It is among the city's most powerful agencies, where multimillion-dollar development deals are brokered and officials shape Boston's skyline. But after decades of broad influence, the Boston Redevelopment Authority is in danger of losing the key to its power.
At stake is the agency's authority to seize property and hand it over to private developers, a form of eminent domain granted to Boston and other cities trying to battle urban blight in the late 1950s and '60s. Intended as a tool for spurring new growth, the power is often abused, critics say, to issue favors to politically connected developers.
As the Boston City Council prepares to decide whether to extend the power or take it away, enemies and allies of the BRA have mounted impassioned campaigns. Mayor Thomas M. Menino has dispatched developers and others supporting his quest to maintain the status quo. Meanwhile, a variety of neighborhood activists across the city, some saying they have been victimized by BRA policies, are lobbying councilors to effectively nullify the agency.
The eminent domain power was granted in urban renewal districts set up under the federal Housing Act of 1949. Those districts which cover 1,382 acres, or 15 percent of Boston are now expiring.
"The BRA is now acting on renewal plans to make sure all Americans had safe, decent, and sanitary housing," said Shirley Kressel, head of the Alliance for Boston Neighborhoods and a BRA critic. "It has now become an economic development plan, where the BRA takes property from small owners and gives it to big developers."
BRA officials called allegations of political favoritism groundless.
"The opportunities created by bringing back the city and keeping it vital with the tools of urban renewal are well understood," said Mark Maloney, director of the BRA. "If people want to dumb it down by denigrating it, they're wrong. We're in a capitalistic society: The profit motive isn't left off the table as we do economic development."
Maloney said the BRA needs the tools of urban renewal, particularly the power of eminent domain, to spur more private development throughout the city.
BRA officials ticked off a long list of projects that were completed through the urban renewal program in the last several decades, including Flagship Wharf in Charlestown, Quincy Market, Rowes Wharf, the New England Aquarium, and the YMCA of Roxbury.
The projects have drawn visitors to downtown Boston and created workplaces and affordable housing for residents, said Tim McGourthy, director of policy for the BRA.
"It's a common misconception that urban renewal is only used downtown," said Susan Elsbree, a spokeswoman for the BRA. "It's also done a lot of good in the neighborhoods. And it's as useful today as it was 40 years ago."
But Kressel contended the BRA has abused it power, using its land-seizing authority to craft sweetheart deals for favored developers. She said the BRA has assembled parcels of land for the benefit of developers including Henry Kara, Millennium Partners, and John Connolly, who represents Loews Hotels, which has proposed putting up a hotel at the corner of Stuart and Tremont streets.
She said the BRA took by eminent domain the city-owned Hayward Place parking lot on Washington Street. The agency put the parcel out to bid in 2003, and though Millennium Partners was not the high bidder, it was allowed to match the high bid and lease the lot, with an option to buy.
The lot is across the street from Millennium Partners' Ritz Hotel and condo tower on Avery Street. By controlling the parking lot, Kressel contended, no one else can build housing or any other development that could lower the value of the Ritz complex.
City councilors, meanwhile, said they see their review of upcoming urban renewal plans as a rare opportunity to shape policy. They will probably vote Wednesday to extend the two districts that are expiring soon, one in Allston and another in Roxbury, but withhold further approval until they win concessions from the BRA and hold neighborhood hearings in urban renewal districts.
"What's the rush?" asked Councilor John Tobin. "Let's have a conversation. These are districts in the city that we represent. We should have some sort of say on what goes on. By having hearings and meetings in the districts, that only increases dialogue and increases trust."
Under the current urban renewal rules, the BRA is required to submit to the council for approval only those urban renewal proposals considered major, as defined by the BRA board.
As a result, over the agency's 40-year history, less than two dozen projects have gone to the council for its approval.
In the current discussion, the BRA and the council are trying to find a way to let a state agency determine what is major and therefore subject to council approval.
But Kressel and Councilor at Large Maura A. Hennigan think the council can make its strongest statement by ending urban renewal now.
"All this does is perpetuate the power of the BRA, which no other city in the country has," Hennigan said. "There is no need to extend these districts. The whole structure of the BRA is out of control.
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