Will Urban Renewal Ever End?

Boston was scarred by eminent domain 50 years ago. Now it’s debating whether to wind down City Hall’s urban renewal powers, or whether they can be used for progressive ends.

Story by Erick Trickey

Photography by Paul Gargagliano

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Jim Campano was 18 when Boston tore his neighborhood down. The Jewish and Italian bakeries, the Polish church and the synagogues, the tenements and rowhouses — gone. Street corners bustling with teenagers, the Campano family’s sunny sixth-floor apartment on Poplar Street — erased by a government that called the West End a slum.

“Nobody believed they would do it, that they would take a whole neighborhood,” Campano recalls. “Then the cranes came in, and the bulldozers.” The first demolition hit like an earthquake: “The whole block was swinging back and forth.”

In 1958, in one of the most infamous acts of America’s urban renewal era, the Boston Redevelopment Authority seized nearly all of the working-class West End, evicted its last 7,500 residents, and razed it all to make way for new middle-class apartments. “It felt like they took part of you when they took your neighborhood,” says Campano, who co-founded the West End Museum to commemorate his lost piece of Boston.

Last September — 57 years later — came a historic postscript to the story. Brian Golden, the director of the BRA, spoke at the West End Museum’s opening of an exhibition on urban renewal. Before a crowd of 50, the head of the agency that demolished the old West End made amends.

“The BRA of today does not condone the destruction of neighborhoods and the displacement of residents that happened in urban renewal’s wake,” Golden said. “And I want to offer my heartfelt apology on behalf of the agency to the families of the West End.”

Campano, now 75, stood and acknowledged the historic moment. “That’s the first time I ever had a formal apology from the BRA,” he says. “I think they were sincere.”

But Golden had another motivation besides facing history’s wrongs. His speech was part of an intense campaign to keep the special urban renewal powers that the powerful BRA has exercised in parts of Boston since the 1950s. Those powers, which were set to expire this spring, include a bundle of revitalization tools used in many other American cities. But they also include eminent domain, the same power to seize private property that a previous generation of city leaders abused.

Boston officials argued that it’s a new day; that the city’s ugly history of eminent domain abuse is now decades in the past, and that today’s urban renewal can be a powerful tool to encourage and preserve affordable housing. Yet Golden and his boss, Mayor Marty Walsh, asked City Council to hand the BRA a blank check for another 10 years — and not in the most struggling parts of today’s Boston. Instead, the $50 million agency asked to retain its powers over most of the same neighborhoods the city declared blighted a half-century ago, including places transformed by Boston’s real estate boom, where home sale prices have soared far past $1 million.

That request sparked an intense debate about the future of redevelopment in the booming city, home to one of the nation’s strongest urban economies. It’s a debate that is relevant to other cities, particularly those searching for tools to help ensure that the benefits of economic growth are felt in all quarters.

Can urban renewal powers — infamous for harming neighborhoods and their most vulnerable residents — finally be used in a way that is fair for all communities?

Or are they outdated, still prone to abuse, and likely to give powerful bureaucracies a way to perpetuate themselves?

“Most of the legacy of urban renewal in Boston, at least in the public consciousness, is very negative,” says Boston City Council President Michelle Wu. “It’s a story of displacement and government overreach.” Though skeptical of urban renewal, Wu forged a compromise in March: The council gave the BRA six more years to use its special authority, but with new oversight that nudges it to wind it down. The biggest reason for the long ramp, says Wu, is to give the agency time to figure out how to roll back its powers in a way that preserves existing affordable housing agreements.

“Will there be a day that an agency will ask to eliminate some of its powers?” Wu asks. “I hope the answer would be yes. But I know it will take significant outside pressure and oversight.”

In other words, it takes extraordinary effort to rein in extraordinary power.

Progressive Intentions, Vast Authority

Brian Golden works in a corner office on Boston City Hall’s top floor, nine stories up. From tall glass windows, he gazes down on Revolutionary-era Faneuil Hall, redeveloped in the 1970s as a BRA project, and across downtown to the Long Wharf, where ferries sail out to the Boston Harbor islands. On one wall, he’s put up a classic Boston poster from a reelection campaign for James Michael Curley, the city’s political boss of the early 20th century. “The Mayor of the Poor,” it reads. “Humane, Experienced Leadership.” It’s the perfect symbol of progressive intentions crossed with vast authority.

