Peter Meade may be the most well-connected and deeply rooted Bostonian ever to take the reins at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the powerful planning agency formed in the 1960s.
The BRA operates out of City Hall’s ninth floor — and its director serves at the will of Mayor Thomas Menino and the BRA board— but the agency has a degree of autonomy unknown to most city departments.
“Peter brings all of these sectors of the city together,” Menino told the Reporter in an interview on Tuesday morning, shortly after he formally introduced Meade as his choice to succeed John Palmieri as the BRA chief. The appointment is subject to approval by the BRA board and the new chief would start in May.
“I was looking for someone with a knowledge of Boston’s neighborhoods. Peter brings that knowledge,” said Menino.
Meade, 65, is a Dorchester native who once headed up the Cedar Grove Civic Association and lived in the neighborhood until the 1990s. Now a resident of the Back Bay with his wife Rosanne, he has a loaded resume that perhaps only a handful of Bostonians can rival — and a high profile that makes him a popular— if surprising— choice for the BRA’s top job.
Meade told the Reporter that the “rich opportunity” to lead the BRA was too exciting for him to pass up. “I just think it’s an extraordinary job,” he said.
Jim Brett, the former Dorchester state representative and mayoral contender, is now the president and CEO of the New England Council, an organization representing regional business interests in Washington D.C. Brett succeeded Meade as the New England Council president in 1997.
“Peter is as comfortable in the downtown board room as he is in the living room in Dorchester. But it’s one Peter— he’s the same guy in both environments. I don’t know anyone in the business community that’s more highly thought of than him,” said Brett.
Meade’s connections with the business community and just about every major institution in the city— plus his neighborhood credentials— put him in a class of his own in the pantheon of BRA chieftains.
“Peter is already on second base,” said Larry DiCara, the former Boston city councillor from Dorchester’s Ward 17 who is now one of the city’s top attorneys. “The worst BRA director in the city’s history was Marisa Lago, who came in after a nationwide search. [Lago resigned in 1996 amid reports of tensions with Menino and his inner circle.] It took her a long time to figure out anything, especially the stuff that’s not written down. Peter knows where all the bodies are buried and he helped to put some of them there.”
“It’s also good for Dorchester, because he knows it like the back of his hand,” said DiCara.
A graduate of Cathedral High School and Emerson College, Meade started his career in government working for then-Mayor Kevin White, overseeing his “Little City Hall” operation before serving as parks commissioner. He briefly tried to carve a career in elected office, running unsuccessfully for state auditor in 1978 before moving on to a new arena: radio and television. He worked as an on-air host and analyst for WBZ from 1983-1992.
After helming the New England Council, he worked as executive vice president at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. After a brief stint at the public relations-marketing firm Rasky-Baerlin, Meade accepted an offer to direct the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the US Senate, the ground-breaking for which is this Friday on Columbia Point, next to the JFK Library. Meade was a longtime confidante of the late senator, a role he’d inherited in part from his own dad, Jim Meade, who was an early political operative for President Kennedy. The young Meade himself worked as a coordinator for Ted Kennedy during his 1980 campaign for the Democratic nomination.
Tom Menino’s chief rival in the last mayoral election, former City Councillor-at-large Michael Flaherty, gave Meade’s appointment high marks.
“What Peter may lack in planning and development experience, he makes up for because he’s a great listener and that’s what our neighborhoods need now more than ever,” Flaherty told the Reporter. “For the longest time now there’s been a disconnect between the neighborhoods of Boston and the BRA. Peter has long-term working knowledge of the business community and the neighborhoods. I hope that he will lead and give direction and new focus to planning and development in Boston by listening to the neighborhoods.”
Tapping a proven quantity like Meade at this stage in his administration sends a signal to other observers that Menino — who is known to keep close tabs on most decisions made by his department heads— is prepared to give up some of that control. The two have worked closely on a number of projects— including the development of the Rose Kennedy Greenway and the relocation of Emerson College, two initiatives that Meade has chaired. Such a rapport with Menino will be critical to a successful tenure for Meade, but sources close to both men say that both enter the arragement with a high level of trust and respect for one another.
Meade is not without his critics. Shirley Kressel, a Back Bay activist and landscape architect who has been a sharp critic of Menino and the BRA in recent years, says Meade’s brand of “inside baseball” expertise will make the BRA “less transparent and accountable than it was before.”
“That’s why Menino hired him: He knows all the ins and outs,” said Kressel, who assails Meade’s stewardship of the Greenway Conservatory for “basically privatizing a public park and creating a huge burden on the state.”
Flaherty, however, says that Meade’s roots as a native Bostonian— the first in recent years to helm the agency— gives him “hope.”
“Peter’s been a catalyst for building coalitions and I think he’s going to be sensitive to those concerns and use his skill set to broker compromise and bring those concerns to the BRA, by being a sounding board for neighborhoods as opposed to just being a downtown guy,” Flaherty said. “He’ll be sensitive and, I hope, independent.”
For his part, Meade said he plans to spend the coming weeks preparing for the job by listening and learning more about the agency.
When asked what specifically he would need to improve upon to ready for the position, Meade answered: “Patience, with myself and others.”