Notable Highlights: 2003-2020

After a transition process that culminated in early 2020, the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance decided to continue as a state policy coalition staffed by its member groups, a format that will enable its long-term sustainability. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council will assume the role of coordination.

The Great Neighborhoods program, still led by Anabelle Rondon, has merged with LivableStreets Alliance and will continue to support smart growth activism at the local level. Meanwhile, longtime executive director André Leroux and staff members Larry Field and Dottie Fulginiti have moved on to new opportunities helping communities implement smart growth strategies.

To commemorate a new chapter, we compiled a list of 15 key achievements over the years:

  1. Uniting advocates for better communities
  2. State consistency with smart growth
  3. Brownfields
  4. Zoning reform
  5. Support for planning
  6. Great Neighborhoods phase 1: transformative development
  7. Placemaking
  8. Mixed-income housing
  9. Smart infrastructure investment
  10. Smart growth conferences
  11. District management
  12. Housing Choice
  13. Accessory Dwelling Units and healthy aging
  14. Racial justice initiatives
  15. Great Neighborhoods phase 2: local organizing

Click here to learn more about these key accomplishments!

To everyone feeling anger and grief

Below is a statement released yesterday by Smart Growth America CEO Calvin Gladney which we would like to share with you, co-signed by Executive Director Andre Leroux on behalf of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance.

To everyone who is feeling anger, sadness, frustration and grief right now: we see you and we hear you. We join you in grieving the recent senseless deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other black Americans. Let us not only name their names in this tragic moment, but also call out the ongoing and historic inequities in America that have led to the outpouring of understandable anger and frustration that we see across the country.

Smart Growth America and the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance have one very foundational belief: Everyone deserves to live in a community that is healthy, equitable and resilient. These communities have housing their residents can afford, provide access to transportation options that affordably connect people to jobs and opportunities, and offer public spaces that anyone can safely enjoy.

Yet these past few weeks have painfully illuminated once again that this vision is out of reach for millions of Americans, for reasons that go beyond ongoing police violence. Decisions we have intentionally made about land use, transportation, and the built environment for decades have produced a system that is inherently unequal; where black and brown Americans are more likely to be struck and killed while walking, are less likely to own a home, are more likely to suffer from transportation-related air pollution that increases their chances of death from COVID-19, and—as we’ve seen again—are often targeted by the police in public spaces that are supposed to be for everyone. As a country, we need to do better, and we are committed to doing our part.

We know that many people are hurting right now, and that the most urgent work is to get immediate justice for the families and communities of the recently slain. We will contribute to this fight as best we can, but look to support other organizations who have led on this work for many years. We will also continue our work as well, to help ensure that every American, no matter who they are or where they live, can enjoy living in a place that is healthy, equitable, and resilient. We look forward to joining you in solidarity in today’s fight for justice, and in all the battles to come.

Calvin Gladney
President & CEO
Smart Growth America

Andre Leroux
Executive Director
Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance

Learn more about Community Benefit Districts (CBDs)

Why do we need Community Benefit Districts (CBDs)?

CBDs solve a problem: cities and towns don’t have the resources to support the 18-hour management of our state’s downtowns, main streets and village centers. These “live, work, and play” areas need more attention and resources than residential neighborhoods. They may need street furniture, arts programming, daily trash collection, branding and marketing, and much more. Local government can’t do this alone, and CBDs can help by establishing a supportive public-private-nonprofit partnership.

These “management districts” are run by a nonprofit organization with community governance. They empower local people, businesses, and organizations to get involved in addressing the community’s needs. CBDs promote civic collaboration, long-term revitalization, and private and nonprofit investment in the community. They also create new local jobs and invigorate small business districts. 

Example of district management: Rose Kennedy Greenway

Today’s urban spaces are complicated. The Rose Kennedy Greenway is a prime example. The Big Dig created a series of world-class park spaces that require world-class management. Despite the involvement of the Commonwealth, the City of Boston, deep-pocketed real estate abutters, and parks advocates, no single stakeholder could take on the job and it was quickly becoming unsustainable.