As BRA director, Golden has the most powerful job in City Hall besides the mayor’s. The BRA, founded in 1957, isn’t just an urban renewal agency. It’s also Boston’s planning department and economic development corporation, and it approves or rejects all large-scale development proposals in the city. During Mayor Tom Menino’s 20-year reign, critics claimed Menino used the BRA to personally control what was and wasn’t built in the city. The agency used urban renewal to help luxury and nonprofit projects alike: a W Hotel downtown, the Whittier Street Health Center in lower-income Roxbury, and Kensington Place, a 27-story, mostly high-end apartment tower erected in Chinatown despite neighborhood opposition and in another unpopular move, used its power to raze a historic theater. Walsh, who succeeded Menino, ran for the job on a promise to reform the agency.

Golden became director when Walsh took office in January 2014. Since then, he’s been on a mission to convince Bostonians that the agency is changing.

“The destruction of people’s homes and neighborhoods is not something people got over easily, nor should they,” Golden says. “There’s no one at this agency who thinks the approaches taken in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s were appropriate. [And] the political reality of Boston in the 21st century would never permit that.”

Golden’s September talk at the West End Museum was just one stop in a yearlong campaign to convince Boston not to let the BRA’s urban renewal powers expire. “In recent decades,” he argues, “this agency has used these tools in a far more nuanced manner, that has yielded far more good for the people of Boston than not.”

Urban renewal zones, he notes, give the BRA more power to create affordable housing requirements on land it sells. That’s a key goal in Boston, where the poor, working class and middle class alike are in danger of getting priced out of the city. Those restrictions — land disposition agreements, or LDAs, for short — stay with the property, and the BRA can use them as leverage decades later. A housing nonprofit recently replaced its aging apartment complex in Boston’s Allston-Brighton neighborhood — a product of 1960s urban renewal — with a new apartment and condo development, thanks to a land swap the BRA helped negotiate with Harvard University. Golden says the BRA can even use urban renewal tools to extract funds from a luxury project to benefit an affordable housing project. For instance, affordable housing requirements attached to a high-end residential and office tower project near Boston’s North Station were used to help subsidize a middle-class housing development nearby. (In Boston, developers are so focused on building high-priced homes that city officials don’t just look for ways to encourage affordable housing for the poor, but also “workforce housing” — homes that people who work in the city can afford.)

Golden says the BRA hardly ever uses eminent domain to take an occupied home or a place of business anymore: “It’s an extraordinary rarity.” Boston’s most notable recent takings, in 2011, were nothing like the West End. The city forced two businesses in Roxbury’s Dudley Square, a high-poverty neighborhood, to relocate to make room for a new Boston Public Schools headquarters, and a few blocks away, it wrested a neglected historic home from its owner to hand it over to a preservation group. More often, say Golden and his staff, the BRA uses eminent domain in even smaller, surgical ways: for a temporary construction easement, to enlarge a sidewalk, to let a developer install an awning above a public right-of-way.

A lone remaining rowhome is surrounded by high-rises on Lomasney Way in the West End neighborhood. The area saw mass urban renewal in the 1950s.

The BRA has other special powers inside the city’s urban renewal zones that help solve the dilemmas of building new in an old city. It can more easily buy and sell land, assemble and combine parcels from different owners, and clear a property’s title — especially important in Boston, says Golden, where some parcels’ histories go back to the 1600s. Developers can do that on their own, but it’s more difficult. With urban renewal tools, Golden says, “we can make really significant problems go away.”

The way Golden describes it, modern urban renewal in Boston sounds progressive — enlightened, even. But there’s a problem. The BRA only has these powers in places where, long ago, it found blight. So why don’t the powers move out of now-rich neighborhoods as the city changes?

The answer is rather embarrassing for the BRA. It has lost track of those LDAs it created. It doesn’t even know how many there are — several hundred, maybe. Figuring it out will take intense dives into old paper documents. But many LDAs were set to expire along with the urban renewal zone they’re in, so ending the program in a zone would have consequences the BRA can’t explain.

What’s more, “we could not easily identify everything we own,” says Golden. Even the BRA’s database of land it still owns has gaps.

“Why have all these things been neglected?” Golden asks. “I don’t know. I wasn’t in a decision-making capacity.” (He joined the BRA in 2009 and got the top job five years later.) “But it’s crystal clear, the agency did not focus itself on the task of preparing for urban renewal after the expiration.”

The BRA says it may take two years to finish a complete inventory — and until then, it can’t plan to shrink the city’s urban renewal zones. That stymied urban renewal’s critics on the city council, who had hoped to do just that. By acting as if urban renewal would go on forever, the bureaucracy succeeded in keeping its extraordinary powers. That’s made the agency’s many angry critics even angrier.

