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Recycle City

We can get pretty depressed at the precarious state of the environment and the steps public officials are not taking to remedy the problem. Even more depressing are the climate change deniers, the clean coal boosters, the natural gas pipeline aficionados and the people who lack concern about fossil fuels damaging our air and water. Not even several toxic spills into rivers and the oceans have been able to move Congress to face facts and the future.

So it is nice to know that Boston has a tiny bit of good news on the environmental front. The city has increased its recycle rate. It is transforming the sticks in your garden into compost. The city is a wee bit cleaner.

Hey. Let’s take what we can get.

Downtown Boston’s recycling rate has increased by almost 12 percent since last July, Boston Public Works Commissioner Michael Dennehy reported. Several factors went into this good news. The city has placed recycle receptacles beside most trash bins along such major streets as Boylston, Beacon, Newbury and Cambridge, so that items formerly thrown in the trash are now being recycled.

In all the downtown neighborhoods except Charlestown, the city now collects trash only two days a week. But it has increased its collection of recyclables to two days a week also, up from one day a year ago. Some residents, whose neighborhoods formerly experienced trash pickup three days a week, complained bitterly that neighbors living in small apartments couldn’t store their trash for the extra days between pickups, and the streets would be even trashier than before.

But that hasn’t happened. Reducing the number of hours trash sits on the sidewalk each week has made the neighborhoods cleaner. “I was pleasantly surprised,” said Paula Della Russo of the North End. “There is less litter in the streets, and I haven’t seen as many rodents.”

More recycling has also saved the city money. It costs $74 a ton to get rid of trash, but only $5 a ton to deposit the recyclables at the Casella recycling plant in Charlestown, said Dennehy. So every ton of recyclable material the trucks pick up saves the city’s taxpayers $69.

When the market for plastics was better, the city was actually paid for such material.

The material that does not go into the trash contributes to the city’s diversion rate. That amount has been growing too. In April of this year in the whole city it was up 27 percent over April, 2014. The material diverted is not only recyclables. It also includes yard waste, which the city this year picks up every two weeks in the spring, once a month in the summer, and every week from the last week in October through the first week in December. Dennehy said if people put out their yard waste on the wrong day the trash haulers will not put it in the trash, but instead will leave it on the sidewalk until the yard waste truck comes on the right day for pickup.

Yard waste goes to City Soil, which for about two years has composted, screened and sifted the organic material (including Christmas trees) at its site along the American Legion Highway and delivered the compost to Boston’s community gardens. Residents can pick up compost there for their own gardens in City Soil’s retail shop.

We still have trash, however. The downtown trash goes to the Wheelabrator waste-to-energy power plant in Saugus. It can burn 1,500 tons per day and delivers electricity to 30,000 households. Trash from the outer neighborhoods—Hyde Park, JP, West Roxbury, for example—gets trucked to the SEMASS facility in Rochester, Massachusetts just south of I-495 near Route 28. SEMASS burns the trash at a rate of 3,000 tons per day, also producing energy. This facility charges the city $60 per ton of trash.

This year the city added a fifth hazardous waste drop-off day.

There are still problems that need to be solved. Although converting waste to energy sounds like a good idea, the plants have their own problems, so much so that the state has imposed a moratorium on building new ones, said George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. He said the only effective way to deal with trash is to drastically reduce it, and increase recycling. Some cities and towns have tried such financial incentives as charging for trash or allowing residents a limited amount of trash after which they would be charged. Boston has not gone that route yet.

In January and February, the recycle rate was considerably down. Apparently deep snow affects residents’ tendency to recycle. The outlying neighborhoods’ recycling rate is not as good as the downtown’s, and that’s another place for improvement. Although in April 2015 more than one ton of disposables out of five was being recycled or repurposed, Dennehy would like to see it improve to one out of four or 25 percent.

So it is little by little. That’s better than nothing.

City life is a sharing life

So many people decide to move into the city—what might they be expecting? Convenient trips to the movies, the opera, the symphony, the theater. Walk-to restaurants, bars, parks and libraries. Shops and supermarkets that make deliveries.

All these benefits exist.

The most frequent activity, though, may be a surprise to a former suburbanite shedding an acre of land. But it is one that successful city-dwellers find the most satisfying. It goes back to kindergarten. We spend most of our time sharing.

Sometimes it is structural. We share roofs, ceilings, floors and, even in single-family houses, we share walls. Those walls are usually good at blocking sound from next door but they are old. I know of one family whose fireplace smoked when their next-door neighbor enjoyed a fire.

We share horticulture. A neighbor’s tree will cast shade on surrounding gardens, if one is so lucky to have such a feature on a property. If that tree is a crabapple or a cherry, it will add a glow to the neighbors’ gardens too. There have been a few major contretemps over horticulture, when one neighbor, for example, takes out a vine that has escaped into an adjoining garden and become a major feature. And in such close quarters pests move quickly from one garden to another, whether they are of the insect persuasion or a rodent.

