BRA report touts reforms

Agency responds to audit findings

Sandra Larson | 2/4/2015, 12:05 p.m.

Accountability and transparency are the new stated goals at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, according to a new year-in-review report issued by Mayor Martin Walsh and BRA Director Brian Golden last month.

In the past year, under new leadership and a new mayoral administration, the agency has shaken up staffing, undergone an outside performance review, implemented new policies and new technology and tightened up management of funds such as the “linkage” and “inclusionary development” fees collected from developers of large residential and commercial projects.

These changes are described in a 20-page BRA report called “Building the New Boston Redevelopment Authority” released on Jan. 21. The improvement efforts come after last July’s audit commissioned by Walsh and conducted by the accounting firm KPMG highlighted failures of management and oversight by the BRA and its sister agency, the Economic Development Industrial Corp (EDIC). These failures meant millions of dollars in affordable housing funds owed to the city by developers went uncollected, untracked and unspent. In addition, the BRA has been criticized over the years for being an overly friendly “rubber stamp” for developers and not forthcoming enough about its plans for land parcels.

“We don’t seek to erase past blemishes or hide our faults. We seek to learn from them,” Golden says in the report’s introduction, mentioning 20th-century urban renewal strategies that razed entire neighborhoods, and policies and systems at the agency that have “lagged woefully behind.”

Now the agency wants to transform itself and its image.

“What we really want to do is get the message out that we are an agency that is changing for the better,” said BRA spokesperson Nicholas Martin. “In the past we may have shied away from criticism and scrutiny — but we want people to scrutinize us.”

One of the first changes after the KPMG report was shifting management of Inclusionary Development Policy funds — collected from residential project developers who opt to meet their affordable housing requirements by paying into the fund instead of constructing affordable units onsite — to the Department of Neighborhood Development. The BRA will maintain control of developer compliance with IDP requirements, while DND, led by Housing Chief Sheila Dillon, will control how and where the funding is used for offsite affordable housing creation.

Changes have also been made to the way the BRA conducts the development review process under “Article 80” of the city’s zoning code. Article 80 spells out community meeting and public comment period requirements for development projects and hospital and college Institutional Master Plans. In 2014, the BRA’s board of directors moved to strengthen rules for designating zoning overlay districts and to flag possible conflicts of interest sooner by requiring earlier disclosure of all individuals who have a financial interest in a project.

Closing loopholes

The report also covers efforts toward greater transparency in land transfers. In the past, loopholes allowed the BRA in some cases to take or transfer property without public notification and a community process. Martin cited as an example the BRA’s granting to Fenway Park permanent rights to use Yawkey Way and Lansdowne Street. The deal in 2013, under former Mayor Thomas Menino and former BRA Director Peter Meade, was done without public input and with little review even by BRA board members. According to the report, as of August 2014, the BRA’s new policy requires developers requesting land takings and transfers to submit to stricter documentation and a public public comment process in advance of Board action.