BPDA marks transformative year of restructuring planning, completing neighborhood plans, launching citywide zoning reform
Dec 29, 2023
Agency approves more than 7,300 units of housing, improves standards for development through inclusionary zoning and linkage policy changes
BOSTON - Friday, December 29, 2023 - This year, the Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA) made meaningful changes to how planning and development are done in the City of Boston. The Agency restructured its planning department to focus on comprehensive planning, zoning reform, and zoning compliance, and grew from 183 to 226 employees. Elevating planning and design, the Agency was able to adopt neighborhood plans in Mattapan, Charlestown, Downtown, and Newmarket, complete zoning recommendations from three of those plans, embark on the first citywide zoning reform effort in decades, launch a citywide Design Vision to create standards for design that embrace diversity and inclusion, and reshape the design review process.
In addition to major strides in transforming the Agency, the BPDA completed signature policy changes of the Wu Administration, including increasing Linkage payments, and not only changing the City’s Inclusionary Development Policy to increase affordable housing, but also incorporating the policy into the Boston Zoning Code for the first time in the City’s history.
The Agency was able to take these transformational steps while advancing significant growth and investment in our City through development, approving 71 new development proposals and 20 notices of project change amounting to 16.6 million net square feet worth $10.2 billion of investment in our City. This includes 7,389 net residential units, of which 2,286 or 31 percent, will be income-restricted. This was the third highest year for housing approvals at the BPDA board in the last decade. The projects approved this year are estimated to generate 16,198 net construction jobs and 17,329 net permanent jobs. Development projects newly approved in 2023 will generate $115.3 million in Linkage fees to support affordable housing, and $21.3 million in Linkage fees to support job training programs.
The BPDA advanced an unprecedented volume of development on nearly one million square feet of underutilized, public land across Boston. These 16 sites will produce a variety of public benefits, such as new affordable housing, open space, transportation connections, commercial units, and arts and culture spaces. Notable sites include Parcel P3 in Roxbury, Parcel P12C in Chinatown, the Austin Street Parking Lots in Charlestown, and the new branch of the Boston Public Library in Uphams Corner with 100% affordable homeownership units. Four properties this year will become dedicated community gardens, creating 39,205 square feet of permanent open space. These redevelopment efforts are in direct response to the City’s 2022 land audit to maximize the potential for underutilized sites across Boston, particularly some of the Agency’s largest parcels that have sat vacant for decades.
The sections below provide more detail on major accomplishments and progress of the BPDA to reform the Agency and to tackle Boston’s greatest challenges today: resilience, affordability, and equity.
BPDA acts on Mayor Wu’s mandates to elevate and coordinate City planning, streamline Article 80 approvals, and rezone squares and streets
During her State of the City address last January, Mayor Michelle Wu announced a series of reforms to make planning and development more accountable, transparent, and predictable, and to direct the City’s planning and development resources toward addressing climate resilience, equitable growth, and housing affordability. These reforms include moving the operations of planning and development under City control under the direction of Chief of Planning Arthur Jemison, forming a Planning Advisory Council (P.A.C.) to increase coordination between City departments that impact the built environment, modernizing Article 80, reforming the Zoning Code, specifically Boston’s neighborhood centers and main streets, and ending urban renewal.
Transition to City of Boston
In the beginning of 2024, Mayor Wu will file an ordinance with the City Council to create the new City department, and a vast majority of BPDA staff will become City employees on July 1st, 2024. Over the course of 2023, the Agency focused on the 40 benefits offered to current BPDA employees to identify differences between the BPDA and City of Boston employment packages, and ensure staff are prepared to move to City employment at the beginning of the next fiscal year. This move will restore planning as a core function of City government. In addition, BPDA compliance staff moved under the Mayor’s Office of Housing earlier in 2023.
Planning Advisory Council
The new Citywide Planning Advisory Council (PAC), created via Executive Order in January 2023, has established itself as an active internal collaboration unit, setting a regular cadence of monthly meetings to tackle key mayoral priorities under the leadership of the Chair (Chief Jemison) and Executive Director, Katharine Lusk. Lusk returned to City Hall after helping to launch and build an interdisciplinary urban research and policy center at Boston University, founded by late Boston Mayor Tom Menino.
The PAC is staffed by City employees who report to the Chief of Planning, and works to break down barriers between City departments, tie planning efforts to the City’s capital budgeting process, and serve as a central authority for initiating, reviewing, and implementing Citywide planning. In its first six months of operation, the PAC is working to set new standards for community engagement in planning, and creating new systems to improve interdepartmental coordination, track progress against plans and improve transparency for constituents.
