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Arroyo takes aim at BRA planning

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Arroyo takes aim at BRA planning

By Michael Jonas, 2/15/2004

The Boston Redevelopment Authority is in the crosshairs again. Reviving an effort that has been pursued unsuccessfully several times in recent years, City Councilor Felix Arroyo has introduced a home-rule petition that would strip planning authority from the BRA and create a separate city planning department. Arroyo's beef with the BRA: that an independent government authority shouldn't be vested with power over both planning decisions and the awarding of development rights.

''I believe there is a strong conflict of interest to have within the same body the determination of what is built where and also to have determined by the same body who builds it," says Arroyo.

As an independent authority, the BRA relies for its funding on fees paid by developers for projects the agency oversees. Arroyo and others say that has made the BRA -- a target for grass-roots neighborhood ire ever since it oversaw the razing of the West End neighborhood to make way for glitzy apartment towers more than 40 years ago -- captive to developers' interests at the expense of a voice for residents or the City Council in planning decisions.

Boston is the only city in the United States in which both planning and development functions are assigned to an independent authority. BRA spokeswoman Susan Elsbree says the ability to bring those functions -- as well as workforce development programs -- together has made Boston the ''envy of many cities around the country and the world who come to see our unique situation."

Neighborhood leaders who are critical of the Boston setup, including leading BRA antagonist Shirley Kressel of the Back Bay, see little to envy. ''They run a big land empire," she says of the BRA. ''They are speculators, they are developers, they are partners in the deals that they regulate. The BRA always tells us how people come from hither and yon to see how we do things, but in 43 years no one has ever gone home and said, 'We should do it that way.' "

Cosponsoring Arroyo's petition are councilors Maura Hennigan, Jerry McDermott, and Chuck Turner. City Councilor James Kelly of South Boston, though not a signed cosponsor, pushed a similar effort last year and said he'll support the move again.

''The way we do business here is not working," says Kelly, who accuses the BRA of supporting ''excessive development" in the South Boston Waterfront district.

As an example, Kelly points to a group of large landowners in the waterfront district, including the Boston Wharf Co. and Gillette, who he says were told by the BRA to propose a development plan that would meet their goals. ''That was akin to giving a group of alcoholics a bottle of whiskey," says Kelly, who complains that the landowners have proposed height limits for new development far in excess of what earlier BRA plans for the area called for.

The odds against the Arroyo-led effort are long. There is plenty of interest among the business community in maintaining the status quo. Mayor Thomas Menino ''supports the current structure," says spokesman Seth Gitell.

Even Kressel, one of the BRA's most vociferous critics, concedes that the proposed change would hardly ensure better planning, with more input from residents. But she's willing to give it a try. ''Just making a city planning department of course is no guarantee that you'll have good planning," Kressel says. ''But there's a chance for good planning." Under the current system, she says, ''there is not, because we have an agency whose job and livelihood rests on advocating for developers."

From The Boston Globe

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These people should move to a small town somewhere and watch the trees grow.

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