Boston’s Building Bargain: Coaxing Commercial Conversions to Condos

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Transcript Hubwonk

Jemison, December 19, 2023

[00:00:00] Joe Selvaggi: This is Hubwonk. I’m Joe Selvaggi. Welcome to Hubwonk, a podcast of Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston. The COVID- 19 lockdowns have had a lasting effect on downtown Boston. While neighborhoods such as Back Bay or Seaport have largely snapped back to pre-pandemic activity levels, those areas primarily dominated by commercial office buildings like the Financial District, have been hit hard by the enduring embrace of remote work.

[00:00:38] The troublingly high vacancy rates in downtown office space comes in stark contrast to strong demand for residential housing from those looking for urban convenience and amenities. This mismatch between the dearth of residential inventory and surplus of commercial property has led the city’s developers and leaders to explore the possibility that more could be done.

[00:00:59] To that end, in July, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced a residential conversion pilot program that the City hopes will incentivize developers to convert underutilized downtown commercial buildings to much needed housing, giving new life to the once bustling Financial District. Could this creative solution, which includes substantial tax incentives and expedited project approvals, be enough to bring money and talent to the table?

[00:01:24] And what can such a program teach City Hall about proactively encouraging investment in new residential stock across the city? My guest today is Arthur Jemison, Chief of Planning at the Boston Planning and Development Agency. Mr. Jemison oversees the agency’s planning, regulation of major development, and management of the agency’s 20 million square feet of property in the city.

[00:01:48] He will share with us his views on Boston’s changing commercial and residential landscape and explain how Mayor Wu’s Downtown Office to Residential Conversion Pilot Program endeavors to help fill Boston’s erstwhile bustling Financial District with new residents eager to share the city’s energy and amenities.

[00:02:06] We will discuss the profile of the buildings targeted by the program, the incentives on offer for willing conversion developers, and the projected success for a program that could be a model for other neighborhoods, and for similar cities around the world. When I return, I’ll be joined by chief of planning for the Boston Planning and Development Agency, Arthur Jemison.

[00:02:26] Okay, we’re back. This is Hubwonk. I’m Joe Selvaggi, and I’m now pleased to be joined by chief of planning for the BPDA, Arthur Jemison. Welcome to Hubwonk, Arthur.

[00:02:36] James Arthur Jemison: Thanks so much. So happy to be here. I appreciate the invitation.

[00:02:39] Joe Selvaggi: Well, I’m pleased to have you here. I’ll say this. I’ll confess at the start. I’m a 30-year resident of Boston. So, it’s a real thrill for me to talk with someone who is helping to plan to make the city, even more vibrant and livable city. We’re going to narrow our focus on our conversation of planning, primarily on Mayor Wu’s new pilot program labeled Downtown Office to Residential Conversion Pilot Program. That’s what we’re going to talk about, but before we get to the nitty gritty, let’s start at the beginning. you’re our inaugural, Chief of Planning. Say more about you, your background, and this in this role.

[00:03:15] James Arthur Jemison: Sure. again, thanks for the invitation. I love to talk about, planning topics whenever there’s an opportunity, so I’m a 30 year, veteran of, planning and development, work, starting in the on the private side, and then spending a lot of my career in public work in just to be very specific, starting out at a real estate feasibility shop in Miami, Florida, almost specifically 30 years ago, joining the Boston Housing Authority to work on the redevelopment of the first phase of the mixed finance redevelopments of public housing, Orchard Park Mission/Main, and, and the work in South Boston on West Broadway, working in this agency as a young man, I spent, years, working, for the, District of Columbia, department of, the deputy mayor’s office, where we worked on baseball, the siting of this facility, a new national stadium and a series of other major planning, or the city center, U.S.A. or city center D.C. I should say, and then back here in Boston, working at MassPort in private industry, and then joined the Deval Patrick administration. Most recently, I spent about the last 10 years, about 7 of them with Mayor Duggan of Detroit, part of the recovery from the bankruptcy. And then I spent two years in the Biden administration as the, acting assistant secretary for planning, for community planning and development after which I joined the Wu administration.

[00:04:50] Joe Selvaggi: Wonderful. That’s quite a resume. You’ve seen — I’m trying to keep track — the ones I could, the cities I could count Miami, D.C., Detroit, and Boston, of course.

