Audit finds BRA is a dysfunctional bureaucracy

By Tim Logan and Dan Abrams | The Boston Globe | July 16, 2015

The agency charged with overseeing the real estate boom coursing through Boston is a dysfunctional bureaucracy, its system for reviewing projects erratic, with just a few powerful staffers deciding how new buildings will look using “unwritten rules,” according to a highly critical audit being released by City Hall Thursday.

The report, by McKinsey & Co., paints the powerful Boston Redevelopment Authority as short of critical staff, beset by poor morale, and unable to manage its own property. The process to review building designs can be maddeningly slow at times, driving up costs for developers, it says.

BRA director Brian Golden acknowledged the audit’s tough tone — “This isn’t a valentine to the agency or to its leadership” — and said there is much that needs to improve.

“This agency is 60 years old and has had a radically different culture than the one we’ve been trying to foster,” said Golden, who was appointed BRA director last year by Mayor Martin J. Walsh, with the charge to modernize its operations. “We’ve been at this 18 months. We’ll be at it many more.”

 

The conclusions are particularly troubling given the key role the BRA plays in guiding Boston through a remarkable economic period, with the agency approving almost $5 billion in new developments citywide over the past 18 months.

This is the second deep review of the BRA ordered by Walsh, and again is an implicit rebuke of his predecessor, Thomas M. Menino, who critics say was too involved in deciding what got built in Boston.

The first audit found an agency still living in an era of paper records, with sloppy accounting that lost track of rent payments from tenants on its properties and of commitments and fees made by developers to build affordable housing.

‘This agency is 60 years old and has had a radically different culture than the one we’ve been trying to foster. We’ve been at this 18 months. We’ll be at it many more.’ — Brian Golden, BRA chief

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Golden worked in a top position at the BRA for six years before Walsh named him permanent director in December. Many of the issues raised in the audit date to his predecessor, Peter Meade, BRA director during Menino’s final three years in office. Meade did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Walsh has promised to clarify the review process at the BRA and to make the agency more open to the public and accountable for its decisions.

He has also launched a sweeping new master plan for the city, dubbed Imagine Boston 2030, and said the findings by McKinsey point out how much more the BRA needs to improve.

“In order for the city of Boston to continue to grow and prosper, we need the BRA to be in the strongest possible position — getting community input, guiding Imagine Boston 2030, and making the most of this historic building boom,” Walsh said in a statement.

Walsh has already broomed out key Menino holdovers.

In May, as McKinsey was finalizing its report, the mayor forced out Kairos Shen, the longtime planning chief under Menino.

On Wednesday, Golden said he’ll replace the BRA’s head of urban design, promoting senior architect David Carlson to the job.

To developers, the most welcome change would be more clarity in how the city reviews projects, said David Begelfer, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, a commercial real estate trade group.

Typically, the BRA reviews projects in a two-step process. The first determines whether a project is appropriate for its location; the second concerns the look and feel of the building — what the public ends up seeing once it’s built.

Developers and community groups interviewed by McKinsey said the first process generally worked well. But many complained the next step — the design review, in which builders and BRA staff hash out architectural details — can drag on interminably.

“You’ll have someone who says ‘we want to see a change.’ You have to redesign, go back and forth,” Begelfer said. “It can take months.”

The additional design work and added time pushes up the already steep price of developing a project in Boston, costs that are passed onto building tenants and their customers, said Barry Bluestone, director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University.

“A lot of developers will tell us they’d rather get a quick no than a slow yes,” Bluestone said.

The trick, said Greg Galer, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, is having a review process that gives developers enough certainty while also allowing neighbors and other community members a meaningful chance to weigh in on projects before they’re approved.

Too often, Galer said, BRA staff will negotiate changes directly with a developer before the project has even been filed. By the time the public learns of a project, he said, it’s often a done deal.

“It can feel like an insider’s game,” said Galer, whose group often speaks out on building projects in the city.

In addition to the first comprehensive citywide plan in 50 years, the Walsh administration has initiated smaller community planning efforts for individual neighborhoods, such as Dorchester Avenue in South Boston and Washington Street in Jamaica Plain.

To help the effort, the BRA plans to hire six new planners and is starting a nationwide search for Shen’s replacement.

Golden said he plans to fund those new jobs by maximizing rents on BRA properties.

Renovations and better management of the China Trade Building in Downtown Crossing and the Boston Marine Industrial Park could generate an extra $6 million to $8 million a year for the BRA, McKinsey estimates.

Indeed, the audit found that the BRA has no comprehensive list of its own properties, and recommended that the agency create a new position, director of real estate, to manage its assets. Golden said he plans to hire for the job soon.

Then there are deeper issues of morale among the BRA’s 220 employees, which McKinsey repeatedly described as “poor.” About 70 percent of BRA employees said the agency lacks a clear vision, and they described the organization’s culture as “hierarchical, siloed, and not transparent,” according to the McKinsey audit.

 

Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@bytimlogan.

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