Article 80 modernization
The Mayor committed to modernizing the Article 80 development review process to prioritize predictability for both developers and community members, a process the BPDA launched in 2023. This is the first comprehensive review of the process since Article 80 was adopted nearly three decades ago. The BPDA is modernizing Article 80 to meaningfully address both the internal operations and the community engagement process to make development review more predictable. In February, Mayor Michelle Wu announced the members of an Article 80 steering committee of real estate and civic leaders to advise on reforms. The committee has already met several times, and the BPDA is conducting extensive community engagement through the use of surveys, focus groups, and comments to ensure community voices are represented in the review. Any recommended changes will go through community and BPDA Board review prior to implementation.
This year the Agency also hired an ombudsperson to streamline the citywide permitting process following development project Board approvals to ensure good housing projects can come onto the housing market more quickly. This ombudsman works with developers to ensure they understand and can navigate the permitting process in an efficient and timely manner.
To update Boston’s zoning code and enable thousands of additional housing units in Boston’s neighborhood centers and main streets, the BPDA’s restructured Planning Department’s first major planning and rezoning initiative, Squares + Streets kicked off this past fall. The initiative focuses on enabling more housing, small businesses, cultural resources, and reliable transportation in these commercial areas. Over the course of the next two years, this process will be implemented through customized small area plans for selected squares and streets, and provide a clear vision for growth.
Chief of Planning Arthur Jemison and Director of Planning Aimee Chambers have been building out a zoning reform team focused on evaluating and modernizing the zoning code to enable equitable growth across Boston neighborhoods. Updating the Code will make the development process more predictable for community members and developers, and reduce the number of development proposals that require relief from the Zoning Board of Appeal. In addition to Squares and Streets, the zoning reform team has updated the Code to allow child care centers across the City, and is working on zoning reform to allow Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) throughout the City as a way of enabling gentle density, diversity in housing options, and the ability for individuals to increase the value of their homes.
Home rule petition on urban renewal and structural change to the BPDA
The Boston City Council in March approved Mayor Wu's Home Rule Petition to end Urban Renewal and simplify Boston’s quasi-governmental entity by abolishing the BRA and EDIC and transferring the powers and duties of those entities into a new, singular entity named the BPDA.
State Representative Dan Ryan (D-2nd Suffolk) introduced the bill to the State Legislature in July, and it was assigned to the House Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Business.
The proposed legislation would create new tools to meet future needs such as climate change resilience infrastructure, and retain the BPDA’s ability to enforce restrictions that protect community assets, such as affordable housing and open space. The proposal will also update the statutory mission of the BPDA by establishing a new charter for advancing resilience, affordability, and equity. The proposed Act would end the ability to make land takings based on blighted, decadent, or substandard conditions in the City. It also entitles the Agency to enforce any conditions and restrictions in existing plans that protect important community benefits such as affordable housing, open space, and community uses.
The legislation directs the BPDA to prepare and implement plans that address three key planning principles: 1) resiliency, including climate change mitigation and adaptation; 2) affordability, including the creation and retention of affordable housing and support for local businesses; and 3) equity, in the form of community development plans that ensure the equitable distribution of benefits derived from development in the City, and redress historical inequitable policies that may have led to inequities in the City’s growth. The legislation would require that all plans be approved by the mayor.
BPDA takes bold action to increase funding for job training and affordable housing, development requirements for affordable housing, and revitalize Downtown through office-to-residential conversions
The BPDA Board of Directors supported changes to the Linkage policy in February that increased fees for lab and commercial uses. These changes were then given final approval by the Zoning Commission. This money goes toward the creation and preservation of affordable housing within the Neighborhood Housing Trust, as well as to support the job training and job readiness needs of Boston’s residents within the Neighborhood Jobs Trust. The changes to the Linkage Policy include lowering the threshold and exemption from 100,000 square feet to 50,000 square feet, increasing the total linkage fee for lab uses over two years to $30.78 per square foot for lab space, and to $23.09 for other commercial uses, up from $15.39. Sixteen percent of the fees will support job training and job preparedness programs, while the remaining 84 percent will support the creation and preservation of affordable housing. The increase in the fees will be phased in over two years beginning in January 2024.
The BPDA Board of Directors supported a text amendment to the zoning code over the summer to incorporate the City’s Inclusionary Development Policy (IDP) within zoning for the first time in the City’s history. This amendment was then given final approval by the Zoning Commission. The new Inclusionary Zoning amendment updates the prior policy by lowering the unit count threshold for projects that will be required to include income-restricted units from ten to seven units, and increasing the portion of housing that is required to be income-restricted from 13 percent to 20 percent. The addition of Inclusionary Zoning changes also means that affordability requirements are no longer triggered by requests for zoning relief from the Zoning Board of Appeal. Instead, affordability is required of all projects that meet the new policy’s thresholds, regardless of whether they will need variances or not.
These changes encode into zoning the BPDA’s ongoing commitments to require new projects to support inclusive mixed-income housing. The zoning amendment will go into effect on October 1, 2024, and will not affect any projects currently under review or any project filing before that date. This delay will provide the City and the BPDA the opportunity to monitor market conditions over the next year.
