Reflections from the Continuum Team

Jul 14, 2016 | Project Progress: Discovery | 1 comment

We’re wrapping up the learning phase for this project and we’ve covered quite a lot of ground:

  • Over 80 conversations with BRA employees, Boston residents, members of the media, city employees, and neighborhood advocates (with a few still on our calendars in the coming weeks!)
  • 2 community meetings for the Back Bay/South End Gateway project
  • 2 community meetings and 1 design review meeting for the 3193 Washington St. project
  • BRA board meetings, all-staff meetings, department meetings, and office hours (at City Hall, the EDIC offices, and the Office for Workforce Development)

When we reflected on what we’ve heard and observed over the last six weeks, we converged on 4 central themes. Below, we walk you through these themes and share the insights they gave us.

01. Boston’s Story is America’s Story

Between Trump, Bernie, and Brexit…

What defines these furies is often clear enough: a terrible shortage of homes, an impossibly precarious job market, a too-often overlooked sense that men (and men are particularly relevant here) who would once have been certain in their identity as miners, or steelworkers, now feel demeaned and ignored (from The Guardian).

Boston is a microcosm for these national trends and tensions. But there are competing perspectives within the BRA and within city government about the BRA’s role in this larger conversation. By not taking a stance on affordability or equity, the BRA puts itself in an unwinnable position.

“Imagine a Boston where residents have access to affordable, quality housing and where inclusive neighborhoods are home to Bostonians of many ages, races, perspectives, and incomes.” –Imagine Boston 2030

“People see us like that [as in charge of creating an affordable city], but we don’t see ourselves like that. We are not an affordable housing agency.” –BRA Employee

“So is this just for rich people or what?” –Resident, Jamaica Plain, on the Egleston proposed project

Key Takeaway: As we think about the BRA’s purpose and vision, the BRA needs to account for its role in this larger social, economic, and cultural context so it can be more deliberate about addressing its role within it.

02. The Purpose of the BRA?

Today, inside and outside the BRA, people are unsure who the BRA “works for.”  When we asked various stakeholders this question, we heard a variety of perspectives: the Mayor, the BRA itself, Director Brian Golden, Boston citizens, City Hall, the neighborhoods, the Planning department, the developers, EDIC, Boston’s future, residents, voters, the General Counsel, and the tenets of urban design. Meanwhile, we observed that a lot of BRA attention and energy is focused on a small handful of residents, yet the BRA’s expertise lies in knowing what’s best for neighborhoods and the city; what’s best for today and tomorrow.

“Why do we have to choose [who we serve]?” –BRA Employee

“We serve the globe; Boston has to remain competitive.” –BRA Employee

“We connect today’s residents with Boston’s future. That is our work” –BRA Employee

Key Takeaway: How can the BRA use their deep expertise to focus on the future of the City of Boston?

03. Perception is Reality

The BRA’s current engagement approach often breeds frustration and distrust among a variety of stakeholders: community members, developers and others.

Community meetings illustrate this point. In the meetings we went to, BRA project managers stood next to developers on stage facing the audience. This set-up can create the impression that the BRA is advocating for the developer and less concerned with the public interest. Public meetings are often a contentious struggle, and all parties involved (residents, the BRA, and developers) leave meetings feeling completely drained.

“Outside Boston, the BRA has a good reputation [but not here].” –Architect/Developer

“People think we’re proposing the [development] work vs. reviewing and guiding the work” –BRA Employee

“People that raise issues just get patted on the head.” –Resident, Back Bay

Key Takeaway: Some issues can be addressed by attempting to better communicate BRA decisions, and other processes need to be re-designed to allow better outcomes for all stakeholders.

04. Parts, Still Being Summed

People are excited about their work at the BRA.  Their motivation, professionalism, and expertise bond employees and form the fabric of BRA culture. People take pride in their work.  At the same time, employees feel a sense of disjointedness, siloing and weak communication within the organization.

“It’s hard to build momentum on something here.” –BRA Employee

“Certain people contain so much institutional knowledge…but it feels like they have all the information.” –BRA Employee

“I love talking about what I do—this is an amazing chance to help shape the city.”  –BRA Employee

Key Takeaway: The challenges the BRA solves are complex and increasing in their complexity.  How can we enable better communication and collaboration across the BRA and with our partners?

1 Comment

  1. Reflection number 3 (“Perception is Reality”) seems to draw insights about the BRA’s entire public engagement approach by looking at only the subset of public meetings that are held for development proposals. For this reason, that paragraph is itself a telling example of how perception has become reality when it comes to a lack of awareness of all the different kinds of public meetings the BRA puts on.

    I hold the BRA’s meeting facilitators in high esteem, whether it’s the staff reviewing a specific development proposal or planners. They have a tough job, but looking at community meetings by focusing on the development side overlooks the importance of the planning work the BRA does. If they’re trying to show that they do more than review one-off development proposals, there should be a specific focus on studying community engagement around planning for this exercise.

    Great that the team is looking into these issues in general though. Looking forward to seeing their insights in the coming weeks.


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