We share sounds. Construction is annoying, but most neighbors remember when they did construction too, so they let it pass. Loud music, inconsolable babies, the dog that barks the whole time his owner is away, trash bins being rolled out to the street—we hear them all. Sometimes through an open window we hear a talented flutist practicing. Not all sounds are annoying.

Our next door neighbor shares her ground floor with us, and we enjoy the peculiarity. Our furnace, hot water heater and laundry room are in her building, and we reach them from our house by a door in the party wall. It’s a long story due to history, and it’s perfectly legal, but strange to those not used to sharing.

Two downtown families I know shared a car for many years. It was easy to work out a schedule since most of their transportation needs were satisfied by walking. This was before Zipcar, the ultimate corporate experience in sharing.

Some people find sharing hard. A real estate broker told me that people who pay downtown property prices do not like to share gardens, as one example. And there are several private downtown gardens behind some glorious homes that are shared. Such an arrangement might not suit everyone.

The shelter magazines are full of houses isolated in Idaho or on a lone promontory on the Oregon coast. Interviews with the homeowner usually emphasize how their property is designed to get away from people so they can do exactly what they want.

A person like that won’t be happy in the middle of the city, and we wouldn’t want them here. We share rules and regulations that limit our ability to do what we want, especially in Boston’s historic districts. Those regulations recognize that we are not the first persons to live in our home and we won’t be the last. Those regulations protect those who come after us.

The most difficult times downtown are when one person takes more than his or her share. They decide that rules don’t apply to them. We found that out this past winter when some residents decided they owned the parking space they had shoveled out. Most of the neighborhood organizations made it clear that we share shoveled-out spaces in the same way we share all spaces. It’s the same for street cleaning—people who don’t move their cars are taking too much of the public realm.

The people who are the happiest and most successful at downtown living are those who enjoy the sharing. They are the ones who plant their tree pit and their window boxes to share with those who pass by. They are the ones who share with neighbors their plans for construction or an event. They are the ones who appreciate and contribute to the shared upkeep of our green spaces, our sidewalks and our roadways.

The American mythology celebrates “rugged individualism.” But it turns out that rugged individuals lead unsatisfying lives. Study after study show that the persons most happy are those who participate in community life. Counter-intuitively, a strong community allows individuals with quirks, extravagances, eccentricities and oddities to fully express those qualities without harsh judgment from others.

If you are newly arrived in downtown Boston, take full advantage of its pleasures by becoming the best sharer on your block. Such participation will turn out to be even better than the walk-to restaurant.

Old, white and rich?

The reporting is breathless: Millennium Tower penthouse goes on sale for $37.5 million. A condo in a 19th-century Commonwealth Avenue townhouse sells for $7 million. Luxury apartments, rentable or buyable, going up in the Fenway and in the Seaport.

These new projects add expensive housing to the already-pricey neighborhoods in downtown Boston.

The buyers differ only a little. They are empty nesters realizing that city life is more interesting than that in the suburbs or dot-com youths spending their high salaries or bonuses or foreign billionaires parking their money in safe North American investments.

Which leaves us with a question for the center city’s residents: Do you really want to live with only mostly old, mostly white, but always rich people?

Long ago, residents of Beacon Hill, as one example, decided they did not want to do so.

They believed income, age and racial diversity would enhance that neighborhood’s quality of life. (And it has.) So methodically and purposefully they teamed with developers and institutions. They raised money from the neighborhood to transform an MGH parking garage, a fire-damaged single-room occupancy building for men, and abandoned city property—schools, a police station, a firehouse. Two buildings became community centers. The rest became affordable housing. One of these buildings, Beacon House, is in the spotlight this week, as supporters honor Meredith and Gene Clapp, who spearheaded the effort to help Rogerson Communities buy the building and keep it affordable.

But the city’s downtown surplus properties are running low. One of the few remaining such buildings became the new North Bennet Street School in a swap that expands the popular Eliot public school in the North End.

Beacon Hill is an example of what is happening now throughout the city. Large institutional buildings are becoming luxury housing. Three buildings owned by Suffolk University, the former St. John the Evangelist church property and the former Beacon Press building—all near the State House—are either on the market or have recently been bought by developers.

Now the question is: Is there any hope for more affordable housing in the downtown’s pricey neighborhoods?

Yes, say housing advocates. But the circumstances have changed.

It is no longer the city selling property at affordable prices. Instead it is non-profits who understandably want to reap big rewards from their buildings in pricey neighborhoods. A buyer usually must build luxury housing to cover costs and generate a profit. Sometimes, though, a large institutional building presents problems for luxury conversions, and that creates an opportunity.

