Upcoming zoning hearings

20 Faneuil Street - Confirm the legal occupancy as a one-family dwelling and erect an addition
61 Murdock Street - Erect a first floor rear addition and a deck on the new addition

More info at http://www.cityofboston.gov/ons/pdfs/allstonbright.pdf

Art in Marty's windows

The local art collaborative Paint Pens in Purses, the creators of the art in the windows of the former Marty's Liquors building at the corner of Harvard & Comm Ave, are featured in this story in today's Herald. Having tenants fill the empty buildings in Allston Village and North Allston would of course be best, but in lieu of that it would be great to see more of this creativity.

Charlesview update coming Monday

Back in February 2008, Charlesview wanted to build 282 apartments on 6.2 acres of the Brighton Mills shopping center and 118 condos on 0.7 acres along Telford St. Since then we have spent many meetings with the BRA planners and their consultants talking about Brighton Mills and the rest of the Holton St Corridor.

At the May 27 meeting, the BRA proposed height and density as shown in these images, with 37-64 units per acre in the blocks south of Western Ave and 18-36 units/acre in the blocks between that and Holton St. Tomorrow (Monday) from 6-8pm at the Honan Library, The Community Builders - the developers for Charlesview - will speak publicly about their plans for the first time in 16 months. One interesting question is how consistent their plans will be with what the BRA presented last month. Here are some numbers and measurements to consider:

The two higher-density blocks along Western Ave total 3.5 acres. The blocks between that and Holton St total 4 acres.

3.5 acres @ 37-64 units/acre = 130-224 units
4 acres @ 18-36 units/acre = 72-144 units
Total for 7.5 acres using BRA proposed density = 200 - 368 units (27 - 49 units/acre)

If Charlesview still has only the 6.2 acres in Brighton Mills, the BRA's proposed density for this area would allow 170 - 300 units. If Charlesview wants to put all of their current 213 units in Brighton Mills, this would mean fewer than 90 additional units could fit. Seventy percent of the development would be low-income apartments and only 30% could be anything else. This is far from an evenly mixed community and doesn't meet the standards of integration that housing experts have established all over the country to create diverse and stable communities.
Maybe Harvard has decided in the last two weeks to give Charlesview more land. Maybe Charlesview still has plans for a tower along the river. Maybe, like Harvard did two weeks ago, Charlesview will propose development in excess of what the BRA proposed last month. Or, maybe like Harvard did two weeks ago, Charlesview will speak vaguely without details about what they have in mind. In any case it will probably be one of the more interesting meetings of the summer.

Taste of Allston on Sunday

Tomorrow is the Taste of Allston - more good food from around the world than anyone could possibly eat in one afternoon!


Planting at the Gardner on Saturday

We are planting trees at the Gardner on Saturday and will also talk about art and landscaping projects that we will be doing this summer at the Gardner and Everett St slope.
Please drop by and join us between 10 and noon to be part of beautifying our neighborhood!

Golden to be BRA executive director

New England in Brief - The Boston Globe
"Former Allston-Brighton state representative Brian P. Golden is Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s choice to be executive director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority"

Harvard can't, but others can

At the June 10 CWP meeting, the rationale that Harvard presented for not being willing to develop more housing on its vacant land in the Holton Street Corridor was that the economy is just too bad to build any of the couple hundred units that could be built there. No details were given about how much, or in what ways, the economy would need to improve to allow this construction.

So I found it interesting a few days later when a few days later the Census Bureau and HUD issued this press release about new residential housing construction. The rate of new housing construction is of course much less than it was a year ago, but it is also far from zero. Somehow these other developers are figuring out how to move forward with new housing in the present economy, and apparently Harvard could learn something from them.

Here is the data for building permits issued during the month of May for the greater Boston metropolitan area.
Total 1 Unit 2 Units 3 & 4 Units 5 units or more # of structures with 5 units or more
New Privately Owned Housing Units Authorized 472 233 24 14 201 16
New Privately Owned Housing Units Authorized Valuation (in millions) $96.5 $58.3 $3.6 $2.8 $31.7

Taking a broader view, in the Northeastern US during May there were:
  • Building permits issued for 56,000 privately-owned housing units
  • 13,000 privately-owned housing units authorized, but not started
  • 51,000 units that began construction
  • 138,000 units under construction
  • 93,000 units completed

City Council candidates: Demand more money from colleges, hospitals | Universal Hub

Great recap of last night's At-Large City Council forum. Lots of ideas about the BRA, public schools, colleges, and other issues that affect A/B.

City Council candidates: Demand more money from colleges, hospitals Universal Hub

Harvard fires 275

The downsizing continues, with much more still to come - Layoffs Begin Harvard Magazine

"When combined with other moves to cut expenses, such as the salary freeze, limits on hiring, slowing the pace of Allston construction and other capital projects, and so on—all driven primarily by the projected 30 percent decline in the value of endowment assets—these staff-workforce reductions will make an impact on the looming budget pressures in several of the schools and allied institutions. But they do not nearly close the biggest gaps, such as the $220-million deficit looming over FAS. As reported here, FAS had identified just $77 million of the expense savings it anticipates needing to make; presumably whatever staff reductions are being announced now within FAS were counted as part of that initial $77 million of cuts, leaving $143 million in costs still to be removed from the core academic budget."

The Harvard Crimson :: News :: Harvard Announces Impending Layoffs

CITGO update

Harvard attended last night's Allston Civic Association meeting and indicated that they are making good progress towards leasing the CITGO station that they bought almost 2 years ago.

