April 21, 2014
It was a great Marathon Day today in Massachusetts.

 (via The Boston Marathon, 2014 - Photos - The Big Picture - Boston.com)

It was a great Marathon Day today in Massachusetts.

(via The Boston Marathon, 2014 - Photos - The Big Picture - Boston.com)

January 20, 2014
Somerville — the little city that could - Opinion - The Boston Globe

Makes me nostalgic for my old home town (although I probably can’t afford to live there).

January 17, 2014
Jamaica Plain walking tour - The Boston Globe

My home.   The last sentence reads: “It’s challenging to experience all that Jamaica Plain has to offer in one visit or even two. It’s a neighborhood made to return to again and again.”  I’ve lived here for nearly 7 years and haven’t been to all the places mentioned.   

October 17, 2013
"Add up all the corporate tax breaks and Boston walks away from truckloads of revenue in the name of jobs and economic development. It’s money that could be used to pay police, firefighters, and teachers. But there’s no outrage over those giveaways and so far they’re not an issue in the race to become Boston’s next mayor. No, the outrage is all about the police contract, the school bus driver strike, and candidate Martin J. Walsh’s ties to organized labor. Walsh, a former union construction worker and head of the Greater Boston Labor Council, has received at least $917,000 from union contributors. Voters have a right to question his loyalties and only he can put legitimate concerns to rest. He has not fully owned up to the impact of the bill he filed as state representative that would make an arbitrator’s ruling final in a labor dispute. But given the traditionally strong connection between labor and virtually every Democratic politician in Massachusetts, the great indignation over Walsh’s union ties is a little overdone. Who was a bigger labor champion than the late Senator Ted Kennedy? And who bailed him out in 1994, when he faced a serious challenge from then newcomer Republican Mitt Romney? Laid-off union workers traveled from Indiana to Massachusetts to tell voters what happened after Romney’s Bain Capital took over the Ampad manufacturing plant. Their story helped turn the tide for Kennedy. “I would not be here right now as a US senator without the AFL-CIO,” declared Ed Markey at Boston’s recent Labor Day breakfast. At that same event, Senator Elizabeth Warren told the cheering crowd, “You sent me to Washington to fight … There’s no one I’d rather fight shoulder to shoulder with than the people in this room.” The people in the room were also Walsh supporters. When labor stands with Warren or Markey, its representatives are viewed as working people fighting for their rights. But in the context of this mayoral election, they are collectively seen as thugs and manipulators trying to grab more than they deserve from city coffers. Little distinction is made between private and public sector unions, and public sector union employees are automatically demonized as lazy, overpaid keepers of the status quo. Unlike a US senator, the next mayor must negotiate a slew of city contracts and Boston has given away a lot over the years. As the city prepares to elect a new mayor, it’s fair to wonder if less rather than more hostility would help on both sides of the negotiating table. Meanwhile, bowing to prevailing anti-union sentiment, both Walsh and rival John R. Connolly say police are asking for too much money. When will someone say corporations and developers are also asking for too many tax breaks?"

In Boston, there’s outrage over union benefits, but not over corporate tax breaks - Opinion - The Boston Globe

October 8, 2013
"BOSTON IS growing at a pace not seen in the better part of a century. The city now has more residents than it has at any point since the 1970s, and has arrived at the renaissance moment city leaders have been chasing for 60 years. There’s no reason the city can’t keep up with the growth it’s seeing now, as long as it can build places for all these new people to live. New homes equal new residents, and new residents equal growth. It sounds like a straightforward equation, but it isn’t. Boston doesn’t control its own development fate. As tough as many of Boston’s neighborhoods can be on developers, the biggest threat to the city’s growth lies with legislators on Beacon Hill. Lawmakers are starving the MBTA of funds the transit agency needs to support the Boston region’s growth. And as long as the T’s finances remain anemic, robust growth in Boston will be unsustainable. Boston has been meeting the boom by adding height downtown and filling in its outlying neighborhoods. And whether it’s at the huge new Filene’s tower downtown, or on Roxbury’s old Bartlett bus yard, or at Jackson Square and Forest Hills in Jamaica Plain, or at the old Boston Herald plant in the South End, or in the Seaport, the housing developments rising are oriented around the MBTA. It’s the same story in Cambridge, Somerville, Quincy, Medford, and Malden, where major new housing initiatives come tied to direct subway access, and in Worcester, Lowell, Haverhill, and Brockton, where Boston-bound commuter rail lines have helped sell major downtown projects. This is as it should be. Boston and its surrounding communities wouldn’t be able to physically accommodate the growth they’re seeing now if every new resident arrived in a Buick. The alternative needs some serious work, though: Boston-area development is pumping thousands of new riders into a system that doesn’t work as it is. Beacon Hill lawmakers plugged the T’s operating deficit earlier this year, essentially level-funding an inadequate level of service, and leaving a huge list of key capital projects unfunded. The region’s economic future hinges on a transit system that’s physically incapable of meeting the need. Beacon Hill has two choices, then. Lawmakers can realize that a down payment on growth around the urban core will pay dividends statewide, and put some real money into new subway cars, diesel engines, track work, and buses. Or, they can let the metro region do what Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Portland, Ore., have done, and allow the Boston region to raise its own transit funds, from a regional payroll tax, new local sales taxes, or some other means. If the Boston area is going to keep growing, there isn’t a third option. State lawmakers need to get on board, or get out of the way."

