THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Yvonne Abraham

Crowning achievement

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / August 23, 2009

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I have often looked up at that newish skyscraper by the Pru and thought, “Man, that weird crown thing on top of that building is ugly. What were they thinking?’’

The answer is in today’s Globe story about Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s approach to development in Boston.

Turns out, they were thinking, “Let’s do whatever the mayor wants.’’ See, the mayor is not a flat-roof guy. So a developer eager to get his flat-roofed building approved came to City Hall with a bunch of new hats for it. Menino liked the top that looked like one of those regal car deodorizers. The project got the go-ahead.

It would be funny - if the consequences of his stranglehold weren’t so serious.

Because what we have here is a city where the mayor himself decides what does and does not get built. Where, often, those decisions depend on whether Menino likes a developer rather than the merits of a project. And it is notoriously easy to get on the mayor’s bad side.

In an ideal world, the Boston Redevelopment Authority would be a check on Menino’s fiats. There, planning experts are charged with guiding development in communities’ best interests. But as today’s story shows, the BRA simply does the mayor’s bidding.

The person in the city least surprised by these revelations would have to be Shirley Kressel.

For 15 years, Kressel has been criticizing the mayor and the BRA for building the city according to executive whim and political clout. She has shown up at hundreds of community meetings and City Hall hearings to argue for real zoning rules, better transparency, an end to the BRA, and checks on the mayor’s power over development.

Kressel, 62, came to Boston 15 years ago from Philadelphia, intending to work as a landscape architect. It took about five minutes in City Hall to turn her into an activist. At an informational meeting at the BRA, she learned the old Pilgrim Theater on Washington Street was going to be demolished. She spent the next 18 months trying to stop it, in vain.

“I learned a lot about how the BRA and the mayor and his departments work, and how cowardly the protective agencies are,’’ she says. “I learned how everyone will fold under him.’’

There is nobody like Kressel in Boston. There are certainly community people who are experts on their neighborhoods, but hardly any of them have her knowledge of the way the process works citywide. She’s always getting calls from people in West Roxbury or the Fenway, looking for guidance on how best to fight a project they think will harm them.

One would hope the City Council members would be Kressel’s allies in all of this. They aren’t. A few years ago, they voted to extend the BRA’s power, after holding a bunch of meetings on the matter in secret. Staff members from the BRA were actually helping councilors keep the discussions from the public. We know this because Kressel, along with mayoral candidate Kevin McCrea (she is supporting his campaign) and another citizen sued the council for violating the Open Meeting Law and won.

So nobody else seems to be watching the henhouse, save a bunch of foxes. Even foxes with good intentions - the mayor says he’s committed to doing what’s best for the city - shouldn’t be left alone in the coop.

For almost all of Menino’s time in office, Kressel has been one of the few people who has consistently stood up to him. I don’t always agree with her, but I’m very grateful somebody has made it her business to keep watch on our behalf.

Finally, people seem to be listening to her. All three mayoral challengers say they would abolish the current BRA - a move Kressel has been advocating only forever.

“My life was not in vain,’’ she jokes.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.