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  • Hannah Martin

Mayor Wu’s Abolishment of the Boston Planning & Development Agency

Courtesy of Ian Howard


The city of Boston is currently facing a devastating housing crisis; rent prices are rising, household incomes are being burdened by the cost of living, and rapid gentrification is affecting surrounding neighborhoods. Developers are consistently adding new infrastructure to the city skyline, but this advancement is pushing residents out of the city due to increased living expenses.


 Concerningly, the Boston housing crisis is disproportionately affecting people of color, due to the systemic racism present in national homeownership. Homeownership is often considered a dependable way to grow generational wealth, yet the rate of homeownership for Black Americans is only 44% compared to a 72% homeownership rate for white Americans. Additionally, predominantly Black neighborhoods are valued significantly less than white neighborhoods, further supporting housing hardships faced as consequences of systemic racism. 


Alongside the struggle of renters and housing inequities, the unhoused population is growing and lack of anti-homeless architecture hinders adequate assistance for these communities. These issues are relatively new, as the past 20 years have seen an intensification of these housing and pricing issues, and the unhoused adult population in Boston grew by 42% in 2023. 


Affordable and accessible housing is a priority for many Boston residents. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu (D-MA) has decided to address these concerns by establishing a City Planning Department. This newfound department would restructure the Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA), which Wu suggests worsens the problematic challenges faced by residents. Wu’s primary goal with this new development is to promote participation and involvement throughout Boston communities, rather than the city planning continuing to only improve the prospects of wealthy developers. The City Planning Department would work on additional city issues, such as ending Urban Renewal and updating zoning laws. 


Urban renewal is a strategy supposed to redevelop non-functioning urban areas to promote economic development. However, this approach led to displaced vulnerable communities and increased gentrification; Boston’s urban renewal legacy is most prominently associated with the demolition of the West End, which displaced a large immigrant population.


The Zoning Board of Appeals has faced numerous challenges within recent years, most notably a bribery scandal with a former state official. In 2020, former Boston development official John Lynch was sentenced to 40 months in prison after pleading guilty to accepting a $50,000 bribe from a largescale city developer in return for influencing a Zoning Board of Appeals vote. This trial effectively caused former Mayor Marty Walsh (R-MA) to launch an investigation into the board, yet no broader corruption was discovered. Lynch was eventually released early from his sentence in 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Wu, who was Boston’s City Councilor at the time of the scandal, was outspoken about the situation and pushed forth the idea that the city’s development system was inadequate.


Mayor Wu has planned on the initial abolishment, and eventual restructuring plan, to create the City Planning Department for approximately three years, and Boston City Council just recently approved the plan on March 9, 2024. The department will consist of planning, design, development review and real estate divisions. The new department will also result in staff and employment changes because the restructuring will require the initially independent department to function under City Hall, signifying only the beginning of this inevitable long process. Wu has publicly admitted that this change will take time to come to fruition, as she hopes to catalyze organizational reform and focus on zoning reform, which is inept to sufficiently serve current Boston residents. 


Although the Boston City Council has voted in favor of this restructuring, there is a long legislation process ahead. The Massachusetts state lawmakers must also agree with this significant change to the development of Boston. The BPDA was originally established as the Boston Redevelopment Agency (BRA) by both the city and state legislature in 1957, furthering the state’s required involvement in Wu’s avant-garde reform. Due to the statehouse’s record of considerable lack of urgency, it is likely that a vote addressing the abolishment of the BPDA will also slow the process down. 


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