There are other ways also to manage the situation, said Sheila Dillon, chief of housing for the City of Boston.

Dillon said several Beacon Hill residents have contacted her, urging the city to require affordable housing as part of the neighborhood’s new developments. The approval process takes the community’s wishes into account.

If a project contains 10 or more units and also needs zoning relief, which most projects do, the city requires that 15 percent of the units be affordable. Moreover, there can be no “poor door,” as there was recently in a New York City project. The affordable units must be constructed and outfitted at the same level of finish as the luxury units.

The city prefers that such units be included in the main project, although developers can make a case for building a separate project or paying into a fund to satisfy the affordability requirement. While the Beacon Hill residents Dillon has heard from prefer to see affordable units incorporated into the neighborhood project, there is an argument for building off site.

“The highest and best use happens to be luxury condos,” said broker Jason Weissman, head of Boston Realty Advisors, about downtown residential buildings.

In a 20-unit development, three would be affordable. For the same price as constructing those three units in a downtown neighborhood, many more could be built in outlying, less expensive districts, he pointed out.

Dillon is aware of that conundrum and said that in many cases a developer will do both—construct some units on site and also contribute to the fund.

There are many ways to bring affordable housing into the downtown neighborhoods, said Robert Beal, president of the real estate development firm, Related Beal.

He ought to know. Using imagination and experience, his company has proposed a 239-unit rental apartment building for low and moderate-income residents who will enjoy benefits usually reserved for high-priced spreads. Located in the fast-growing Bulfinch Triangle near luxury buildings, its northern side overlooks the Bunker Hill Zakim Bridge while southern views incorporate the Greenway.

In smaller projects such as Beacon Hill’s buildings, affordable units are important but their numbers are insignificant unless a special situation arises, which some neighborhood leaders are hopeful, but mum about. Much of the land in downtown Boston neighborhoods is already taken up. Remarkably, though, because of the Big Dig, the freed-up Seaport District and a parking lot here and there, other projects like Related Beal’s could help us get to that juicy mix of ages, ethnicities, incomes and lifestyles that attracted us to the city in the first place.



Curiouser and Curiouser

In the last three weeks, one vehicle on my block was not towed on street cleaning days. This has never happened in the last decade. The debris under those cars sat there for two weeks.

A South End resident said a car on her street last week was not towed. Again, the cigarette butts, doggie-doo bags and dirt will remain. Even if residents sweep up, they can’t get under the car.

What gives? There seems to be more tolerance for scofflaw car owners and less concern about clean streets coming from City Hall. The Boston Herald first flagged this change of heart in February when they quoted a South Boston resident who said less towing will “reduce stress” for residents. Then they quoted the mayor as saying “if we’re able to get to a street and clean the majority of the street, we might not have to tow every single person that’s in the roadway.”

This idea sends the downtown neighborhoods into shock. The Alliance of Downtown Civic Organizations (ADCO) has prepared a letter urging the mayor to aggressively enforce street cleaning towing, according to Steve Wintermeier, who represents the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay. “Owning a vehicle is a privilege,” he said. “With that privilege comes responsibility.”

So what is the program that induces stress in parking scofflaws and that dirt-weary downtown residents adore?

After years of pleading, in fall, 2005, the downtown neighborhoods acquired the new program of towing vehicles whose owners couldn’t be bothered to move them so the mechanical street cleaners could do their work. Depending on the neighborhood and the weather, street cleaning can last from March 1 through December. The city engaged private tow companies, since the city does not own enough trucks. There were problems at first, but now they are mostly solved.

The Boston Transportation Department issues fines of $40. The companies charge up to $90 for the tow, $35 a day for storage and a small fuel surcharge. The tow’s high price, plus the inconvenience of getting to distant neighborhoods to retrieve one’s car meant most people quickly learned to move their car.

Some did not. Public Works Commissioner Michael Dennehy, whose department oversees the towing program, which has grown considerably, said the trucks tow about the same number of cars now as they did in 2005. Some people never learn.

Nevertheless, the downtown neighborhoods noticed a significant difference in their streets’ cleanliness from towing. The mechanical sweepers do a good job if they can get to the curb.

But popularity has caused problems. Except for the Seaport, Bay Village, West Roxbury and Hyde Park, most neighborhoods have at least some streets in the towing program because residents clamored for it, said Dennehy. Fifty Boston streets last year alone were added to the program. So tow lots fill up quickly. Only one out of four cars is actually towed on any street cleaning day.

The city recently proposed a pilot program for one neighborhood to assess whether not towing a car, but increasing the fine to $90 from $40, would be as effective as towing.

So many questions follow the weird thinking the city seems to be going through. The first question is for the mayor. Why would cleaning the “majority” of the street help if there is still a pile of debris under the cars that remain? How would you decide fairly which cars would be towed? Who would make that decision?

