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A man who can 'get things done'

Boston's mayor turns to a seasoned development professional with a 3-city resume to run BRA

John F. Palmieri spent 18 years helping to rebuild downtown Providence, two years in North Carolina fashioning an economic development office for Charlotte, and almost four years in blighted Hartford, trying to raise homeownership levels from a critically low 20 percent.

Now he'll head the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the powerful city agency on the ninth floor of City Hall that combines planning, economic development, and approval functions.

Palmieri will face many of the same issues here, only on a larger scale: creating more affordable housing in an expensive city, overseeing an office market on the verge of a boom, and dealing with impatient developers and neighborhood groups with conflicting agendas.

Through it all, he'll be expected to please a mayor known to want things done his way.

He'll also have to guide Harvard University's new campus into an Allston neighborhood nervous about being overrun, weigh in on whether downtown Boston should welcome bigger skyscrapers, such as the proposed 1,000-foot tower at Winthrop Square, and help determine if city government should abandon a much-criticized building downtown for the emerging South Boston Waterfront district.

Can he do it?

"I don't think there's any question he can," said Paul L. Barrett, Boston development director in the early 1990s and now regional director for the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust. Barrett was Rhode Island's state economic development director when Palmieri was head of planning in Providence, and they worked together to create a $400 million development on 30 unused acres, the Providence Mall, which opened in 1997.

"He's got a great personality for this job," Barrett said. "He's someone who's always been willing to learn and listen. That's his number one talent."

Timothy P. Kirwan, general manager of the InterContinental Boston Hotel and formerly at the Westin Providence Hotel, was chairman of the board of the convention and visitors bureau in that city in the 1990s. He worked with Palmieri on several urban improvements, including enlivening downtown Providence with WaterFire, a high-profile, ongoing show of installation art and music.

"You meet a lot of guys in the public sector, but it was always Palmieri who got it done," Kirwan said yesterday. "He had all the sensibilities to work with the private sector. He was the key guy in the administration in the city."

Mayor Thomas M. Menino said he picked Palmieri because of his "experience, his ability to get things done."

"He's a creative implementer and a respected, able manager," Menino said. "He's the right guy for the time." Development on the South Boston Waterfront and Harvard's expansion to Allston will be top priorities, Menino said.

But Menino also said he expects Palmieri to closely examine the BRA itself, which comes under periodic criticism for its potentially conflicting missions: planning the city's future, spurring the economy, and approving proposed development projects.

"I want him to look at the BRA and make sure the functions are there today that are necessary, and how we can work together to deliver product much quicker than we have in the past," Menino said. He said the BRA has "a great staff" but that Palmieri is "going to have to hire a couple of people."

Palmieri, 56, called coming to Boston "a consummate opportunity to perfect the kind of work I do in a world-class city."

"I've got to take a hard look at aligning the planning function with redevelopment," he said yesterday. "I know that's been expressed as a concern."

Palmieri said he understands politics can be played hard in Boston, but, "I spent 18 years in Providence; that's a good start. I like to think I have the skill sets to respond to the mayor's directives and objectives," Palmieri said. "I'm comfortable doing this kind of work."

Barrett agreed, and said he thought Palmieri could survive working for Menino, who has scrapped with BRA directors who had, or appeared publicly to have, their own agendas.

"He worked for Buddy Cianci," said Barrett, referring to the pugnacious former Providence mayor who recently completed a five-year prison term for racketeering conspiracy. "Mayors by nature of who they are are not shrinking violets. He's the ideal personality. He's not a guy who looks for credit."

Palmieri graduated from Temple University in 1972 and earned a master's degree at the University of Rhode Island in 1976.

He is expected to start work in Boston on Nov. 12, replacing Mark Maloney, who resigned early this year.

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at

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