One of Mayor Walsh’s most influential decisions will be reforming the disaster zone that is the City’s planning process. It will be a major test of his promises of accountability and transparency.
The Boston Redevelopment Authority is an overpowered dinosaur long overdue for its date with a mayoral meteorite. It combines planning and economic development, with the latter funding City tax coffers and the BRA itself; no prize for guessing which half overwhelms the other. The agency also combines various contradictory and conflicting missions. In leverage and resources, the BRA dwarfs other important planning authorities such as the Boston Landmarks Commission and the Department of Neighborhood Development.
Mission Hill has seen the outcomes, such as the odious LMA “Interim Guidelines,” which allow developers to do virtually anything in exchange for cutting back-room deals to boost mayoral pet projects elsewhere. After a decade, they are still “interim” and still have never had the BRA-promised public input.
In the 1980s, populist Mayor Flynn tried to decentralize planning and ended up making some confusing messes. The patriarchal Mayor Menino tried to centralize it to make it more fair and predictable, only to still make messes.
Perhaps Mayor Walsh can avoid over-correction and instead focus on checks and balances. Form isn’t as important as maintaining creative tension. Planning and development must be separated and given equal leverage, perhaps with City Council oversight and input. Real BRA reform takes state legislative approval, but with the right appointees, Walsh can have a BRA that voluntarily submits to City Council auditing and review. Heck, maybe it’ll even pay rent on its City Hall office space.