Office to Residential conversion program
In October, the Agency officially launched the Downtown Residential Conversion Incentive Pilot Program, which provides a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) incentive to developers who will be converting office buildings into residential buildings. The goal of this program is to convert older commercial office buildings to residential, to increase housing stock in the neighborhood, which would then increase the amount of people and economic activity Downtown. This responds to post-pandemic economic shifts that put more priority on expanding housing options downtown, to improve downtown activation.Though the targeted areas for this program are downtown office buildings, projects throughout the city will also be considered on a case by case basis.
While most office buildings are not suitable for conversion, the BPDA has proactively marketed the program to the properties best suited for a conversion. The Agency has already received four applications and is in active discussions with several additional prospects. The application will remain open until June 2024. The program is being administered jointly by the BPDA, Mayor's Office of Housing (MOH), and the City of Boston Finance Cabinet to help meet City goals of creating housing units Downtown, and having more consistent foot traffic throughout the week to support Downtown businesses. Successful program applicants will need to commit to pulling a full building permit and starting construction by October 2025.
BPDA recognized for innovative DEI policies
Commonwealth Development Compact
In May, the City signed onto the Commonwealth Development Compact in partnership with other Massachusetts cities. The commitments within the Compact align with the current diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies advanced by the BPDA for both public land dispositions and private development. By signing onto this document, the City of Boston will participate in a pilot program of what will be known as the Commonwealth Development Model, which intends to collect data on the makeup of current and future development projects. The program is designed to build economic opportunity for minority and women-owned firms, who have historically been vastly under-represented in private real estate development.
This will be an extension of the work that is ongoing at the BPDA. First announced in August of 2022, the Agency instituted a new policy to promote diversity within large private development projects in the City of Boston. The BPDA’s policy requests that proponents disclose plans to include economic participation, employment, and management roles for people of color, women, and certified Minority and Women Owned Businesses within their projects. Since August of 2022, the BPDA has received approximately 40 DEI Plan Disclosures.
Pacesetters Award for Minority Business Enterprise Partnership
The Agency was also recognized in June by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce with the Pacesetters Award for Minority Business Enterprise Partnership of the Year. The Agency received the Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) Partnership of the Year Award for their work with Casablanca Services Inc., a minority-owned landscaping firm. The Pacesetters award recognizes growth in spend, innovative procurement practices, and overall commitment to creating economic opportunities in the business community.
The BPDA adopted an Equitable Procurement Plan in May 2021 to ensure that Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises (M/WBEs) are represented and benefit from the Agency’s contracts. Through the Equitable Procurement Plan, the BPDA has redesigned the procurement process to increase the number of opportunities for M/WBEs to participate in the Agency’s contracting.
BPDA completes and approves neighborhood plans and associated zoning recommendations at unprecedented pace
As part of its ongoing commitment to proactively plan for Boston’s future growth, the BPDA completed and adopted neighborhood planning studies in Mattapan, Charlestown, Downtown, and Newmarket and is currently wrapping up the planning process in East Boston. In addition, the Allston Brighton Needs Assessment, launched over the summer, recently concluded, with recommendations for future planning in the neighborhoods. The BPDA launched the Fenway Transportation Action Plan in September, progress continued on the South Boston Transportation Action Plan including a thorough analysis of existing conditions to inform recommended improvements, and the South Boston Seaport Strategic Transit Plan was adopted by the BPDA Board in December.
The BPDA Board of Directors adopted the PLAN: Charlestown planning initiative in September, after four years of work and engagement with the public. The plan includes: an analysis of neighborhood needs and recommendations to improve access to services, recommendations for new zoning for existing industrial parts of the neighborhood to encourage more housing and retail options, and urban design guidelines to govern future development in the former industrial area and in the Original Peninsula. The implementation of this plan includes new zoning, the delivery of resources, amenities and modifications that residents have been advocating for such as diverse housing options, open space, historic preservation tools, and transportation infrastructure. The plan and associated zoning also lays the foundation for well-planned, transit-oriented growth of new homes for up to 10,000 new residents over the next several decades.
The BPDA Board of Directors adopted the PLAN: Mattapan planning initiative in May, nearly five years after the initiative began in October 2018. Over the course of more than 150 community meetings, Mattapan residents and community stakeholders worked alongside the planning team to craft a vision and goals for their neighborhood’s future, and establish planning recommendations. These recommendations lay the groundwork for a more affordable, equitable, and resilient Mattapan. The recommendations include backyard Additional Dwelling Units (ADUs), mobility improvements and mixed-use zoning that will cultivate a 10-minute neighborhood, transit improvements, and promoting investment in Mattapan Square and opportunities to strengthen local businesses. Zoning implementing the plan was approved by the BPDA Board in December.
