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Wu makes zoning board appointments

Says new appointees represent neighborhood constituencies

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Wu makes zoning board appointments
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu PHOTO: Mike Mejia, Mayor’sOffice

Mayor Michelle Wu announced appointments to the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal Monday, replacing 11 of the 14 current members of the body, which serves as one of the primary review processes for construction projects in the city.

The ZBA has come under fire in recent years for its approvals of controversial projects over the objections of abutters, and for what many see as undue influence from the politically con-nected developers, attorneys and architects who appear before the body.

Wu said in a press release that the new appointments would better represent the neighborhoods of the city.

“This outstanding slate of community members will play a key role in Boston’s growth as we work to build more housing and address the regional affordability crisis, support equitable and resilient neighborhoods, and shift to planning-led development,” she said. “These appointees represent the diversity, talent and expertise of our communities that will connect Boston’s growth to addressing our greatest challenges.”

The board, which has the power to grant or deny variances to the city’s zoning codes, serves as one of the city’s main development review processes, as most of what real estate developers are building exceeds the height and density limits enshrined in the zoning codes neighborhoods, many which have been negotiated with the city within the last 20 years.

This process of development-by-exemption has effectively overridden abutters’ vision for how their neighborhoods should be developed, notes architect Gary Tondorff Dick, a Lower Mills resident who has opposed four projects in his neighborhood in recent years.

“The attitude is that the zoning code is out of date, so you have to throw it in the trash,” he said. “The result becomes chaos. The only people who benefit are those with money.”

The city’s Zoning Board of Appeal approves hundreds of development projects a year. PHOTO: KAREN MORALES

While neighborhood residents seeking to add rooms to their basement or create off-street parking frequently see their requests denied, real estate developers who hire well-connected attorneys are able to obtain variances to erect nine-unit condo buildings on parcels zoned for two-family homes.

The reliance on variances gained steam under the administration of Mayor Martin Walsh, who sought to allay the city’s high cost of housing by setting a target of 69,000 new units con-structed by 2030. Walsh, who before serving as mayor was head of the Boston Building Trades — an umbrella group of construction unions — set the stage for an unprecedented building boom in the city.

During his administration, however, neighborhood residents frequently complained that connected developers were able to skirt the very zoning codes that would ordinarily bring them before the ZBA. Walsh’s first head of the Inspectional Services Department (ISD), William “Buddy” Christopher, owned an architecture firm before joining city government. Christopher’s son, James, took over the firm, designing buildings for developers who at times skirted the ZBA altogether after ISD determined the projects did not require variances.

“A lot of it starts with ISD,” said Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council President Fatima Ali-Salaam. “When someone files a project with ISD, you have to count on whoever is mak-ing that determination to be fair. It’s not a fool-proof system.”

Ali-Salaam notes that ISD to this day does not have a computerized tracking system for projects, instead relying on paperwork to record its decisions. This practice, Ali-Salaam says, makes the development process much harder to track, both for city officials and neighborhood activists.

Development projects, depending on their size and the ISD determination of whether they comply with zoning code, are either approved by ISD, the ZBA or the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) board. Those separate processes make tracking development in a neighborhood all the more opaque, Ali-Salaam said.

“There are a lot of things in the process that are very disconnected,” she commented. “People don’t have confidence in the decisions that the city makes.”

Allegations of insider dealing in the city’s development process came to a head in 2019, after an employee with the Boston Planning and Development Agency was indicted for accepting a $50,000 bribe from a developer. In the wake of that scandal, Craig Galvin, a real estate developer who served on the ZBA and voted on projects he later represented as a broker, abruptly resigned from the board.

Walsh responded by instituting new guidelines requiring board members to disclose their business dealings and undergo ethics trainings.

With Wu’s new appointments to the board, the mayor appears to be aiming to increase representation of neighborhood residents on the body, which has long been dominated by members with ties to the real estate industry and building trades unions. The new members include residents of Roxbury, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury, Roslindale and East Boston. Also included are representatives of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, the Building Trades Employers Association and the Building Trades Council.

“These ZBA appointees have a variety of experiences in development and community advocacy work in Boston’s neighborhoods, and they represent the diversity of our city,” said Chief of Planning Arthur Jemison in the mayor’s press release.

Still, neighborhood activists interviewed by the Banner expressed skepticism that reforms would make a substantial difference in the balance of power between abutters and developers.

“We still don’t have a sense of [Wu’s] plans to deconstruct the BPDA and reconstitute it with planning as a focus,” said Rodney Singleton, a member of the Highland Park Neighborhood Association. “I don’t know how her current plans at the ZBA fit in.”

The new appointees at the ZBA (and alternates) are:

At-large

Giovanny Valencia, West Roxbury (primary seat)
Alaa Mukahaal, Mission Hill (alternate seat)

Neighborhood organization seats

Norm Stembridge, Roxbury (primary seat)
Shavel’le Olivier, Mattapan (alternate seat)
Sherry Dong, Dorchester (primary seat)
David Aiken, East Boston (alternate seat)

Greater Boston Real Estate Board

Jeanne Pinado, Jamaica Plain (primary seat)
Katie Whewell, West End (alternate seat)

Boston Society of Architecture

Hansy Better Barraza, Roslindale (primary seat)
Thea Massouh, Brighton (alternate seat)

Building Trades Employers Association

Raheem Shepard, Hyde Park (primary seat)

Building Trades Council

Alan Langham, Dorchester (primary seat)
Dave Collins, Roslindale (alternate seat)