Mayor Walsh: We’re okay with bold

This is an advice column. To Marty Walsh. With pictures. The message: You’ve been bold. Expand your efforts.

The mayor’s State of the City speech showed his intention to solve two of the Boston’s thorniest problems—housing and education. Downtown residents need affordable housing and good public education as much as other neighborhoods. But neighborhoods in Boston’s densest areas have additional problems. The persistent lack of solutions affects downtown residents’ everyday life.

Since Marty seems to be taking bold action on two important fronts, we’d like to remind him of the innovative steps other city leaders have taken to improve quality of life for center city residents. Such steps require daring and fortitude, and we think he just might have those qualities.

 

Here is a solution from London:

 

Picture 1

 

This photo shows how seriously London residents take cleanliness. If a dog fouls a sidewalk or street in Kensington or Chelsea, the owner could be fined 2,500 pounds sterling, or about 3,700 U.S. dollars. (There was another sign that said the top fine was 1,000 pounds, but I liked this one better.)

The City of Boston website says there is a law that one must clean up after one’s dog, but no fine is mentioned. With no consequence, the dog owners with low IQs—that must be the reason they don’t pick up because it is so easy to do so—show no inclination to follow the rules.

A large fine, publicized on signs throughout the neighborhoods, then levied by alert city officials, would be a deterrent.

 

Picture 2

 

This sign accompanied a sofa that was left on a South Kensington street. In Boston we are lucky—the trash guys pick up stuff like that. But televisions and toilets, which they don’t pick up, can sit on the sidewalks for days. No fine apparently goes with this sign, probably because it is impossible to tell who put the offending item out in public view. Nevertheless, calling it an environmental crime raises the stakes.

 

No pictures exist for the rest of these ideas taken from other cities. But Mayor Walsh could copy the boldest ones and endure the complaints that will surely come. Then, within a year, everyone would accept them because their lives would be better.

 

Charge big bucks for resident parking stickers. Bostonians, like other Americans, are guaranteed life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but that does not include free parking. Parking stickers should cost a significant amount per year—50 to 75 dollars for the first car and double and triple that amount for a second and third car per household. Even though half the people in some downtown neighborhoods have no car, parking is still difficult. Charging for stickers would remove a few cars, and it would raise funds for other needed services.

 

Charge big bucks to drive into Boston. Forbes Magazine reports that Boston is the ninth most traffic-congested city in America. Cities in other parts of the world have successfully attacked this problem. Singapore, Oslo, and Stockholm have designated congestion zones and imposed fees to enter them. London, another example, charges the equivalent of about 17 dollars for the authorization to drive into the zone between seven a.m. and six p.m. on weekdays. The charge reduces traffic, but it also reduces toxic traffic emissions, a goal Mayor Walsh has said he wants to achieve. Funds raised supplement London’s transport system. Wouldn’t it be nice to have such a new source of revenue for our MBTA?

Wouldn’t it also be nice for those people who must drive into Boston to have fewer vehicles on the road so they don’t have to waste an estimated 35 hours annually sitting in traffic?

Congestion charges were at first unpopular with Londoners. Then they decided they loved it. Judging by London’s continued success as a financial center, the congestion charge did nothing to stunt its economic growth, and may have stimulated it instead.

Mayor Bloomberg tried to initiate such a thing in New York, but that city’s residents were not worldly enough to take such a step.

Many Bostonians worry defensively that Boston isn’t world class. Taking any of these steps would put Boston front and center into the category of cities taking important steps toward making themselves better places to live.

 

 

The calm month

Lots of people complain about January. It is dark. It is cold. It’s a day longer than some months. The hoopla about the holidays is over.

Thank goodness. That is the beauty of January. It is not like autumn, the season in which everyone and every organization are trying to crowd in every event they can to make up for the time lost in the summer. Nor is it like December, one headlong rush of parties, presents and much to-ing and fro-ing.

Neither is it like April, May and the first week or so of June, in which everyone and every organization are trying to crowd in every event before everyone leaves for the summer.

Instead, not much is happening.

