At a public hearing hosted by a working group focused on arts and culture in the transition committee of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, WCAS ’09, members of the Boston arts community cited real estate as one of their most prominent concerns, and some expressed the opinion that the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) has made decisions in the past that were contrary to their interests. For example, the Fort Point Arts Community Inc. (FPAC), a non-profit organization formed to promote local artists, has been vocal about its difficulties with the BRA in the past. While the BRA recently disbursed $100,000 to FPAC as part of the community benefits agreement for the Channel Center development, the problems that FPAC and other arts advocacy groups face cannot be remedied simply through increased funding. Moreover, the issues of planning, zoning, and city development-and how they affect the arts community-are not as far removed from the everyday life of the average Boston College student as they might initially appear.
While BC students are often critiqued for staying inside the “BC Bubble,” those who do venture downtown often do so in order to take advantage of the city’s cultural offerings-whether that be through a trip to the MFA or an excursion to see a play, comedy show, or another performance at one of the many venues downtown. Many students thus interact with the artistic community of Boston vis-a-vis their public output. BC students who choose to stay and work in Boston after graduation are also affected by the city’s policies regarding zoning for housing.
BC students are affected by the growth policies of Boston in more immediate ways, as well. Over the course of the 20-year Menino administration, the arts community is just one of many Boston constituencies that has become disgruntled with the way the BRA has functioned. Along with other area universities, BC has faced difficulties in working with the BRA, which has typically been both opaque and reticent to approve new building projects.
For example, the recent effort to obtain approval from the BRA for the construction of a new dorm on the site of the current More Hall was fraught with political wrangling. Members of the Allston-Brighton community exerted their influence through their Boston City Council representative in order to delay the BRA’s approval of BC’s building plans until after the University agreed to an extensive benefits package for the community, despite the fact that the development is set to be on the University’s own land and is a fair distance from the affected community.
While campaigning for mayoral office, Walsh offered a new vision for development in Boston. He said that he planned to overhaul the BRA soon after entering office and replace it with a new, more transparent institution-what he called the Boston Economic Development Authority. This was a bold plan, given the vested interest in continuing business as usual. In the past few months, Walsh has hinted that he might not move so quickly to replace the BRA.
As he has just entered office and has experience working directly with the BRA as a representative of a buildings trade union, Walsh has an unprecedented opportunity to offer the Boston community a fresh commitment to independent development. The chance to reform such a powerful and wide-reaching government institution, one with a significant and immediate impact on the city of Boston and its surrounding environs, should not be wasted. If and when Walsh moves forward to reform the BRA, he should include those previously underrepresented parties who have significant stakes in construction, including university administrators and members of the local arts community.