Friday, May 22, 2015

This is big Boston planning news...

...BRA Director of Planning Position on the block

This is not entirely unexpected, but it is big news: Kairos Shen, who has been a key BRA player and in many ways was the last mayor's urban planning and design muse, will be moving on from his position as the city's Chief Planner at month's end. Along with the active transportation director and chief of streets positions that the city is currently advertising, hiring a new chief planner would represent the final major move of the opening round of the new administration in charting a new direction on development, planning, and the use of public space in Boston. It was an open secret in Boston that the last mayor very tightly and personally controlled development decisions in this city for his entire 20 year administration, notwithstanding that he always tried to deny it when asked directly. He was, in effect, the real chief planner and decision-maker. Kairos was one of a group of fairly effective folks at the BRA who kept their heads mostly down and worked within that construct and so stayed around a long time.

The new mayor, Marty Walsh, shows many signs of not wanting to be that controlling, whether simply by inclination (he comes from the building trades and seems to have a generally pro-growth bent) or as a form of reaction to such a long period of tight control and a recognition that such a way of doing business is ultimately not optimal. This has the development community somewhat at sea -- after the last regime, it can seem like no one is in charge. This is admittedly a meaningful problem insofar as the zoning code in Boston is an unholy mess in which a main organizing principle is to force every project worth doing at almost every scale into the discretionary zoning relief process so that development decisions can be run from the Mayor's office and based on the Mayor's own political calculus. I am not exaggerating. It seems the Walsh administration really wants to get away from that and has been building the necessary predicate for about a year now by recognizing the unavoidable population trend (Boston is forecast to add 70,000 new residents in the next 15 years, which would put the city over 700,000 residents for the first time since the 1950s), developing a new housing plan that tries to accommodate that increase in population (53,000 new units of all stripes are needed), proposing new workforce housing growth zones along key transit corridors to target the residential market segment that has been lagging most significantly (the first time in the 15 years I've been following development in Boston that the words "growth" and "zone" have appeared next to each other), and then pushing, simultaneously, a new transportation master plan (Go Boston 2030) and a new citywide master plan (Imagine Boston). Unless all of this effort is to be wasted, this points to some fairly significant rezoning starting sometime in late 2016 that will presumably create new rules of the road that, one certainly hopes, will provide for much more of worth to be done as-of-right (could be a true form-based code or a hybrid, I'm personally not picky). Getting from here to there will be the hard part though ultimately well worth it. And whomever the Walsh Administration brings on as our chief planner will be a huge part of that.

P.S. We note that the interim director of planning, Tad Read, is a long-time friend of this blog's author and someone who has "gotten it" on the key issues of the day for some time. Tad's a great choice as the interim director and rates a real look for the permanent role.

Blog Post No. 2015-6.

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