BRA seeks to renew 1960s-era local plan

A 1960s-era plan to displace thousands of people in Jackson and Egleston Squares by eminent domain is among 14 “urban renewal” plans the Boston Redevelopment Authority is seeking to have reapproved. Much of that displacement already happened, and the BRA says it won’t use eminent domain there again, but it still seeking reauthorization of such powers via a public process.

“Urban renewal” is a 1950s-era euphemism for bulldozing entire neighborhoods for new development. The classic example is the West End, which is still covered by one of many urban renewal plans around the city. Fourteen of the plans are up for their regular 10-year re-approvals by City government.

The local plan, called “Washington Park,” covers much of Roxbury, including the eastern side of Egleston Square and the Academy Homes area of Jackson Square. It dates to 1963.

Corey Zehngebot , a BRA urban planner and architect, told the Gazette that the BRA has no plans to propose any new projects for the area covered by the Washington Park urban renewal area.

“Those plans are historic and do not reflect present day” projects or other actions like land clearings, Zehngebot said. “This [re-approval] process is focused on the goals and planning objectives. It’s meant to be a conversation and to foster engagement on urban renewal as a strategy and set of tools.”

The Washington Park plan is posted on the BRA website in the form of scanned images of the typewritten 1963 pages. It outlines plans to displace 1,689 families and 563 single households from the project area over a four-year period.

That displacement was in service to basic redevelopment goals that include “preserv[ing] the neighborhood”; “strength[ing] the physical pattern of neighborhood activities”; “reinforc[ing] the fabric of family and community life”; and “provid[ing] a more wholesome framework of environmental conditions better suited …to contemporary living.”

There are also 19 specific planning goals that include “to remove the concentrations of deteriorated and deteriorating buildings [that] depress the physical condition and character of the area” and “eliminate obsolete and substandard building conditions [that] also contribute to the pattern of spreading blight.”

Proposed 1963 actions within the project area “will consist of a combination of clearance and redevelopment activities, changes in land use, provision of public improvements and public facilities…and rehabilitation activities.” Those clearance and redevelopment activities include the “relocation of the occupants” of “acquired property.”

The version of the plan’s land-use map posted online is illegible.

Reauthorizing the plan would mean preserving such powers and goals. But Zehngebot repeatedly said that eminent domain—while a valuable tool for clearing property titles and other applications—is not likely to be used at all, and certainly not against property owners who do not want to sell or who haven’t been fairly compensated.

“We don’t take people’s land against their will. When the BRA uses eminent domain, it uses it for parcel assembly, usually for public purposes,” she said, citing the new Bolling building in Dudley Square.

Re-approval of the BRA’s urban renewal plans previously has been done in secrecy and mystery—including last time around, when the BRA orchestrated secret Boston City Council meetings that triggered a fine for Open Meeting Law violations.

This time, the BRA wants to discuss all 19 plans as part of a pre-planning conversation to inform planners, Zehngebot said.

“We want to have a conversation to better inform people on these plans,” she said, adding that can mean including community input in the updated urban renewal plans.

Zehngebot told the Gazette that this is big shift for the BRA, which is known for its historically intense secrecy.

“We sense a leering distrust, so we’re going to catch people unawares because they’re not used to the BRA operating in this manner,” Zehngebot said.

Community workshops, while planned for late spring, summer and fall, have not been scheduled yet. The BRA is aiming to release those dates in the next several weeks, BRA spokesperson Nick Martin told the Gazette last month.

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