State of the City 2023: Wu pitches development overhaul, plan to modernize zoning code

Wu state of the city

Mayor Wu at MGM Music Hall. (Seth Daniel photo)

Disassembled? Dismembered? Ripped from the surly bonds of City Hall? Not quite. The Boston Planning and Development Agency, a frequent campaign trail target for abolishment and reform, seems poised to continue its existence in some form for the foreseeable future, if Mayor Michelle Wu’s first “State of the City” is any indication of what happens next.

But big changes are in store for the agency, which is still formally known by its original name, the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Held inside the MGM Music Hall by Fenway Park, Wu’s speech focused on the coming weeks, months and years of her first term, and sketched out plans to overhaul the city’s development process and restructure the agency.

She said she plans to sign an executive order Thursday to set up a planning advisory council, led by Arthur Jemison, the city’s chief of planning and head of the BPDA. Wu’s cabinet chiefs who focus on capital planning, transportation, climate, housing and the arts will also be a part of the group.

BPDA staffers will eventually be moved over to the new department, but the BPDA’s board, which includes mayoral and gubernatorial appointees, will continue to exist as Boston officials rework the zoning code so fewer projects need to go before city panels for approval.

“Over this next year, we’ll shift planning efforts from the BPDA to a new City Planning and Design Department—to expand planning and urban design as a coordinated effort that guides our growth,” Wu said in the speech. “Our vision is for Boston to sustainably reach our peak population of 800,000 residents with the housing and schools, parks and public transit to support that growth.”

She also said she plans to file legislation, in the form of a home-rule petition, that would end “urban renewal,” which was initially meant to funnel money towards the redevelopment of struggling cities after World War II. To become law, the petition needs the approval of the City Council and State House leaders, in addition to the mayor’s signature.

Rather than a focus on urban renewal, which targeted “blight and urban decay,” Wu said the end of those powers means the city will focus on climate resiliency, affordability and equity issues.

“Together, these changes will, for the first time since the 1960s, restore planning as a central function of City government,” she said.

Wu also said that in February, her administration plans to pull together a steering committee, made up of leaders in real estate and communities to revamp the “Article 80” part of the zoning code, which dates back to 1996 and provides a review process for projects ranging in size from the $5 billion “Dorchester Bay City” to the $5 million 24-unit condo building on Coffey Street.

“We’ll simplify and accelerate timelines so that good projects get shovels in the ground faster,” she said. “We’ll also transfer compliance and enforcement from the BPDA to the [Mayor’s] Office of Housing so our communities can be confident that we’re always getting the full benefit of development agreements.”

The BPDA, still formally known as the Boston Redevelopment Authority even after a 2016 rebrand under Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration, has faced criticism for decades from multiple mayoral contenders and neighborhood activists.

Wu campaigned on “abolishment” of the BPDA, and on Wednesday night, she reprised many of her criticisms of the agency. “The focus on building buildings rather than community has held back the talent of its staff and deepened disparities in our city,” she said.

Asked about the BPDA changes, City Council President Ed Flynn said he has to read more about the proposal. “I’m looking forward to reading it and studying it,” he said.

State Rep. Russell Holmes, who represents Mattapan, said the BPDA changes make sense to him. “If that is what the new BPDA is, and it’s now managed by the city, and that’s the biggest change, I’m actually okay with that,” he said. “It seems like she’s grabbing back something she thought she should’ve had from the beginning.”

As for whether the Legislature will support the home rule petition, “I say let her come and show us the proposal,” he added. “The city should run planning.”

Moving to a system where projects don’t have to come as often before the city because Boston is already planned out, similar to New York, will be a “culture shock,” Holmes said. “We’re used to being able to get engaged and stop projects and be very vocal. Plan out the city and that won’t be the case.”

Former state Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, who represented Jamaica Plain, Mission Hill and Brookline when he was in the Legislature, offered high marks for Wu as she navigates her first term. “She said she’s going to take it on and she’s taking it on,” he said of the BPDA. “This is something Mayor Wu has talked about from when she was a councillor. This is something that’s been close to her heart and she’s given a lot of thought to.”

Wu also plans to file a home rule petition that re-institutes rent control for Boston.

“It was always one of those third-rail issues,” Sanchez said. “It was when I was in the building, when the votes were taken, and it will be now.”

Massachusetts voters eliminated rent control in 1994, but the Wu administration last week floated a “rent stabilization” proposal that calls for capping the maximum annual rent increase to 10 percent.

The policy includes an exemption for buildings for the first 15 years that they’re open, as well as small, owner-occupied buildings.

“She’s bringing together the ideas and engaging the city in a way that’s refreshing. But it’s going to be difficult, because at the end of the day, there’s a lot of interest in it. I’m a small landlord myself, I’m curious to see how this affects the small landlord,” he said. “At the same time, there’s a lot of people making a lot of money in this town” from AirBnb and the like at the expense of neighborhoods who used to have more families.

“People who made this city safe, who clean up neighborhoods, meaning trash but also took back their neighborhoods from violence and human trafficking, those folks should be able to stay in the city of Boston,” said Tito Jackson, a Dorchester resident and former District 7 city councillor. “We do ‘eds and meds’ (colleges and hospitals) here. Nurses have to live here. The people who clean the hospitals have to leave here. Those people can’t live four hours away.”

Some rent control proponents have said the Wu administration’s proposal doesn't go far enough, and plan to push a statewide bill that would limit rent increases to 5 percent a year. They're rallying on Saturday, Jan. 28 on the steps of the State House.

Opponents of rent control say its return would wreak havoc on the housing market.

Holmes said he is “not a big fan” of rent control generally speaking. “Let’s see what happens in the city,” he said, referring to the need for the measure to clear the City Council first. “I don’t have a problem filing it if it makes sense, but I have yet to see what it is,” he said.

In a scrum with reporters after her speech, Wu said the rent control proposal hasn’t been finalized. “But it’s been a very thorough process based on Boston-specific market conditions, rents in every single neighborhood and also nationwide best practices and what other places that already have rent stabilization in place, what their experience has been,” she said.

“Many of the changes that we need will take some time to be implemented,” Wu continued. “But we have a closing window of time. Every single day residents are getting pushed out of our city. Every single day the market gets harder and businesses are suffering because their employees can’t afford to live in Boston anymore. So we need to go as quickly as possible. I’m not going to settle for anything other than using every possible tool at our disposal as quickly as we can.”

Other housing-related highlights from her speech included:

— An executive order that requires all new city-run construction and renovations of schools, municipal buildings and public housing to be “entirely fossil-fuel free.”

— She pledged that the Boston Housing Authority would end fossil fuel use by 2030: “This will mean unprecedented investments to modernize these buildings and meet Governor Healey’s ambitious goals for heat pump deployment—ensuring that the families with greatest need, benefit first—from healthier homes, and lower energy costs.”

The full speech is available here.

Seth Daniel contributed to this report. This article has been updated with additional comments.

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