You don’t have the BRA to kick around any more.
Starting today, if you are so inclined, you’ll have to get used to a longer, slightly wonkier acronym as your city government nemesis: the BPDA, which stands for Boston Planning and Development Agency. Mayor Walsh planned to announce the new identity during his address to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce this morning.
By putting the emphasis on the P – for planning – the Walsh administration hopes to eventually earn better buy-in from an often skeptical base that over time came to view the decades-old Boston Redevelopment Authority as simply a rubber-stamp permitter for high-end developers that had a tin-ear for grassroots concerns about density, affordability, and street-level impacts.
Brian Golden, who has led the agency since 2012, said that the re-branding is a effort to convey what he says is an authentic “cultural change” inside the agency itself.
The old BRA, he argues, has been re-set, with a series of organizational reforms aimed at improving transparency, planning for longer-range initiatives, and using newer technology to engage residents. The agency, he says, is hiring more planners who will keep an eye on the welfare of neighborhoods seen on the brink of a redevelopment bubble.
A key next step, he adds, is to increase BPDA’s “legitimacy and credibility” among citizens. “What continues to vex us is the difficulty we have at times in some places with some residents, some organizations in explaining ourselves and addressing their wants and needs in a meaningful fashion,” Golden told a group of reporters who gathered on Monday for a preview of the re-branding move.
Noting that that historically the BRA may not have always acted as a planning agency, Golden said, “A lot of people believe that real estate development has primarily been in the driver’s seat at the BRA. Today we’re re-signaling our intent that we're a bona fide planning agency and to the extent that the public buys into that and that the public feels we’re validating their wants and needs with regard to well-planned environments, we will then have greater community support in bringing real estate development projects to neighborhoods that the community can embrace.”
The new nomenclature is scheduled to be ratified at a BRA board meeting later this month. Even then, the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Economic Development and Industrial Corporation will live on as names on existing documents— like property deeds and other public records. For now, the agency will “self-describe” itself as BPDA and do business under the new name.
What else will change? Golden says that the agency wants to engage with residents more often, and not just when a specific project triggers an “Article 80” – City Hall lingo for a large project review – which is when most neighbors interact with the city’s planning and development managers. Golden envisions broader, charrette-style conversations – perhaps on Saturdays – to begin later this year in individual sections of the city. “We expect to host conversations in the neighborhoods to have BPDA explain itself holistically,” he told reporters.
According to Sara Myerson, the agency’s chief of planning, who joined Golden at the briefing, bringing in additional planners (the agency employs roughly 39 now, she said) will allow for more capacity to replicate pilot initiatives now under way in South Boston and Jamaica Plain and elsewhere in Boston.
The next stop, she said, will be Dorchester’s Glover’s Corner, the heavily industrialized section south of Savin Hill and north of Freeport Street. The details, timing and scope of that planning initiative – which was first promised by Mayor Walsh in his State of the City speech last January – has not been finalized.
Capacity has been a problem for an agency swamped with Article 80 reviews, much of them emanating from downtown and South Boston, that are now spilling in heavy waves into Dorchester and beyond.
Agency staffers are eager to highlight internal reforms that have been implemented on Walsh’s watch, but part of this re-branding is clearly about burnishing the image of an agency that even Brian Golden says carries “a lot of baggage” from past transgressions.
“We’ve talked a lot over the last two years about that baggage: the heavy-handed, opaque approaches that were used to accomplish the agency’s goals over the past 60 years,” Golden told reporters. “We’ve turned away from a lot of those and we think as part of the natural progression of things that our name should change along with our practices.”
It’s not clear what form they will take, yet, but Golden said new and “different forms of planning communications” will be employed on the neighborhood level.
“The public will begin to interface with us far more frequently in planning conversations, and to the extent that people feel they have a voice in a well-planned neighborhood, we think we can have greater success with greater support for the Article 80s that continue to come at a record clip.”