[00:04:59] So, I’ll give you, I’ll tee this up, let you hit it out of the park compared with other cities. What do you see as Boston strengths, you know, again, from a planning perspective and what are some of its vulnerabilities, you know, you mentioned some substantial cities, that’s quite a range from Detroit to D.C.

[00:05:11] James Arthur Jemison: Absolutely. So, what’s unique about Boston is that we have, other communities have meds and eds, that they really rely on to help strengthen, the economic life of the city. But Boston’s meds and eds, plus it’s already a historic presence in, the “FIRE” sector, finance, insurance, real estate, is so strong, and it’s been going on so long as led by some of the leading institutions, not just in the United States, but in the country has been a key part of our competitive advantage. And I think when you saw significant investment in biotech, in our community, maybe over the last 15, 20 years, you’ve always seen some of that growth really accelerate again that the competitive advantage of Boston is where some of the smartest and most experienced practitioners in those parts of the sort of science-based leadership are located. And so, for that reason, people come here for that. Not just the people who are here, but the sort of network of institutions and institutional relationships that make this would produce those ideas. That’s why they’re here and that’s why we’re the leader.

[00:06:21] Other cities have different advantages, but that’s ours. I think if there’s a thing that. Maybe a sort of sensitivity that we have it’s that we’ve had against the FIRE sector and sectors like it have been so strong here for so long that as office space and the way that it’s used has become, more of a sort of a different kind of venture. If the whole topic needs a little bit of a rethink, and I think we’re beginning to do some of that with our pilot program.

[00:06:52] Joe Selvaggi: Sure. So, you alluded to some vulnerabilities. Let’s say if we are, you called the FIRE sector, which may be a little more footloose or able to work remotely. I don’t want to give away or bury the lead here, but, again, as a resident here, we all live through COVID. Boston was a ghost town for a while. And but we saw a neighborhood snap back. I live on Beacon Hill, Back Bay, South End, North End, boom. You can barely move. It’s so busy. Of course, the exception there is downtown and the financial district. They’re still, really, hurting. Again, I don’t want to answer the question for you, but why do you think they have not snapped back the way the rest of the city has?

[00:07:27] James Arthur Jemison: Well, it’s a combination of things. as I think about the experience, you’re describing a lot of it comes from programming of the first, for commercial density of population and office, and I think if you go to a place, that’s really again, hard to walk around, you see a greater mix of residential and commercial uses in the Financial District with section of a few hotels and other uses really, it doesn’t have quite that density of population. As you say, you walk around back Bay, on one side of Boylston, you’ve got office and then a couple blocks further you’re in Back Bay. Or if you’re spending time in the seaport again, there’s a different mix of residential and commercial uses and a lot of focus on programming that brings people together in those places. I think the Financial District hasn’t had that exact experience. And so that’s one of the reasons it’s different. And so I think that’s also one of the reasons why it’s been a place we focused our energy and thinking about, is it possible in a few places to create some new residential opportunities for people? It’s one of the reasons we spent time and are spending time now thinking about it.

[00:08:42] Joe Selvaggi: I’m glad you pointed out that fact that I think the magic of Boston is we do have offices and people living right, side by side, densely populated. I don’t want to spend too much time on this idea. But of course, if we’re going to talk about if we’re going to gripe about Boston, we’re going to have to admit it’s a very expensive place. There’s just not enough housing. And we’re all on top of each other here on Beacon Hill, there’s no room to build and not in Back Bay. So you know, we have to make the most of what we have. You’re a planner. Again, this may be a difficult question to answer generally, but finding new places for people to live in Boston a priority, meaning, we’ve got we’re hemmed in, where can we go? Is that the, what a planner for the city does?

[00:09:21] James Arthur Jemison: You’re absolutely sending me off into a very interesting area, which I don’t want to dwell in, but we are working very hard to create more as of right opportunity for the development of housing. I think I’m proud of the work of my colleague, Sheila Dillon on the affordable housing production that she does.

[00:09:38] But we also believe that supply and creating more supply is going to be part of the solution to reducing prices or keeping prices more moderate. So, in that way, the rezonings that we have done, undertaken in a few neighborhoods and are planning to push even further in other neighborhoods of the city. We recently spent time rezoning Charlestown, East Boston, New Market, Mattapan, a wide range of different neighborhoods, and as we go into the new year, we’ll be doing a lot more of that. So, to your point, there’s lots of places where growth can happen. One of the issues we struggle with is that growth, we, through our regulation, in some ways and some places are one of the limiting factors that creates ambiguity and then people have a harder time investing. So maybe for another podcast, we can talk about zoning. but we’re, but it’s exactly what we do is finding new places to grow.