To enjoy January fully, it helps to have the right infrastructure. Number one is a fireplace. But, of course, you need wood. Once in awhile a guy with a truckfull of logs shows up on a street corner, but he is unpredictable. Groceries and the big box stores sell wood, but it’s hard to haul it home. Fake logs will work, but they look—well—fake. No wonder so many homeowners have gone to gas fireplaces that you start with the same kind of clicker you use for the television.

Another important piece of infrastructure are heavy curtains that can be drawn across windows. In case you hadn’t noticed, typical storm windows are really not that effective when it gets to 10 below.

A comfortable chair, a good bookshelf and a full supply of coffee, tea, hot chocolate or supplies for hot buttered rum or hot toddies are also a necessity. So is a full fridge and backup supplies of everything else you need. After all, you don’t want to have to go out in the cold on slippery sidewalks if you don’t have to.

Good friends are a necessity in January, preferably those who do not go away to some warmer clime. Getting together for bridge, a movie or music is something to look forward to, and generally getting tickets for performances doesn’t seem has difficult as it was in December.

A down or fur coat is important. Objections about fur coats too often come from a persons who eat meat, wear leather shoes or have cars with leather seats. Hypocrisy is not pretty—and if you’re okay with down but not fur, just think what happens to the ducks.

If you get a couple of weeks in a warm place, you’re one of the lucky ones. It’s impressive, however, to learn about how many downtown Boston residents, who might go away for a week or so, don’t actually go to Florida for the whole winter. We stick it out here, maybe because we actually like a bracing winter day, and we certainly like a good snowstorm that blankets sound and provides such beauty out the window. Most of us don’t have to drive in the mess to get to work or to school, so we’re better off than those who commute by car every day.

Even though there’s a lot of talk about the winter blues, in fact most of us get through the winter just fine. Estimates are all over the place, but there seems to be some agreement that 4 to 6 percent of Americans become seriously depressed in winter with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Another 10 to 20 percent are mildly affected. Of course, those in northern states are more likely to suffer than those in southern states.

This means a large percentage of New Englanders are just fine with winter. Maybe they are happy that the January calm starts the new year out just right.

The more things change . . .

At Faneuil Hall Marketplace, an out-of-town manager doesn’t understand how to run a Boston business. Local businesses are ousted to make room for chains. The manager believes the pushcart vendors, with their dubious tchotchkes, bring down the tone of the place. The vendors, however, accuse the manager of shutting them out of decision making and imposing unsustainable restrictions on them. Accommodating tourists sometimes conflicts with attracting locals.

These conditions could describe Boston’s festival market at this point, as it was revealed at a Boston City Council hearing in December. On the one side was the poised and articulate Kristen Keefe, general manager of the marketplace, who described plans for the market’s renovation. On the other were a pushcart vendor, a sandwich shop owner who is being pushed out, and Jane Thompson, who with her husband, Benjamin, envisioned and designed the repurposed market in 1972. Thompson decried the mall atmosphere of a market she said was formed with the public trust, since the BRA and the City of Boston own the buildings.

But the first paragraph actually describes Faneuil Hall Marketplace when it first opened, according to Deborah M. Hanley, whose retail development and marketing company, Todreas/Hanley, worked with the original leasing team and helped put in place such local purveyors as Hebert Candies, the Bear Necessities, start-up restaurants, and the old meat and cheese purveyors who first occupied Quincy Market, the central building.

Hanley said her company was the only Boston-based firm working with the Rouse Company, a shopping mall developer based in Baltimore. Within a year it was clear the market was a success, she said, but it had already started to change. By the time the South Market opened, chains were replacing local businesses. Tensions between the pushcart vendors and the management company were constant. Eventually the Rouse Company got rid of the old cheese and meat purveyors, who weren’t bringing in enough money, and moved in fast-food places. Hanley was disappointed with the ultimate result, which became more like a traditional shopping mall. “It’s always been about the big bucks,” she said. “There’s no reason to go down there.”

And Bostonians claim they don’t go to Faneuil Hall Marketplace. I confess I sometimes do. Once in awhile, we’ll meet at a restaurant. Our grandchildren love the street performers and the ice cream shops, located a short walk from the Greenway’s carousel.

Hanley, though, points out that her daughter, Amanda, 26, does not meet her friends at Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Instead they go to the Back Bay or Central Square.

