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Benchmark Insights: What is the Key to Developing in Boston?

Benchmark Strategies Senior VP, Joseph Rull, discusses how to “Build Trust and Collaborate with the Neighborhoods.”



The City of Boston is a global center of innovation. The world has been developing real estate in Boston since 1623. Today in 2021, the city continues to be an attractive place to do business.


In my close to 20-year career working on behalf of the City of Boston and in private practice, I have been proud to participate in the planning of over 150 real estate developments. A successful development can bring great benefits to a Boston community, including new housing, local businesses, and the arts.


While I am incredibly proud of my professional career, I am also proud of my home and my neighborhood of South Boston. I began my years working for the City of Boston, listening as a liaison to South Boston residents. From those formative years, I learned the valuable lesson to successful real estate development in Boston: “Build Trust and Collaborate with the Neighborhoods”


Real estate development can be unpredictable. Boston is no exception. Due to the City Zoning Code, most new developments are being decided by the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). This process can also include small home additions.


The Walsh Administration took proactive steps to update the City of Boston’s Zoning Code, but none of the recommendations approved by the BPDA board have been approved by the Zoning Commission. The result is that the BPDA uses the recommendations and plans development projects based off them, but the final approval still ends up with the Zoning Board of Appeals which does not use those recommendations.


The BPDA and the ZBA will take public comments, and it is always more productive to inform board members and elected officials how you have worked with or attempted to work with neighborhood groups and direct abutters.


While the process may not always be a straight line, one area of great importance that the company can control is their engagement with the neighborhood of the development. Boston is an incredible city with 23 neighborhoods, all unique with their own small business communities as well as cultural and civic organizations. While working for Mayor Menino and Mayor Walsh, some of my favorite moments were interacting with Boston residents in these neighborhood organizations from East Boston to Hyde Park to Mattapan. Just as the neighborhoods are unique and important, so is each new proposed development to that community.


As I now advise our clients at Benchmark Strategies, we set a plan to “Build Trust and Collaborate with the Neighborhoods.”


Here is small set of those insights:

1) Invite the neighbors to take part in the process; they live there, and they know the neighborhood better than you or any member of your team.


2) Look forward to the opportunity to educate and build trust with your abutters. Do not assume all abutters oppose your project. Keep an open mind and open ears to listen to their ideas.


3) Understand previous development processes in the neighborhood. The best lessons can be learned from what was successful and their challenges.


4) Prepare and present the company’s supplier diversity plan that includes local hiring and small business engagement in the neighborhood. This plan needs to include specific budget amounts.


5) Support local journalism by introducing yourself to the neighborhood’s weekly newspaper and reporters. Ensure all your meetings have invested in advertising in these important media outlets.


6) Proactively schedule multiple community meetings in partnership with civic organizations in the neighborhood where the proposed development is located. The meeting locations should be held at well-known locations with clear ADA access and signage.


7) Respect the community meeting process by ensuring that your team has multilingual translators and multilingual written communication available for residents.


8) Create a simple and informative landing page that provides direct communication lines from neighborhood organizations and residents to the development team. Although every comment and concern may not be included in the final design, there will be open transparency between your project team and the neighborhood.


9) Construct a negotiation with the neighborhood that provides sustainable development, along with a view for the residents of what will not be an acceptable development size.


10) Say Thank You. A small but often overlooked gesture. Thank you for the time that residents and volunteer organizers take out of their personal time to be engaged in their community. A showing of respect may be the difference of your development moving forward in a community process or not proceeding.


As the City of Boston continues to move forward through 2021, Benchmark Strategies expects that real estate development will resume its pace of 2019. And at the end day, through building trust and collaborating with the neighborhoods, there is opportunity to achieve successful real estate development in Boston.


As Senior Vice President of Public Affairs, Joseph Rull focuses on business development, real estate development, and government/community affairs. Joseph is a seasoned government and political operations advisor with two decades of experience at all levels. He began his career as a liaison with the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, advancing to become a Special Assistant to the late Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino. Joseph also worked for the Massachusetts Port Authority and the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, prior to serving as the Director of Legislative Affairs for the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance for Governor Deval Patrick’s administration.


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