The Equity Factor

Boston Mayor-Elect Marty Walsh Has Big Plans for City’s Redevelopment Authority

Boston’s Redevelopment Authority is a mess. For evidence of this, look no further than Rachel Slade’s story in the June issue of Boston Magazine, in which she details the BRA’s monstrous and troubling history since its 1957 inception. Slade’s argument is simple: The authority has got to go.

This is exactly what mayor-elect Marty Walsh proposed on the campaign trail. A new-look BRA, called the Boston Economic Development Authority (BEDA), would combine multiple city departments and separate research from planning and development. Its director would be nominated by the mayor, approved by a board of directors and subject to term limits. And, Walsh told me yesterday, transparency at BEDA would be paramount.

But Walsh remained cagey about how swiftly things will change in Beantown after he’s sworn in next year. “It’s hard for me to give a full answer today without having everything in place,” he said.

Walsh said one of the main tenets of BEDA would be to not only attract new businesses to Boston, but also to make sure businesses that want to expand are able to do so within city limits.

“I think one of the biggest things is that when we have businesses looking to expand in Boston, oftentimes those businesses have to expand outside of Boston because they can’t find the property for them,” Walsh said. “I think that really goes into the business development piece and acting almost like a quasi-real estate agency so they can find spaces for them.”

The phrase “quasi real estate agency” might ring a bell for skeptics of the New York City Economic Development Corporation under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but Walsh has a point. The economic development authority should do everything within its power — as long as it’s not handing out obscene tax abatements — to keep businesses, especially the large, job-generating ones, in the city.

Economic development entities generally focus on the glossy projects that bring ribbon-cutting ceremonies and modest job growth. But Walsh, at least in conversation, gave the impression that he’s interested in broadening the authority’s reach.

“We have to look and find other areas in Boston for growth,” he said. “I want to really focus on people of color and women-owned businesses so we’re sharing the economic boom here in Boston, so it’s not just certain people that benefit from it.” Walsh said he also wants to see more work at the neighborhood level and “help communities with small businesses where there are empty storefronts. How do we get those storefronts filled?”

That’s a question he and whatever shape the BRA takes on will have to answer. But as the mayor-elect and his transition team get closer to their start date at City Hall, these campaign promises will eventually have to become concrete solutions. A reimagined BRA could have immense sway.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Bill Bradley is based in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in The Daily, Bloomberg Businessweek, GQ.com and Vanity Fair, among others. Follow him on Twitter @billbradley3.

Tags: economic development, equity factor, boston, mayors, 2013 mayoral races, small businesses, nycedc, marty walsh, boston redevelopment authority