Starving MBTA will stunt Boston’s growth - Opinion - Boston.com

October 1, 2013
"

But Boston has changed tremendously since then. The city is growing rapidly, and getting younger. The new residents elbowing their way into town are choosing urban living — crowded, noisy, and exciting.

Boston can’t physically allow every resident and worker to drive around town like it’s Interstate 495. The roads couldn’t handle the traffic, and there aren’t enough parking spaces to go around. This is why the city has a hard cap on the number of public parking spaces allowed downtown, and why it expects many of the workers in newly built office towers to arrive by public transportation.

When it comes to new residential developments, though, City Hall is still largely grounded in the 1970s. It requires housing developers to build minimum levels of parking, regardless of whether building residents actually have cars to park.

Parking minimums aren’t policy, so much as they are a political toll that developers have to pay to win local approvals. And in Boston, nothing drives politically active neighborhood groups crazier than parking and traffic. They believe as an article of faith that new apartments and condominiums equal new cars, and demand that these new cars not compete for on-street parking with existing residents. So the cost of Boston development permits is paid in expensive, empty parking spaces.

City officials have gradually been letting the quantity of parking extracted from developers slip, to a ratio of three spaces for every four new housing units, and sometimes less. This is a level of parking far below what suburban communities demand from housing developers. Still, even in Boston, city policy assumes that all new housing developments create significant new parking headaches.

That assumption just doesn’t square with reality. Census data show that more than half of Boston residents currently take the T, bike, or walk to work. There are now 27,000 more car-free workers living in the city than there were a decade ago. This doesn’t mean that the Boston Redevelopment Authority should forcibly seize minivans from West Roxbury families. But it does mean that developers should be able to build car-free communities downtown and near transit. Building regulations should square with the way people actually live.

"

Boston could be car-free, it’s how people actually live

October 1, 2013
"

That means encouraging density and development in the neighborhoods, where “the financials” aren’t quite so enticing for developers. Forty percent of Boston’s children are concentrated in just two neighborhoods: Dorchester and Roxbury. Most live in single-parent households, and nearly half have at least one foreign-born parent. Immigrant families have always been a vibrant force in urban growth, but they needn’t be isolated in one district, where their concerns can be out of sight for much of the population.

There’s also no reason why families with children can’t live in dense neighborhoods of brownstones or even properly designed high-rises; Vancouver, Tokyo, and New York City do this well. We need more housing in Dorchester and Roxbury, but we also need more children in the South End, Brighton, and — why not? — the waterfront.

Happily, both finalists in this week’s mayoral election seem ready to address the demographic divide. “Boston is growing and attracting new people, but the high cost of living makes it hard for seniors and middle-class families to stay in the city they know and love,” said Marty Walsh on election night. John Connolly lamented that Boston’s children “are living in two different worlds” — one that is healthy and safe and one that is not. Both candidates have committed to improving the schools, and that ought to include new schools that can grow as they attract families to non-traditional neighborhoods.

The next mayor needs to nurture the growing appeal of Boston to newcomers — of all races and backgrounds, yes, but also of all ages. Boston is a wealthy city, but without lots of thriving families with children, it’s not as rich.

