Even after Boston Mayor Michelle Wu ’07 announced plans to reform the Boston Planning and Development Agency on Jan. 25, Allston advocates continue to express skepticism over the proposed changes.
The BPDA has been criticized for a perceived partiality to developers over neighborhood residents. Critics, including Wu, have said the BPDA’s broad urban renewal powers bypass public accountability. Shortly after its inception in 1957, the BPDA demolished two neighborhoods in a controversial campaign of urban renewal.
During her mayoral campaign, Wu promised to abolish the BPDA, claiming it was “one of the drivers of almost every inequity that we see across the city.”
Wu revealed plans during her January State of the City Address to transfer the BPDA’s planning powers into a new City Planning and Design Department directly under the oversight of the city government.
Later that week, Wu filed a home rule petition to end the BPDA’s ability to seize properties deemed “blighted” under the mandate of urban renewal. If passed by the City Council, the petition will be submitted to the State Legislature for approval.
Harry E. Mattison, an Allston neighborhood advocate, said although Wu’s plan accounts for the “structural problems” with the BPDA, a change in culture is also needed.
“Will a new organization make different decisions?” Mattison said. “Depends on the people in those positions and in the leadership.”
In an effort to rebrand the agency, former mayor Marty J. Walsh renamed it from the Boston Redevelopment Agency, which many residents associated with controversial urban renewal projects, among other reforms.
Still, housing advocates — including Wu — say the changes did not substantively alter the institution itself.
Some residents said Wu must convince them that her new reforms will bring greater voice and influence to locals.
“Just having a planning department that makes nice plans is not sufficient,” Mattison said. “It takes follow through, and consensus building, and a whole bunch of other things.”
Harvard-Allston Task Force member and Allston resident Bruce E. Houghton also said he is uncertain about the reforms’ potential.
“I don’t want to speculate on whether it will be successful, or what the outcome will be, because I don’t think anybody knows, including Mayor Wu,” he said.
“The community is being asked to put on blinders and be myopic about what a regional development will look like,” Houghton added.
Anthony P. D’Isidoro, president of the Allston Civic Association, expressed the need for alternative approaches to development.
“There’s a big need for a greater planning effort — a wider holistic planning effort,” D’Isidoro said.
In late January, D’Isidoro was appointed as a member of the city’s Article 80 steering committee, which will review Boston’s zoning code and development process for large building projects.
According to D’Isidoro, residents’ worries over development are rooted in a lack of control over the city’s landscape and a fear of large changes in their neighborhoods. To combat these concerns, he said he believes the city should ensure residents are involved in the planning and development process.
“At least giving people an opportunity to take part and get involved, and what have you, is extremely important,” D’Isidoro said.
“The more you engage the community and the more community residents feel they're a part of the process, that helps to diminish resistance to what's going on,” he added.
Despite apprehension, Houghton said he is hopeful about future planning and development initiatives in Boston.
“There's an acknowledgement that what's ‘working’ isn't working and I think that's the first step,” Houghton said.
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