Beantown’s tarnished redevelopment agency comes up with a new name, a new logo, and a new mission, but locals aren’t convinced it’ll do any good.
By Richard Massey
The Boston Redevelopment Authority may have rebranded itself to the Boston Planning and Development Agency, but in a town where memories die hard, a new name and a new logo might not be enough to dispel the scorn heaped on the department for decades.
Perhaps known best for its decision to scrape off the West End “slums” back in the 1960s, displacing thousands in the process, the agency formerly known as the BRA has also overseen the current construction and development boom that has encroached on neighborhoods across the city.
To explain the rebranding, the BPDA, as it’s now known, issued this simple statement in its marketing collateral: “This was an effort to redefine what we do, why we do it, and how we do it.”
While the laundry list of the BPDA’s aspirations is long, it essentially comes down to one big point – to actually do urban planning so that Boston’s quilt work of neighborhoods is not destroyed by real estate development, much of it in the form of office and residential towers. To do that, according to Boston Mayor Martin Walsh and agency director Brian Golden, the BPDA will seek more input from residents and community groups.
“We expect to host conversations in the neighborhoods to have BPDA explain itself holistically,” Golden said at the time the rebranding was announced.
And that’s where the skepticism, much of it harsh, comes in. As the old BRA had the reputation of a heavy handed bureaucracy that always sided with the developer, the rebranding was roundly panned by the Boston media. Radio host and columnist Howie Carr even asked, “Sure, there were issues with the BRA – hackerama, incompetence, greed etc. – but how does changing the name to the Boston Planning and Development Agency resolve them?”
And normal residents, at least those who are dealing with the agency in their own back yard, feel the same way.
“It’s a rebranding in name, but not in actuality,” says the Harrison Albany Alliance, speaking to The Zweig Letter. “The city is going to do what it wants.”
Members of the Harrison Albany Alliance live next to, or near, a development in the South End, currently under review by the BPDA, known as the Harrison Albany Block. Developed by Leggat McCall and Bentall Kennedy, it’s a four-building project that will entail 710 residential units, 14,100 square feet of retail, and 40,000 square feet of office. The Alliance, a community group monitoring the development, says the rebranding hasn’t had a noticeable effect on the project.
Neighborhood concerns include height and exterior design, surrounding infrastructure, affordable housing, traffic, parking, and public transit. But to date, the Alliance says the city has only given lip service to a more inclusive process.
“They’re going through the motions, but they’re not providing the residents anything,” says the Alliance. “It’s like no one is listening.”
The rebranding comes on the heels of several major occurrences. In January 2014, Walsh succeeded Mayor Thomas Menino, in office for 20 years. Also in 2014, KPMG’s review of the BRA and the affiliated Economic Development Industrial Corp., found poor financial controls. And last year, an audit by McKinsey and Company found the following: the BRA had no vision, it wasn’t a one-stop shop for planning, the agency was understaffed and infected with poor morale, poor transparency, and inaccurate real estate records.
So what does the BRA do? It hires outside consulting firm Continuum – for a reported $670,000 – to spearhead the rebranding. Continuum, a design consultancy that, among other things, helped Daisy design a new squeezable container for its sour cream, helped the BRA look at itself in the mirror. Here is what it saw:
Growth has positive and negative outcomes; oftentimes the BPDA becomes associated with the negative ones.
Often it is difficult for people to connect actions and their positive outcomes, so we do not get credit.
People struggle to relate to our content.
The current stakeholder engagement model is sub-optimal for residents, developers, and employees.
The outward focus of the BPDA has created a siege mentality at the expense of internal dynamics – i.e., team-building and communication.
Our structure (how we’re organized and funded) results in confusion, distrust, and perceived conflicts of interest.
One of the greatest sins committed in the history of Boston, according to some, was the BRA’s levelling of the West End, an area jammed with immigrants and the poor. Literally wiped off the face of the map, the neighborhood, characterized by dense rows of tenements, fell victim to the kind of brass-knuckled redevelopment taking place in the 1950s and 1960s – urban renewal.
Little remains of the West End, and most of what does is housed in the West End Museum. Its president, Susan Hanson, says she is hopeful that the BRA’s rebranding is truly the dawn of a new day.
“The Boston Redevelopment Authority has historically been criticized for emphasizing development over planning,” Hanson says. “The administration of Mayor Walsh has acknowledged the City’s past mistakes, such as what happened to the West End neighborhood in the 1960s, and has taken remedial steps like planning initiatives in several neighborhoods. We think the name change reflects substantive improvement.”
But back in the South End, residents are leery.
Lauren Prescott, the executive director of the South End Historical Society, says she and plenty of others just aren’t convinced the BPDA is suddenly going to shed its big bureaucratic ways and cozy up to neighborhood groups and preservationists.
Just last year, the South End sent a strong letter to the BPDA asking it not to extend its urban renewal authority into the neighborhood, saying it was both “unnecessary and potentially harmful to the South End Neighborhood.”
To no avail. The authority was extended for another six years. For the foreseeable future, it looks like the South End is going to have to live with the BPDA. With that in mind, Prescott says plenty of people will be looking to see if the rebranding is real, or if it only exists on paper.
“I’m skeptical,” Prescott says. “I think it’s a smokescreen, but I’d like to be proved wrong. Are they engaging with neighborhoods? Are they engaging with residents? We’ll be watching.”