The long-term solution was to create a Business Improvement District. After a thorough outreach effort to property owners around the Greenway, a management plan and budget was developed. 82% of abutters signed the petition, representing 89% of the total $1.5 million budget. The Boston City Council held a hearing, deliberated, and established the BID in April of 2018. The parks are managed by the Greenway Conservancy, a non-profit 501(c)3 organization that holds a long-term lease from MassDOT.

On a smaller scale, the CBD bill would make creative, home-grown partnerships within reach of more cities and towns throughout the state for their own brand of problem-solving. We need new tools and financing mechanisms so that our communities can sustain themselves and thrive.

How is a CBD different from a Business Improvement District (BID)?

They are very similar. Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) were originally developed in the 1970s to keep local downtowns attractive and competitive as they lost population and competed with regional malls. Massachusetts adopted a BID statute in the mid-1990s and now there are currently seven BIDs in the state (Downtown Crossing-Boston, Springfield, Amherst, Taunton, Hyannis, Hudson and the Rose Kennedy Greenway), with one or two more in development.

Thankfully, times have changed. From Boomers to Millennials, people of all ages want to live in walkable and vibrant places that offer a mix of amenities like jobs, shops, services, restaurants and culture. As a result, more communities need district management than ever before.

But these districts are harder to establish in Massachusetts than other parts of the country. We have 7 BIDs in the entire state, while Washington, DC alone has 10 districts, New York City has 75 BIDs, and California has more than 300 CBDs. We’ve heard the need for a new tool that would help more communities participate here, especially towns and Gateway Cities.

Based on interviews with existing BIDs and local officials, along with research into best practices across the country, the CBD bill includes several key changes compared to BIDs:

  1. 75% of the area does not need to be zoned or used for commercial, industrial, retail or mixed use;
  2. The petition requirements are more in line with the rest of the country;
  3. Renewal at least every 10 years;
  4. Management by a nonprofit corporation regulated as a charity; and
  5. Emphasis on a public-private-nonprofit partnership.

Some communities may find the BID model more to their liking, whereas others will find that CBD addresses their needs.

Didn’t we pass this already? Does the Governor support it?

Yes and yes. Governor Baker and Secretary Jay Ash have publicly supported the latest version of the Community Benefit Districts bill and believe that it can be a helpful tool for communities. The Legislature originally passed Community Benefit District language as part of the 2016 Economic Development Act, and then again as part of the FY2018 budget last year. The language was vetoed the first time, and sent back with amendments the second time. Months of detailed negotiations among Sen. Eileen Donoghue, Rep/Sen. Brendan Crighton, and Sec. Jay Ash resulted in the current version acceptable to all parties.

Is this a tax?

No. A tax is a compulsory payment that goes into the government’s coffers to be budgeted by local officials for general use. 

A CBD (or BID) fee is a payment from property owners that pays for services that directly benefit those same property owners. The fee can only be used to implement the management plan that was proposed by local stakeholders and approved by local officials, and nothing else. A better comparison is a condo association, where property owners are joined through an organization to carry out a management plan and levy fees on themselves to pay for the improvement budget. 

Fees are based on formulas agreed upon during the formation process. A property owner who receives less benefit pays less. This is completely different than property taxes, where there is no connection between what an owner pays and the service that is received.

But isn’t this compulsory?

When the BID law was created, participation was optional. However, it didn’t work. That is why the Legislature already addressed this issue in 2012 by closing the loophole and eliminating the opt-in provision for BIDs.

No district management law in the country is “opt-in,” because there would be no incentive for anyone to voluntarily participate. Again, it is similar to a condo association. Although forming a condo association is optional at the beginning, it doesn’t work unless everyone does their part. It is not fair for one owner to pay for the whole roof, for example. But also like condo associations, the CBD has to function despite a small number of owners who may be reluctant participants, or who refuse to pay their share. It can be challenging.