“It’s All About How We Use It”

Steve Fox strolls along a red-brick sidewalk in Rutland Square, next to a block-long procession of 5-story brick rowhouses, the signature architecture of Boston’s South End, their identical bowed fronts united into one unbroken wall.

“This unit with the red doors, that’s a duplex,” Fox says. “It’s owned by one person who rents out the bottom unit.” The rowhouse’s value in Boston’s overheated real estate market: about $5 million.

It wasn’t always this way. The South End, the country’s largest urban Victorian neighborhood, spent a century as a home to working-class immigrants and African-Americans, drawn there from the nearby Back Bay train station after migrating from the South. A plaque on one Rutland Square rowhouse honors a former owner: Butler R. Wilson, head of Boston’s NAACP branch from 1916 to 1936.

Fox bought his home on the square 30 years ago, in the early, prospecting wave of gentrification, for $280,000. Now, he says, not only do bidding wars drive rowhouse sales into the millions, prospective tenants also outbid each other to snag rentals.

So the South End Forum, a coalition of small neighborhood groups, decided last year to ask the city council to end the BRA’s urban renewal powers there. “The entire South End is part of an urban renewal zone,” says Fox, the South End Forum’s president. “They never bothered to shrink it.”

Urban renewal swept into the South End in the 1960s. The BRA seized blocks it deemed blighted and demolished rowhouses. Residents fought back. On West Newton Street stands a former church, now the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts. A mural shows a giant pair of hands lifting a sea of Hispanic faces up above the neighborhood’s past: an eviction notice, a building on fire, broken windows, and a banner that reads, “No nos mudaremos de la Parcela 19” — “We won’t move from Parcel 19.”

Beyond the old church, Victorian brownstones give way to short, angular 1970s townhouses — Villa Victoria, the affordable housing complex built by the Puerto Rican activist group that resisted eviction. Here, the story of urban renewal gets complicated. Fox stands amid the complex and looks north and south at places the street grid was erased, evaluating the altered landscape with a historic preservationist’s lament. “Although this is a very vibrant and important community,” he says, “it could be just as vibrant if rules of the game had not been abused.”

Residents from Villa Victoria try to beat the heat in Plaza Betances. Villa Victoria is an affordable housing complex built by a Puerto Rican activist group. 

To Boston’s Puerto Rican community, Villa Victoria is a source of community pride, and their accounts of urban renewal tend to balance anger at eviction with frankness about the poor living conditions it replaced. Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, CEO of Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, the nonprofit that runs Villa Victoria, says longtime residents talk of unsafe conditions and subpar heating in winter, while photos from the era show buildings boarded up and destroyed by arsonists. She says she doesn’t hear them wish their old, pre-urban renewal neighborhood had been preserved. “The elders in community were very happy with the outcome,” she says. In fact, Villa Victoria is named after their victory. Without urban renewal, she thinks there would be even less affordable housing in the South End today.

“It’s all about how we use it,” Calderón-Rosado says, “and how we engage the community to take advantage of the tools we have available through urban renewal.”

Unlike its South End neighbors, IBA supported extending Boston’s urban renewal powers. “Parts of the South End are primed for development,” she says. “There are strong opportunities for urban renewal to develop open spaces, affordable housing and moderate-income housing.”

Elsewhere in the South End, lasting anger over historic eminent domain struggles still plays a role in people’s desire to abolish the neighborhood’s urban renewal zone. Yet Fox says the neighborhood doesn’t fear a repeat of the past. “If the BRA ever exercised its eminent domain powers, people would be at City Hall with pitchforks,” he says. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Then why doesn’t the South End want urban renewal’s tools? “They give the BRA sole, exclusive authority to do exactly what they want to do,” argues Fox. “We as neighborhood people have no recourse.” The BRA’s five-member board can make zoning changes in urban renewal areas. That infuriates neighborhood groups, who see the BRA as an arrogant, too-powerful bureaucracy, less transparent than the city’s regular zoning boards, more sympathetic to developers. A 2015 audit of the BRA by McKinsey & Co. echoed many of their complaints, criticizing the agency for low transparency, a shortage of citywide planning, and an inconsistent and subjective project review process.

So the BRA’s campaign for an urban renewal extension got a rough reception in the neighborhoods. “The BRA was referred to as the evil empire,” Fox says. “People said, ‘You can’t trust them.’ ‘They lie.’” The Alliance of Downtown Civic Organizations, which covers several booming central city neighborhoods with pockets of poverty, including the South End and North End, argued for abolishing urban renewal after a brief transition.

