The BRA’s Top Five Local Controversies

October 9, 2009
By

John Ruch
Secret meetings, behind-the-scenes deals

Second of a 2-part series

The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA)—the city’s planning and economic and workforce development agency—is the target of criticism in this year’s hot election season. Most of this year’s Boston City Council candidates, and three of the four original mayoral hopefuls, have called for the BRA to reform or dissolve.

Critics say the BRA, a quasi-independent authority, is too powerful, too political and too secretive. Supporters, including Mayor Thomas Menino, say its extraordinary leverage is a boon to the city.

The following are some of the biggest controversies about BRA actions in Jamaica Plain and Mission Hill over the past five years. For the first part of this article, including historical information and the BRA’s use of an incorrect US Census data map of JP, see the Gazette web site at www.JamaicaPlainGazette.com.

2. • Boston City Council secrecy

If candidate Michael Flaherty wins the Mayor’s Office this fall, the BRA will have unintentionally helped engineer its own reform.

Flaherty and former candidate Kevin McCrea both cited a 2005 lawsuit about the Boston City Council violating the Open Meeting Law as a key inspiration for their candidacies. McCrea filed the lawsuit; Flaherty was its lead defendant, and says he has learned to love open government as a result. Flaherty is calling for the dismantling of the BRA.

Local City Councilor John Tobin also was embroiled in the controversy for attending one of the secret meetings. Other local councilors, including Felix D. Arroyo and Chuck Turner, had refused to attend the meetings.

While the lawsuit battered the City Council’s image, it often goes unmentioned that most of the illegal meetings were about the BRA—and were orchestrated by it.

The lawsuit alleged that 11 secret, behind-closed-doors City Council meetings in 2003-05 violated the Open Meeting Law. A judge ruled against the council in 2006 and issued an $11,000 fine. The case remains under appeal, and settlement talks are reportedly under way.

Ten of the meetings were with BRA officials, with the topic being the formal extension of the “urban renewal” legislation that allows the BRA to exist. (The City Council later approved the extension.) According to the City Council’s testimony, the BRA convened the meetings.

The City Council tried to get around the Open Meeting Law by making sure only a small number of councilors—less than a quorum—were in the room at any given time. A judge later blasted the strategy as a “musical chairs” attempt to end-run the law.

According to the lawsuit, the councilor-counting was done at the door by a BRA official.

3. • LMA Interim Guidelines

The Longwood Medical and Academic Area (LMA) is known for a boom in gigantic institutional developments. So there was some optimism when the BRA in 2002 announced an LMA Master Plan (later called the Strategic Plan) to control all development there.

Instead, a supposedly draft version called the “Interim Guidelines” was rushed into place with little public input. More than six years later, the Master Plan remains unfinished for unexplained reasons, while the guidelines have enabled enormous projects as far away as South Boston amid complaints that they essentially authorize back-room deal-making.

The BRA announced the Interim Guidelines at a meeting just before Thanksgiving, 2002 and swiftly approved them just a few weeks later during the holiday season. The guidelines then went into effect in January, 2003 under the promise that they would turn into a permanent, zoning-type master plan within 18 months, following review by a citizens advisory committee.

But the plan has never been finalized. The BRA, without explanation, rejected proposals from a private consultant team to finish it. And the public review never happened, even after the BRA convened a private summit of planning experts to review the plan, whose main recommendation was to get more public input.

In 2005, the BRA told the Gazette that the guidelines were undergoing unspecified “studies” with no deadline. Asked last month about progress on finishing the master plan, the BRA responded only with a statement that the interim guidelines are in place.

The guidelines were criticized by residents and institutions as vague and arbitrary. Especially controversial is a “bonus system” that allows institutions to build much larger structures than zoning allows in exchange for a variety of community benefits delivered under unexplained formulas.

Mayor Thomas Menino and the BRA have used the bonus system to allow very tall LMA building in exchange for institutional development in Roxbury and South Boston. It is unclear whether anyone in those neighborhoods is aware of the guidelines.

In a Sept. 10 televised debate, Menino said that the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute relocated major office space to the South Boston waterfront because the MBTA’s Silver Line makes it more accessible than the LMA.

But in fact, Dana-Farber made the $25 million move to Southie at the behest of Menino and the BRA, as the Gazette reported at the time. Under the Interim Guidelines, Dana-Farber was allowed to build a new LMA tower 185 feet high—more than twice the zoning height limit—in exchange for moving some non-core services to a new “Harbor Campus” on the waterfront, where Menino has long sought to spur redevelopment.

“The city’s happy. The mayor’s happy,” Rick Shea, Dana-Farber’s vice president of facilities management, told the Gazette at the time of the 2006 move. The trade-off was mentioned at a BRA community meeting, but the actual deal was cut behind closed doors.

