The BRA’s Top Five Local Controversies

August 27, 2009
By

John Ruch

Wrong JP map will be used for 2010 Census

First of 2-part series

A real estate authority is probably never going to be anyone’s favorite city agency.

But the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA)—the city’s planning and economic and workforce development agency—is being singled out for criticism in the hot election season. Most of this year’s Boston City Council candidates, and three of the four mayoral hopefuls, are calling for the BRA to reform or dissolve.

They follow local elected officials, such as former JP City Councilors Felix D. Arroyo and Maura Hennigan, who called for BRA break-up a half-decade ago.

At the same time, the BRA is drawing grassroots criticism for a variety of actions in several neighborhoods, including Jamaica Plain and Mission Hill. Those local controversies sometimes echo larger ones cited by the mayoral candidates. In some cases, the subjects of local debates also affect other neighborhoods that may have never heard of the BRA’s incorrect census map of JP or its Longwood Medical Area Interim Guidelines.

Incumbent Mayor Thomas Menino, who is running for re-election, is the BRA’s most prominent fan, saying he will seek to expand its powers by adding the Boston Transportation Department to its portfolio. Critics say the BRA is already too big, too powerful, too political, too unaccountable and too secretive.

Despite occupying a floor of City Hall, the BRA is not a city department. It is self-funded by development deals and operates largely independently under a board of directors appointed by the mayor and governor. BRA supporters and critics agree that this structure—and a single agency doing both planning and development, which is unusual nationwide—gives the BRA extraordinary leverage.

Asked for comment about the agency becoming a target of “reform” proposals this year’s campaigns, the BRA’s press office responded with a description of its current structure, adding, “Having these three functions [planning and economic and workforce development] unified in a single agency enables each division to inform and enhance the work of the other divisions.”

Thirty years ago, the BRA was widely loathed in JP as one of the agencies that tore down homes and businesses to make way for a highway on what is now the Southwest Corridor. (The BRA was also hated citywide for major “urban renewal” projects like demolishing the West End to create Government Center. The “redevelopment” in its name comes from a federal funding bill’s euphemism for the massive urban bulldozing projects popular in the 1950s.) Community activism stopped the highway, but the damage was done.

Over the past 15 years, the BRA’s local reputation has improved, especially for some of its large-scale planning efforts. In a reversal of the Southwest Corridor destruction, the BRA was instrumental in pulling together an agreement to redevelopment scores of vacant parcels left over from the highway and Orange Line projects—a move key to spurring the ongoing rebirth of Jackson Square. The BRA also earned praise for leading the early stages of the Jackson Square planning.

Residents have looked to the BRA for help in ensuring public input on large developments, including the MBTA’s Arborway Yard bus garage in JP and a proposed biolab on Huntington Avenue in Mission Hill. The BRA’s recent Forest Hills Improvement Initiative planning process has drawn mixed reviews, but happened by public request for BRA involvement.

A BRA plan to review some small-scale building projects that do not require zoning variances was shot down in JP as harmful to individual property rights. But the design review has been instituted by popular demand in nearby Roxbury and Roslindale, and may be coming to Mission Hill as well.

But residents frequently say the BRA’s powerful leverage has victimized them as well. The physical bulldozing of a half-century ago has turned into procedural bulldozing in modern complaints.

The following is a list of the BRA’s five biggest JP and Mission Hill controversies of the past five years:

• 1. Incorrect Census Map

The BRA uses a deliberately incorrect map of Boston’s neighborhoods to analyze US Census data and to report a variety of City of Boston data. The underreporting of minority populations, and incorrect analysis of public health and abandoned property data, are just a few of the significant impacts of the incorrect map.

The incorrect map erases several neighborhoods and draws wildly incorrect boundaries for others. The JP map includes almost all of Mission Hill, but not the Forest Hills, Woodbourne, Parkside, Brookside and Egleston Square areas. According to the map, the E-13 Police Station and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation are not in JP, but Mission Hill’s Mission Church is.

The City of Boston officially recognizes 23 neighborhoods (not counting the Harbor Islands). The BRA map shows only 16. Among the neighborhoods the BRA treats as non-existent are the North End, Mission Hill, Chinatown, Bay Village—and the West End, the neighborhood the BRA bulldozed decades ago.

The only Mission Hill reference in the map is a subsection called “Mission Hill Projects”—the Mission Main and Alice Taylor public housing developments.

Due to the incorrect map, the BRA wrongly reported that in 1990-2000, JP’s population dropped by 6.8 percent and saw a decrease in minorities. The Gazette’s own analysis found that JP’s population remained about the same and that the minority population increased by 3 percent.

The flawed data analysis affects the funding of neighborhood-targeted city programs. It also creates difficulties for non-profits that need to include demographic data in grant applications, some of which are forced to generate their own, accurate census analyses.

The intent of the incorrect map was to make it easier for the BRA to analyze census data by reducing the number of neighborhoods to analyze. (The BRA uses separate, accurate neighborhood maps for zoning and planning.) The BRA refers to the artificial census map regions as “planning districts,” all of which have Boston neighborhood names.

When the Gazette first revealed the incorrect map in 2003, elected officials and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council demanded it be fixed. The BRA refused, saying it cannot switch to an accurate map because data comparisons with previous censuses could not be done—essentially saying that consistency trumps accuracy.

“In regards to the BRA’s planning districts, we don’t suspect our planning districts and how they are defined is going to change for the 2010 Census,” BRA spokesperson Jessica Shumaker told the Gazette last month.

Continued in next issue. View the BRA census map here.

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