[00:10:32] Joe Selvaggi: Well, that’s good. So far you said, supply and demand is what drives prices and, regulation stifles supply. So, you’re singing our song here on, on the podcast. So let’s go, let’s focus on the,particular program that we wanted to discuss, which is the conversion of office to residential. At a high level, what are the goals of this program for those listeners who are new to this? Describe in broad strokes what it’s supposed to do.

[00:10:54] James Arthur Jemison: It’s important to step back a little bit and talk about why and I think you actually began the conversation I think in the perfect place in the sense that what you have is, parts of the city where there’s a mix of residential and commercial, places that people work places that people live were some of the 1st places to bounce back. and so, as we think about what’s going to help change the character of some, of some of the neighborhoods that didn’t have post-COVID, the same kind of bounce back would be to say, let’s have a little bit more residential in those places, if possible, or at least invite the opportunity. Now, normally that would be conventionally a good thing, but some of it has to do with some of the softness in the occupancy of office buildings, frequent focus groups that we would host, or, development interest we would talk to would describe my building as fully leased, but, there’s really, I’ve got a large number of small tenants. Many of them can work from home. There’s just been a lot less people and fewer people and less foot traffic in and around my building and fewer people kind of pass-carding into the building. So, I really need to think carefully about what my next move with my building is. We had a lot of that sort of feedback. We also began to have some owners approach us about conversion, and owners are also describing, the comparables that we’re seeing in the market where there are some older, less well-appointed buildings are beginning to trade at lower prices.

[00:12:24] And so, frankly, we saw an opportunity now approaching from another direction. Our values really, as a city are like, let’s create this density. Let’s create opportunities for people to live together. Let’s create opportunities for people to live near transit. Let’s create a more of a range of times of day and times of the week that our neighborhoods are being used.

[00:12:45] Residential is one of the ways to do that. So, I said, maybe there’s an opportunity, to maybe to put it more simply, there’s a sort of asset class, that’s being undervalued that has a chance to be converted to residential. Oh, a number of our different a number of different values. We have intersected the chance to take a historic building. That’s a key part of the city’s history that may have a footprint. That’s. Would be great for an office in 1870 but isn’t great for office now. but it’s compact enough. It doesn’t have a big floor place. The current office does that might have 40 percent use or even less occupancy. Let’s talk to that owner and see if there’s a chance and there’s a program. We could say them. “Hey, as you’re looking at these other trends, look at this as an opportunity.” We’ve been pleased with some of the response we’ve received.

[00:13:38] Joe Selvaggi: Well, wonderful. So I’m glad to hear it’s both reactive, you’re responding to the market, but proactive, you’re knocking on doors, and asking building. So describe. Go ahead. Let me love another easy question for you, which is, look, we’ve got skyscrapers, shiny ones, very proud of, but we also have some older buildings. This is Boston. So .describe it for our listeners. What does a skyscraper — what does a, somebody, a building you might knock on the door and say, look, this would be much better used as a residential building.

[00:14:05] James Arthur Jemison: What does it look like? Absolutely. So, while you’re on that topic, we are seeing some amazing new offices being built. And that’s actually a part of the dynamic as well is the places that people want to come back to are places where they’re extremely, they’re deeply amenitized and have every kind of feature. You can imagine also having great, environmental credentials, passive house or high LEED certification. So, so that’s a dynamic and people who are coming back say, well, I could actually get a really expensive sublease space. That’s really much higher end of the market. But back to your point. So, yes, we’re an old and historic city. And so, we haven’t like office spaces that run the full gamut. At one end of that gamut are a series of older buildings from the beginnings of the need for office space that have smaller floor plates that make them easier to convert to residential and they’re not often not as tall as the other buildings, and, they lend themselves, to some degree, to that kind of use. Meanwhile, people who have downtown or residential that’s close to employment centers, often, often talk about having that proximity, having the benefit of, the first-floor businesses often have the benefit of not just having during the week business, but, they might have,weekend business or other kinds of a more diverse base of a business for the work they’re doing.

[00:15:33] So, we’re finding that these are smaller, older, office spaces are places where people have been responding pretty, robustly to, to our work. There’s also a study that we had commissioned that sort of identified for plate best floor plates and named about, I think it’s 60 buildings in our downtown that they thought would be well suited to meet those kind of floor plate standards. So, again, most of them are older and then the financial district, although they’re all over the city and in areas adjacent to, like, the weather district, et cetera.

