Mayor Michelle Wu has chosen James Arthur Jemison II, a former Dorchester resident with extensive experience in Massachusetts, to be Boston’s inaugural Chief of Planning. Along with responsibilities for leading city-wide, inter-department land use planning efforts, Jemison is expected to helm the Boston Planning and Development Agency as its new director, a role expected to begin in late May.
Jemison described the role as executing Mayor Wu’s goals for an equitable, resilient and inclusive Boston by using and reforming city planning and development processes. Jemison said that means a planning-first approach to development.
“The mayor’s on the record about what she wants,” Jemison said. “It's my job to say, okay, well, how do I realize the vision that you've identified? What are the tradeoffs, what are the options?”
Still in the early stages of the transition from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Jemison said in an interview that his near future will involve a balance of overseeing existing development pipelines while familiarizing himself once again with the city’s planning structures and BPDA staff.
“This is all about taking the folks we've got, engaging them, bringing all their talents to these questions that the mayor’s posed,” he said, “because we have people who have experience with this in a way that needs to be tapped into it and engaged. That's the first thing I'm going to do. Obviously there's going to need to be a time where the existing process continues, but while that's happening, we're going to have other rooms and other tables where people are working hard to come up with what that future state looks like.”
Jemison’s work in public planning began in Boston in the mid 1990s. He managed the Boston Housing Authority planning unit before joining the Boston Redevelopment Authority for just over two years. After four years in Washington D.C.’s planning division, Jemison returned to Massachusetts for the next decade. He worked first for Massport, then in private development work as senior manager for Boston-based GLC Development Resources, before he joined the Deval Patrick administration as deputy undersecretary and deputy director for the Department of Housing and Community Development.
Jemison returns to the city from his role as principal deputy assistant secretary for HUD, where he oversaw administration of federal block grants, disaster recovery funds, and homelessness assistance grants, among other funds. The U.S. Senate Banking Committee twice deadlocked on his nomination for assistant secretary of housing and urban development. For the six years prior to his time at HUD, Jemison led housing and planning departments for the city of Detroit, recruited by Mayor Michael Duggan to be the director of the housing and revitalization department as the city recovered from bankruptcy.
He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a Master of City Planning degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“With his deep experience across city, state, and federal government tackling housing instability and building more equitable communities, Arthur will help drive our agenda forward to make Boston a city for everyone,” said Wu in a statement. “In this moment of urgent challenge and opportunity, Boston’s growth must reflect the possibilities for our brightest future—from affordable housing and racial equity, to climate resilience and healthy, connected communities.”
Though few immediate areas of overlap in Boston and Detroit planning concerns came to mind, Jemison said affordable housing access is a common theme requiring “different strategies” for the two cities. His work in urban planning and long history with Boston drew him to this role, which will pay $179,000, Jemison said.
“The places I've had the most success have been in those moments when it's clear that community wants to make a change,” he said. When he came to Washington D.C., the city had just wrested itself from a federal control board and the “the new mayor had a real mandate to make change.” While Jemison was in Detroit, a newly elected mayor took the reins and the city entered and emerged from bankruptcy.
Here in Boston, Wu’s election was a signal that voters “wanted things to be different,” Jemison said. “So, I feel like I've got a contribution to make to those kinds of environments, because I’ve had success in other environments when there was that kind of desire to change.”
Wu ran for office stating an intent to “abolish” the BPDA, an agency created by city and state statute as the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) that serves merged functions of guiding development and acting as the city’s planning board. BPDA Director Brian Golden, the agency’s longest serving head, will leave his post later this month. Wu will ask the BPDA Board to appoint Jemison as director at its May monthly meeting.
Jemison, who managed the Roxbury operations of the then-BRA in 1998 under Mayor Thomas Menino, said the chief planner’s role “hasn't changed” during the course of the search, but “the direct connection between the vision of the mayor and the agency has sort of been made a little clearer,” he said.
“It's crucial that we have a new way of doing this, but there's an existing way to do it that has a pipeline associated with it that's critical,” Jemison said. “So connecting these two things to one another in the right sequence of time is what we're trying to do here: establish that we're leading planning in a different way, but then indicating that in order to create that different way, we have to use the classic authorities of the agency.”
No decisions have been made about structural changes to the BPDA hierarchy, in which existing directors of planning, development review, real estate and other departments report to the agency director, Jemison said. Its current director of real estate, Devin Quirk, will become the city’s deputy chief of operations and organizational transformation, reporting to Jemison.
According to the city, Quirk “will be responsible for implementing Mayor Wu and Chief Jemison’s vision for the transformation of the BPDA as well as overseeing the daily operations of the Agency.”
City and planning leadership will also soon begin to recruit “planning and urban design professionals,” notably seeking to find a deputy chief of urban design.
Boston is in a period of complicated growth, with two years of the Covid-19 pandemic dramatically reshuffling demand for housing and commercial space in the city. Some 60,000 residents have moved to Boston since the last census, Jemison notes, and the question of how to manage that increase while preserving affordability for current and new residents is a pressing puzzle.
“I guess maybe a way of thinking about it would be: growth can happen because new people come and other people leave, or it can happen because people stay and more people come," Jemison said. "So are we creating housing that allows people to stay and invites new people to come? That's the kind of thing I want it to be focused on, and that's the kind of work that I think we can do now. Boston's already a leader in affordable housing, and I think we can do more.”
The city needs to consider both the availability of housing in overall numbers and the availability of units at a range of incomes, Jemison said. The city can, in his view, achieve “equitable growth” that would allow residents to stay in Boston but also accommodate the city’s attractiveness to newcomers. “I think we can do both,” he said. “And we don't necessarily have to choose there.”
Over the past eight years, the BPDA helmed citywide planning though Imagine Boston 2030 and related reports on housing needs, transportation, and climate resiliency. Of the Climate Ready Boston and Housing Boston 2030 reports, Jemison said he has not yet delved into the recommendations though he is encouraged by the subject matters prioritized. Similarly, Jemison demurred for now on definitive positions regarding appropriate affordable housing ratios and the influx of life science developments in the city proper.
As planning chief, Jemison will be overseeing a boom in large-scale project proposals and ongoing planning studies across the city, from the Dorchester Bay City and other Morrissey Boulevard developments to the sprawling Allston Yards neighborhood.
The role he takes on, Jemison said, is not so much one of an expanded BPDA director as much as a broad citywide assignment that includes BPDA director as part of the duties. Early days will include meeting with departments including the Boston Public Schools, the Boston Transportation Department, the Office of Housing, Public Works, Public Facilities, and the Environment Department to begin assessing their planning priorities.
Also on the agenda: a new home base. Jemison, 51, grew up in Amherst – for a time in public housing – and lived in the Ashmont area of Dorchester while serving in the Deval Patrick administration. The one-time resident said he is starting his search for a Boston residence and keeping the neighborhood in mind. “I really enjoyed living in Dorchester,” Jemison said, “and so as I think about places to live, it's gonna be high on the list.”