Commentary: Questions for mayoral hopefuls on development

When Mayor Walsh announced his resignation to accept the position of US Secretary of Labor, the Boston real estate industry, also known as the development community, panicked. The Boston Business Journal reported in a January 13, 2021 article that “one prominent real-estate developer’s reaction likely spoke for many: ‘Oh, sh*t. Here we go.’”

The BBJ article noted that the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) had approved 54 million square feet of projects in the previous three years. The article cited the one constant all real estate developers share is a “craving for predictability.”

That predictability is extremely complex and confusing for the casual observer or neighborhood resident. As a neighborhood resident, I would say that our predictability is that when a developer presents a project to the community, it is likely to be in violation of zoning, and therefore be brought to the Zoning Board of Appeal, where there is a high likelihood that it will be approved, sometimes over neighborhood objections.

Development is very important to Boston, and therefore must be a major part of mayoral forums. Development allowed the Walsh administration to increase the city budget from $2.6 billion to $3.6 billion between 2013 and 2021. This led to a thousand additional permanent city employees, non-confrontational union contracts, and no cuts. Contrast this with many other cities which cut their budgets during the same time.

In many ways, this is a golden era for Boston. I arrived in Boston in 1972, a time when the city’s population was dropping by 10,000 per year on average, and the city begged for investment. The renovations that created Faneuil Hall Marketplace almost never happened because no Boston bank would loan money for such a project. The city government would accept almost any building project that a developer would offer to build, as there was so little confidence in Boston’s future.

In the 21st Century, Boston has become one of the hottest cities for development in the US, which has made the city immensely wealthy, but the development that made Boston wealthy is a source of much consternation for many neighborhood residents, whose quality of life can be adversely impacted by the developments.

Why is that?

It comes down to zoning. Zoning codes are meant to be a vision of what a community should be and look like. Zoning dictates which types of activities may occur within the various areas of cities and towns. The zoning code is a plan for how land will be used, the kind and size of housing allowed in different neighborhoods, the areas where commercial and industrial buildings can go, what size they can be, what kind of businesses are allowed in various business districts, and buildings that are allowed to be demolished or preserved. By exercising zoning regulations, a city can determine how it will grow and what it will look like.

But Boston essentially does not have a workable zoning code. Boston’s most recent master plan was adopted in 1965. Much has changed since then, but when developers propose to build something, the design is viewed against these 56 year old codes, with the result that nearly every project contains violations to the code, and therefore most development proposals go to the Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) for adjudication.

At this point, a city agency, mainly the Boston Planning and Development Agency, will get involved in the process to work with the developer toward a design that would work in the proposed parcel of land. Depending on the size of the project, how it is financed, and other factors, BPDA could require a transportation study and changes in design. It is then presented to the ZBA, which in most cases approves projects that have gone through the BPDA process.

The problem I have with this process is that it doesn’t reflect any vision for Boston or its neighborhoods. As a result, our neighborhoods become a hodgepodge of zoning variances granted to developers and approved by a ZBA which is made up seven board members and six alternates, all appointed by the Mayor. And since each proposed development is reviewed individually, it is rare that it will be seen within the context of what developers are proposing for other parts of the neighborhood or against a backdrop of a comprehensive community plan and vision.

For example, it is acknowledged by civic leaders and BPDA staff that various developers are building, proposing or planning to propose nearly 10,000 new units of housing for northern Dorchester (roughly the area between Kozciuszko Circle, Neponset Circle and Uphams Corner), with the units likely to add 22,000 people to the area. While the Dorchester Bay City and nearby Morrissey Boulevard projects are being looked at together for the purposes of determining infrastructure needs, the other projects are being reviewed separately which create unnecessary problems and missed opportunities for synergistic urban design.

For instance, at a city meeting on the Dewar St. electrical cable, to a question on whether the cable was sufficient to deal with growth and development in the northern Dorchester area, Eversource stated that they only expected modest growth in planning for need for electricity in Dorchester. There was no process to inform them of the expected 10,000 new units of housing.

Who is looking out for the infrastructure needs of the 22,000 new residents, let alone the current residents of the area? Will the units be for single people or families (i.e., will we need schools)? Will we have water and sewer capacity? Can the utilities handle the increased demand? The roads? Public transportation? Will we have enough parks and other open spaces for healthy living?

These are the things that would be considered with a city master plan and zoning that reflected current and future needs. Hopefully, this new comprehensive plan would also address climate change, making all neighborhoods walkable and public transit friendly, and sustainability needs such as bike paths and electric charging stations.

Instead, our planning is reactive and comes when developers want to build something and need a zoning variance. Though the BPDA holds hearings that invite abutters and the community at large to discussions on the projects that need zoning variances, these hearings are no substitute for a well thought out vision and comprehensive plan that includes all the interests and needs of the entire neighborhood now and in the future.

Developers want to see the current process continue, which is why you’ll see lots of developer money being spent on political candidates this year, but especially for the race for mayor. The mayor is all powerful when it comes to the BPDA, the ZBA, and development in the city, which is why developers have even created a coalition with the carpenters union, called the Responsible Development Coalition, and created a $500,000 fund for mayoral candidates who support their views.

The city of Boston is no longer a backwater that has to beg for development. Boston is one of the most desirable places to locate, but the way we handle development appears we never left the 1970s. We don’t have to beg for developers, and we can have zoning that is based on a commonly held vision of what Boston should be in the future.

Here are some development questions for our candidates for mayor:

* Do you support a re-zoning of the city that includes current and future needs of residents, climate change and sustainability, making all neighborhoods walkable and public transit friendly, and infrastructure, including open space and trees, to be completed by the end of your first term?

* Do you support changes in BPDA policies to allow for more comprehensive planning through grouping of projects for the purpose of determining infrastructure needs?

* Will you support adding the sub-division of property to the list of development processes that require public approval?

* Will you conduct a racial and gender equity audit of the composition of ZBA and BPDA board members? Will you appoint a majority of ZBA board members who do not benefit financially from the development industry?

Bill Walczak is a Dorchester resident and former CEO of the Codman Square Health Center. He has publicly endorsed Andrea Campbell in the race for mayor.

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