floor now are not the people who were on the 9th floor then. Now they are there to protect the residents and the elderly and try to do what’s best for them.”

Quirk said the BPDA will approach this next round of Urban Renewal processes in a fair and just way.

“We’re not in it for the money for the community good,” he said. “I’m going to listen and go back and report what I’ve learned at every single meeting. We’re going to think it through – the City, the (state), and the community and do what’s right.”

Meetings on Urban Renewal in the South End aren’t likely to come until the late fall. In the Fenway, those meetings could come some time in September. The BPDA officials said that after they present their Phase 1 report (which will encompass Brunswick-King, Park Plaza, Kittredge Square, North Station, Central Business District and Boylston-Essex), they will have a solid timeline for making final recommendations, which are likely to come out in spring 2020.

Phase 2 meetings would include Campus High School, South Station, South Cove, Fenway and Downtown/Waterfront/Faneuil Hall.

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