Mayor Michelle Wu’s called to “abolish the BPDA” for years — and now she appears to be putting into motion that she intends to bring the planning mechanisms back under administration control, she announced in her State of the City address.
“Over this next year, we’ll shift planning efforts from the BPDA to a new City Planning and Design Department — to expand planning and urban design as a coordinated effort that guides our growth,” Wu’s Wednesday-night speech, according to the embargoed copy given to press earlier in the day, reads. “Our vision is for Boston to sustainably reach our peak population of 800,000 residents with the housing and schools, parks and public transit to support that growth.”
Wu’s been talking about her desire to “abolish the BPDA” since 2019, when the then-councilor’s office produced a report calling to be rid of the Boston Planning & Development Agency.
Now, at her State of the City address at MGM Music Hall next to Fenway Park one year into her first term, she’s looking to make it happen.
She’s far from the first to run against the quasi-independent city agency, which back in its neighborhood-bulldozing days of the middle of the century was known as the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
Under former Mayor Marty Walsh and Executive Director Brian Golden, the BRA sought to rebrand as a friendlier BPDA that was more transparent and responsive, though it still has many critics.
Wu, for example, said in her speech of the current incarnation, “the focus on building buildings rather than community has held back the talent of its staff and deepened disparities in our city.”
The act of abolishing it, though, is quite complicated — and would need city council and state Legislature approval.
Wu, in her State of the City speech at the MGM Music Hall in the Fenway area, talked about it in phases, including introducing a home-rule petition next week that, if approved by the council and state, would get rid of some of those old “urban-renewal” rules pertaining to blockbusting while keeping other functions intact.
“Together, these changes will, for the first time since the 1960s, restore planning as a central function of city government,” Wu said, per the copy of the speech. She described pulling parts of it back under the city umbrella, still to be overseen by Arthur Jemison, who’s doing double duty as her planning chief in City Hall and the head of the BPDA.
She also said they’d be making efforts to overhaul the process by when the city approves large projects — and, as many have suggested over the years, look to make major changes to the zoning code in a city where barely any projects are done by right. She’s creating a “Planning Advisory Council” to work on these types of topics in the long term.
It’s still to be seen whether “City Planning & Design Department” sticks as the latest in a line of clunky planning acronyms.
This is the latest big swing for Wu heading into a year in which she’s planning to take several of them as the administration shifts from an internal focus to an external one. In this speech, she formally announced her plans to move ahead with rent control, as was in the news last week, and continued in her big-picture “Green New Deal” push by announcing an executive order to make all city construction after this point fossil-fuel free; other ambitious and controversial pushes include efforts for police reform through the ongoing contract-negotiation process.
Also in the speech, she touted the upcoming first fire cadet class, increased mortgage assistance, $50 million for special-education funding in schools and the intent to put up for use the 150 vacant city-owned parcels that the administration identified last year.
“Local builders: Work with us to design high-quality, affordable homes that enhance the surrounding neighborhood, and we’ll give you the land for free,” Wu said on that last point.
This was the first in-person State of the City address since 2020, when Mayor Marty Walsh held the event at Symphony Hall. That came just a couple of months before the COVID-19 pandemic changed the course of, among many other areas of life, the way these types of glad-handing and back-slapping events were handled.
Wu honored 117 “civic heroes” from the municipal workforce in this event.
“Our city is carried by so many people whose faces most of us never see,” Wu said. “Who aren’t on the news, or on stage accepting awards, but after a full day of serving our constituents, still find time to coach little league at McConnell Park or volunteer at the East Boston soup kitchen.