Boston Plans Big Renovation of Development Reviews

Boston Plans Big Renovation of Development Reviews

A city consultant’s review found Boston extracts higher payments from developers than many similarly-sized cities, and does so in an inconsistent manner. iStock photo

A new blueprint for reforming Boston’s development review process seeks to cut through the often-murky process in which many real estate projects are required to shell out multi-million-dollar packages of community benefits and mitigation payments.

Following more than a year of private meetings, a nine-member steering committee appointed by Boston Mayor Michelle Wu is recommending changes designed to standardize payments and the range of recipients.

Currently, mitigation and community benefits packages are negotiated behind closed doors between developers and Boston Planning & Development Agency staff, noted Anthony D’Isidoro, president of the Allston Civic Association and a member of the steering committee.

“Right now, there’s no transparency most of the time, and you literally have to wait until the agenda is published to find out what community benefits there are,” D’Isidoro said. “There’s tremendous confusion.”

The potential changes to the zoning code were set in motion last year by Wu’s executive order to reform planning and development. Article 80 of the Boston zoning code sets the ground rules for review of all development proposals that are at least 20,000 square feet or include at least 15 housing units.

The changes could standardize how benefits packages are negotiated and how recipients are designated. A community survey released in January spotlighted concerns about the lack of consistent guidelines for community benefits and mitigation, cited by 82 percent of respondents.

Millions in Unpredictable Costs

Such contributions can add millions to project costs. In October, Core Investments’ On the Dot mixed-use development in South Boston agreed to pay nearly $19 million for transportation improvements in the surrounding neighborhood, including upgrades to Dorchester Avenue and the MBTA’s Andrew Station.

Hilco Redevelopment Partners’ benefits package for its redevelopment of the L Street Station power plant in South Boston included over $10 million for transportation improvements in the City Point neighborhood, $1.75 million for park and playground upgrades and even a $1 million scholarship endowment for the South Boston Sports Hall of Fame.

Under the reform proposal, mitigation payments would offset direct project impacts and be dedicated toward anti-displacement and upgrades to transportation, infrastructure, the public realm and open space.

Community benefits, by contrast, would encompass non-project related recipients in eight categories ranging from civic facilities to small business assistance, according to a summary of proposed changes released May 11.

“The idea is to rationalize it to make both mitigation and public benefits planning-based,” said Matthew Kiefer, a development and land-use lawyer at Goulston & Storrs and a steering committee member. “So, mitigation is tied to the impacts of the project, and the community benefits are based upon planning priorities for the neighborhood, and not just what anybody might ask for.”

Other Cities Standardize Payments

Changes to Boston’s development review process could add clear guidelines for the cost and recipients of developers’ community benefits and mitigation packages. iStock photo illustration

Land use consultants Zone Co., in a recent report submitted to the BPDA, said Boston extracts higher payments from developers than many similarly-sized cities, and does so in an inconsistent manner.

Other cities offer alternate models, the report noted. Denver and Portland impose fees to cover infrastructure improvements, while Miami offers height and density bonuses for developments in exchange for public benefits.

Similar models in Boston could provide clarity for developers and community members alike, D’Isidoro said.

“It would probably be a set amount based upon square-footage: a formula-based system where first and foremost you calculate the payment, but then you standardize the process where it’s more transparent and accountable in how these funds are going to be spent,” he said.

The summary of potential changes sets eight distinct categories of community benefits ranging from civic facilities to small business assistance.

Permanent Neighborhood Councils Mooted

Projects subject to Article 80 large project review – which covers developments 50,000 square feet or greater – currently spend months or even years at periodic meetings of impact advisory groups that comprise neighborhood residents and community organizations.

The lack of schedules and deadlines for such groups to meet and make recommendations creates uncertainty and can drive up development costs, according to steering committee members and a community survey released in December.

Survey respondents gave low marks to the IAG process, with a majority indicating they lack transparency and don’t represent the neighborhood demographics.

Steve Adams

In their place, the reform package would create permanent community advisory teams to review all projects in a neighborhood. Members would receive stipends and child care, along with training on planning and development, and be subject to a code of conduct to eliminate conflicts of interest.

“The development community has a lot of concerns about taxes, but this is an opportunity to align with the people in the community who give a lot of their time and don’t necessarily want to be wasting it in a process that’s not efficient,” said Joseph Hanley, a real estate attorney at McDermott, Quilty, Miller & Hanley in Boston. “Making it more predictable is good for everyone, even the community members who are opposed and don’t want this to go on ad nauseam.”

A Multi-Step Submission Process

Finally, the proposed changes include a new, three-tier submission process. Currently, proposals submit project notification forms and occasionally supplemental documents at BPDA staff request before a potential board vote.

The new timeline would begin with a new project request that includes the existing site conditions and zoning.

The second step, a “concept phase” filing, would comprise a site plan, building heights and parking ratios, enabling the size of mitigation packages to be established at the outset of the review. The third phase would include detailed design renderings, floor plans and open space designs, along with transportation and environmental reports.

Summaries of the changes are being presented at a series of public workshops in coming weeks, followed by an online survey with responses due June 3. The next steps include detailed proposals for Article 80 amendments over the coming months.

“The first stage of gathering data and distilling ideas has been really productive,” Kiefer said. “The BPDA is now taking on the challenge of figuring out how to operationalize these proposed reforms.”

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