Editorial: Win or lose, lawsuits raise good points

Two recent, high-profile lawsuits against JP real estate developments may or may not have legal merit. But they certainly raise excellent points about a City planning system that is in desperate need of fundamental reform.

Last year’s lawsuit by neighbors against the 461 Walnut Ave. homeless care facility was thrown out of court before a judge considered its actual legal argument. The suit was a nasty piece of NIMBY-ism.

But it also was right to criticize how the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the developers steamrolled the project through by absurdly declaring the site “blighted, decadent or decayed.” The site is plainly none of those things. And even if it were blighted, it would be so only because one of the co-developers let the property go to seed. That is to say, the BRA would be rewarding rather than punishing a property owner for creating blight. Is that Boston’s idea of good public policy?

The BRA’s ability to declare property “blighted,” then cut a sweet deal with a favored developer to rebuild it without the usual zoning review process, is part of its outdated identity as an “urban renewal” agency that did things like tear down the entire West End in the 1950s. It’s a massive power that the agency never should have had to begin with and that has virtually no proper place in modern Boston.

Right now, the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council is embroiled in a controversial lawsuit over the 161 S. Huntington project. It remains to be seen whether the council even has the right to sue.

But, win or lose, the council is generally right to point out how developers are required to provide only scant evidence of their “need” for big community favors. To get major zoning variances or knock down historic buildings, developers must demonstrate that it is infeasible to do otherwise. Feasibility is basically a financial question, but the developers can withhold the project’s financial information from the public. That makes the process an elaborate game of “because I say so.” All it tells us is whether the developer has the money and stamina to keep attending meetings.

A private business should have every right to keep its financials confidential—until is asking the public for big favors. The public then has the moral right to make a decision informed by the project’s costs and profit margins. It should be a legal right as well.

Zoning variances are not crimes. Development should not be done by popular vote or solely in line with parochial opinions. Politics have a valid role in it all. But the City of Boston planning and review systems are plainly unpredictable at best and a carnival of cute tricks and shams at worst.

Discontent is growing. Lawsuits are proliferating. The mayor and the City Council should pay attention and start the cleanup.

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