Boston City Hall and the neighboring John F. Kennedy Federal Building. Long short of appointees, a slowdown in naming new members to the Boston Zoning Board of Appeal is causing the development of some small and mid-sized multifamily projects to stop. Photo by James Sanna | Banker & Tradesman Staff

Are petty City Council politics stalling plans for an ambitious overhaul of development in Boston? 

That would be Mayor Michelle Wu’s plan for a nearly clean sweep of a city board that decides the fate of hundreds of small- and mid-sized projects, many involving new housing. 

Wu announced her plans in late September to effectively jettison all but three of the 14 members of the Zoning Board of Appeal, including its now-former chair, Christine Araujo, who had become a lightning rod for rejecting badly-needed housing in Roslindale.  

More than two months later, Wu’s slate of ZBA appointees is nowhere near being confirmed, with City Councilor Frank Baker, a frequent critic of the mayor and one of the council’s most conservative and mercurial members, having raised objections. 

But instead of airing his concerns, Baker has decided to go silent, with no move to schedule a confirmation hearing at which issues could be hashed out and appointees either confirmed or rejected, or even respond to your columnist’s email last week.  

What’s His Problem? 

Trying to guess just what Baker’s beef is here is a fruitless endeavor, for Baker is a man of many beefs. 

Baker, who district includes most of Dorchester and parts of South Boston and the South End, has clashed with the city’s progressive mayor on her efforts to deal with the Mass & Cass mess and differences over how to deal with violence in city schools, among other issues. 

These days, however, Baker may be best known for triggering a headline-grabbing uproar last month when he accused a fellow City Councilor Liz Breadon, who was raised Protestant in Northern Ireland, of a nefarious plot to dilute the power of Catholic voters in South Boston and Dorchester via a redistricting proposal. 

It was a diatribe right out of Crazy Town.  

Meanwhile, amid City Council inaction, the supposedly outgoing members of the ZBA are struggling to keep the lights on, given that they are down a member since Araujo, the former chair, resigned after news leaked of the mayor’s overhaul plans. 

As a result, it’s been a challenge just to put enough bodies in seats to achieve a quorum and do business, said Mark Erlich, the board’s acting chair and a former long-time top official with the carpenters’ union. 

And faced with a short-handed zoning board, a growing number of proponents with business before the ZBA, including plans for new housing, are requesting “administrative deferrals,” which effectively delays a vote until a future date, he added. 

Council Inaction Causes Real Hurt 

At a time when rents are sky-high – and the future of new residential construction is increasingly clouded by an uncertain economy – such delays are bad news. 

There are legitimate concerns about the wisdom of replacing almost the entire ZBA at once, given the complexity of the issues the board deals with and its high volume of cases. 

Scott Van Voorhis

Just ask Larry DiCara, a former president of the Boston City Council and an attorney who has sat on the board and chaired just about every major organization in town, including the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. 

“I have handled a thousand cases before the board of appeals over the past 40 years,” DiCara said. “There has always been some continuity on the board so that the members who have been there for a long time can help break in the people who are new.” 

If Baker has an issue with Wu’s proposed new slate of members – a mix of nonprofit community developers, neighborhood activists and construction union officials – then it’s on the typically outspoken councilor to hold a hearing and lay out his concerns. 

Don’t sit and a corner and sulk while plans for new apartments and homes gather dust. 

Scott Van Voorhis is Banker & Tradesman’s columnist; opinions expressed are his own. He may be reached at   

New Housing Languishes While Frank Baker Sulks

by Scott Van Voorhis time to read: 3 min