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A handsome building

All the news about Boston’s central business district has been about the Millennium Tower and the remake of Filene’s.

Sitting around the tower, however, is a lot of old Boston, much of it built after the devastating 1872 fire. It isn’t yet known if the tower will prove to be as handsome as some of the late 19th-century and early 20th-century structures near it. Look at the nine-story, 100 Franklin Street as an example of one of the best buildings in Boston.

Its materials are first rate— white marble blocks, bronze details, decorative cast iron trim and a pair of Roman centurion torchbearers mounted on either side of the main entrance. The front façade curves gracefully to match the line of the street. Every detail, from the window grilles to the fire escapes, is beautifully designed and executed. The contractor was Norcross Brothers, who also built Trinity Church.

A bank now occupies the main floor, which has suffered from modern replacement windows and a newish, banal doorway. But the building is lucky in that other classical details have been preserved.

Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, an architecture firm responsible for many handsome Boston and Cambridge structures of that era, designed the 1908 building for the Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company. It cost $1.1 million to build, said Robert J. Roche, archivist and records manager for Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott, as the firm is now known. The City of Boston currently values 100 Franklin (or 201 Devonshire, as listed in official records) at more than $22 million.

Its occupants have included the Boston Stock Exchange and the Vault, a group of business leaders who met there as they helped instigate Boston’s urban renewal in the 1950s and ’60s. Now one of its occupants is the building’s current owner, Synergy Investments, which maintains the building at a high level. It is 98.5 percent leased, according to the CoStar real estate database.

A building such as 100 Franklin is desirable, said Kirstin Blount, senior vice president at the real estate firm Colliers International, even though it does not have the large floor plate of newer skyscrapers. It is ideal for smaller firms, she said. Many of these older buildings exist in Boston since high rises account for only 29 million square feet in the approximately 63 million square feet of office space located in Boston’s business districts. The rent in older buildings, even when they are in meticulous condition, can be half that of a high rise or a new building.

The urban analyst Jane Jacobs loved older buildings, claiming they add variety in aspect, diversity in ownership and economic vitality. She believed that older buildings were required to keep streets vigorous.

But such buildings can be vulnerable. The Shreve, Crump and Low building at the corner of Arlington and Boylston is slated for demolition to make way for the Druker Company’s new building as soon as the company signs an anchor tenant.

While 100 Franklin Street looks as if its current profitability will enable it to last, it has no protection other than its owner’s good will. It is eligible for listing on the National Historic Register and is located in Boston’s Commercial Palace Historic District, designated by the National Historic Register. But those honors are not much protection, said Lynn Smiledge, chair of Boston’s Landmarks Commission.

The state-sanctioned historic districts such as those of the Back Bay and Beacon Hill have serious protections for historic structures, but there are no such Massachusetts-designated districts in Boston’s central business district, she said.

As for individual buildings, “the bar is high and the process lengthy,” Smiledge said about designating a structure as a landmark. “A building has to demonstrate significance beyond the local level or be the finest example of its style.”

That wasn’t the case for the old Shreve, Crump and Low building, even though many preservationists objected to its demolition.

Dozens of buildings in the financial district or Downtown Crossing are fine examples of the classical revival period, so 100 Franklin, for all its beauty, has company. Few older buildings demonstrate state-wide or national significance even though they may have interesting local histories. Unless a building is threatened with demolition or significant change, it typically sits on a “pending” list for a local landmark if it has any paperwork at all, said Smiledge.

For now, such beautiful buildings as 100 Franklin Street serve proudly as contrasts to the high rises, most of which in Boston are made of lesser materials and possess little interesting detail. Perhaps the qualities of the older buildings could be the jumping off point for the design of some of the new high-rises in central Boston or the Seaport District’s mid-rises. We could do worse.

 

 

 

 

Wish I were there

A long time ago we decided we should try Florida for a couple of weeks in the winter. Other people seemed to like it. The place we are staying has drop-dead beaches, beautiful shells, a plethora of wildlife and an ocean that varies its shade of blue hour by hour.

While all of you have struggled with snow, ice, transportation woes, loss of work, inconvenience, discomfort and wasted time as you’ve tried to get kids to school or family members to jobs, I’ve been walking the beach, collecting shells, training my binocs on a snowy egret and listening to the raucous call of the ospreys that live atop the telephone poles.

I prefer Florida to the Caribbean, which never has shells or wildlife as good. And it’s quicker and easier for a Bostonian to get to.

There’s the rub. I’m a Bostonian. I feel as if I’ve deserted my city in its time of need. I would be out there shoveling not only my walk but also the corner, where it can be tricky to get out to the street.

Even though we’re not there, we’ve followed the situation closely. It’s easy. So many Bostonians come to this part of Florida that the Boston Globe lies beside the New York Times, the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal at the nearby news stand. Boston’s drama is also being closely followed by all the national news outlets.