The BPDA Board of Directors adopted PLAN: Newmarket in August. The plan lays out a vision and the tools for Newmarket to serve as a key center of industrial activity and employment for Boston residents, and as an area primed to attract the industries of tomorrow. Overlapping the neighborhoods of Dorchester, Roxbury, South Boston, and the South End, the Newmarket industrial zone acts as an economic engine and jobs center for the City of Boston, and this plan supports the enhancement of that role. The goals of the plan are to: maintain traditional industrial jobs, attract new industries, promote job equity and access, and support the growth of the creative economy. By affirming Newmarket as Boston’s industrial center, it will allow the city to unlock the potential of other parts of the city to host much needed transit-oriented housing, and mixed-use development. Zoning implementing the plan was approved by the BPDA Board in December.
The BPDA Board of Directors formally adopted the PLAN: Downtown planning initiative in December. The community planning process, which originally began in 2018, establishes a new framework for the growth, enhancement, and preservation of Downtown Boston as a 24-hour neighborhood, balancing livability, affordability, walkability, climate change preparedness, access to open space, and a dynamic mix of uses. The adopted plan focuses on increasing housing and takes into account the effects of the pandemic on the Downtown neighborhood, such as the change in patterns to foot traffic and office work. The zoning to implement this plan will go through a community process during 2024, which will look at updating zoning to modernize uses Downtown, new zoning for Chinatown, and ways to streamline project mitigation within the Article 80 process.
The BPDA is currently in the process of completing PLAN: East Boston, which originally began in 2018. It is expected to be presented and heard by the BPDA Board at their January board meeting. The draft plan, released in September, focuses on: expanding access to housing options that are affordable, stable, and able to meet households’ needs as they change over time, advancing climate preparedness and promoting a healthy environment, ensuring access to travel choices that better connect East Boston to the rest of the City, supporting local business, and guiding neighborhood growth that is predictable and contextual. East Boston has historically had some of the least predictable development in the City, with the highest number of Zoning Board of Appeals cases, and this plan will meet Mayor Wu’s objectives of more predictable, well planned development.
BPDA expands leadership
Aimee Chambers named new Director of Planning
Early in 2023, Chief of Planning Arthur Jemison announced the hiring of Aimee Chambers, AICP as the new Director of Planning. Her professional experience includes a wide range of planning and urban design work from affordable housing development to bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure design.
Chambers is responsible for implementing the Mayor’s vision for citywide land use planning strategies and action plans that shape equitable long-term growth. This vision includes a Citywide plan to rezone and enhance Squares + Streets, creating the opportunity for thousands of new housing units and neighborhood small businesses, retail, and jobs. It also includes completing neighborhood plans, bringing them to zoning, and building out the zoning team to evaluate and modernize the zoning code.
Boston Civic Design Commission, BPDA Design Vision
Mayor Wu announced last winter new appointments and leadership to the Boston Civic Design Commission (BCDC) to bring diverse new voices and perspectives to shape design outcomes in the City. These appointments are another step toward the Mayor’s vision of ensuring that design and development resources are focused on resilience, affordability, and equity. The changes to the Commission will ensure that the BCDC’s feedback during its review of BPDA projects continues to represent the best and most current design thinking in the city. The BCDC will continue to play an advisory role to the Urban Design and Planning staff of the BPDA.
The Urban Design staff of the BPDA also launched a new city-wide design vision to support a built environment that expresses the diversity of the neighborhoods of Boston, in an effort to anchor a sense of belonging in the midst of the City’s growth. This vision will champion the transformative power of sustainable, walkable, and supportive communities for everyone, that support social, mental, and physical health while improving resiliency, affordability, and equity.
Raheem Shepard and Kate Bennett Join BPDA Board of Directors
Mayor Michelle Wu appointed two new members to the BPDA Board of Directors. Raheem Shepard of Hyde Park is the Regional Manager of the North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters for the City of Boston. His appointment upholds Boston’s longstanding tradition of including union representation on the BPDA Board. As a member of the ZBA, Shepard reviews development proposals which require zoning relief, and works with his fellow ZBA members and Chief of Planning Arthur Jemison to help advance the Mayor’s goal of rebuilding trust with communities through planning-led development, while advancing equity, affordability, and resilience across all functions of the City’s development review process. His term began in September.
Kate Bennett of Roslindale has worked in affordable housing development, policy, and planning for more than 25 years, with a particular focus on public housing revitalization as the former head of the Boston Housing Authority (BHA). Bennett has spearheaded over $2 billion in redevelopment activity currently underway at several BHA sites across the city. She has also been instrumental in the development of the BHA’s green, healthy housing and sustainability programs, and in the expansion of resident empowerment and self-sufficiency initiatives. Bennett holds a Masters in City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has also managed affordable housing programs for the City of Chelsea and the City of Newton. Her term began in December.