Friday, May 31, 2013

Should we disband the Boston Redevelopment Authority?

Rachel Slade has a new article in Boston Magazine entitled "The Authority" in which she calls for the Boston Redevelopment Authority to be disbanded, and its functions of planning, zoning and development to be separated. The agency is an anachronism, a relic of the era of "urban renewal", and has too much power and too little accountability.

The West End wiped out (source)
I can't say I totally disagree with this assessment. All it takes is a trip downtown to remind oneself of the hubris and arrogance of the BRA. A stroll through Government Center does the trick. How could they be so stupid? What were they thinking? What we lost was irreplaceable. Scollay Square, the West End, Barry's Corner, large sections of Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, all wiped out for not conforming to the sterile vision of a few self-selected planners; or for being in the way of the new highway lifestyle that was to conquer all. To the planners of those days, the city was a merely a tool for the wealthy suburban residents. Anything that got in the way of that had to go.

However, that was a long time ago. We can't fix the past. The BRA of then is gone, and the BRA of recent years is different. The BRA of today holds community meetings. They do promote, or at least claim to promote, actual urban development instead of faux-suburbia. For example, the BRA nowadays requires commercial development to form a street wall, with little or no setback, and to put parking behind, out of sight. This is in contrast to several mid-century examples which were built as mini-strip malls in the middle of urban areas. The BRA of today is willing to approve projects with low or no parking requirements.
Transit-oriented vacant land, not so smart

Does that make the agency good or worth preserving? Not really. They have more than their fair share of failures; Slade lists many, and I would also add to that: the disgrace of having long term vacancy of so many transit-adjacent parcels in the city. Besides, the concentration of power in one Authority is too tempting and probably too dangerous. There might be some good people there now, but they may not always be there. It's telling that redevelopment authorities have been disbanded around the country. But, on the other hand, to do so is not always a success.

Slade's article cites San Francisco as a positive example of planning. But, it seems to me, that comparison casts the BRA in a very good light. San Francisco is a beautiful city but by urban development measures it's a sad failure. In 2011, SF added only 269 net units of housing (this past year has been better). This, despite being one of the most desirable locations in the entire country. Rents have sky-rocketed there, much more so than here. San Francisco is infamous for possessing some of the most vocally anti-growth residents on the planet. And Boston is full of its fair share of such folks too, who oppose change no matter what, or who have ulterior motives.

On the one hand, you can hardly blame them: people still remember the bad old days of the 60s and 70s. The popular movements which arose and stopped the highway devastation from progressing further were heroic. And there continues to be community members who make thoughtful comments, provide positive feedback, and help bring about broadly beneficial outcomes. That's how planning ought to work. But the same mechanisms are also used by selfish individuals to do things like effectively grant themselves free parking privileges on publicly-owned land. Others fight against badly needed housing development because of some unsubstantiated fear of buildings. Bus lanes are blocked because someone yells "Gridlock!" I even heard one woman complain of not having enough open space for a development that happens to be next to one of the largest parks in Boston.

It's absurd. And who's going to stand up to that? Who will separate the sensible concerns from the ridiculous demands? That's what I want to know. Let's disband the BRA and replace it with a separate city planning department, a zoning department, and a development office. But let's also put in place a mechanism to prevent the various neighborhood NIMBY groups from dividing and conquering the new offices. We can't have a system where politically savvy groups get to squelch growth. All neighborhoods have to participate. Nobody is special. We could start with the idea of a Zoning Budget: "All deviations downward from planned growth in housing supply expressed in the [zoning] budget should have to be offset by corresponding increases elsewhere in buildable as-of-right land." Or a city department which promotes economic growth as a counterbalance to the stasis status quo. Or zoning which sets broad goals but does not micromanage how to get them.

Another thing: a city planning office sounds nice in theory. But I have reservations about it. For one thing, "planning" in this city (and this country) has a long record of failure. "Urban renewal" in the 50s and 60s was part of that. Zoning is another part. When you examine that zoning plans that were derived from community input, you will find that the limitations are laughably low. Much of Boston that we know could not be built under today's zoning code. That's a travesty, a complete failure of planning. How can you claim to "plan for the future" when your plans don't even accommodate for today?

The problem is that when most people think about zoning they think "oh, it keeps the polluting factory separate from the school." And that's where they stop. And since protection from pollution is a good thing, people have a generally good feeling about zoning, they don't question it. Unfortunately, zoning was taken much much further over the past 60 or so years that it has been in effect. It's been a way for bureaucrats and snobs to dictate details of buildings down to the inch. Your front yard is only 19 feet? Too bad! People who can't afford a single family detached home are treated like they were toxic waste and are told to live in a "multifamily district." You want to open a dentist office where a barber worked before? Incompatible! As-of-right development is curtailed all the way down to almost nothing, and some NIMBYs still think that's too much. We've come a long way from a country where buying your own land meant you had the freedom to build what you desired on it -- even if your choices are entirely safe.
Destroying buildings to widen Cambridge Street c.1920 (source)

The failure of planning dates back even further, before the Great Depression. A planning craze, that bubbled up from the late nineteenth century, swept the nation about a hundred years ago (see also this for a laugh) and a planning board was set up in Boston, like other cities. Reading through their old journals is interesting and yet hair-pullingly frustrating. It seems that every other proposal they came up with was to do street widening. The mass-produced automobile was not even a decade old, most people didn't have one, but these planners couldn't wait to start bulldozing blocks and widening streets. A lot of it may have been rooted in racial politics of the early 20th century; the elites wanting to sweep out the undesirables. Some of it may have come from genuine concern for the conditions (after all, we've come a long way in sanitation) with little understanding of the dangers posed by motor vehicles, nor any comprehension of the value of the small streets to city life.

The point is that the central planners of those days didn't understand what they were dealing with and didn't know what the future would bring either. Olmsted was, at least, honest about this:
Speaking at the second national conference on city planning at Rochester, NY, in May, 1910, Olmsted, for one was almost overwhelmed by "the complex unity, the appalling breadth and ramification, of real city planning." He realized, not for the first time, that he and his fellow practitioners were "dealing ... with the play of enormously complex forces which no one clearly understands and few pretend to." He humbly acknowledged that "our efforts to control [these forces] so often lead to unexpected or deplorable results that sober-minded people are often tempted to give up trying to exercise a larger control [...]"
Why do we think we're any different? Maybe we absolutely cannot get by without city planning, but that doesn't mean a city planning department is going to get it right. How can they? A city is a complex system, not necessarily amenable to central planning. You can point to the Back Bay as an example of a planned area that worked out pretty well. But that was completed before the heyday of "city planning." And we haven't been able to replicate that kind of success in modern times, ever since planning became an established profession. We can't even figure out how to build anything decent anymore. Whether it's due to architects more intent on stroking their own egos than building nice places, or NIMBYs clamoring for more free parking, or just a quality that we cannot seem to grasp, we just don't seem to know how to make successful urban districts. Instead, we take existing ones, pump money into them, and pray.

So, disband the Boston Redevelopment Authority. But don't expect separated planning, zoning and development departments to lead to nirvana. Planning is just a tool; it can easily be used to create boring, sterile districts, and often has. Most of suburban sprawl was planned to be that way, and then laced into a zoning straitjacket to prevent any spark of life from ever arising. Without making some fundamental changes to the way planning is done -- such as the Zoning Budget -- you're just shuffling offices around and creating more bureaucracy, but not making any positive changes.

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