Dear Vinay Baindur,
I dont know why this mail, or what good it is to us after virtually all of
Delhi has just got notified as 'Commercial' by the powersthat be, with all
of SC, thinking public, law abiding public, et al totally defeated by the
note and vote bankers. And all of Plannerdom just waxing eloquent about what
is happening in Timbaktooo! With 'RWAs' assigned to take major
We can only rue our fate. So please just spare us the academics.
On 7/26/08, Vinay Baindur <[email protected]> wrote:
*The development authorities have violated our zoning and public spaces
for long and now with NURM in the picture there is ongoing massive forced
urban renewal for the benefit of the "Global Investor"
the city and its citizens are being entered into a Great Competition
and the Competitive city has arrived here ---- conditions apply
The BRA shapes our city without us*
by Shirley Kressel
Thursday Jul 17, 2008
In my last column, I reviewed some of the ways the *Boston Redevelopment
Authority* takes money from all of us. Now, let's turn to some of the BRA's
impacts on development, planning and public policy.
The BRA, created in 1957, used stealth legislation to eliminate our
Board in 1960, elbowing the City Council, our legislative branch, out of
rightful role in planning and land use regulation. It has since taken over
many other Council roles, depriving us of essential checks and balances.
The BRA uses its planning/zoning role and its urban renewal powers to make
what is illegal, legal. The BRA confers enormous wealth on favored
developers with its loophole-laden zoning code, shielding them from
for violating laws meant to protect the community. Politicians can make
private deals with developers, drawing campaign contributions that keep
in office. The BRA conducts the "public process" of review and approval and
absorbs the helpless wrath of citizens, while the officials remain
from public retribution.
The BRA's "four finagles," as I call them, are:
- Planned Development Areas (PDA), projects of an acre or more;
- Chapter 121A agreements granting tax breaks, zoning relief, and eminent
domain power, for sites the BRA declares "blighted" *(in Boston, City
Council is cut out of 121A review);*
- U-Districts, within the BRA's 3,000 acres of original Urban Renewal Plan
areas and constantly added "Demonstration Project" areas, where the BRA
conveys land to a developer; and
- *Institutional Master Plans (IMP) of expanding tax-exempt institutions.*
In these self-zoning districts, development rules are simply negotiated
the BRA. But such relief is illegal. It violates the Boston Zoning Enabling
Act, which gives the power of zoning relief only to the Zoning Board of
Appeal, whose process provides legal recourse: aggrieved parties can sue.
Thus, the BRA, having disarmed the legislative branch, has also largely
deprived us of the judicial branch, leaving the "three-legged stool" of
democratic government standing on the executive alone.
No neighborhood is protected from the BRA's magical self-zoning wand, given
its liberal criteria - *although the BRA routinely violates even these*.
Even a project with only a half-acre of land has been made a PDA, by
counting nearby streets and sidewalks. Abracadabra!
Even when the zoning code included provisions that the BRA's own lawyers
warned cannot be changed by a PDA, it used a PDA designation (indeed, the
half-acre one) to remove the code protection of the historic Gaiety Theatre
and destroyed it for an unlawful tower. Hocus pocus!
Even where the code prohibits PDAs altogether, the BRA simply gets the
puppet Zoning Commission to delete the prohibition when it approves a PDA.
The tower replacing Filene's in Downtown Crossing was legalized this way.
The Columbus Center project was given a PDA, when, as a Turnpike air rights
area, it is not even subject to city zoning. The BRA's project manager on
the Columbus Center wrote in a memo in 2003 to the several local
neighborhood associations: "PDAs are not permitted in the Bay Village
Neighborhood District, the Open Space Urban Plaza subdistrict of the South
End Neighborhood District, or the portion of the Downtown IPOD that
the Site. Text Amendment No. [blank], submitted by the BRA for approval
immediately prior to approval of the PDA Plan, would make such provisions
inapplicable to the Site." Presto!
The BRA granted a 121A to Two Financial Center, a tower proposed in the
booming historic Leather District. Residents sued and lost: the BRA, the
court said, may declare blight at its discretion. That developer's revised
proposal for a still over-sized building stated that if the community
opposed a variance, he would take the 121A and not only over-build but take
the tax exemption as well. Loew's (now W) Hotel near the Theatre District
got a U-District when the BRA seized a few square feet of land near the
and conveyed it to the developer. Shazam!
Coming up: the redevelopment of the Government Center Garage. It's big
enough for a PDA, but the BRA owns the adjacent parcel. By adding it to the
project, it can make a U-District, become an equity partner, and profit by
approving the biggest possible building. A 121A is also possible, and would
leave more money in the developer's budget for the BRA's lease fee.
Institutional Master Plans are by used all colleges and health care
facilities. With their unfettered expansion, residential buildings become
student dorms, neighborhood-serving retail disappears, neighborhoods are
destabilized, voting power diminishes, families move out. And the tax
of their exempted property is shifted to the rest of us.
The BRA owns hundreds of acres of land rights, where it simply writes it
rules, an egregious conflict of interest the Boston Globe editorialized
about on April 6, 1999, "On top of South Station?": "The BRA ought to be
watchdog for the project, but it owns the air rights over the station and
stands to gain a fortune in lease payments..." It is a profit-seeking - and
unfairly advantaged --competitor in the real estate market. It tilts the
playing field with cronyism in developer designations (it is exempt from
competitive bidding laws), encourages (and engages in) speculation, permits
development that hurts our environment and quality of life, causes an
artificial land scarcity, and drives up land costs, driving up housing and
These few examples barely scratch the surface; the BRA's zoning shenanigans
could (and should) fill a book.
Meanwhile, for a half-century, we, in the cradle of democracy, have been
without a planning entity that cares about anything besides the profits of
big developers (including itself). Its social mission remains to remake
Boston for better people. Its political mission as an "ethics laundry"
remains as well: to do the dirty work while keeping politicians' hands
Accountable only to its own board, dissolvable only by its own hand, and
apparently out of reach of the ethics commission or any law enforcement
agency, the BRA is "da bums" we can't "t'row out."
Shirley Kressel is a landscape architect and urban designer, and one of the
founders of the Alliance of Boston Neighborhoods. She can be reached at
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