[00:16:09] Joe Selvaggi: So, we’re you’ve identified again proactively done a study sounds great. So, where the those what’s right? What’s the low hanging fruit to use a tired cliche? When you talk to owners of these buildings that you have identified and say, look, consider this might be the highest and best use of this building. What are the obstacles? We’re going to talk about what incentives this program has. What are you for those, prioritize for is it of course, everybody wants to turn a profit, this is earth, but there’s regulations, there’s environmental concerns, there’s perhaps a need for affordable housing, there’s, all kinds of incentives, once you both first lay out the concerns, and then how this program is going to address those concerns.

[00:16:48] James Arthur Jemison: Sure, so, many of the owners are, so I guess I’d say the issues of the owners talk about, I’ve touched on them a little bit before, but they include things like, well, my building is partially occupied by tenants who are very, use the space a lot. And then I have other tenants who don’t use the space. My leases are going to end in the next year or so, they have a real kind of risk reward calculation to make. Well, if the office market comes back, and it may, will it come back with at the same rates will come back as strong as it was before? Or will I have maybe a re-up?

[00:17:28] From one of my tenants that gets about 50 percent of my space, but not the other ones in the space. I’ll have to lease in order to occupy. It’ll be at a very low rate. I won’t be able to make my project work anymore. they’re having those kinds of risk award conversations and increasingly because of, the what’s happening to the comparable sales and comparable values.

[00:17:50] Their banks are also, and lenders and equity participants are also saying, they’re all having to say, like, should we stick it out and try to, release up as an office, especially when there’s brand new space coming on board, or should we think about doing something else? And so those are some of their issues.

[00:18:07] I’d also say many of them have been, say, operating an office building for a long time, or the building’s been in office for 100 years, 50 years. and so, they’re thinking, well, I’m going to enter a brand-new marketplace where I’m not an experienced office residential operator. I should say, do I really want to convert to a brand-new use? It will be expensive and potentially time consuming. And maybe there’ll be permitting risks, et cetera. and. Okay. I’ve got this kind of unique situation, so that’s that we get a lot of that, and we’ve had a lot of that experience. If it’s all right, I can tell you how we’ve tried to address some of that.

[00:18:42] Joe Selvaggi: Exactly. I’m sure our listeners are like, okay, why, when the city knocks on my door, why would I convert if there’s a chance I might, sure, not have to change a darn thing.

[00:18:51] James Arthur Jemison: Sure, so it might be easy to easiest I’m tempted to listen to the ability to save money is obviously a very significant, an abatement of 75 percent of your taxes for 29 years is a very significant investment. I also want to say, like, for the city I’ve worked here before in a time with the assessor and CFO. They were coming there were the city was in the late stages of what was possibly a recovery from a very different kind of situation. And now the city’s in a much, much stronger position.

[00:19:27] But, this is really an unprecedented action for us to offer these kinds of abatements not since maybe the fifties and sixties. Has there been anything that’s quite like what we’re proposing here? And so, in that vein, I would say that there they’re attracted by the abatement, but the thing about the abatement, that’s probably one of the reasons why it’s appealing has to do with the fact that, there are other ways to subsidize an activity.

[00:19:54] You want a lot of them to have really high transaction costs where, you need a lawyer. I need a lawyer. You need a lawyer. We need a sort of bank style underwriting. We’re going to turn it into a big check. And then a moment where I’m giving the big check to someone, whereas the tax abatement really is like, it’s an avoided cost and it obviously has its own sort of legal documentation required, but it has a little bit less friction in terms of making the transaction occur, because it’s an avoided cost that goes right to the net operating income of the developer. So, it’s easier for them to work with. And I wanted to use that as a point of entry, because when we’ve talked to developers, other things they said have been important where, we highlighted this as an organizational priority, we hired a talented person to help us work on it and provide the kind of SWAT-team response that many of those owners really needed. And then we’ve created and tried to pilot a kind of truncated approval process. One of the concerns have has always been well, making it through the city process can be very time consuming.

[00:21:04] We tried to shrink it down for people who are doing these for doing these conversions and so people found that appealing as well and we’ve also baked into the role that our new team leader for this plays a little bit of an ombudsman role where after you get an approval, they’re also going to work with the owners to help them close the gaps on all the other kinds of permits and approvals required to do the project.