So we know about the city’s poor snow-clearing abilities, the too-late call-out of the National Guard and the implied criticism of the MBTA’s Beverly Scott, who has been the most entertaining public official. The rest have looked just hapless.

I felt sorry for Beverly Scott. It was disappointing to see Baker skirt around scapegoating her. That was Mitt Romney’s pitiful management style—to find someone to blame if anything went wrong and to try to make himself look blameless. I had more confidence in Baker’s management skills, and to his credit, he backed off from blaming Scott.

If I were Scott, I would have resigned too. She looked ahead and saw no way to make the system work. Baker has proposed slashing her budget—he says it won’t affect T operations. Baloney.

She saw her workers out in the ice trying to fix outmoded third rails, switches, and forty-year old trains, impossible tasks on any day. Direct current? I hadn’t realized we were running on 19th-century technology. In the “Innovation State.” Shame.

Many individuals are to blame for the T’s poor performance, and none of them is Scott. First is House Speaker Robert DeLeo. It was only last year DeLeo, etc. shot down Deval Patrick’s aggressive transportation funding proposal. Second are the other legislators and former governors who haven’t had the gumption to fix the T’s awful funding problems and invest in a system the region can’t do without. Half the MBTA’s board should fall on their swords and leave. Outmoded secrecy and a few unsavory financial practices don’t make it in the 21st-century. Old-style union leaders are another culprit.

As for those officials from the rest of the state who think all the money’s going to Boston? You won’t have state-funded resources in Pittsfield if Metro-Boston isn’t successful.

Interestingly, this is the time certain city leaders are trying to persuade the Olympics committee that Boston is up to the task of hosting the summer games. An outsider might see the T’s collapse over the past few weeks as a sign that, despite its winning sports teams, vaunted universities, world-famous hospitals, highest tech, yada, yada, Boston is really a third-world city that can’t handle a bit of weather. Certainly not “world class.”

On the other hand, the T’s collapse could be the disaster we’ve needed to finally find the political will—and money—to tackle its modernization. The Olympics give us the time line.

A city cannot be successful without up-to-date, fast, reliable public transportation. Without it, a city’s economy weakens, its environment is degraded, its tourism declines, and its citizens waste more time in traffic, affecting their well-being.

An MBTA spokesman once gave me the excuse, “It’s the oldest system in America.” That only means we’ve had longer to keep our system up to date. London’s Underground is almost 50 years older than Boston’s, and it is in far better condition with at least ten times the service and convenience as Boston’s.

By the way, you think Boston has problems? Be glad you don’t live in Florida. Get away from the beaches and the wildlife and you’re in unpleasant-ville. The roads seem worse than in Massachusetts, and this place doesn’t even have freeze and thaw cycles. Traffic is bad, probably because there is little public transportation. There are pretty neighborhoods and wild swamps with their own kind of beauty, but the place is about 80 percent strip malls and parking lots.

I’m wishing I were back home, coping with the snow along with everyone else.

The scoop on snow plows

In a snowstorm, we’re lucky to live downtown. The electricity stays on. Many shops stay open. We don’t need to drive. Outside it is silent, at least until your neighbor starts to shovel. If you’ve got a fireplace, so much the better. If someone decides to make soup, even more comforting.

Now we have something new to entertain us during snowstorms, especially if you’re an urban nerd. (You know who you are if you are one.) We have www.snowstats.boston.gov.

While it is snowing, you can follow the Boston Public Works Department’s snow clearing efforts.

In the sunny morning after the February 2 snowstorm, the site showed that around 30 Commonwealth Avenue, 74 percent of the streets had been plowed. Six plows went over the same streets again and again, racking up a total of 160 miles over 159 hours of work.

On Cordis Street in Charlestown, five snowplows pushed snow down the blocks on 63 percent of the streets, going a combined 19 miles in 134 hours.

On Salem Street in the North End, 58 percent of the streets were cleared by eight plows covering 44 miles in 215 hours.

On Phillips Street on Beacon Hill only 43 percent of the streets had been tackled by eight plows covering 41 miles in 210 hours.

On the Waterfront at Rowes Wharf, a hefty 90 percent of the streets were cleared by eight plows covering 669 miles in 184 hours.

Every neighborhood’s percentage of streets cleared differs, as does the number of miles needed to clear the streets and the time needed to do it because Boston’s historic streets are different in size, terrain, complexity, and whether cars are parked or not, explained Susan Nguyen, project director in the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, one of the agencies involved in collecting data and creating the web site.

Some streets, presumably those near Rowes Wharf, can handle large snowplows going faster. The plows don’t have to dodge parked cars since several streets in that neighborhood are major arteries on which parking is forbidden during a storm.

The narrower streets on Beacon Hill, parts of Charlestown, and the North End require smaller snowplows that have to go more slowly. It takes longer to do the job in such neighborhoods. There are 13 different kinds of snowplows in use throughout the city because not one size fits all.