"

Boston’s new demographic divide - Opinion - The Boston Globe

September 24, 2013
"As local transportation officials and engineers work to improve safety for Boston’s cyclists, they’re starting to realize that the things we think make Boston bad for bikes — cramped streets, crowded roadways, a desperate need for parking spots that leaves little room for bike lanes — are exactly the factors that made the Dutch bicycle revolution possible half a century ago. In fact, politicians, government leaders, and urban planners in Boston are increasingly looking to the Netherlands to figure out how to improve bike safety, and with it, bike usage, at home. Largely, American planners inspired by the Dutch experience have taken an “if you build it, they will come” approach: If American cities invest the money to redesign their roads, transportation experts say, children, senior citizens, and men and women in suits will try out cycling. But the Dutch have another lesson to share: Better bicycle infrastructure isn’t enough. You need better cyclists, too, and more bike-aware motorists. Universal in-school bicycle education guarantees that every Dutch child can comfortably ride in traffic. By the time they get their drivers’ license, they’ve used bicycles as their primary form of transportation for years — and that habit continues into adulthood."

Bicycling the Dutch Way - Metro - The Boston Globe

June 11, 2013
"BOSTON DOESN’T build tall buildings very often, so any proposal to erect a cluster of them is an anomaly. The towers slated to rise above the Government Center Garage and the old Boston Garden site stand out even more because developers are clamoring to erect some of the city’s highest buildings in a neighborhood that was, until recently, a backwater. The proposed 600-foot towers will put multiple exclamation points on the Bulfinch Triangle’s emergence from its pre-Big Dig shadows. Seen from the harbor, the two mega-projects will extend the Financial District’s cluster of towers out of downtown, and to the foot of the Zakim Bridge. But the towers — which are using height as a tool for advancing the streets around them — don’t represent an extension of Boston’s downtown, but rather, the triumph of its Back Bay. With the towers, the mixture of significant height and fine-grain neighborhood streets that enabled the Back Bay’s success now spreads to the rest of the city. The High Spine saved the old Back Bay from the wrecking ball. City planners had seriously considered bulldozing large sections of Commonwealth Avenue, and inserting modern apartment towers among the historic brownstones. They flirted with demolition because they were desperate to pump new life into what was, in the 1960s, a shabby, deteriorating neighborhood. The Back Bay’s towers — led by the Prudential Center and the the John Hancock Tower — represented a way of investing in the Back Bay while preserving the old neighborhood. The line of new Back Bay towers lifted destructive development pressures from the Back Bay’s historic brownstones, while the enormous investment that created the city’s architectural spine spilled over into the shops and restaurants that sprang up in the blocks around the towers. Massive office towers and low-slung residential neighborhoods now sit cheek-to-jowl. The result on the street is a jumbled mixture of residents and office workers and shoppers that create a vitality the downtown can’t match. Related
6/6: Boston embraces age of the skyscraper
The Garden and Government Center garage mega-projects are ambitious variations on the same theme, at sites that have long held wasted potential. It’s the High Spine extended into North Station. The Causeway Street site that Boston Properties and Delaware North are now teeing up for redevelopment has been a fenced-off parking lot since the old Boston Garden came down 15 years ago. The property, once the center of a dark, beer-stained, part-time corner on the edge of town, is now teeming with activity. The Big Dig, the demolition of the elevated Green Line, and the expansion of North Station have combined to open up a neighborhood penned in by hulking transportation systems. New residences and offices are now springing up on three sides of the Garden site. The proposal for replacing the old Garden with 1.7 million square feet of new homes, offices, hotel rooms and shops — punctuated with towers that could match the tallest buildings in the Financial District — would anchor all this new development. The Government Center Garage project is even more ambitious. It would transform a nine-story, 2,300-car garage that spans Congress Street into a five-acre, six-building complex. The garage is the last of a number of urban renewal-era parking structures that the city sold in the 1970s and 1980s to be slated for redevelopment. It has deadened the surrounding city blocks and walled off the downtown from the Bulfinch Triangle for roughly half a century. The garage’s developer, the HYM Investment Group, wants to cut the garage in half, wrap its blank sides in shops, offices, and homes, add new structures along the Greenway and Haymarket Square, and top the garage’s western half with a pair of significant new towers. The garage redevelopment and the Garden project are both large, expensive, and unusually tall for their part of town. In each case, the height isn’t an end to itself, but a way of paying for the retail and street level improvements below. And the shops at the base of the developments are aimed at reinforcing the activity that’s already happening in the low-slung neighborhoods next door, in the North End and Beacon Hill and the emerging Bulfinch Triangle. It’s the High Spine extended into North Station — height, density, and low-rise neighborhoods all working in harmony."

Towers rise from Big Dig shadows - Opinion - The Boston Globe

This plan looks awesome.  I hope NIMBY’s don’t nibble it to death.

