Editorial: Zoning Out in the LMA

The Boston Redevelopment Authority’s (BRA) extraordinary ability to essentially rezone entire sections of the city is drawing increasing scrutiny—including lawsuits—and creating bizarre situations in the LMA.

Article 80, the bit of zoning code that empowers the BRA, says its own purpose is “to provide clear, predictable, and unified requirements for the review of development projects throughout the City.”

Is Northeastern’s complicated dorm project clear? Is Merck suddenly finding its lab site’s zoning evaporating and reverting to residential-only considered predictable?

In fact, the BRA’s liberal use of two blanket rezoning mechanisms—Institutional Master Plans (IMPs) and Planned Development Areas (PDAs)—is producing confusion for everyone involved.

In part, the BRA is finding itself confounded by the increasingly blurry lines between nonprofit academia and the business world. IMPs are for the former and PDAs are for the latter, but the BRA itself seems unsure what to use in recent cases.

But this is also yet another byproduct of the BRA’s core problem: It is an overpowered agency with little accountability and an eternal willingness to game the system for favored developers, no matter the consequences. (See the Filene’s hole downtown for a prime example.) An actual planning agency like most cities have would not have this level of confusion.

Consider two recent high-profile stories involving IMPs. The Northeastern dorm got blanket zoning approval under an IMP as part of NU’s campus, even though NU will not own the property and will merely be the tenant of a for-profit developer.

Meanwhile, Merck is getting around existing zoning with its own PDA, despite the fact that it sits on property owned by Emmanuel College—indeed, on what the college calls its “endowment campus.”

In short, an IMP—designed for nonprofit institutions—applies to a private development, but not to a college campus. Say what? You can call that zoning, but not a code.

The dorm trick drew lawsuits and, even though those failed, criticism from a judge. The Merck flub could leave that company forced to seek major zoning relief for relatively minor changes to its property.

The BRA now says that the Merck site could wind up with both a PDA and an IMP. This produces not so much clarity as further suspicions that such blanket rezoning is a handy smokescreen for favored institutions to do as they please (or as the City forces them to, likely in Northeastern’s case).

Meanwhile, the entire LMA is covered by the BRA’s facetiously named “Interim Guidelines,” a zoning master plan imposed nine years ago with false promises of public input. The BRA has never even bothered to finish them as they permit massive projects far beyond the largely residential zoning code. The guidelines are another thinly veiled mechanism for approving pet projects and pushing institutions to build in other favored areas, such as the Waterfront.

The BRA frequently operates on good, if skewed, intentions. There is a major public good in IMPs and PDAs, which require institutions to inventory their property and ease the permitting of valuable projects.

But the system is clearly broken for everyone. BRA reform is a long-term solution. In the short term, legislators should find a way for the zoning code to cover the rise of huge, hybrid nonprofit/for-profit developments in a way that is—well, clear, predictable and unified.

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