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Wu outlines plans to break up BPDA, accelerate development

Mayor announces ambitious goals in State of the City address

Yawu Miller and Isaiah Thompson
Wu outlines plans to break up BPDA, accelerate development
Mayor Michelle Wu delivers remarks during the 2023 State of the City address at the MGM Music Hall. PHOTO: ISABEL LEON, MAYOR’S OFFICE

Mayor Michelle Wu announced plans to create a new planning department that would be separate from the Boston Planning and Development Agency, streamline the city’s development processes and use the bulk of the city’s share of federal recovery funds to accelerate the production of affordable housing as part of a set of ambitious goals outlined in her Jan. 25 State of the City address.

Wu also outlined plans to accelerate the construction of new schools and announced an increase in funding for the education of students with special needs, as well as a move toward fossil-free municipal buildings and an end to the use of fossil fuel in the city’s public housing stock.

Housing and development

Unsurprisingly, among the plans Wu highlighted around housing is a proposal for rent stabilization, often referred to as rent control, in the city of Boston.

Unveiled the week before, the mayor’s plan would impose caps on year-to-year rent hikes for tenants, with many exemptions, including for homeowner-occupied rental properties and for new development.

Meanwhile, Wu’s speech focused largely on how the city will grow under her administration.

“Our vision is for Boston to sustainably reach our peak population of 800,000 residents,” said Wu — about 20% more residents than live in Boston today — “with the housing and schools, parks and public transit to support that growth.”

Wu said her administration is focused on “building a green and growing city for everyone” — a mandate which, she said, should include changes to how the city approaches housing, development, zoning and the various processes by which community residents have a say in the development that does and does not take place in their neighborhoods.

A new planning council

Wu’s proposal to overhaul the nature and role of the Boston Planning and Redevelopment Agency (BPDA) would represent a radical shift for the city. The body has for decades overseen both planning and large-scale development across the city — and has often come under fire as being beholden to development interests at the cost of neighborhoods.

Wu, who once proposed abolishing the agency outright, said the “focus on building buildings rather than community has held back the talent of its staff and deepened disparities in our city,” and noted that despite Boston’s seeing the “largest building boom in generations” in recent years, “that growth wasn’t harnessed for the benefit of all our communities.”

To those ends, Wu proposes a new “Planning Advisory Council” which would “fully integrate long-range planning and begin modernizing our zoning code.” The new council would be led by James Arthur Jemison, the city’s current chief of planning.

Wu is also proposing changes, yet to be fully spelled out, to the processes by which developers engage with community members and, in theory, secure community approval of their projects. These approvals often come with conditions agreed-upon by community representatives and civic associations.

That includes changes to the Article 80 development review process, which applies to larger developments and requires more extensive community input.

“We’ll simplify and accelerate timelines so that good projects get shovels in the ground faster,” Wu said, adding that the city will “transfer compliance and enforcement” from the BPDA — the agency whose reputation has been that of being friendly to developers — to the city’s Office of Housing, “so our communities can be confident that we’re always getting the full benefit of development agreements.”

Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council Chair Fatima Ali-Salaam, whose organization participates extensively in such processes, registered optimism regarding the mayor’s proposed initiatives around development, planning and zoning. She cautioned, however, that in trying to make development approval processes more efficient, “you just want to make sure that the community process is not killed.”

Wu also highlighted the 150 vacant, city-owned lots the city has set aside for the development of affordable housing, which are being conveyed to nonprofit and for-profit developers.

Schools and education

The mayor outlined plans to accelerate the construction of new schools, increase funding for the education of students with special needs, promote fossil-free municipal buildings and end the use of fossil fuel in the city’s public housing stock.

Noting the lengthy planning and construction process for the new Quincy Upper School building, which was kicked off in 2012 and has yet to be completed, Wu said her administration is engaged in a design study that will accelerate planning and construction of new school buildings.

“Our school design study will take a full year off of the planning process for every new school in the city, and we’ll get more projects going at once than ever before,” she said.

Wu’s Green New Deal plan for the city’s schools builds on the $1 billion commitment by the administration of former Mayor Martin Walsh to construct new schools and upgrade existing ones.

Education activists say the construction of new buildings, as the city is losing families with children, will likely result in consolidations of existing school communities in the new buildings.

Wu also announced a $50 million commitment to expanding inclusion classrooms — those in which students with special needs are educated alongside general education students. The issue has long pitted the Boston Teachers Union against district officials and the district against the state.

“That’s exactly what this district needs,” said Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang.

While the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education requires that students with special needs be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” meaning in regular education classrooms when possible, urban districts such as Boston, which tend to have large populations of special needs students, often concentrate such students in separate classrooms.

Because special needs students require teachers who are certified in special education, many districts have found the cost of integrating students in general education classrooms prohibitively expensive.

BPS officials have at times staffed inclusion classrooms with a general education teacher and a paraprofessional. The Boston Teachers Union’s “Inclusion Done Right” campaign has pressured the district to have at least two teachers in every inclusion classroom.

Tang said the $50 million commitment would go a long way toward fully staffing inclusion classrooms.

“It’s an investment that absolutely is needed as we work together to improve inclusive opportunities for special needs students and ensure that they have the staffing and support they need,” she said.

Reactions

State Sen. Lydia Edwards had strong words of praise for her former City Council colleague, saying the speech “demonstrated her ability to think big but get practical things done.”

Ali-Salaam praised Wu for acknowledging “all the people who are working at the city and state level to move forward after the pandemic” and said the mayor succeeded in “not only sounding hopeful but stating things that you can see realistically being brought forward with clear intentions of lifting everyone and not leaving people behind.”

Not everyone was as enthusiastic about the mayor’s speech, however.

In a statement, a coalition of community activists and housing advocates criticized several of Wu’s talking points as being insufficient or counterproductive, including Wu’s rent stabilization proposals and the mayor’s proposed initiatives around the city’s Inclusionary Development Policy, which requires larger developments to set aside some units as “affordable.”

Both plans, the groups said, fall significantly short of measures needed to prevent mass displacement in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods across Boston.

“Our neighborhoods continue to be in a state of housing crisis and continue to struggle to have a voice at the table to bring real solutions from impacted residents,” the joint statement read.

affordable housing, boston public schools, Education, Inclusion classrooms, Mayor Wu. BPDA, Special Education