May 10, 2013
(via National Geographic Traveler Magazine: 2013 Photo Contest - The Big Picture - Boston.com)

(via National Geographic Traveler Magazine: 2013 Photo Contest - The Big Picture - Boston.com)

May 7, 2013
"

Ugly persists.

Built in 1895, the McKim Building is massive and delicate at the same time. To its right is the 1972 Johnson Building, simplistic and gloomy. Thus we have Boston City Hall (voted the world’s[!] ugliest building by the website virtualtourist.com); the massive, meandering State Health, Education and Welfare Services Center on Staniford Street; the three JFK federal buildings across from City Hall; and the behemoth, view-blocking Congress Street garage.

Sometimes it’s money that keeps them in place; tearing down and rebuilding is expensive. Sometimes ugly seems to become its own virtue (a piece not long ago in the Globe was titled, “In praise of ugly buildings”). Then too, preservationists and others who should know better treat buildings like inviolable artworks.

The difference, of course, is that a bad painting can be put in storage. There’s nowhere to hide a bad building.

If you’re familiar with the buildings in my list, you’re probably aware that most of them are from the 1960s and 1970s. They were designed by some of that era’s best-known names, including Gerhard Kallmann, Michael McKinnell, Paul Rudolph, and Walter Gropius.

Philip Johnson was also one of those talents. A productive designer who lived and worked well into his 90s, he created some great buildings — just not in Boston. To a degree, the BPL project forced some tough constraints on Johnson, including matching up the new building’s height to the much beloved McKim. What we ended up getting with Johnson’s building was a dumbed-down echo of its predecessor (it even uses the same shade of granite). One engages the eye and entrances the mind. The other stupefies.

So what went wrong? Blame the era, perhaps, one of turmoil and change that rejected the past and celebrated a coarse modernism. Blame also the power of government to force its will and a near-disdain for community involvement.

Architects have learned a lot from those days. Current design more consciously cares about users as well as the relationships buildings have to each other and the street. Then too, it’s hard to imagine any of the buildings on my list of uglies getting approved today; the outcry would be too much. That’s a good thing. It means we aren’t necessarily doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Unfortunately, it does seem our doom that the mistakes of the past are too often part of our present.

"

In two Boston library buildings, best and worst of public architecture - Opinion - The Boston Globe

A great analysis of the failure of public architecture in some of Boston’s most noted buildings.

May 6, 2013
(via By rail - The Big Picture - Boston.com)

I can’t explain, but I won’t complain, I only know that I love trains.

(via By rail - The Big Picture - Boston.com)

I can’t explain, but I won’t complain, I only know that I love trains.

April 13, 2013
"According to the 2012 Urban Mobility Index of the Texas Transportation Institute, the Boston region has the nation’s ninth largest population area, but we are fifth in annual auto commuter delays. Whatever improvements were brought about by the Big Dig for some commuters, Boston’s delays, according to the institute’s data, are virtually the same today as they were a decade ago. DeLeo and his like-minded colleagues said we cannot pay now for Patrick’s grand vision for modernized subways for Boston and rail extensions to the south coast. But the cost of being in a disproportionately congested city comes out to $1,147 a year for the average Boston area commuter, according to the index. To borrow from DeLeo’s pooh-poohing of Patrick’s taxes, that is plenty of “pain on families.” That also seems to be far more than what Patrick’s plan will cost, according to state budget chief Glen Shor. In an interview, Shor said the governor’s total tax plan of $1.9 billion for transportation and education would cost taxpayers nothing in households with annual income under $60,000; about $300 in households earning $60,000 to $100,000; and $300 to $700 for households above $100,000. There is abundant evidence that serious modernization of transportation has several multiplier effects, so many that the Legislature’s anti-tax posturing represents willful ignorance. Studies by several Boston area civic organizations warn of burgeoning ridership in a city beginning to glitter in innovation. Glen Weisbrod, president of Boston’s Economic Development Research Group, has calculated that each $1 billion spent on capital investment in public transportation creates 24,000 direct and indirect jobs. With stores, businesses, and cafes sprouting up around transit stations, that $1 billion in investment could spur as much as $1.7 billion in economic growth, he predicts."

