BRA: Public must wait for ‘urban renewal’ details

May 1, 2015
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The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) recently began public meetings about its request to renew its “urban renewal” plans around the city, including one covering the Longwood Medical Area. But the BRA refused to provide the existing plan’s details to the Gazette for review, saying they will be posted online sometime in the near future.

Eighteen urban renewal plans, including one called “Fenway” in the LMA, cover various parts of the city. Created in the 1960s, they give the BRA various types of development power, up to and including eminent domain. But the individual details vary.

Re-approval of the plans, which requires City Council approval, is required every 10 years. According to the BRA’s website, 16 of the plans are up for re-approval, and the BRA is seeking to renew 14 of them. The website does not say which plans are not up for re-approval.

A kick-off meeting describing the process as “repositioning urban renewal as a contemporary planning and economic development tool,” according to the presentation given by the BRA, was held last month at Madison Park High School in Roxbury.

But the BRA has not released information about the actual urban renewal plans. It has posted maps of them on its website, and is expected to post complete copies of the plan documents by next week. The Gazette requested advance copies of those materials, but did not receive them.

“This is pre-engagement, before any planning actually gets done,” BRA Senior Urban Designer and Architect Corey Zehngebot told the Gazette this week.

Zehngebot told the Gazette that the BRA has no plans to propose any projects for the LMA area.

“When these plans were created in 1965, the LMA didn’t really exist,” Zehngebot said. “We want to have a conversation to discuss goals and planning objectives.”

Re-approval has previously been done in secrecy and mystery—including last time around, when the BRA orchestrated secret Boston City Council meetings that triggered a fine for Open Meeting Law violations.

This time, the BRA wants to discuss all 19 plans as part of a pre-planning conversation to inform planners, Zehngebot said.

“We want to have a conversation to better inform people on these plans,” she said. And if possible, to include community input in the updated urban renewal plans.

“It’s very possible that there is new, LMA-specific information that we could incorporate into the plan,” she said.

Zehngebot told the Gazette that this is big shift for the BRA, which is known for its intense and occasionally illegal secrecy.

“We sense a leering distrust, so we’re going to catch people unawares because they’re not used to the BRA operating in this manner,” Zehngebot said.

Community workshops, while planned for late spring, summer and fall, have not been scheduled yet. The BRA is aiming to release those dates in the next several weeks, Martin told the Gazette last week.

“Urban renewal” is a 1950s-era euphemism for seizing and demolishing large areas of a city for new, usually higher-end development. The classic example is the West End, which is still covered by one of the urban renewal plans.

Zehngebot repeatedly said that eminent domain—while a valuable tool for clearing property titles and other applications—is not likely to be used at all, and certainly not against property owners who do not want to sell or who haven’t been fairly compensated.

“We don’t take people’s land against their will. When the BRA uses eminent domain, it uses it for parcel assembly, usually for public purposes,” she said, citing the new Bolling building in Dudley Square.

The BRA has previously told the Gazette that Mayor Martin Walsh is not in favor of using eminent domain for any possible Olympics-related redevelopment.

For more information, see bostonredevelopmentauthority.org/planning/urban-renewal.

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