The Boston Planning and Development Agency held the final of 16 planned community meetings to discuss the future of Urban Renewal virtually on Dec. 10 in the West End – the first neighborhood in the city where the initiative was implemented more than 60 years ago.
Christopher Breen, the BPDA’s Urban Renewal manager, said Urban Renewal came to the West End in 1957 – the same year that the BPDA’s forerunner, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), was established – and both were byproducts of the American Housing Act, which the federal government enacted under President Truman to invest in rapidly declining U.S. cities after World War II.
The BRA’s first act was reimagining the West End through the lens of Urban Renewal, Breen said, and the federal government awarded them, adjusted for inflation, $189 million ($17 million then) to accomplish “full slum clearance,” replacing substandard homes with stable neighborhoods filled with open space, as well as creating wider streets, among other objectives. Instead, however, high-rises for upper middle class were built in the neighborhood and effectively dashed the hopes of many former West End residents wishing to move back to their old neighborhood.
While 14 of the city’s 16 Urban Renewal Plans are set to expire in 2022 after receiving six-year extensions, the West End doesn’t end then, Breen said, and instead “runs every 10 years.”
As part of the Urban Renewal extension process, the BPDA has uploaded material for each neighborhood, including the West End, and made available to the public for the first time myriad documents such as Land Disposition Agreements (LDAs), which puts additional restrictions on public and private properties that the city took ownership; contracts between the buyer and seller (city) regarding the use of land; and an itemization of BPDA-owned land.
Additionally, Breen and fellow BPDA staffer Martin Serrano are creating a “story map” of the West End that, Breen said, will include pictures, maps and other documents from the city’s archives.
Louise Thomas, a founding member of the West End Civic Association and a longtime resident of the neighborhood, said she believes the future of Urban Renewal in the West End is already a foregone conclusion as far as the city is concerned.
“As we all know, this West End Urban Renewal plan automatically renews,” Thomas said. “Basically, do you whatever you want in the West End. We want Urban Renewal to go away.”
In contrast, Kevin McNamara, a Hawthorne Place trustee who has served on several of the city’s Impact Advisory Groups to help determine mitigation for large-scale development projects, said he has his concerns about Urban Renewal, “but still think it’s good thing to have in the neighborhood.”
It’s not up to the city, or even the state, to dispense with Urban Renewal, however, Breen said, since the federal government has overseen the process since 1974.
Urban Renewal plans also enable the city to use certain “tools” for development, Breen said, such as site assembly, title clearance and vertical discontinuances, which allow air-rights for building design. “If the plan goes away, there would be a lot more allowable uses for redevelopment,” he added.
Duane Lucia, executive director of the West End Museum, said that when Urban Renewal began in 1957 and was amended a year or two later, “part of the plan was to put a school or schools and family housing in West End,” but there has been “no school and a decrease in family housing in West End since then.”
Asked Lucia: “What is value of plan that didn’t fulfill its goals?”
Breen said last week’s meeting was intended as a general introduction that would precede a “mini-planning process” for the future of Urban Renewal in the West End and would include workshops and other activities.
“Do you want to preserve affordable housing and open space?” Breen asked stakeholders. “I’ll take your lead on this.”