Keefe said at the hearing she wanted to attract more Bostonians. But judging from the pictures she showed, it is not ALL Bostonians. The architects’ renderings show the renovated rotunda of the Quincy Market building with a bar featuring up-to-date architecture and young, fashionable people Amanda’s age.

Luring Bostonians back to the market doesn’t seem to be the only goal. Ashkenazy plans to install a small hotel along a side street that could use some vitality. Not a bad idea, but it will bring more tourists, not locals.

Quincy Market, which is the middle building, does look dowdy, and Ashkenazy’s refurbishment is welcome. The pushcart vendors accused Keefe of planning to eliminate them, since architectural plans showed no pushcarts. Keefe claimed that was not the case. They said she was secretive, deceptive and refused to let them participate in a planned redesign of their carts. She sidestepped these accusations at the hearing, and did not answer emailed questions for this column, so maybe they are right.

Keefe’s plan for the market seems to be to increase the number of chain merchants. Uniqlo, for example, an international chain featuring cheap clothing, will expand into a second floor space in Quincy Market.

Increasing the number of chains could be risky, said Jesse Baerkahn, a retail specialist. Local is fashionable in more than just food. He said the best idea would be to find businesses “that are unique to Boston and offer something you cannot get anywhere else.”

But taking that route has problems too. Chains pay their bills. Keefe reported that 40 percent of the merchants at Faneuil Hall Marketplace are in arrears. Keefe did not credibly explain why her company has allowed so many merchants to get behind on lease payments. Nor was it clear why the merchants could not afford their rent.

After all, apparently Faneuil Hall Marketplace attracts more visitors than the Great Wall of China. Travel and Leisure magazine reports that Faneuil Hall Marketplace is the eighth most visited attraction in the United States with 15 million visitors. Wikipedia says it is the seventh most visited attraction with 20 million visitors.

Whatever the number, and whether Bostonians go there or not, it is probably a good idea not to mess too much with success.

 

Disruption or consequences?

Disruption was 2014’s trendy cliché. A new idea comes along and, poof, out with the old. Business school types are enthralled. New technology and new ideas are part of the disruption.

But some businesses and industries are vulnerable, sometimes because they haven’t taken certain developments into account.

Take coal. It is hard to listen to West Virginians complain about too much regulation, too much belief in climate change and too many jobs lost. They have been disrupted by cheap natural gas and the promise of wind and solar power. But coal has been going out of fashion since London banned most coal burning, first in the 1950s and then more so in the 1990s. Few people want to live downwind from a coal-burning plant. Few want to live with the polluted rivers and soil that coal mining and burning brings.

Nevertheless, it is easy to sympathize with long-time coal boosters and climate change deniers. Their livelihoods are disappearing; their way of life is going. Their unimaginative leaders have fanned their complaints instead of helping them invent new industries and find creative solutions.

Downtowns in many communities were also vulnerable. It wasn’t just that shopkeepers’ merchandise was more expensive than that sold by Walmart. Too many of those shopkeepers were offering out-of-date goods, little variety and unkempt environments. Too many towns demolished retail buildings to build parking lots so there were fewer shops of any kind to attract buyers. Walmart didn’t have to do much to disrupt such town centers.

Now we’ve got taxi drivers complaining about Uber, and it sounds like coal and town centers all over again.

I’ll confess I know little about Uber. I’ve never called one up on my cell phone. I don’t have an opinion on how much Uber should be regulated, if it is regulated at all.

But I do know taxis. They are as vulnerable as coal and town centers. There are not enough of them at many hours of the day. Residents of the Charlestown Navy Yard or the upper slopes of Beacon Hill who call a taxi say they never come. Even though the hybrid Toyotas are more comfortable than the old Ford Victorias, they are still cramped. The electronic screens on the back of the front seat are annoying. Unlike New York City taxis, more than half of Boston taxis have no rules posted, no telephone numbers to call with a problem and no driver identification. Let’s not even discuss the driver’s annoyance if you pay by credit card. Finally, again unlike New York City, Boston taxis have no light indicating if they are free to pick up a fare.

With service such as this, no wonder this industry is being disrupted.

The taxi industry, however, has made changes in the recent past that show it could clean up its act.

