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Civic leaders say Wu ignoring community input

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Civic leaders say Wu ignoring community input
A proposal to change zoning around White Stadium is facing opposition from area residents. PHOTO: YAWU MILLER

Since the city’s announcement last summer that a women’s professional soccer team would lease White Stadium, park advocates and activists in neighborhoods surrounding Franklin Park have struggled to keep up with the breakneck pace of project review meetings.

By January, the rapid pace of city meetings gave the project the appearance of inevitability, with more than five meetings on different aspects of the planned White Stadium redevelopment scheduled over four weeks — all for a project that has drawn increasing opposition from community members.

In February, the nonprofit Emerald Necklace Conservancy and 15 residents of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury brought suit against the Wu administration to halt the city’s process on White Stadium, alleging it would amount to privatization of the stadium and three acres of land surrounding it.

“It saddens me that the city has decided to put up our park to the highest bidder,” said Renee Stacey Welch, who is chair of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council.

Along with the White Stadium project, Mayor Michelle Wu has pushed projects and processes ranging from her now-withdrawn plan to move the John D. O’Bryant High School from its current Roxbury location to West Roxbury, to the Streets and Squares initiative — a rezoning of commercial centers, including Blue Hill Avenue — and an overhaul of the city’s Article 80 public review process of major development projects.

The dizzying pace of planning has stirred old fears of government proposals running roughshod over community concerns, harking back to the way urban renewal programs and the I-95 debacle of the 1960s and the “Dudley Plan” in the 1980s were imposed on Black neighborhoods without thorough consultation.

“Everything is rushed,” said Louis Elisa, president of the Garrison Trotter Neighborhood Association. “They just push everything at us. As a community, we need to be able to understand how these things are going to impact our lives.”

Those projects and processes have led Elisa and others to question the Wu administration’s commitment to community inclusion.

“The problem with their process is they come into the community with a plan and say they want to hear from you, but they’ve already made up their minds,” said City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson, whose district includes Franklin Park and the O’Bryant.

In a February interview, Wu acknowledged that her administration is moving with urgency on multiple fronts.

“In this moment, there are a lot of issues and challenges that feel very familiar — conversations over the years about the need for more housing, greater transit access, access to open space,” she said. “Our goal as an administration is to meet the day-to-day needs of residents and tackle some of the longstanding needs that have been unaddressed for a very long time.”

Wu came into office in a late-2021 special election promising to make Boston more equitable, green and livable. While Boston voters appeared supportive of Wu’s vision — she won with 64% of the vote in the November election — some in the city’s Black community say they weren’t prepared for her administration’s often streamlined approach to community planning.

Fernandes Anderson said she and others brought up the rapid pace of redevelopment projects to Wu during a meeting of her District 7 Advisory Council last year. Wu’s response came as somewhat of a surprise. According to accounts given by three people who were present at the meeting, Wu said her administration wouldn’t be like those of past mayors who didn’t accomplish much while in office. She noted that she has a countdown timer application on her phone that reminds her of how many days are left in her first term.

“The challenge is, she wants to do community process, but she wants to get things done in her first term,” Fernandes Anderson said. “She said community processes were difficult because of her deadlines.”

Blindsided

The Wu administration’s push to redevelop White Stadium and move the O’Bryant School both were announced before the administration had informed or solicited feedback from the affected communities. City Hall’s decide-and-announce approach is a worrying sign to some activists in local civic associations who fear neighborhood residents will increasingly be shut out of decision-making around the future of the city.

“It seems like the mayor isn’t really thinking through all of the consequences of her decisions,” said Roxbury resident Rodney Singleton, who sits on the Impact Advisory Group for the White Stadium project.

In the case of the proposed O’Bryant school move, a steady stream of protests and objections from elected officials, community members and O’Bryant students, teachers and parents appeared to wear down the Wu administration’s resolve. Last week, Wu announced the city is withdrawing its plan to move the school.