Pay now or really pay later for transportation - Opinion - The Boston Globe

April 9, 2013
"THE OLD hub, spoke, and wheel system that shaped Boston development for half a century is dead. It used to be that the businesses nestled into the staid suburban office parks along Route 128 mattered at least as much as the ones filling up towers in Boston and Cambridge. That’s no longer true. The business and social life of the region increasingly revolves around the tightly packed urban core. Beacon Hill chose this moment — when new companies, residents, and billions upon billions of dollars in private investment are flowing into the city — to cripple the transit system that makes it all possible. Much of the debate over Governor Deval Patrick’s $1.9 billion tax plan has centered on the proposal’s cost. Those fears are overblown. The latest issue of CommonWealth Magazine (where I work) shows that tax burdens in Massachusetts have tracked at or below the national average for the past 30 years, and that even if Patrick got all the taxes he asked for, Massachusetts residents would still face lower tax bills than residents in solidly conservative states like Indiana. Less has been said about the consequences of letting the MBTA crumble. But those consequences loom large, since the financial viability of the MBTA is far more important now than it was even a decade ago. Related
Discuss: Is the state starving the MBTA?
House approves $500m transportation finance bill
Cities that once fell victim to crippling suburban flight are booming, thanks to a surge in residents who value walkable streets and lively neighborhoods over large suburban home lots. Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville are growing more quickly than the state as a whole; they’re also young and getting younger, even as the rest of Massachusetts ages. And employers are following them into the urban core, paying huge markups to operate in Boston and Cambridge, rather than in a low-slung building at the bottom of a highway off-ramp. This shift has come to a head as Massachusetts moves out of recession. Post-recession booms usually start in the suburbs, where builders stalk cheap land and bargain-hunting corporations. But that isn’t the case this time around. Instead, companies are seizing the city center. Biogen has ended its flirtation with the suburbs and is expanding in Cambridge instead. Pfizer, Novartis, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, the Broad Institute, Amazon, and Google are all growing around Kendall Square. Vertex Pharmaceuticals is headlining the buildout of Boston’s Seaport. Converse is swapping its North Andover headquarters for Causeway Street. State Street is giving up a series of suburban properties to construct an expensive new complex along the Fort Point Channel. And as companies chase young talent in the urban core, the region is making moves to grow even younger and denser. Builders are lining up thousands of new housing units for Downtown Crossing and the Fenway. Cambridge’s Central Square, Somerville’s Brickbottom and Union Square, and Boston’s Fairmount corridor are all being up-zoned to accommodate new development. New residences are clustering around Alewife and Wellington Circle. Entirely new neighborhoods are springing up in Quincy Center and Somerville’s Assembly Square. The common element in all of this is mass transit access. Residents and companies crowd into Boston and Cambridge to feed off the cities’ connectivity; continued transit access is at the heart of the business plans allowing these places to grow denser still. It’s not reasonable to expect that all of State Street’s employees are going to rent apartments on A Street. But it is reasonable to expect that if State Street is recruiting young, mobile, urban employees, a decent chunk of them are going to be riding subway cars and buses to Fort Point from the Fenway or Somerville or Charlestown. The MBTA is already straining to keep up with its current users. Its core stations — Kendall, Park Street, Downtown Crossing, and Copley Square — are above capacity now, even before accounting for the tens of millions of square feet currently in the construction pipeline. At the same time that the system is being pushed toward its breaking point, it’s being starved financially. Forget about running the Green Line to Somerville: The Legislature is now poised to advance a $500 million transportation tax plan that would leave basic maintenance for the aging transit system, like new buses and subway cars, unfunded. Just as infrastructure investments enable private investment, so too will public disinvestment put pressure on the huge sums firms are now sinking into the city. The biggest potential drag on the region’s economy isn’t developers’ ability to find customers for all the apartment towers and office buildings they’re erecting; the constraint is their ability to move around town."

Unfunded transist system strands city development - Opinion - The Boston Globe

March 11, 2013
"

A group of more than 50 economists will voice their support Monday for Governor Deval Patrick’s plan to increase Massachusetts’s income tax, saying that chronic underfunding of the state’s education and transportation systems has threatened future prosperity.

“We believe there needs to be a significant increase in investment to make sure we remain economically competitive,” said Barry Bluestone, director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, one of the 57 economists who signed the statement backing the governor’s plan.

The governor’s proposal, which would generate an additional $1.9 billion annually, raises the income tax from 5.25 to 6.25 percent, while cutting the sales tax from 6.25 to 4.5 percent.

His plan also would eliminate 44 tax exemptions and deductions and change the corporate tax code to raise $149 million a year.

The additional revenue would be used to finance a broad overhaul of the state’s aging transportation system and launch major education initiatives.

"

Local economists back governor’s tax hike plan - Metro - The Boston Globe

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