Drivers now seem to have more of “The Knowledge” about how to get around Boston. In the last few months, I have had to instruct few drivers about how to get to where I wanted to go. Twenty years ago, I had to guide almost all of them.

The airport taxis are better managed. When our children were young, we encountered drivers who cursed and pounded the steering wheel because we were headed to downtown Boston rather than Lexington, where they expected such a family as ours to live.

The cabs are cleaner and no longer smelly. They have been painted white—not as eye-catching as New York’s, but at least a gesture toward helping people identify them as they cruise around. Several years ago there was a driver who played the trumpet as he drove. Thank goodness he and other crazies have left the industry.

Most drivers, however, talk on their mobile phones, confusing passengers who think they are talking to them. More annoying, is that while on the phone, drivers can’t hear the passenger or pay attention to traffic.

There are problems besides Uber that the taxi industry faces. The Boston Globe exposed many of those last spring.

But the reason Uber is a threat to taxis is not because of the problems the Globe unearthed. Nor, for many people, is it that Uber might be cheaper. Like the status-quo defenders in coal-producing states, the taxi industry seems blind to conditions they have caused.

Cab drivers need to stop trying to get regulators to impose rules that will last only until the next new idea comes along. Instead they should provide better service and create new incentives that will keep customers loyal.

Not all news is bad

Most readers probably think 2014 has been a year of bad news and more bad news. I won’t bore you with the details. You know what they are.

But there have been a few bright spots for Bostonians that should help 2015 be more satisfying.

Cleaner streets are the best news. This has been a long time coming. In the early 2000s, city officials finally decided to tow cars blocking the street cleaner. Downtown neighborhood leaders had been pestering them to do this for a long time, but transportation department officials were afraid of the backlash. And there was a backlash. Inattentive drivers set up a hue and cry about their cars going missing. And then things settled down.

Next, city officials finally extended the street cleaning dates through December in some neighborhoods. So we now have those big cleaners grinding down our streets nine months of the year, as long as snow doesn’t impede their progress.

Finally last summer, in some downtown neighborhoods, one recycling day was added and one trash pickup day eliminated. So now instead of trash bags sitting on the sidewalk and spilling out their contents for up to 19 hours three times a week, legally they can now sit out only twice a week—still for up to 19 hours each day, but who’s counting.

Getting trash off the sidewalks on only that one day has made a difference. The rats and the bag pickers have one less opportunity to strew around the stuff inside the bags. Perhaps it is only my imagination, but it also seems that the doggy doo has been reduced too. Maybe doggy doo is subject to the broken windows theory of crime fighting—less trash on the street has made those dog owners with low IQs more aware of how their dog’s mess dirties the sidewalk.

Another interesting development that could make our lives better if Boston’s Olympics bid is successful is the focus on walkability and public transportation. The Olympics bid is a first—usually plans for big events or large real estate developments focus on cars, even when the organizers are taking walkability into account. If Boston is chosen as the 2024 Summer Olympics location, I hope such a focus will improve walkability and public transportation in the long term. No promises yet, but nevertheless promising.

Finally, Market Basket’s situation has resolved in a way that provides welcome lessons for other businesses. I have yet to enter a Market Basket store, since the long fight between the Demoulas brothers’ families put me off. Maybe now, however, I’ll give them a try.

Not only did the workers prevail, but the head of the company, who is now carrying a big debt burden from buying out the other part of the family, apparently gave his workers a holiday bonus. It must have been a stretch for him.

I’m still not sure I’d like to be friends with any of the members of this belligerent crew, but on the surface at least, this is a company that has decided that doing good will help them do well. It’s such a relief from companies that reduce services to customers, shrink package sizes gradually so customers won’t notice, and replace local service companies with national companies requiring long-time employees to take pay cuts. Such steps may be legal. They may be “good” business. But they are immoral—and they may not even be good business. Market Basket has shown there is another way to profitability and good management.

I’m still wondering, however, how much Market Basket had to pay those supposedly brilliant “co-CEOs,” who, over the summer, allowed things to get so screwed up.

Finally, on both the city and state fronts, affordable housing seems to have entered the realm of a crisis, and funding seems to be appearing. Will someone actually make that happen? If so, that will be good news for next year.