Five years after initially floating the idea as a city councilor, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu is closing in on key legal changes to eliminate the Boston Planning & Development Agency. And it’s leaving some in the real estate community scratching their heads at best about what it all means.

So, what’s really going on? And what questions still remain unanswered?

The legal changes have two, semi-interdependent parts.

First, Wu is asking the state legislature to approve a home rule petition that would dissolve the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the city’s Economic Development Industrial Corp. – the two legal entities that together do business as the BPDA – and replace them with a new entity that keeps the BPDA’s name and its urban renewal powers, but focuses them on the natural disaster resiliency, affordability and racial equity challenges the city faces today instead of postwar concerns about “blight” and urban decay.

Second, the mayor is asking the council this month to create a new Boston Planning Department within the executive branch of city government, funded by money the new BPDA will continue to earn from city property it leases out to developers, and then transfer to city coffers.

Once that department is created on paper, BPDA Director Arthur Jemison said in an interview, an upcoming city budget will reflag BPDA’s current development review and planning staff as Planning Department employees, with Jemison – who also holds the “chief of planning” title – still at their head.

Today’s Article 80 development review process will remain in place, too, until an administration-commissioned task force of developers and neighborhood activists can agree on a replacement process later this year. And the BPDA board and city Zoning Board of Appeal will continue to function as they have in the past: the source of key development approvals.

In essence, the letterhead and team uniforms will change, but that’s about it, from a developer’s perspective.

The biggest unanswered question, then, is how much control city councilors will be able to exercise over individual developments, both in practice and in legal fact.

By moving the Planning Department into the mayor’s office, it in theory becomes subject to City Council control over its budget. Jemison said the administration’s intent is for those funds coming from BPDA properties to pass directly to the Planning Department, but the proof will be in a memorandum the Wu administration and the BPDA board have to jointly work out later this year.

Councilors historically have exercised a great deal of influence over development, supporting or opposing particular projects or acting as conveners to make sure they reflected neighborhood opinion. And Wu’s openly pitched her changes as an important democratic reform that will increase the public’s voice in development and planning matters.

Perhaps, if today’s BPDA can finish its race to rezone much of the city this year, that change in power relationships will be somewhat moot.

But regardless of the strong control successive Boston mayors have always exercised over the BPDA and the BRA, having a theoretically independent authority to take the flack for politically unpopular, but necessary decisions to keep Boston growing has also been useful. Will it be worth it for Wu to give that up?

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What’s Changing, and Not, at the BPDA

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min