BRA chief pledges transparency

August 15, 2014
By

The Boston Redevelopment Authority’s acting director pledged more transparency on some of the agency’s locally controversial issues in a recent Gazette interview.

Brian Golden is helming the quasi-public economic development and planning agency during a top-to-bottom review ordered by new Mayor Martin Walsh. A recent audit found various management problems, and that’s only the beginning of the reforms, Golden said, while also asking for public patience.

“In framing what’s going on here right now, I think it’s important to understand that since 1957, the staff of this organization has helped create one of the great cities of the world, and the success of this agency is all around us,” Golden said. “At the same time, we’re very in touch with our flaws and our deficiencies, and we’re going to work really hard to fix them. The problems have evolved over the course of almost 60 years. It’s going to take a little while to fix them.”

Golden, an Army reservist who served in the Iraq War, recalled former commanding Gen. David Petraeus as saying, “Trying to fix Iraq is like trying to fix an aircraft engine while the airplane is in flight.”

“At the junior varsity level, I have the same mission,” Golden said—trying to keep enormous planning and development projects underway while also reforming the enormous, 200-employee agency. “There’s an awful lot to fix.”

Golden’s immediate attention is on big-picture issues. But he was intrigued when the Gazette brought up the controversial and mysterious LMA Interim Guidelines.

In 2002, the BRA announced an LMA Master Plan (later called the Strategic Plan) to control all development there. Instead, a supposedly temporary version called the “Interim Guidelines” was rushed into place during the holidays—amid community outcry and grumblings from LMA institutions—with promises of public input. Those promises were broken.

More than a decade later, the Master Plan remains unfinished for unexplained reasons, and the “temporary” guidelines continue to influence LMA development. A key feature of the guidelines is a “bonus system” enabling back-room deals where LMA institutions can build taller buildings in exchange for adding to the redevelopment of the Waterfront and other areas.

A particular mystery in the bonus system is its odd building height limit of 305 feet. For more than 10 years, the BRA has never been able or willing 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 hotly debated 305-foot tower on its LMA site—either a remarkable coincidence or a case of planning rules tailor-made to allow a controversial project. That project ended up changing several times, but not before one of the LMA’s last apartment buildings was demolished and several businesses displaced.

A key finding of the recent BRA audit was that the agency has no process for tracking the promises developers make—such as those under the “bonus system”—to see if they actually follow through.

Golden told the Gazette he was aware the Interim Guidelines exist, but did not know their history and function. When asked why the guidelines remain unfinished, whether they were legitimate in the first place, and whether the bonus system trade-offs actually happened, he said those are “excellent questions.”

“You have given me reason to elevate this to the top of the pile” of specific, smaller BRA issues to examine closely for potential reform, he said.

Another item getting scrutiny is the community advisory committees (CACs) formed by the BRA and the Mayor’s Office to advise the agency on large development projects. Golden said he recalled the Suffolk County District Attorney warning the BRA about secret CAC meetings in various neighborhoods several years ago. That secrecy appears to have lessened after the BRA, as a result of Gazette reporting, instituted a policy of not attending any CAC meetings that are not open to the public.

Another Gazette investigation five years ago found that CACs form with no rules or training and very little documentation. At that time, a Freedom of Information Act request for BRA records on the formation of a CAC the Jackson Square redevelopment uncovered only a thin file folder that did not even contain a membership list.

“We’ve talked about perhaps instituting a very basic preparatory program for people interested in serving on those panels,” said Golden, suggesting a “Development 101” type of training for CAC members.

“My attitude is, in keeping with our commitment to transparency throughout all we do, CACs will reflect that commitment to transparency,” Golden said.

But first, Golden is looking at big-picture items. Next week, he will ask the BRA board of directors to authorize hiring a consultant to review the agency’s planning department—a specific recommendation of the recent audit.

Many criticisms of the BRA hinge on the unusual way it combines planning and economic development, and concerns that the latter overwhelms the former. Most other cities have separate departments or agencies for planning and development. Asked if the BRA is considering stricter separation of those powers, Golden paused for several seconds to consider an answer.

“This conversation has occurred off and on for a long time,” he finally said. “Six or seven months into the new administration, I think we continue to deliberate about that very point…the question of whether there needs to be more separation.”

That deliberation continues, Golden said, and the upcoming consultant’s review of the planning department will influence it. He said he expects it will be a “substantial analysis, not just of the inner workings” of the planning department, but how it fits into the BRA as a whole.