Singleton, who graduated from Boston Technical High School before it was renamed the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, said Wu’s proposal was disrespectful.

“She backed down, but the fact that she floated it was a slap in the face,” he said. “This is a mayor who uses buzz terms like equity, resilience and affordability. What could be more damaging to long-term equity than taking a school like that from the Black community?”

Wu acknowledged that her administration is moving with urgency on some major projects. In the White Stadium project, Wu said the investors behind the women’s soccer team, Boston Unity Soccer Partners, presented the city with a “once-in-a-generation partnership” opportunity.

“Sometimes there are opportunities that come along that might come with partnerships and deadlines that are out of the city’s control,” she said.

BPDA reform

Concerns voiced by civic leaders are coming to the fore as the Wu administration is in the midst of reforms aimed at streamlining development in the city with a planned reform of the Article 80 project review process and Wu’s signature reconstitution of the Boston Planning and Development Agency.

Since it was formed in 1960 as the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the BPDA has existed as a quasi-governmental agency with the power to declare areas of the city blighted and create urban renewal zones, in which it could use powers of eminent domain to seize privately owned property for redevelopment.

Wu made BPDA reform a central component of her mayoral campaign, having released a 2019 position paper calling for the quasi-governmental agency to be defunded, dissolved and replaced by a planning department under direct city control.

“Quite frankly, we were encouraged by that,” said Martyn Roetter, who is chair of the Neighborhood Association of Back Bay.

But by the time the Wu administration brought before the Legislature her home rule petition to reconstitute the BPDA as a city department, Roetter and others had deep concerns. Under Wu’s current plan, the BPDA would retain its powers of eminent domain and its urban renewal districts would remain intact. The only major difference would be that those powers would be under the direct control of the mayor.

“Even if you believe the current mayor will take positions that are fair, what’s the guarantee that future mayors will?” Roetter said. “We need to make sure there are guardrails to protect against the abuse of power. That’s what we’re not seeing in her home rule petition.”

Roetter and representatives of South End, Roxbury and Downtown Boston civic associations in January signed a joint public letter to the mayor asking that she work with neighborhood residents to help guide the city’s planning processes.

“The distrust between the city autocracy and normal everyday citizens has never been higher,” the letter reads. “A reform effort like Squares and Streets, which replaces neighborhood zoning and favors instead bureaucratic centralized authoritarian rulemaking, is broadly viewed as a step backward.”

Slowing down

There are constituencies supportive of Wu’s more overt efforts to shorten the community processes around major real estate projects, multi-step processes that often greatly increase the cost of producing new housing in the city.

“Clearly the process by which homeowners wield veto power over development projects hasn’t led to the creation of more affordable housing and hasn’t stopped displacement,” said Jared Johnson, who sits on the board of the advocacy group Abundant Housing Massachusetts.

But neighborhood advocates say more time is needed for major projects, such as the city’s redesign of Blue Hill Avenue; the redevelopment of the Shattuck Hospital, led by the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance; the redesign of Franklin Park; and Wu’s Streets and Squares initiative which seeks to rezone commercial districts to allow for more dense housing in and around commercial districts.

“In the spirit of trying to do so many things at one time, mistakes can happen,” said Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council Chair Fatima Ali-Salaam.

Given everything that’s being planned and redesigned around it, Ali-Salaam said more time is needed to plan properly for a project with the size and potential impacts of the White Stadium plan.

“You’re talking about processes that normally take at least two years,” she said.

Wu said the city will slow down the development process at White Stadium. While Boston United Soccer Partners last year proposed beginning construction on the project in April of this year, Wu said the city will listen to concerns from community residents.

“We have now said we will not begin any demolition to the BPS side [of White Stadium] until we’re satisfied with the project.”

But the mayor is not willing to back down from the project.

“It is an extraordinary opportunity that we as a city have been awarded a professional soccer team,” she said.

Greater Boston News Bureau