[00:21:33] We recently piloted a new ombudsman position for regular projects, which have already been found to be valuable. So, putting a little bit of that scope into the work has been helpful. So, basically, it’s the money, but people are attracted by their resources, but we think they’re going to stay for the individualized attention we’re able to give these transactions.

[00:21:54] Joe Selvaggi: So, summarizing the incentives, you glided over the detail, which is 29 years of a reduced, property tax, but it’s going from a building tax rate, which is much higher right than the residential and for 29 years, but the transaction, As you say the sort of all in cost of converting from one to the other you’ve taken most of those costs away of course The city will have to absorb the cost of the foregone tax, right?

[00:22:19] I guess, you’ve made that elation, but also you fast track their approval process. Have you changed the regulations at all? Has, in a sense, what do they call it? Stretch codes where if you were to have built something brand new, these are the priorities, these are the constraints. But if you’re doing a conversion, it’s not as severe. Describe for our listeners — what does that look like?

[00:22:38] James Arthur Jemison: So, maybe the answer that one of your questions in there was, so we actually think that we need to. Reform modernize is more accurate modernize our what we call Article 80 review, which is when you have a larger project that comes in, what the process it goes through to get the approval of this board here at the city.

[00:23:01] We have a vendor team and a sort of organizational team that’s working right now to update and modernize Article 80, which is the part of the code that determines how we measure impact when you apply to do a project. So, the good news is that this pilot is allowing us to try out a few things, but we actually have a reform and modernization plan ongoing for the overall process right now. That is, it’s expected to reach a key milestone in the 2nd quarter this year, and hopefully be wrapped up by the summer because it’s important that we actually fix the over underlying and modernize the underlying approval system.

[00:23:42] But on this project, we’ve been trying to pilot that, one of the challenges is, there’s a process of filing documentation about your project and identify what it will look like, what impacts it will have, what mitigation needs to be proposed to mitigate those impacts.

[00:24:00] That’s it can be very complicated. and it can slow down. Some things we want, so we’ve been working to reform that. and I think, the sort of piloting we’re doing with the office to residential is going to be a sort of a way we test some of our ideas.

[00:24:15] Joe Selvaggi: Wow. More music for our ears here on the podcast, modernizing City Hall and the approval process. So, good for you. This sounds very good. So, we’re talking about a program that, as you say, is a pilot program. this was, has begun or proposed, or passed in July. We’re now almost at the end of the year. What’s been the response? There’s good ideas, but ultimately if they’re not embraced, they’re just good ideas. So how is it received by the development community?

[00:24:40] James Arthur Jemison: Sure. So, just a little sort of timeline. So, it was announced in July. We then had about three months to finalize our sort of program design. And so, in October, we posted the applications and began to invite applicants. So, as of today, about 60 days in, we’ve got four applications, a little under 200 units. Our goal for this initial round was in the around 300 units. So, we may do better than that, but we’ve got four applicants. We’ve got 10 or more people engaged with us and considering making applications, and so, I can name a few 100 other units out there that are being debated and discussed.

[00:25:23] Among those 10 applications, so I think we’re feeling good about the number. If we have a couple more of the applicants we’re expecting, we will probably exceed 300 units. The mayor identified as a goal. Again, we began to see in November, some of them, when we were doing our focus groups with development interest, they would talk about how, when there begin to be smaller office buildings that are sold at a specific price point, that’s when you’ll start to see people really take a look at the program. And so, between the developer conversations and the banks, who have also been great and engage with us as well, who are also saying to themselves, well, some of my value is beginning to go away if these valuations stay what they are — they’re beginning to engage with us as well. So, I think we’re feeling okay about it. We’d like to, I’m expecting that we’re going to get, get more, but I think we’re right on right where I was hoping we’d be about 60 days in. I think it would be a sign of something — it’s a good sign that we’ve got the level of application and the level of the other 10 strong leads we have out there make me feel good about early next year and, the kinds of projects that will be able to go forward.

