Jackson hits Walsh’s development priorities

Councillor Tito Jackson, Chair of the City Council's Committee on Education, called for new steps to combat racism throughout the school system during a School Committee hearing on Jan. 27, 2016. Chris Lovett photo

Although the 2017 mayoral race will not legally commence until enough signatures are in hand and appropriately filed, City Councillor Tito Jackson is already mounting a vigorous critique of the Walsh administration’s approach to the city’s ongoing development boom.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Reporter on Tuesday, Jackson took time between watching the New England Patriots revelry outside and glad-handing with affordable housing advocates staging a 24-hour City Hall protest to talk development in the neighborhoods and budget priorities across the city.

The crux of Jackson’s critique so far: The lack of a comprehensive, city-wide plan for rezoning the city and the piecemeal approach in which the Boston Planning and Development Authority (BDPA) has been engaged.

“The BPDA is more concerned and makes a more concerted effort to changing its name and its letterhead than actually doing planning for the city of Boston,” Jackson said, referencing the $670,000 rebranding last summer that transformed the former Boston Redevelopment Authority into the BPDA. “It is allowing development to guide our planning. It also means that the communities are thought of second rather than first. We’re putting profit in front of people and it must stop.”

BPDA spokeswoman Bonnie McGilpin said in a statement Wednesday that the citywide plan Imagine Boston 2030 is aimed at shaping development on a broader scale as Boston grows, incorporating every city department. The BPDA is pursuing "a new approach to neighborhood planning and re-zoning that relies on robust community engagement and collaboration between city departments,” she said.

"Neighborhood planning takes on different characteristics in each neighborhood, based on the unique challenges and opportunities in each of Boston’s neighborhoods,” McGilpin said. "The BPDA embraces the importance of planning and is currently engaged in more proactive planning than in recent history.”

Jackson, a lifelong resident of Grove Hall, has served as the District 7 councillor since winning a special election in 2011. He represents Roxbury and sections of Dorchester, the South End, and Fenway. The councillor lives in the same Schuyler Street house that his mother and father lived in when they adopted him from his mother, a 13-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted.

Grove Hall, Jackson jokes, is either in Roxbury or Dorchester depending on the person asked or the form checked. His neighbor would swear up and down that it’s Roxbury; the mail comes addressed to Dorchester; the City of Boston website throws up its proverbial hands and leaves the residents to ferret out when their trash pickup is scheduled.

But growing up in a neighborhood that has been historically challenged by gun violence and underserved in resources has made Jackson particularly attuned to inequities. “$4,000 and $5,000 two-bedrooms are flying up around the city of Boston,” he said. “The question is, who are they built for and are we building a Boston for the people who currently live here or those who will come to displace them?”

There is a right way to do development, Jackson says. He cites as one of his accomplishments the Reclaim Roxbury organization, which worked initially with MIT and Jackson’s office to tackle gentrification in Roxbury and assess the best use for available parcels of land scattered across the neighborhood.

The organization tries to conduct “thoughtful, district-wide planning that has not occurred to date,” Jackson said, “and the planning exercises in the city as a whole have simply been exercises to move development, and not focused on actual planning and what the people in those neighborhoods and communities want, need, and deserve.”

Jackson is a frequent face at PLAN: JP/Rox and PLAN: Dudley Square meetings. The two BPDA planning studies in Roxbury are separated by half a mile at the nearest points of their planning radii, on either side of Fort Hill. Jackson says residents who live between the study areas are hard pressed to attend multiple planning sessions within the same neighborhood. He also says the rezoning and development in different neighborhoods pits them against each other for resources.

A similar planning study is set to begin in Dorchester’s Glover’s Corner with an initial public meeting in early March. While BPDA officials say they are limited by scarce resources in how they tackle strategic planning areas, Jackson is skeptical.

“The BPDA has no resource issue,” he said. “The BPDA pulls in millions of dollars annually and is funded by public land – by the payments for the public land that they are in charge of. The BPDA has not been transparent and we should, as elected officials, take up our rightful place and ensure that development is more democratic, more transparent, and more predictable,” Jackson said.

He further criticized the city’s handling of the Winthrop Square garage, a city-owned parcel that could potentially result in a $153 million windfall if Millennium Partners are able to build a proposed tower project on the site.

Proponents say some of the profits could go toward substantial investments in green space like Franklin Park and public housing projects. But they would need to secure actions from the Legislature and the city council to make height exemptions, as the proposed 60-story tower is tall enough to cast illegal amounts of shadow upon the Boston Common and Public Garden.

“We should use the same concept that grass needs to grow, there should be sunlight on all the things that we do for our growth to occur,” Jackson said. “These are backroom deals that put us in a situation where there’s a huge question mark hanging over these projects as to whether the public is getting its fair share of dollars for these projects… I think it’s counterproductive to build something that’s going to harm green space to pay for green space.”

Mayor Walsh’s pursuit of ambitious sporting projects has been an easy target for Jackson: the ill-fated 2024 Olympics proposal, the failed IndyCar Series, and most recently the mayor’s measured interest in a possible New England Revolution soccer stadium at the former Bayside Expo Center on Columbia Point.

The latter stoked the ire of civic and elected leaders who felt private discussions between UMass Boston, which owns the land, and team owner Robert Kraft circumvented community input on developing a critical parcel of land.

“No one should be surprised by a stadium,” said Jackson, who is also openly critical of the approximately $170 million deal that brought General Electric to Boston, pointing at the publically-funded helipad as a particularly offensive agreement.

He continues to press for more education funding, criticizing the proposed $20 million increase in the Boston Public Schools budget as inadequate.

Taking on a seated Boston mayor is always an uphill struggle, financially and in overcoming political momentum. The last time an incumbent Boston mayor lost for re-election was in 1949, when John B. Hynes defeated James Michael Curley. Jackson’s coffers show around $81,000 in hand, while Walsh sits on well over $3 million across various campaign accounts.

In the interview with the Reporter, Jackson was leery of discussing specific people who constitute his base of support.

While Walsh has doubled down on his commitment to supporting immigrants in Boston, the city council has similarly rallied. A Special Committee for Civil Rights will be created, and Jackson filed motions this week to affirm the city’s commitment to sanctuary schools and called for a hearing to discuss the creation of an immigrant defense fund.

One city priority did garner Jackson’s praise: The new Office of Housing Stability, which he said merits more funding and resources. “Most of the calls my office gets are about housing,” he said.

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