That being said, the CBD fee is mandatory only for some classes of property owners. Nonprofits and public agencies have to decide when the district is created whether they will participate or not, and they are also allowed the flexibility to participate through in-kind contributions rather than payments if that makes it easier—a church could offer the use of community space for meetings, for example. Low-income residents who qualify for property tax relief are automatically exempted. And residential property owners may also be exempted from the fee formula.

Finally, individual hardship waivers are allowed on an annual basis. There is no desire to place undue strain on a resident, small business, non-profit, or other property owner.

Does the petition process favor large property owners?

The proposed CBD statute carefully balances the interests of large and small property owners. On the one hand, the CBD petition process is easier than the BID petition because there is only one threshold to meet: the petition has to be signed by property owners who will pay at least 50% of the district’s budget.

This is in line with other states. For example, California’s petition requirement only requires a 30% threshold in order to be considered for public approval and adoption, and New Jersey doesn’t require a petition at all—just a vote by the local governing body.

The CBD proposal makes good sense. Most commercial areas have a small number of property owners who own a large percentage of the property. It is crucial for them to approve the management plan and agree to pay their share before going too far in the process.

At the same time, CBD establishes new protections for property owners that the BID law doesn’t have. The CBD petition caps the share of a large property owner at 40% when calculating the petition threshold, so no one property owner can meet the petition requirement on his or her own. If a district is composed of four property owners or fewer, all must sign the petition. There is also new disclosure language to prevent large property owners from hiding any controlling interests across multiple real estate entities.

But the petition is just one step in the process, and it is not even the most effective way to protect the interests of small property owners. Both BIDs and CBDs require a public hearing and a vote by the local governing body. CBD goes further by also requiring approval by the mayor or, in towns with less than 10,000 population, the town meeting. The proposed bill requires CBD entities to comply with nonprofit reporting requirements and state oversight, and also requires a detailed management plan to be approved by the local governing body, including disclosing the initial board of directors, the staffing plan, and organizational by-laws. The management plan must by updated at least every three years.

These districts can be dissolved at the initiative of participating property owners, and must be renewed at least every ten years.

Isn’t this what local government should be doing?

The definition of “supplemental services” in the CBD bill is crystal clear that they are “in addition to” standard services provided by the municipality. They do not replace them. This is the accepted practice for over 1000 management districts across the country and is how BIDs have been implemented in Massachusetts without a problem for 20 years.

CBD funds can only be spent on the approved management plan approved by the local governing body. In addition, the CBD proposal goes further than the existing BID statute by authorizing the local municipal executive to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding with the district that spells out in writing what standard services are currently provided by the municipality and what will be done by the CBD, so that there is a baseline and documentation of the respective roles and responsibilities.

Does this threaten labor or privatize public sector jobs?

As mentioned above, CBD can only offer “supplemental municipal services” and not “standard municipal services” that are already provided by the city or town where the district is located. That means that no public sector jobs are threatened and cannot be replaced by private contractors.

The most labor-friendly cities and states in the country use district management tools successfully. As already mentioned, New York City alone has about 75 BIDs, DC has at least 10 and California has over 300 CBDs. By coordinating private property owners and encouraging community investments, district management helps government generate more robust property, sales, and income tax revenues. These flow into public coffers and support the salaries of public sector employees. It is a partnership that works and makes the pie bigger.

CBDs are independent non-profit organizations, so it would be an unprecedented move to impose labor conditions or other extraordinary regulations on them and would create an enormous backlash from the entire non-profit sector. However, they are subject to the same level of public oversight and reporting as any other non-profit organization at the state and federal level. In fact, the CBD is even required to reimburse the municipality for any expenses in creating the district, if the municipality so desires.

The BID statute has operated for the past 20 years without any discernable labor tensions. Nor are we aware of such problems in other parts of the country. Like Main Streets organizations, they are good municipal partners that serve a civic agenda.

Will this violate our civil liberties or cede control of public land? 

The proposed CBD statute does not give police power to the districts. A walk through Boston’s Downtown Crossing (one of our 7 BIDs) illustrates the role of a district entity in promoting vibrant, diverse public places. All of our state and national laws remain in place regarding the right to assemble, speak publicly, or otherwise use public space. Agreements with third-part entities to manage public facilities are common and would be no different if partnering with a CBD or BID. Public ownership of parkland, sidewalks, or other public areas would be retained.

