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BPDA push

Amid push for systemic change, city councilor wants equity proof from BPDA
By Danny McDonald Globe Staff,Updated June 11, 2020, 8:41 p.m.

Amid the push to dismantle systems that have perpetuated racial inequality, a Boston city councilor is demanding proof from the city’s powerful planning agency that it prioritizes racial and economic equity as it shapes the city’s neighborhoods through housing and commercial development.

Councilor Lydia Edwards is asking for documents that show whether staff at the Boston Planning & Development Agency focus on things like equitable development, racial justice, and planning that prevents residents from being displaced by new building projects. She wants to see if the agency conducts an analysis of ethnic impact and racial disparities of proposals before it.

“This is basically a moment in time for BPDA to show the receipts, and that’s what I’m asking for,” said Edwards at this week’s City Council meeting. “This is a time when we need to plan differently and we need to look at how they have been planning.

City authorities have faced increasing pressure from councilors and citizens on a number of fronts in the wake of near-daily protests over the slaying of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. Some have called for reform to Boston police protocols and reductions to that department’s budget.

Among her priorities, Edwards wants to take a look at how the city handles development. She has warned about the prospect of creating “another Seaport” at Suffolk Downs — the massive planned development in her district that’s currently under BPDA review — and has pushed for more job training and small business development programs for East Boston residents.

She and other critics of the Seaport point to that neighborhood’s development as a prime example of how Black residents and businesses have missed out on the wealth created by Boston’s building boom.

Her order requesting information from the agency passed at Wednesday’s council meeting, giving the city a week to respond. A day later, the BPDA board took actions it said would develop a more inclusive and diverse culture at the organization.

On Thursday, the BPDA board authorized the agency to hire a director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and also approved the creation of an “equity and inclusion” fund as part of next year’s budget. The director will develop strategy and oversee the agency’s racial equity and diversity priorities, authorities said. According to the BPDA, the “individual will work as part of the agency’s senior leadership team to establish collaborative partnerships . . . and foster a more inclusive, equitable, welcoming, supportive, and diverse agency.”

The fund, meanwhile, will support “activities directly related to addressing racial equity and inclusion in the BPDA’s work,” according to the agency. The fund’s revenue will come from transaction fees from land disposition agreements, which govern the transfer and use of BPDA-owned parcels. Annual transaction fees from such agreements have ranged from $1.3 million to $2.7 million during the last four years.

Edwards, who represents East Boston, Charlestown, and the North End, also is requesting evidence of internal training for the agency’s staff regarding diversity, inclusion, or equity, as well as surveys that pertain to those concepts. Additionally, Edwards’s order seeks a racial and ethnic breakdown of the agency’s staff in recent years, among other information.

Brian Golden, the agency’s director, in a statement this week defended the organization’s approach. He said the BPDA uses Imagine Boston 2030, a citywide plan for growth in coming years, as a “framework to support equity by creating affordable housing, good jobs, and open space in every neighborhood.”

“BPDA staff members spend every day engaging with community members about how our neighborhoods can offer opportunities for all,” he said.

Edwards wants to know how the agency considers vulnerable populations in its planning calculus and is interested in “evidence of how they are planning differently.”

“I have heard it’s a culture in their office,” said Edwards at Wednesday’s meeting, before adding that she wants proof of that culture.

The BPDA, formerly known as the Boston Redevelopment Authority, or BRA, before a $670,000 rebranding effort renamed it in 2016, is often a punching bag in city politics. For decades, critics have called for its abolition. The quasi-governmental agency referees Boston’s major real estate development, a sector that one agency board member described Thursday as overwhelmingly white and male. The BPDA has been criticized in recent years for the cost of housing and what some view as overdevelopment.

Four of its five board members are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council. One member is appointed by the governor.

A collection of councilors, including Edwards, are advocating for a zoning amendment that would require the BPDA “to actively further fair housing in all future developments and planning initiatives.” In a Globe op-ed they wrote development plans would be assessed with questions such as “Is housing physically and economically accessible for all Bostonians?” In a phone interview earlier this week, Edwards said that if the agency cannot show improvement with regards to equity, it should be disbanded and whatever entity takes its place should be subject to that amendment.

While efforts calling for police reform have dominated headlines recently, City Councilor Andrea Campbell said during Wednesday’s meeting that there are other systems that should be “dismantled and reimagined.”

“Housing is one of them,” she said.

Theodore C. Landsmark, a current BPDA board member and director of an urban and regional policy center at Northeastern University, said that during his six years on the board “virtually no developer has come before us as a person of color or woman.”

Board members have frequently asked developers and builders to diversify their staffs, he said. Racial and gender disparities in commercial real estate development have been egregious for decades, he said, with people of color and women largely excluded from jobs in commercial design, development, and finance sectors.

“I think that Councilor Edwards is asking the right questions,” he said. “They are questions that need to be asked not only of the agencies involved in the building process but also of the very culture of design, development, and building.”

The BPDA has about 200 employees. Earlier this year, Priscilla Rojas became the first woman and Latina elected to the position of BPDA board chair.