Boston Mayor Michelle Wu speaks to reporters following her State of the City speech on Jan. 25, 2023. Photo by James Sanna | Banker & Tradesman Staff

Mayor Michelle Wu laid out a vision to reform – but not abolish – the Boston Planning and Development Agency and launch a citywide rezoning of major commercial corridors and squares.

The planning responsibilities of the BPDA also will shift to a new Planning and Design Department, while the BPDA’s permitting process will be streamlined, Wu announced at the annual State of the City address, held at the MGM Music Hall at Fenway.

Following the 30-minute address, Wu provided additional details on the rezoning initiative. Boston’s citywide zoning code has not been updated since the 1960s.

“Our zoning code is incredibly out-of-date as it is, so it’s a massive endeavor,” Wu said in a brief interview with Banker & Tradesman on-stage after the speech. “One of the first initiatives will be to wrap up our neighborhood planning processes that are ongoing, and turn those into zoning, but also start with squares and corridors and major commercial hubs across the neighborhoods.”

BPDA Reforms Outlined

The BPDA has focused on smaller neighborhood planning studies in recent years, such as the South Boston Dorchester Avenue plan, which was not codified into zoning, leaving hurdles for developers seeking to build higher-density projects.

Two of the highest-profile neighborhood planning studies underway include the PLAN: Downtown initiative, which has recommended increasing base building heights in sections of Downtown Crossing, and PLAN: Charlestown, which focuses on the transforming Rutherford Avenue and Sullivan Square areas.

Wu has sought rezoning as a way to make development reviews more predictable and transparent, while minimizing the number of projects that need to seek variances and other approvals from the Zoning Board of Appeal.

The BPDA reforms will be shaped by a new advisory group made up of “real estate and community leaders” that will recommend changes to the Article 80 process, which applies to most development projects. The mayor said in her speech that group would be formed next month.

“We’ll simplify and accelerate timelines so that good projects get shovels in the ground faster,” she said.

As a city councilor, Wu was critical of the perceived conflicts of interest in the BPDA’s dual roles in planning and permitting real estate development.

But even as she reforms the city’s development processes, Wu pledged that the BPDA will continue to have approval powers over development proposals, a power it shares on many projects with the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Wu recently appointed a new slate of ZBA members, seeking to put her stamp on the board’s policy-making. She also said BPDA Chief Arthur Jemison will soon lead a “planning advisory council” made up of city department heads in the arts, climate, capital planning, housing and transportation and charged with long-term planning.

‘Free’ Land for Small Developers

Other priorities the mayor highlighted included an executive order to end the use of fossil fuels in construction and renovation of city-owned properties, including schools, while retrofitting the public housing properties by 2030. Wu also pledged financial aid to property owners for climate retrofits of older dwellings.

The administration will file a home rule petition to abolish Boston’s urban renewal powers, Wu said, which began in the 1950s as a tool to spur private development but drew criticism for destroying close-knit neighborhoods in the name of progress.

The legislation will be worded to preserve affordability restrictions on properties approved under urban renewal, while creating new powers for the city over climate-resistant infrastructure.

Wu also said is accelerating the city’s surplus land disposition program to create housing, following a 2022 audit of municipally owned properties that will be offered for development.

The city will seek proposals for the first 70 parcels this year and allocate an unspecified portion of the city’s ARPA funds to subsidize “moderate-income housing.”

“We also have 150 vacant lots in our neighborhoods ready for housing. Local builders: work with us to design high-quality, affordable homes that enhance the surrounding neighborhood, and we’ll give you the land for free. And we’ll provide increased mortgage assistance so our residents can afford to buy these homes,” Wu said.

Tamara Small, CEO of commercial developers group NAIOP-MA, said additional details are needed on Wu’s recent proposals to implement rent stabilization and increase linkage fees and affordable housing minimum percentages in new developments.

“With respect to the permitting reforms discussed, recognizing how property taxes created from new development will play an essential role in allowing the mayor to achieve many of her goals, NAIOP looks forward to participating in any effort to expedite the Article 80 process to ensure that reforms are meaningful and will result in more, not less, new growth,” Small said in a statement.

Editor’s note: This report has been updated with additional details on the citywide rezoning plans and reaction from NAIOP-MA.

Wu Says Citywide Rezoning Will Begin With Commercial Corridors

by Steve Adams time to read: 3 min