In fact, districts play a positive role in ensuring that more members of the community can access and enjoy that public space, by offering events, music, arts, seating and other amenities.

Districts work cooperatively with local governments. By having more eyes on the street and feet on the ground, they help keep our busiest places safe by alerting police and emergency personnel to emerging situations. They can also provide important outreach to individuals suffering from homelessness, addiction, or mental health challenges in a systematic and humane way by creating programs and partnerships with other local organizations. This is an improvement on the status quo where these individuals are usually engaged only in times of conflict and crisis.

Community Benefit Districts

With a team of three State Senators and three State Representatives negotiating the final version of the Economic Development bill, it is worth looking at an important item that could make its way into Massachusetts law: Community Benefit Districts (CBDs).

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance has made passing Community Benefit Districts one of our top priorities because it addresses a unmet need: with smart growth and walkable areas booming, how will communities manage these vibrant places?


Community Benefit Districts (CBDs) can be a solution.

The CBD proposal empowers communities to solve their own problems based on their unique characteristics. Some examples of how it could work:

  • A downtown district that cleans snow from the sidewalks, empties trash receptacles every day, provides extra security, landscapes and maintains plantings, manages special events, works with agencies to improve transportation, implements a shared valet parking program for restaurants, recruits new businesses, and identifies possible locations for affordable housing.
  • A cultural district (like a Little Italy or Chinatown) that provides cultural programming and art, offers outdoor seating, tells the story of the neighborhood families through plaques and banners, helps develop design guidelines that accentuate the unique character of the neighborhood, works with property owners to support family businesses instead of chains, works with other cultural communities across the region and even internationally to strengthen and renew the heritage of district, and attracts new entrepreneurs and investment from that cultural group.
  • A Main Street CBD that markets itself as a destination for visitors with a website, events, and social media, manages a farmer’s market, provides technical assistance to small businesses, helps the municipality review new development proposals and develop rules to encourage food trucks, and raises funds for small plazas and a new dog park.
  • An arts district that creates a way for artists to directly participate in managing public spaces, organizes festivals, supports public art projects, and works with property owners to develop long-term affordable live-work spaces for artists so that they do not get pushed out by rising prices.
  • A series of suburban town centers connected by a shuttle service, with shared regional marketing and coordinated events.
  • A historic district that develops maintenance plans for aging structures, implements painting or other improvements on a regular schedule, repairs and manages neglected properties, hosts events, researches, documents, and preserves local history, coordinates works with tourism boards and historic sites, and integrates the story of the community in contemporary development.


The fact is, local governments need additional capacity to develop and manage busy areas like downtowns, Main Streets, and village centers. These special places need extra services (such as cleaning, branding, cultural programming, landscaping, supporting local businesses, etc.) that the municipality cannot provide.

Community Benefit Districts (CBDs) can help solve the problem by establishing a local public/private/nonprofit partnership managed by a 501c3 nonprofit, which could be either an existing organization or a new one.

To establish a CBD, a community would work with local property owners to develop a management plan and assess themselves a fee (like a condo fee) to pay for implementing the plan. The private and nonprofit property owners, municipality, businesses, and the community at-large would oversee the nonprofit management organization, and could dissolve it if desired.

CBDs are similar to Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), but offer advantages that could make them more attractive to many cities and towns.

For example, Community Benefit Districts:

  1. Explicitly require the engagement of residents, nonprofits, and municipalities in addition to private property owners and businesses;
  2. Are easier to establish and dissolve even while increasing public accountability and transparency;
  3. Do not require districts to be renewed every five years;
  4. Must be managed by a 501c3 nonprofit organization;
  5. Require a Memorandum of Understanding with the municipality to prevent privatization of municipal services;
  6. Offer a streamlined process for amending the district boundaries and management plan;
  7. Allows a ramp-up period of up to three years;
  8. Includes protections for small property owners, such as a cap on representation by large property owners when forming the district;
  9. Provide communities tremendous flexibility in terms of services, governance structure, and revenues to accomplish their goals;
  10. Bring districts in line with state nonprofit oversight; and
  11. May link multiple districts or municipalities.


