ZBA overhaul gets City Council’s OK

A slate of Mayor Michelle Wu’s nominees for the Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA), a powerful panel, received approval from the City Council on Wednesday.

A critic of the ZBA on the mayoral campaign trail and arguing the entity needs reform, Wu put forward her slate in September, proposing to reappoint just three people who served under previous administrations.

The ZBA has 14 members, with seven serving “primary” roles and seven as “alternates,” who serve when the primary members are unable to participate at a hearing. State law calls for the panel to include people from the world of architects, construction unions, and the building/real estate sectors.

The nominees required approval from the City Council, whose members signed off on eight of the 13 nominees in unanimous voice votes at their last meeting of the year.

The Council’s planning and development committee, chaired by Dorchester Councillor Frank Baker, heard testimony from the eight, a mix of appointments and reappointments, on Monday. Two nominees were previously approved by the Council, and three are awaiting an up-or-down vote.

“Thank you to the City Council for confirming these new members, who will play a crucial role in our work to build more housing and address the regional affordability crisis, support equitable and resilient neighborhoods, and shift to planning-led development,” Wu said in a statement Thursday. “These board members represent the diversity, talent, and expertise of our communities to ensure Boston’s growth helps address our greatest challenges.”

The terms run three years and members receive a stipend of $200 a day, maxing out at $24,000 per year. The ZBA consists of holdovers from previous administrations, with Mark Erlich, who has not been put forward for a reappointment, serving as acting chair.

Two of Wu’s proposed reappointments — Sherry Dong of Dorchester, who began serving under Mayor Walsh in 2021, and Hansy Better Barraza, a Roslindale architect — appeared before Baker’s committee on Monday.

Dong has worked for 20 years at Tufts Medical Center, serving as senior director of community benefits and health equity. She previously worked in Mayor Menino’s Office of Neighborhood Services.

During her portion of Monday’s hearing, City Council President Ed Flynn, who represents South Boston-based District 2, said he has regularly worked on economic development and public education with Dong.

“Every experience I’ve had with her, she’s been very professional, honest, hard working, dedicated to the residents of Chinatown but also the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community throughout Boston,” he said.

Dong, who lives in the South Bay area, said she reads through the documents, including letters of support and opposition, on the matters that come before the ZBA, which hears 1,100 cases annually that can involve dormers and new decks or larger proposals.

“Obviously the goal is to listen to community residents, the district councillors, and other public officials who are hearing directly from residents about those concerns,” she said.

Asked by District 4 Councillor Brian Worrell, who represents Dorchester and Mattapan, how she balances the goals of climate resiliency, community engagement, and affordable housing development, Dong said, “I don’t think there’s one approach. Not all projects are the same.” She reiterated that’s why it’s important to hear from those most affected by the project.

Monday’s hearing also featured new appointees to the ZBA. Alan Langham, a lifelong Dorchester resident who has also served on the executive board of the Laborers Local 22 union, said he is interested in serving on the panel “so I can help not just my community, but everybody’s community.”

District 8 Councillor Kenzie Bok, who represents Back Bay and Mission Hill, asked him about parking, a hot topic at ZBA meetings. Last year the City Council approved, and zoning officials concurred with, an amendment to the city’s zoning code that eliminated off-street parking minimums for affordable housing developments.

Langham said he lives on a “tight street” in Dorchester. “It would be nice, somehow, some way, to have more parking in the city of Boston,” he said.

Bok noted that in the Fenway neighborhood, which is in her district, residents are fighting to reduce parking at new projects, fearing that more of it will draw cars from outside the neighborhood.

Baker, the committee chair, called parking a “balance” and a “case-by-case” situation. “I’m more in line with you,” he said to Langham, noting his union background. “You’re a carpenter, you’re not carrying your stuff on the train.”

ZBA nominee Shavel’le Olivier, the executive director of the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition, has lived in the neighborhood for 18 years. Parking has also come up in her discussions, she told councillors. It’s a balance in trying to cater to people who need to use a car to get to work or drop children off at school as well as ensuring the city’s streets can be used by everyone, not just those who drive.

Norm Stembridge, another new ZBA nominee, who grew up in Roxbury and has been involved in the neighborhood’s planning initiatives, had a Dorchester connection: During his time in the banking industry, he worked at the Bank of America building on Columbia Point, now occupied by Santander.

He knew Arthur Jemison, Wu’s planning chief, from when Jemison worked for the state’s economic development office under Gov. Deval Patrick. Jemison called him on behalf of Wu to ask him if he was interested in serving on the ZBA.

“‘Thank you, I think,’ was my answer,” Stembridge quipped to councillors.

Parking also came up during Stembridge’s testimony. “That’s how America was developed. ‘Everyone’s going to have a house, everyone’s going to have a car, and life will be wonderful,’” he said.

A ban on parking isn’t happening, so it’s up to the ZBA to figure out a better solution, he said.

Stembridge also noted that the response from the neighborhood to new development often is right off the bat, “no.” He said the ZBA has to work through people about what the issues are.

“This is Boston, we have long memories,” he said. “Was it something that happened in 1970 and people still have issue with that?”

In a separate interview with the Reporter after the committee hearing, Stembridge said Boston has people who are either wildly open to change or widely opposed. “Sometimes there seems to be no middle,” he said. “It’s necessary to reach that middle ground to move forward.”

Stembridge said he was drawn to the ZBA because they’ve done “good work,” even amid the controversies that have hit the panel, including a bribery scandal in 2019.

“Any controversy that’s happened, I’m not going to downplay it, but it seems to be a pretty small number compared to everything they’ve been asked to do and have done,” he said.

Aside from Dong and Barraza, Wu’s other proposed reappointment, Jeanne Pinado, a strategic brokerage adviser at Colliers who lives in Jamaica Plain, has not had a hearing yet.

The Council has already okayed two Wu appointees, David Aiken, a real estate professional from East Boston, and Raheem Shepard, a building trades representative from Hyde Park.

Aside from Dong, Barraza, Langham, Stembridge and Olivier, the list of nominees who had a hearing on Monday before Baker planning committee included Giovanny Valencia of West Roxbury, David Collins of Roslindale, and Katie Whewell of the West End.

All were approved. Several Wu nominees are still awaiting an OK from the Council, including Pinado, though Wednesday’s vote places most of her slate onto the ZBA. The other two nominees awaiting a vote are Alaa Mukahhal, a transportation planner in Mission Hill, and Thea Massouh, an architect living in Brighton.

ZBA member Kerry Walsh Logue's appointment expired in November, but Wu has not put forward a replacement. Logue is a building trades representative on the panel.

This post was updated with a statement from Mayor Wu and edited for clarity.

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