Ford Cavallari sits in a Starbucks on bustling Atlantic Avenue, a block from the ocean. “Look around,” he says. “Urban blight? Find me some urban blight. I can’t find it.” Cavallari is president of the North End/Waterfront Residents’ Association, and parts of his side of town have been in an urban renewal zone for decades. The North End, a densely packed Italian enclave, is now a hot tourist attraction, its narrow streets crammed with visitors carrying boxes from the popular Mike’s Pastry.

Urban renewal powers in Boston today are built on a fiction, says Cavallari. Legally, “urban blight begets urban renewal,” he says, but “most of the urban renewal zones are not blighted.” Meanwhile, he says, other neighborhoods are doing just fine without the special revitalization powers. New office towers have filled the Seaport District and sprung up in Allston-Brighton, while new housing has swept along South Boston’s Dorchester Avenue and East Boston’s shoreline. The BRA, as the city’s planning agency, still regulates development in those neighborhoods, but without using urban renewal’s special powers. “No urban renewal zone, and yet magically, stuff actually happens!”

But while the downtown groups wish urban renewal would go away, other Bostonians want it to stay, even grow.

A Means to Equitable Ends

Laura Dziorny looks out at Boston Harbor from Charlestown, the neighborhood where the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought. She’s standing in the new Mayor Thomas M. Menino Park, on a shoreline boardwalk that encircles a playground. Behind her rises the glassy new Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. Both were built on land the BRA acquired through urban renewal.

“I run around here,” Dziorny says. “Having the path that goes all the way around now — it’s really nice.”

Dziorny, an administrator for an educational nonprofit, lives in Charlestown, a historically working-class Irish neighborhood that’s now gentrifying. She wants to keep the neighborhood’s urban renewal zone and expand it. At several meetings the BRA held in Charlestown, she says, most residents said they felt the same way. BRA officials showed them a map of the area’s complex land ownership history, which included parcels owned by city, state and federal governments. “It was a patchwork,” she recalls. “You could see why development, especially along the water, would be so difficult.”

She walks through the Charlestown Navy Yard, the historic military and shipyard district. A few blocks from the U.S.S. Constitution’s dock, among sleek new condos, stand two long-vacant buildings from the shipbuilding era: the imposing red Chain Forge building and the quarter-mile-long, 45-feet-wide Ropewalk building. The BRA intends to transfer the Chain Forge building to a hotel developer, and it plans to lease the Ropewalk building to an enterprising rehabber who plans to split the long, thin granite structure into 97 apartments. The BRA’s work in the Navy Yard was a big reason for the positive tenor at the Charlestown meetings, Dziorny says: “Everyone was satisfied about how it’s turned out.”

A woman looks out on Boston from the Navy Yard in Charlestown.

Two miles up Bunker Hill Street, past Charlestown’s narrow lanes of historic homes, lies Sullivan Square, a bleak, bare highway traffic circle. Forlorn-looking warehouses and a long-shuttered restaurant dot side streets nearby. This is the area that Dziorny and other Charlestown residents want the BRA to add to the urban renewal zone. The Sullivan Square station on Boston’s Orange Line lies beyond the traffic circle. Dziorny, who doesn’t have a car, says getting there on foot is daunting.

“Every time, I feel I’m taking my life into my hands,” she says. “It’s not lit. Cars are coming from four different directions, and they’re not necessarily aware a person is going to be crossing.”

State Rep. Russell Holmes works in Charlestown as a financial planner, but he lives in Mattapan, 8 miles away on Boston’s southern edge. He marvels at how Charlestown, “a neighborhood people avoided,” has become so popular that it’s hard for him to get in and out at rush hour. “I want to see something like what I’ve seen in Charlestown come to my neighborhood,” Holmes says.

Mattapan, a majority African-American neighborhood, is trying to bounce back after decades of disinvestment. Holmes not only testified before city council in support of the BRA’s urban renewal powers, he asked the agency to expand the program to Mattapan. The council order reauthorizing urban renewal asks the BRA to consider it.

“Come up and down Blue Hill Avenue and I can show you plenty of blight!” Holmes says, referring to Mattapan’s main artery, a street tough enough that a 2001 crime film was named after it.

Holmes knows urban renewal’s history in Boston, and he doesn’t want to displace the poor. Instead, he says, he wants to use the BRA’s land use and assembly powers to turn blighted areas into economic engines. “Do not turn off the spigot before I get some of the water,” he says.

State Rep. Russell Holmes stands in front of a long-abandoned property in Mattapan, the site of a planned new train station on the commuter rail.