The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance has spoken to groups across the state who have already expressed an interest in learning more, including from cities and towns as diverse as: New Bedford, Lowell, Worcester, Boston, Andover, Salem, Somerville, Plymouth, Beverly, Melrose, Cambridge and Lawrence.

If would like to discuss Community Benefit Districts or would like to schedule a presentation to your group, please contact me or Larry Field.

Supporters include: Massachusetts Municipal Association, Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, MassCreative, Springfield Chamber of Commerce, Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, and LOCUS: Responsible Real Estate Developers and Investors, among others.

Lead sponsors of CBD in the Legislature include Senator Eileen Donoghue (Lowell) and Representative Brendan Crighton (Lynn).

Smart Growth in Action: Somerville ‘Learning Journey’ on Oct. 29

Over the next 25 years, the City of Somerville will undergo a profound transformation. With a new Orange Line station in Assembly Square and at least six new stations along the Green Line Extension, convenient access to rail transit will explode from 15% to 85% of Somerville residents.

Tomorrow’s “learning journey” has a capacity crowd attending the morning presentation, networking session, guided trolley tour of Somerville’s transformational “hot spots”, followed by a lunchtime discussion of our common challenges. Hear about our collective efforts to make sure this public investment stays on track and results in local and regional public benefit through the:

  • Local Jobs Campaign
  • Community Path Design
  • Urban Agriculture Initiative
  • Passage of the Community Preservation Act
  • Implementation of the Somerville Comprehensive Plan (“SomerVision”)

To learn more about Somerville and these opportunities, visit the Somerville webpage of our Great Neighborhoods initiative.




As background for our tour, you may like to view the Somerville page of the Great Neighborhoods website:

Calling interns to help with outdoor arts initiative at Bartlett Yards

Our Great Neighborhoods Partners in Roxbury will be organizing events around the Bartlett Yards site.  More information and news coverage is online.

The site’s developer, Nuestra Comunidad Development Corporation, is currently seeking artists and interns to help enliven the outdoor space at Bartlet Yards in 2013. Details are posted on our jobs page.

Nuestra is one of the alliance’s Great Neighborhoods partners in Roxbury.






March 2: Join an emerging network of urban researchers and community members at a cafe-style event in Dorchester

urbanURBAN.Boston, an emerging network of urban researchers and community members, is partnering with Viet Aid to host a café-style event for people to meet, discuss, and work in small groups on important local and community issues.

The event will be held 11am-2pm on Saturday, March 2, at the Vietnamese American Initiative for Development, 42 Charles Street in Dorchester.

To register, please send an email by February 22 and include your name, organization, title, phone, and email. Or, visit our Facebook page.

Event volunteers needed: We need people to facilitate round table discussions and take notes during the small group discussions. If you would be interested, please email URBAN.Boston graduate assistant Perri Leviss.

Urban Research-Based Action Network (URBAN) is an emerging network of researchers and community members who have come together to identify opportunities for collaborative research (and thinking) that addresses critical needs facing urban communities.

Groundwork Lawrence selected as social innovator

Congratulations to our Great Neighborhoods partner, Groundwork Lawrence, for being selected as one of five a social innovators in Greater Boston at Root Cause’s 2012–2013 Social Innovation Forum.

Groundwork Lawrence has done exceptional work in Lawrence on environmental and open space improvements, fresh food programs, youth education, employment initiatives, and community programming and events. This award recognizes these achievements and provides the organization with more than $115,000 in cash and capacity-building services from Root Cause and its partners.

Take a look to at this recent video to see how GWL is helping to build Great Neighborhoods and healthy communities in Lawrence.

Root Cause is a nonprofit research and consulting firm that partners with nonprofits, philanthropy, government, and business to advance solutions to today’s toughest social issues. To see the entire press release click here.