BRA seeks public input on ‘urban renewal’ plans

The Boston Redevelopment Authority is seeking approval to keep alive its “urban renewal” plans and powers that cover large sections of the city, including most of the Longwood Medical Area and the Wentworth Institute of Technology area.

Re-approval is required every 10 years, and usually has 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. But under Mayor Martin Walsh’s new reforms, the BRA is attempting an open process—which kicked off March 31 at City Hall—to give the public both review and input.

“Urban renewal” is a 1950s-era euphemism for bulldozing entire neighborhoods for fancier development. The classic example is the West End, which is still covered by one of the urban renewal plans.

But, BRA spokesperson Nick Martin emphasized, seizing land by eminent domain is not something the BRA wants to do anymore. Instead, the urban renewal plan areas are “more nuanced” and focused on such goals as affordable housing or tax abatement deals.

While re-approval would mean the BRA “does maintain that [eminent domain] ability,” it wants to “dispel any notion that West End scenario is going to happen,” Martin said.

That includes any possible Olympics-related redevelopment.

“The mayor has given a clear direction he is not in favor of using eminent domain [for] the Olympics,” Martin said.

“The lack of urban renewal tools and authority wouldn’t mean the end of the BRA,” Martin said. But it “would make it in some cases difficult to effectuate developments we and the public are looking to do,” he added. One example he gave was assisting Liberty Mutual in assembling land for a Back Bay headquarters to retain the company here.

The BRA has posted maps of the urban renewal plan areas on its website, and soon will add complete copies of the plan documents. Each plan has its own goals, which the public will be able to suggest changes or additions to, Martins said. For example, he noted, none of the current plans include anything reacting to climate-change impacts, which the BRA and the public might want to add.

The BRA is deliberately holding an extensive public process as opposed to the secrecy of prior years. It has met once with the City Council in a public, announced meeting, Martin said. The next meeting for the general public, introducing the urban-renewal plan concept, is slated for April 14 at Roxbury’s Madison Park High School. More meetings will follow, Martin said.

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