Wu’s Housing Play
04/22/2022 07:15 AM EDT
Presented by National Grid
Image: Boston Overdevelopment and Blockage of public access to waterfront.
PLANS ARE USELESS, PLANNING IS INDISPENSABLE — Boston’s development community is recalibrating after a week of rapid-fire announcements that set the stage and the stakes for Mayor Michelle Wu’s housing policies.
Brian Golden, the longest-serving director of the Boston Planning and Development Agency, announced his resignation last week. A Walsh administration appointee, Golden oversaw a substantial modernization of the beleaguered BPDA, which controls some 13 million square feet of real estate in the city, as well as a shift toward long-term planning, not just fast-paced construction.
But those changes are still considered, by some, to be more of a rebrand than true reform. That includes Wu, who ran for mayor with plans to “abolish” the agency, which has been criticized for a history of messy bookkeeping, opaque processes and aggressive use of its powers that predated Golden. And she pledged to separate city planning from developers’ project approvals.Now HUD alum Arthur Jemison is coming in as Wu’s chief of planning to shake things up.
Here’s where it gets tricky: Jemison is also expected to be appointed as the BPDA’s new director in May. That’s creating some confusion about his obligations to the 234 employees who would answer to him — and, by extension, the mayor — because the BPDA is technically an independent state-established agency, which past mayors have often used to maintain plausible deniability about their influence over city development.
The BPDA is also bleeding staff. Eighteen BPDA staffers left in 2020, followed by 47 in 2021 and another 15 so far this year. That’s not counting the seven staffers who have submitted their resignations but have not yet departed. Attempts to fill the 35 open full-time posts at the agency are haunted by the prospect that the whole place could be gutted, sources tell Playbook.
The stakes are expensive. Boston’s budget lives or dies by the building market, with about 70 percent of its annual revenue coming from new development and property taxes. If the development pipeline tanks, so do the most reliable streams of cash for the mayor’s ambitious long-term projects like expanding affordable housing. At the same time, affordable housing advocates have been calling for a slowdown in development until more robust planning can take place, fearing widespread displacement.
Political observers and the development community see two paths. On one hand, Jemison is an established figure in the Massachusetts housing world — a former employee of the development agency and a Patrick administration housing and community development alum who’s worked in Boston, Detroit and Washington, D.C. He could be a long-term bridge between Wu and the BPDA, which are in a chilly communication cycle.
But that’s going to be a lot harder if Wu follows through on literally abolishing the BPDA. The mayor’s been dodging questions recently about her intentions. Either way, she’d need the support of lawmakers: any effort to strip the agency’s powers or abolish it entirely would need to go through the Boston City Council and the state Legislature.
Right now, the mayor is extending an olive branch to developers. The Boston Globe reported this week that the mayor will be hosting a select group of Boston real estate heavyweights at the Parkman House later this month. Jemison himself may attend, but an invitation obtained by Playbook says city brass, including “representatives” from the BPDA, will join the mayor.
GOOD FRIDAY MORNING, MASSACHUSETTS.I’m Jennifer Smith, a Boston-based reporter and Lisa’s co-host on The Horse Race podcast. She handed me the Playbook reins for the day, and instead of letting her rest I talked her ear off about Boston development and now you all get to come with us. If you want to hear me talk about something else, something a bit more gubernatorial, I’m on GBH’s “Talking Politics” this evening with Adam Reilly and the Boston Globe’s Adrian Walker. And for the third day/night in a row, huge thanks to Madison Fernandez.