Allston, Brighton Forum Hosts Yoon

Boston City Councillor answers questions about mayoral campaign, Allston expansion

When Boston City Councillor Sam Yoon ventured into residential Allston last night to meet with the Allston Brighton North Neighbors Forum, he was questioned about his fledgling mayoral campaign, his views on urban planning and Harvard’s Allston expansion, and his plans to shake up Boston’s government.

“I think we need to change politics in Boston,” Yoon said, referencing his unorthodox political background as a teacher and community organizer. “I don’t think that the politics we have now in the City, focusing so much on the exercise or use of power, is going to serve us for the future.”

Among Yoon’s specific targets for reform is the Boston Redevelopment Authority—the City’s powerful planning and development agency responsible for approving construction projects, including Harvard’s Allston Science Complex and future expanded campus.

At the question-and-answer session held by the ABNNF at the Allston elementary school Gardner Pilot Academy, several local residents praised the BRA’s handling of the community-wide planning process.

“I think we’re doing really well with the BRA here, in large part because Mike [Glavin, the BRA’s deputy director for institutional development], is steering the process,” said Tim McHale, a Brighton resident of over three decades. “He’s between a rock and a hard place, Harvard and the City and us, but we think he’s doing a really great job.”

At a Harvard Allston Task Force meeting in late March, BRA Chief Planner Kairos Shen committed to revitalizing the planning process for relocating the Charlesview Apartments and developing the Holton Street Corridor—two projects related to Harvard’s expansion that have been sidelined in recent months due to the focus on the Science Complex.

Yoon, a Princeton and Harvard Kennedy School graduate, said that while he would never categorically criticize the BRA’s record, he does see the agency as excessively “linked to politics.” To make development a more “community-driven process,” he said that the BRA should be restructured—perhaps by separating the agency’s planning and development functions—in order to ensure that the voices of community members and developers are balanced.

“The BRA can be reorganized in that way, but it won’t happen so long as [the Mayor] is there, because it works for him,” Yoon said. “This is the one agency shielded from the City Council and any legislative body.”

But Jessica Shumaker, a spokeswoman for the BRA, said in an interview that planning, economic development, and workforce development are all critical components of a successful city, and that “having these three functions unified in a single agency enables each division to inform and enhance the work of the other divisions.”

While Yoon emphasized his intent to overturn the Bostonian political establishment, a couple of community members questioned his spotty attendance record at neighborhood meetings.

“You get up and say the BRA doesn’t work the way it should, and that’s confusing for me,” said Sal Pinchera, a local resident. “I wish you would have been at some of the meetings, and maybe you could have brought something to the table.”

Yoon said he takes such concerns seriously, but also pointed out that his schedule is busy and that it is not his political style to attend meetings just to be recognized.

“I think there is a culture where it’s the showing up and showing your face that’s the reason for being there, rather than showing what you’ve been working on for change,” Yoon said. “Believe me, you’ve been in my thoughts.”

McHale said the ABNNF hopes to bring all the Boston mayoral candidates to speak to the Allston community, and that Yoon was the first to make himself available.

—Staff writer Vidya B. Viswanathan can be reached at viswanat@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Peter F. Zhu can be reached at pzhu@fas.harvard.edu.