Downtown residents might also ask why the scofflaws’ stress is more important than the stress of those who have to live with dirt? Why would City Hall want to reduce effectiveness in a program that most neighborhoods want?

Interestingly, Dennehy seems to regret having to oversee this program. “I shouldn’t be in the towing business,” he said.

I asked city officials why they believe a ticket costing only $90 would deter scofflaws if the higher ticket plus towing price they now pay doesn’t deter them. Tracey Ganiatsos, spokesperson for the Transportation Department, said BTD cannot guarantee towing, but they can guarantee that a scofflaw will be ticketed. “We expect this will lead to increased compliance,” she wrote in an email.

I’m skeptical.

As of last week, the pilot program had not officially been assigned to a neighborhood. The program’s duration and how success will be measured had not been determined. Not all city departments had been brought up to speed. Moreover, the Boston City Council, which must approve changes to parking ticket rates, had not been consulted. Commissioner Dennehy promised representatives from the South End and Beacon Hill that the pilot program would not take place in their neighborhoods and the towing would remain.

Meanwhile, Steve Wintermeier hopes the city will continue with aggressive towing, but will also figure out novel ways to deal with scofflaws. For example, he wondered why on some streets a tow truck couldn’t pick up a car for the street cleaner and put it back. He said there might not be one solution that will work for all neighborhoods. He hopes ADCO’s letter to the mayor will be the beginning of that conversation.

Big question

Do San Diego residents experience joy? I don’t know the answer and I’m not sure I would believe a SanDiegoan if they told me. I’m talking about the sublime feeling, the rush, the pure happiness we Bostonians feel when the sun comes out and the temperature rises to 65 degrees.

We take a walk. We see all our neighbors—they are out walking also. Everyone is happy; no one is grumpy. The air smells good even if the hyacinths are too low to the ground to catch their scent. We feel we deserve this day, this feeling, this release. Winter is gone (probably). Spring is here.

We know it from the calendar, Opening Day and the Marathon. Those are wonderful too. But it is the nice weather that pushes us over the hurdle.

We’ve now had several of these days. Most of the snow is gone. Even those like me who love the snow and the winter—and I’ve found that I’m not that unusual—feel that same joy on the best spring days.

I’m betting that residents of San Diego don’t have that feeling. If it is the same weather all the time, even if it is nice weather, a person would not appreciate it, except to tell you that they don’t like to shovel snow, so that’s why they moved there.

My evidence is scant about happiness and weather, but I do have some personal clues and some studies by persons equipped to do such things.

One of our daughters went to college in California. When she was about to leave Boston at the end of the almost month-long Christmas holiday in her first year, I told her I was sorry that we’d had not one day of sunshine the whole month she was home.

She looked at me as if I were daft. “That doesn’t bother me,” she said. “I’m sick of sun. That’s all that happens. Sunny day after sunny day. It is so boring.”

Then there is Denmark. In study after study, that country comes in as having the happiest people. They have dark winters with snow. They pay high taxes. They aren’t the wealthiest people in the world, but they’re not poor either. Although Americans would think those factors matter, apparently they don’t.

The Danes report more satisfaction with life, less social isolation and feel more in control of their lives than residents of other countries. Most say they have a sense of meaning or purpose in their lives. Most also say they have free time to pursue interests. They tend to be happy in their jobs, which offer flexibility in working hours that help Danes balance work and family life.

Switzerland and Norway also have happy citizens. The U.S. is not too bad. Satisfaction with life is said to be greater here than in Spain, Russia, Greece and Hungary.

All this is measured by a group called the Happiness Research Institute. Their report on one Danish town concludes that happiness is dependent on several factors, one of which is health. Another important factor is a feeling of community, a connection to friends and family, opportunities to get together with other people from social occasions to study groups to helping out in a soup kitchen. Weather, apparently, has nothing to do with happiness. Alaska, for example, was recently named the happiest state.

I know of no one who has measured Bostonians’ happiness, although one UC Berkeley School of Law professor compared San Franciscans and Bostonians, and found that Bostonians achieve self-satisfaction through “educational attainment, finances, family support and contribution to others.” San Franciscans, on the other hand, “tied satisfaction of their life to work.” The study found that Bostonians place more value on community life than do San Franciscans.

I’m not sure that self-satisfaction is the same as happiness, but it’s close. I haven’t noticed that my San Franciscan friends are only focused on work or have less community spirit than my Boston friends. So maybe the happiness study needs more work.

We should be happy in downtown Boston. Every neighborhood here has a rich community life, with many opportunities for seeing friends, meeting people and collaborating with others. We only have to go out our front door to become part of our community, which starts on the sidewalk.

Nevertheless, we’ll take that sunny, fresh, beautiful spring day. Joy may be a completely different matter from happiness.