Boston’s ambivalence about urban renewal reflects a national trend. Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, says a backlash against using eminent domain for economic development has swept many states since 2005, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that governments can seize private property to sell to a private developer.

Meanwhile, there’s less of it to fight. Large and sweeping urban renewal projects fell out of favor after federal funding of them ended in the 1970s, Mallach says. “Cities don’t do that anymore, except in special cases,” he says. (One exception is Baltimore, which is carrying out a massive demolition and redevelopment project near Johns Hopkins University’s medical center.)

The BRA’s more subtle approach to urban renewal today — selling smaller parcels after reaching an agreement about what a developer will do with them — is a common strategy in other cities, Mallach says. “It’s much more common to use the powers they have — eminent domain or other tools — to help along developers trying to do something a municipality wants,” he explains. “Municipalities basically have little or no money for economic redevelopment.”

Even the BRA’s slowness in redrawing its urban renewal maps is a common problem, according to Mallach. “A lot of these agencies get into an inertia, which is not good,” he says. “They should be constantly looking at where do the tools need to be used, and where not.” Other cities have kept old renewal zones in place to preserve land use agreements, but Mallach thinks that shouldn’t be an excuse to wield unnecessary power. “That’s a legal technicality,” he says. “It shouldn’t affect how they operate.”

Norm Krumholz, a professor emeritus in urban affairs at Cleveland State University, says some cities do use their redevelopment powers as leverage to get developers to meet social needs. “It depends on the city,” he says. “If the BRA feels the need to negotiate [for] people at the low end of the scale, that’s what they’ll bargain for: low-income housing, investment in low-income communities, contributions for the transit agency — a whole range of things depending on what the bargaining authority thinks is in interest of its low income population.” But there are practical limits to what cities and neighborhood groups can demand: “The developers are never going to take a deal that’s never going to be profitable.” So a city’s bargaining power is limited by its marketability.

“The destruction of people’s homes and neighborhoods is not something people got over easily, nor should they. There’s no one at [the BRA] who thinks the approaches taken in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s were appropriate.”

“Cities like Cleveland feel they can’t bargain hard,” says Krumholz. “They’re grateful for what investment takes place. For very good reason, they facilitate the investment.” But “in a city like Boston, a tight real estate market, [officials] should be bargaining hard for more low- and moderate-income housing.”

Krumholz, a pioneer of equity planning, says there’s still a substantial risk that urban renewal powers can be abused. “You know the story of urban renewal: low-income people driven away from choice locations that developers selected for redevelopment. That’s still a possibility. Again, it depends on the willingness of the public agency — City Hall or the BRA — to go to the mat.”

In Boston, much of the job of reconciling the past and future of urban renewal fell to Michelle Wu, a protégé of U.S. Sen Elizabeth Warren who became city council president in January, at the start of her second council term. Wu, 31, has taken heat from her progressive base for forging an alliance with an older, less activist faction on council. She found herself at the center of the urban renewal debate, bridging a divide between veteran councilors inclined to give the BRA what it wanted and younger progressives on council who wanted to limit the urban renewal extension to two years.

“What bothered us the most,” Wu says, “was that the BRA was asking for a 10-year extension on exactly the same maps, the same area, and the same authority — without any recognition that the city has changed and the neighborhoods have changed a whole lot.”

Wu helped negotiate the final compromise: a six-year extension with new council oversight, a plan to reexamine the program and pledges of more openness.

“I still believe that any urban renewal authority needs to have close oversight and needs to have full transparency,” Wu says. “Government should only have authority that’s narrowly tailored to the need.”

Does she believe urban renewal can be used for broadly beneficial ends? She answers with careful diplomacy: If there’s appropriate planning, with the community, on specific parcels such as a health center, neighborhoods welcome urban renewal.

The BRA will meet with council every six months starting in September. The agenda will include progress reports on the land and LDA inventories, with priority given to the South End and Charlestown.

Why isn’t there an inventory already? Wu’s smile hints that the young councilor has gotten an education in how bureaucracies hold onto power. “The BRA could not really answer that question,” she says, “except to say they should’ve and didn’t.” Did the agency not keep an inventory of its agreements because it expected urban renewal to go on forever? Quietly, but firmly, she answers, “Yes.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Erick Trickey is a freelance journalist in Boston. He's written for SmithsonianPolitico Magazine, Boston magazine and Cleveland Magazine.

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Paul Gargagliano is a Philadelphia-based freelance photographer. Brooklyn born and bred, he studied photography at Oberlin College. His work ranges from photojournalism with an urban bent, to wedding and event photography with Hazelphoto.com.

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