By: David A. Smith
Even as a candidate Marty Walsh had to have known that upon becoming mayor he would have to reform the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which over the two decades of Tom Menino’s mayoralty parlayed its monopoly over all development approval in the City of Boston into a personal fiefdom that not only did the mayor’s bidding, and paid for its own operations by capturing a piece of the value it created by allowing some properties – and not others – to develop upward, but also effectively silenced all opposition. But even he should be discouraged by the recent McKinsey report he commissioned; as reported in the Boston Globe (July 16 2015):
The agency charged with overseeing the real estate boom coursing through Boston is a dysfunctional bureaucracy, its system for reviewing projects erratic, with just a few powerful staffers deciding how new buildings will look using “unwritten rules,” according to a highly critical audit (link in pdf) being released by City Hall Thursday.
“Organizational health is bottom-quartile”
Simply put, the BRA had no rules, no process, and no strategy.
Candidate Walsh also presumably knew that the BRA was a mare’s nest of tangled reporting relationships, business processes, sub-fiefs and personal rivalries, and at the same time it would be running a pipeline of properties involving communities, neighborhoods, developers and bankers. It would, in a word, be touchy.
The conclusions are particularly troubling given the key role the BRA plays in guiding Boston through a remarkable economic period, with the agency approving almost $5 billion in new developments citywide over the past 18 months.
Much of this development is pent-up demand that was stymied under Mayor Menino’s BRA, so simply the scale of development is itself welcome.
Organizationally, the mayor has proceeded cautiously. From within he promoted Brian Golden to director, and messily fired former planning head Kairos Shen [Subject of a flattering Boston Globe profile, Boston Globe (June 29, 2008) profile, The Shaper of Things to Come; cobalt blue font. – Ed.] only in May:
Walsh has already broomed out key Menino holdovers.
In May, as McKinsey was finalizing its report, the mayor forced out [Fired – Ed.] Kairos Shen, the longtime planning chief under Menino.
Over 20 years, he worked for seven directors but only one mayor.
No mere planning chief, Mr. Shen was effectively Mayor Menino’s personal architect, as illustrated by the vignette with which the Globe opened its laudatory 2008 piece:
The architect unfurled his thick stack of drawings and designs on the table in Kairos Shen’s office. Five minutes after seeing the preliminary and confidential ideas for a new public building, Shen grabbed a red felt-tip pen and began drawing his revised version of the building on one of the now-irrelevant plans the architect had arrived with. Once finished, his new furiously sketched diagram eviscerated the architect’s design while leaving the most basic elements of the building shape intact. “When you come back,” he ended the meeting, “please bring two different versions of the ideas that we discussed,” meaning, of course, his red diagrams.
Even then, when the piece first came out, I thought it curious that the Globe would present as admirable a gross overreach of the reviewer’s responsibility – but it was entirely representative of Mayor Menino’s late-stage BRA, with results that we all knew and only Don Chiofaro said aloud: development was haphazard, capricious, and unaccountable:
The report, by McKinsey & Co., paints the powerful Boston Redevelopment Authority as short of critical staff, beset by poor morale, and unable to manage its own property. The process to review building designs can be maddeningly slow at times, driving up costs for developers, it says.
More than merely maddening, the process was spectacularly inefficient, as illustrated by slide 57 of the report deck:
“Thirty hours actual review time”
Before the developer even files its proposal, it undergoes ‘several months (highly variable)’ of ‘pre-file discussions’ whose purpose, as far as I can tell, was to find out what the mayor would like – and often that was informed by what random people who knew the mayor would like.
“You’ll have someone who says ‘we want to see a change.’ You have to redesign, go back and forth,” said David Begelfer, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, a commercial real estate trade group. “It can take months.”
You can get gray hair waiting for approval
Then, after the process began, it took 8 to 20 months to complete – and this is just design review, folks, not feasibility assessment, over which interval the BRA staff actually spend 30 hours – less than one person-week doing the review itself, with the inefficiency attributable to developers have to redo, and re-redo, their designs to respond to the taste police and the ultimate taste cop himself, Mayor Menino. Consider this indictment from 2008:
Kremlin-watching is especially crucial in the Boston development process, which is marked by a level of flexibility –
The Globe’s editorial euphemism for ‘lack of rules or transparency’.
– that many developers find infuriating, but, if used properly –
How does one use caprice properly in a democracy?
– can help a builder legally violate nearly every zoning rule that applies to a particular parcel. And if the developer is building on a parcel larger than an acre –
Any multi-story building will need more than an acre for its footings and setback requirements, so the PDAs cover basically the entire commercial potential of downtown Boston.
also known as a Planned Development Area – there are essentially no zoning rules and the whole project can be designed from scratch, governed only by the rules imposed on a case-by-case basis by the BRA on issues ranging from size to use to height to setback from the road.
All this untrammeled authority was fostered by, used by, and wallowed in by Mayor Menino, who took glee (cf. the mayor’s now-infamous Godfather video mocking his feud-unto-death with Don Chiofaro) in stymieing and humiliating those who did not kiss his ring and call him godfather.
“What does a man have to do to get the city to use rules?”
The BRA won’t agree to anything unless it has buy-in from the mayor. Until you have a preliminary plan that can get this support, there is no point in spending millions to get the variances and the dozens of state and local approvals from agencies and boards that hold some sway over nearly every square inch of buildable land in Boston.
This is an over-encrusted and rotten process, as McKinsey alludes:
It couldn’t have taken months to interview 56 people
“Perception is that they rubber-stamp everything.”
Nor does the board’s composition inspire confidence, for best-in-class domain expertise is lacking.
The mayor won’t give his support if the neighborhood where the building will sit is unhappy.
Define ‘unhappy neighborhood’ – does that mean a majority?
I don’t know what I want, but I know you’re not it
A vote? A bunch of people complaining to the mayor? One person complaining to one consigliere of the mayor? Nobody knew.
So developers and communities do months of dances, meetings, and revisions to preliminary plans based on feedback. Then there’s – let’s call a spade a spade here – the legalized extortion known as “linkage.”
This is a crucial part of the community buy-in process and includes developer promises of affordable housing units above the required minimums or a new park or a new firetruck or nice street lights or new sidewalks or improvements to the local elementary school – until the community is satisfied with the package being offered. Only then is the mayor happy.
Shen makes sure the entire process has happened before the developer submits what is technically the first official proposal to the BRA.
There. Were. No. Rules. There was only mayoral power (CBS Boston, November 8, 2010):
You won’t like me when I’m unhappy
[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]