BRA begins community engagement process to extend urban renewal plans
Dec 17, 2014
First step in thorough public process to engage community and elected officials about the importance of this redevelopment tool
This morning, Director Brian Golden and other senior staff members of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) briefed the Boston City Council on the agency’s intention to seek the extension of 15 of the city’s 18 active urban renewal plans. Most of the plans are set to expire in April 2015, but the BRA will file a request with the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), which has final authority to approve urban renewal plans, for a short-term extension of them until April 2016. The BRA will use this time to update the expiring urban renewal plans to reflect current redevelopment priorities and seek approval from DHCD to extend them for ten years.
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. In Boston, urban renewal is often associated with the infamous experience of the West End, which was almost completely razed in the late 1950s for redevelopment, displacing thousands of people.
“Urban renewal has always been very personal to me, as I grew up in Allston and witnessed what many would agree was an excessive use of the powers,” said Golden. “If I felt that today’s approach to urban renewal came anywhere close to being that heavy-handed, I wouldn’t support its continued use. But the truth is that our strategies have evolved considerably over time in order to meet new challenges in a way that is thoughtful and respectful towards the community. We look forward to having a robust public process to discuss urban renewal’s benefits in the months ahead.”
As representatives from the BRA explained to the City Council at this morning’s briefing, the current approach is decidedly more restrained and judicious. It is now used to transform underdeveloped parcels of land, not to redevelop entire neighborhoods. Today’s focus on investing in preexisting infrastructure to add density and other uses bears little resemblance to the large-scale housing and highway projects that defined urban renewal decades ago.
Boston’s urban renewal plans were last extended in 2005, after an at times contentious process that included a superior court ruling that the City Council violated the state Open Meeting Law in its interactions with the BRA. The BRA team leading the current extension effort is taking particular care to be as open and transparent as possible this time. Today’s briefing with the City Council is just the first step in an extensive public engagement process to educate residents and community leaders about urban renewal and to solicit their feedback about the best ways to use its tools to create vibrant neighborhoods.
Recent examples of projects facilitated through urban renewal include the new Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown, the new Charlesview affordable housing development in Allston-Brighton, the new Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury, and the nearly complete Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building, the future home of the Boston Public School’s central offices in Dudley Square.
The BRA is seeking to extend urban renewal plan areas that cover over 3,000 acres of the city and include parts of Charlestown, the Fenway, Chinatown, the South End, Roxbury, the Downtown Waterfront, the West End, North Station area, and Government Center. The agency plans to let smaller urban renewal designations in North Allston and the Downtown Central Business District expire, as the redevelopment goals for those areas have largely been met.
The BRA has worked with the Mayor’s Office to organize an advisory task force that will help engage community members throughout the extension process. The task force is composed of neighborhood representatives from the communities where urban renewal extensions are being sought as well as stakeholders from the construction industry and the building trades.
Urban renewal allows the BRA to utilize a variety of tools for redevelopment efforts, some examples of which include the ability to exercise eminent domain, implement land use controls, issue blight findings, and create demonstration projects.
The BRA expects to convene a meeting of the task force in early January to brief them on the process for extending the plans, after which a series of public meetings will be held to engage the community at large on the issue. The first community meeting is expected to take place by the end of January.
More information about Boston’s use of urban renewal and its benefits will soon be available online. The BRA is developing a webpage that is set to launch by January. It will include a public commenting feature, a schedule of community meetings, maps of the urban renewal plan areas, and more.
Although Boston might be the most high-profile urban renewal area in the state, a total of 31 cities and towns in Massachusetts have urban renewal plans.
Learn more about Urban Renewal