But what is a neighborhood? You’ll notice that if you type in your address and a friend’s address several streets away but in the same neighborhood, you may get different results.

Nguyen had an answer for that. Public Works, she said, created snow maps 50 years or so ago that are still being used. The maps break down the city’s neighborhoods into 202 smaller sections. Snowplow drivers may be assigned to one or two sections. Mr. Teasdale and Mr. Doogan were two drivers assigned to at least two Beacon Hill sections. The small sections enable the drivers to concentrate on the routes they know best. It enables Public Works to supervise the operations better.

It looked as if the sections followed the precincts. Nguyen said that may be the case in some neighborhoods because of historic practices, but it is not the intention of the snow maps to follow the precinct lines.

Next to the drivers’ last names are the number of hours they have worked. This doesn’t mean they have worked 28 straight hours, Nguyen cautioned. The number of hours may have been over two or three shifts, so they are not falling asleep at the wheel.

The snowstats website went live on Monday, February 2 in the middle of that snowstorm. By Tuesday afternoon at 5 p.m., the site showed that 700 plows had cleared 150,857 miles in 84,472 hours. Even so, there was still a lot of snow in downtown Boston. So far the site works only during a storm, during which it is refreshed about every 15 to 20 minutes with data coming directly from the plows.

Nguyen said this site was unique among cities. She said she hopes that knowing the names of the drivers and the work they are doing will provide Bostonians with comfort and humanize the work that’s going on.

I’m just happy it’s there for me to look at, keeping me up to date with all things snow.

 

More stupid stuff

Sometimes as a community we don’t think before we act even though we spend lots of time in the thinking stage.

Casinos are one example. This is not a column opposing casinos. Their benefits are probably over-rated, and so are their drawbacks. Everett was chosen over Revere for the casino in the Boston area. The decision ultimately seemed arbitrary, but so what? And if Everett wants the building Wynn Resorts has proposed—possibly the ugliest thing in the world—who are we to quibble?

It is easy, however, to identify the big problem when it is so obvious. The Wynn proposal is a disaster because it has no real public transportation.

Buses don’t count here. They are stuck in traffic along with all the cars. Moreover, Wynn’s transportation presentation doesn’t expect public buses to be used much at all. What Wynn needs is a subway stop, or streetcars with dedicated lanes—or anything else that is real “rapid” transit for thousands of people.

Wynn’s presentation pointed out that its clientele typically do not arrive or leave during commuting hours. It also showed patrons coming from every direction, not just through Charlestown. Wynn touted its plan to keep employee parking (and driving) off site. They intend to bring in water taxis, but they estimate such taxis will convey only about 3 percent of the casino’s patrons. All this sounds modestly okay.

Wynn has proposed several solutions including money for upgrades to surrounding roads and a shuttle bus from the Orange Line. But its final environmental impact report showed that 63 percent of its clientele will arrive by car and park on site, while only 10 percent will take public transportation.

Wynn’s proposed roadway upgrades involve widening streets, creating a flyover, and upgrading the signals. The latter might make a small difference, but widening streets and installing flyovers are 1950s’ ideas that have proven to be poor solutions in recent years. The recent trend is to narrow streets and demolish overhead roads.

Wynn’s transportation proposals seem more suited to a sprawling western city (Las Vegas, perhaps?) than for a dense, urban area that is already choked with traffic and has found time and again that fast public transportation is the way to go. Wellington Station is close enough as the crow flies to the casino site, but, according to Google maps, it would take a pedestrian 31 minutes to walk to the intersection of Everett’s Broadway and Dexter Streets near the casino entrance. The walk could be shorter if the designers created a path to a door on the north side of the casino. But most of the walk would still be too far, and it is unpleasant.

The map shows a contrast between Wynn’s bad planning and good development. Assembly Row, just across the Mystic from the casino site, designed an Orange Line rapid transit stop within its borders. Of course, this was in trendy Somerville, which has had excellent civic leadership for the past decade from Mayor Joseph Curtatone.

The bad planning is not all Wynn’s fault. The gaming commission should have signaled that imaginative and effective transportation planning would be a major part of their decision-making. So far the commissioners seem ignorant of the traffic problems they are creating if things go forward as planned.

It is possible that all this is moot. Revere, Somerville and Boston have each filed a lawsuit against Wynn. It’s doubtful that Steve Wynn will tire of dealing with surly local leaders and citizens, but it could happen.

Meanwhile, Wynn could rework his plans with urbanity in mind. Maybe he could build a fabulous, fanciful pedestrian bridge over the Mystic, connecting his resort with Curtatone’s Assembly Row MBTA station just across the river. Maybe he could finance a spur of the Orange Line leading straight to his door.

Whatever happens, Massachusetts leaders should become part of the 21st century: Whenever big development of any kind happens, effective and fast public transportation must be a major part of it. (Olympics, anyone?) Otherwise we’re all going to be sitting on the roads in our cars most of every day.

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.