[00:26:33] Joe Selvaggi: So, what you’re saying, those early implementers on the bleeding edge, perhaps they’re visionaries and they anticipate the future, but ultimately it may be financial incentives by the bank saying — if we don’t convert, its value as an office building will be substantially diminished and if we, before the knife falls, OK… You answered already my, my, we’re getting close to the end of our time together, but you already answered this question. But I want to say if, in the post-COVID move away at least for offices from downtown. We don’t want to see a rotten downtown or urban blight or any of these terrible things that we’ve seen happen other cities. So, you’ve really, it’s been a call to action to develop these programs to incentivize people to bring the vibrant residential community downtown. What insight, from this program, is going to bleed on into the rest of the city? You mentioned a whole bunch of other places. We focus on downtown, but you’ve mentioned a whole bunch of other parts of the city that could really use an infusion of imagination and encouragement to become the next Seaport or whatever — what other programs within Boston are being explored to really revitalize some of these more marginalized communities?

[00:27:44] James Arthur Jemison: So, I guess I’d say a couple of things. So, I think that the mayor made mention at a recent speech in October that she was considering other forms of providing resources to support other kinds of housing production that weren’t just office to residential. So, I think that’s one way in which some of the thinking and things we’ve learned here has been important. The value of having, we have a existing sort of development review team that does a great job. I, in my opinion, at least, managing a huge pipeline of proposed development, giving, supporting that staff further with more, more people who can basically help them carry development interests from the time they’re approved here, all the way into construction has been a real value. And again, the truncated and clearer process for regulatory review process is something I think we’re also saying that needs to be. We can bring things. We’re learning from that. Over into our regular modernization, but maybe if I’m talking more holistically about downtown, as opposed to my sort of narrow business side here would be to say the programming of the space in terms of like events, things to make the neighborhood, exciting multiple times a year, multiple times a day, multiple times a week is really essential to creating the energy in the city that we want to see and places that have done it. you see some of that in, in seaport, right now, places that have done it. Well, and invested in it are really seeing the dividend. So, I think if there’s a thing, that’s not necessarily like a conversion activity would be like, more programming is going to be essential.

[00:29:28] Joe Selvaggi: So, I hope we’ve piqued the interest of our listeners, either they be, they’re developers or, potential residents of these buildings that have been converted, or perhaps just people like me who just want to see more people on the street because we know that’s what makes our city great, makes it safe, makes it interesting.

[00:29:41] So, where can our listeners learn more about your office, your program, this particular program, and just where the boss, where what Boston sees as its goals for the future.

[00:29:51] James Arthur Jemison: Sure, so we have a downtown plan that we had a downtown kind of action plan. That’s about a year old that contains focus on look at this.

[00:30:01] And we also just passed at the board last week, a downtown plan. Both these things are on our website as well as the information about office to residential conversion. So, I think most of the stuff there and, and I think, people should come to our website and see some of the exciting stuff we’re into.

[00:30:20] Joe Selvaggi: Well, I wish your program a lot of luck. It sounds like at least your vision, is inspiring, let’s hope, where the rubber meets the road, and implementation, it gets, picked up. So, thank you very much for your time today, Arthur. You’ve been a really, a great guest, a fund of information, and I hope you’ll consider coming back if you up to it.

[00:30:37] James Arthur Jemison: We’d love to do it. I’d love to come back and talk about zoning. I’ll try to make zoning really exciting to everybody.

[00:30:42] Joe Selvaggi: I’m happy to talk about, we’ll do zoning. That’s, we beat that drum here quite a bit. So, if we want to talk about zoning, we’ll double back. But you’ve been a great guest. Thank you for joining me today, Arthur.

[00:30:50] James Arthur Jemison: Hey, thank you.

[00:30:50] Joe Selvaggi: This has been another episode of Hubwonk. If you enjoyed today’s show, there are several ways to support Hubwonk and Pioneer Institute. It would be easier for you and better for us if you subscribe to Hubwonk on your iTunes podcatcher. It would make it easier for others to find Hubwonk if you offer a five star rating or a favorable review.

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Joe Selvaggi discusses the strategic goals of Boston’s Downtown Office to Residential Conversion Pilot Program with James Arthur Jemison, the head of BPDA planning, aiming to transform underutilized offices in downtown into vibrant places to live.


James Arthur Jemison is the Chief of Planning and Director of the Boston Planning and Development Agency. He is a seasoned public-private development leader with 28 years of planning and affordable housing expertise. Formerly Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), he oversaw key programs and partnerships with local governments. His career includes impactful roles in Detroit, Washington D.C., and Boston, contributing to equitable growth and recovery. Jemison holds a BA from UMass Amherst and a Master of City Planning from MIT and has received multiple awards for his contributions to urban development.