A particular mystery in the guidelines’s bonus system is its oddly specific building height limit of 305 feet. The BRA has repeatedly been unable or unwilling to explain where that number came from.

Critics have noted that at the same time the Interim Guidelines went into effect, the Joslin Diabetes Center was proposing a 305-foot tower on its LMA site—either a remarkable coincidence or a case of planning rules tailor-made to allow a controversial project.

After several ownership and design changes—including the death of the 305-foot tower concept, along with the displacement of residents and businesses—the Joslin redevelopment has stalled. Other controversial projects approved by the BRA that later stall and leave a “hole in the ground,” such as the former Filene’s building in Downtown Crossing, have become an issue in the mayoral race.

4. • Secret CAC meetings

Community advisory committees (CACs) formed by the BRA and the Mayor’s Office to give advice on major development projects are notorious for secret meetings, often vocally supported by BRA officials.

A Brighton CAC is currently being sued by residents for its secret decision-making and alleged conflicts of interest. The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office says that CACs are subject to the state Open Meeting Law. But the BRA says CACs are free to meet secretly. It also claims it prefers open meetings, though BRA officials at the actual meetings have often stated their preference for secrecy.

In the most recent local case, the Jackson Square CAC banned the media from its meetings for three months until Gazette and community pressure forced a BRA policy change that made it open again.

But secret CAC meetings have been a local problem for years. The nearly decade-old Mission Hill CAC (MH CAC), which reviews redevelopment of former Mission Church properties, has a long history of secret meetings. This year, a BRA official attempted to declare an entire MH CAC meeting “off the record” to the Gazette and scheduled another meeting for 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday, effectively rendering it private.

In 2006, the CAC for the former Blessed Sacrament Church site in Hyde Square met entirely in deliberately unpublicized meetings. Abutting residents complained that they were foiled in attempts to attend the meetings. Asked at the time why the meetings were not publicized, the BRA’s project manager for the redevelopment told the Gazette, “It’s the nature of a CAC. There’s work to be done.”

In March, the Gazette asked the BRA why its staff members do not simply refuse to attend CAC meetings that are not open to the public. There was no response until May, when the BRA announced that its staff members will no longer attend CAC meetings that are not open to the public—and claimed that was always BRA policy.

Menino told the Gazette earlier this month that secret meeting problems are rare and blamed them on rogue “overzealous [BRA] project managers.” He also suggested that most complaints about the BRA are not valid, instead coming from disgruntled residents who do not like change. When first asked by the Gazette about the Jackson Square secret meeting issue, Menino joked, “You should be kicked out.”

5. Franklin Square Apartments

The BRA eventually played the role of hero in 2007 to residents of the 147-unit Franklin Square Apartments on Tremont Street in Mission Hill after the building’s surprise sale, securing a tenant-protection deal and a rental subsidy trust fund.

But that was only after heated controversy about behind-the-scenes deal-making, much of it involving the BRA, that the residents never knew about until the Gazette revealed it, and which remains largely unexplained.

The tenants, many of them lower-income or elderly, were shocked when their landlord sold the building for $18 million to a for-profit company with no prior notice to them. There was more shock when the Gazette revealed that the landlord was not a religious non-profit, as the residents believed and the BRA had confirmed, but rather a secular, for-profit subsidiary of another secular non-profit.

The building was constructed decades earlier as an “urban renewal” project by the BRA, which still held a ground lease giving it ultimate control over the property’s use. In yet another shock revealed by the Gazette, the tenants learned that the landlord had sued the BRA in an attempt to dissolve the ground lease on the property. The lawsuit and its details were never communicated to tenants.

In an unusual response to the controversy, the BRA’s then acting director, Paul McCann, personally attended a tenant meeting and offered a rent-protection deal. When many residents questioned the short-term nature of the deal, McCann chided them for “cross-examining” the BRA’s offer, suggesting it was take-it-or-leave-it.

The residents chose to leave it, especially after the Gazette revealed that the BRA intended to dissolve the ground lease in exchange for the new owner accepting the tenant protection deal. The BRA never explained why it wanted to dissolve the ground lease and never directly mentioned it to tenants. Residents were never allowed to participate directly in the protection-deal discussions, leading to criticism from them and elected officials.

The BRA later brought in an affordable housing expert who soothed emotions and offered an improved protection deal.

McCann was booted from the BRA this year after the Globe revealed he was violating state law by working for the BRA while receiving a $97,000-a-year pension after technically “retiring” in 2005. McCann reportedly told the Globe that his double-dipping was OK because the BRA is an independent authority as separate from the City of Boston as New Hampshire is from Massachusetts.