Mayor Wu, blowing up the BPDA isn’t on the back burner

Wu has big plans to restructure Boston’s development agency but so far in her term has tackled more urgent matters, keeping top officials at the BPDA in place for now.

By Shirley Leung Globe Columnist,Updated December 9, 2021, 10:40 a.m.

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Michelle Wu ran for Mayor vowing to “abolish” the Boston Planning & Development Agency, though since taking office has moved carefully to design her plan to restructure the agency.LANE TURNER/GLOBE STAFF

Every time there’s a new mayor, figuring out who might run the Boston Planning & Development Agency becomes a popular parlor game in real estate circles.

It has long been a coveted posting, a high-profile job hand-picked by the mayor, with a key role in shaping Boston’s skyline, and its neighborhoods. In 2013, when Mayor Tom Menino prepared to step down, his development chief Peter Meade announced he would retire with his boss.

This time, however, it’s different.

Current BPDA chief Brian Golden doesn’t seem to be going anywhere fast, though, according to several sources he has been actively looking for a new job for months. Golden, a former state legislator and an Army reserve officer who worked under Meade, stepped into the top job in 2014 when Marty Walsh became mayor and has held it ever since. Golden is now the agency’s longest-serving director since it was created in 1957.

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He has been a low-key presence and provided a steady hand during a rebranding of the agency and a building boom. So far, Golden has overseen the approval of close to 95 million square feet of development including a significant amount of housing.

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And while one of Mayor Michelle Wu’s biggest campaign promises was to reform the city’s development process, she hasn’t yet launched a search for Golden’s replacement, according to several contacts in and out of the administration.

That may be because it’s complicated.

As a City Councilor, Wu authored a 68-page report on how she would “abolish” the BPDA, and has focused on the idea of severing the agency’s planning operation — which plans and zones neighborhoods — from development review — which approves specific projects. As part of this, she is expected to appoint a planning czar, who would report directly to her and may be a part of her cabinet.

Names have been flying around — including alumni from the Menino and Walsh administrations — but that all may be premature. Wu appears to be getting her arms around the right structure that can create a process that is more equitable, greener, and transparent — all of which could represent a significant shift in how the city works with the business community.

And with a short transition — only two weeks between her election and swearing-in — Wu has had to make decisions on more urgent appointments such as those in public health, housing, and transportation.

For developers, that means uncertainty. The mayor and BPDA hold nearly life-or-death power over large developments in Boston, and the city is currently on its third mayor in nine months. BPDA staff continue to review projects but high turnover has made it more difficult to get things done, according to those in the real estate community.

Developers understand change is on the way. They just want to know how and when, and Wu’s decisions about who will be in charge of planning and development sends signals on how her administration might approach their projects.

They’ll have to wait a bit longer, but make no mistake blowing up the BPDA isn’t on the back burner. I’m told the Wu administration might have more to say later this month on the future of the agency.

To get a window into Wu’s thinking, I reached out to the only person on her transition committee with planning expertise: Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University.

Agyeman first met Wu in 2013 as she was gathering support for her city council run. He surmises she reached out to him because of what he describes as his “reputation as being a free thinker.” His academic work has focused on “just sustainabilities,” the concept of aligning the goals of social justice and environmental sustainability to create a better quality of life for all.

Anyone who has followed Wu’s politics could see how these two might hit it off. In my conversation with him, Agyeman echoed much of how Wu framed the city’s broken development process during the mayoral race.

“I often ask my students, ‘Are we doing planning in Boston, or are we doing development?’ said Agyeman. “In this town, a lot of people confuse the two. They think that development is planning. Well, it isn’t. Planning should happen first, then development happens next, not the other way around.”

Agyeman explained how Wu wants to level the playing field to create a more inclusive process.

“We do need development,” he added. But “it has to be around a plan rather than being driven by cronyism, insider-ism, exploiting little loopholes … All of these things need to change, and I think what Mayor Wu is looking at here is a much clearer, more accountable, transparent path so that communities can understand and be a part of shaping development within their own neighborhoods.”

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Change can also be unsettling, and on the campaign trail, Wu addressed the concerns of jittery builders worried that her reforms could grind development to a halt. Susan Elsbree, a former longtime BPDA spokeswoman who now works with developers for public relations firm InkHouse, brought this up at a September fundraiser attended by real estate professionals on the patio of a North End restaurant.

Elsbree recalls vividly how Wu delivered the perfect response. Pointing to construction happening around the nearby North Washington Street bridge, she told the anxious crowd: “There is a bridge, it’s old, and it needs to be replaced. We’re building a bridge right next to it.

“We’re not going to take down the bridge until the new one is built.”