The building is only 1800 sq ft but has attracted interest from several people who would like to open a restaurant there with a 10 year lease from Harvard. This would not be a chain or franchise, but someplace unique and attractive for neighbors and others to enjoy a nice meal for breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner. Wouldn't it be great to see this happen sometime soon!

Allston Civic Assoc agenda for Monday, June 22

  • 23 Griggs St. Update on project scheduled to be built at this location.
  • 29 Denby St. Proposal for change of use for existing property
  • 139-143 Brighton Ave. Proposal for take out restaurant.
  • Harvard: Discussion on leasing concepts for Harvard owned property. (eg; uses, types of businesses etc.)
Meeting is at 6:30 at the Honan Library.

Concentrating families in poverty is very destructive

A week from Monday, The Community Builders, the developers hired for the Charlesview relocation project, will present to the Allston/Brighton community about that project. The community's primary objective has been that the new development should be a mixed-income neighborhood instead of a low-income housing project.

Along those same lines, this story in today's Times looks at the changes in Atlanta as segregated housing projects are being replaced by mixed-income housing.
“We’ve realized that concentrating families in poverty is very destructive,” said RenĂ©e L. Glover, the executive director of the Atlanta Housing Authority. “It’s destructive to the families, the neighborhoods and the city... For us to think that a program that was conceptualized 70 years ago is still the right answer, it makes no sense,” she said. “Today is a whole new era.”

On the 6 acres where last year The Community Builders wanted to build 290 low-income apartments there is not enough space to create a mixed-income neighborhood. So many will be hoping to hear a different tune next week after last week's meeting when Harvard seemed unwilling to provide the land needed to build this new community the right way.

2009 Health of Boston Report

The 2009 Health of Boston Report has been issued. Some of these could just be random variations in the statistics, while maybe there is some cause/effect in other areas. Overall it shows that this is a safe neighborhood of relatively healthy people.

Compared to 15 other Boston neighborhoods, A/B ranked:

  • Last in percentage of adults who reported having attended a neighborhood meeting during the past year (24% vs. 34% citywide)
  • 3rd best number of people using or being addicted to drugs was a big problem in their neighborhood (only 6% vs. 18% citywide)
  • 3rd highest % of Children with Elevated Blood Lead Levels (1.4% vs. 1.2% citywide)
  • 4th highest % of Births to Women Ages 15-44 (7.6%)
  • 4th lowest % of low birthweight newborns (8.2% vs. 9.5% citywide)
  • 4th lowest % of Emergency Department visits (84 per 1,000 vs. 110 citywide)
  • 2nd lowest % of people perceiving more guns during the past year (3% vs. 12% citywide)
  • 3rd lowest % of people think gangs are in neighborhood (8% vs. 19% citywide)
  • 3rd lowest % of Nonfatal Assault-Related Gunshot and Stabbing Victims (1.2 per 100,000 vs. 9.1 citywide)
  • 3rd lowest % of adults with asthma (8% vs. 10% citywide)
  • 2nd lowest % of adults with diabetes (4% vs. 6% citywide)
  • lowest % of High Blood Pressure in Adults (13% vs. 20% citywide)
  • 2nd lowest mortality rate (543 per 100,000 vs. 753 citywide)
  • lowest heart disease mortality rate (86 per 100,000 vs. 147 citywide)

Farmers Market this afternoon

The Allston Farmers Market opens for the year this afternoon from 3-7. Hopefully it will be at least a little drier then than it is now.

New CVS coming to Brighton

in October at the old CompUSA site on Market St, according to Chain Store Age. Apparently the new Walgreen's in Union Square (less than 3/4 of a mile away) will soon have some local competition.

Presentation from Monday's Commuter Rail meeting


Federal stimulus $ to support 5 Mass projects

and the Harvard Science Complex isn't one of them - Five projects targeted for stimulus aid - The Boston Globe - but it is interesting to see major projects, much bigger than anything that could be done in the Holton Street Corridor - moving ahead after Harvard declared last week that the economy is too bad to even think about building a few hundred units of housing between Holton St and the CC&F building.
  • 2,000 residential units at Assembly Sq in Somerville
  • 2,800 residential units at the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station
  • More than 900 housing units, a hotel, and 200,000 square feet of stores, restaurants, and offices in Revere
  • The $1.5 billion Westwood Station project

Commuter Rail meeting update

Everett St (near the Stop & Shop) and Cambridge St (near the Sports Depot) emerge at the most likely locations. Time frame still unclear.

State offers potential commuter rail stops in Allston-Brighton - The Bulletin Newspapers, Inc.

The presentation from Monday's meeting will hopefully soon be posted on the Urban Ring website with previous Allston "multimodal study" presentations.

The Bulletin looks at the A/B City Council race

District 9 battle heats up - The Bulletin Newspapers, Inc.

Property Rights & The Shame of the Black & Decker building

Sitting at the western gateway to our neighborhood - along Western Ave, Birmingham Parkway, and Waverly Street - is the "Black and Decker / Dewalt" building on 0.35 acres at 8 Waverly St. It is an disgrace and insight into the problems of the commercial real estate market in North Allston and North Brighton.

Yesterday's New York Times includes this story about Judge Sonia Sotomayor and property rights, and the Black & Decker building is an interesting situation to consider the rights of the property owner, the interests of the community, and appropriate use of the power of our government.

Based on the signage on the building I assumed the building was still owned by Black & Decker, but in November 2006 Black & Decker sold the property to Waverly Street Associates LLC, an entity that seems to have been created solely for the purchase of this property, for $1.6 million.

Waverly Street Associates is comprised of a Waltham real estate broker a resident of Encinitas, California. Based on the condition of their property they don't seem inclined to do much of anything with it in the near future.

The City of Boston's Responsibility

The City's first problem is that the property is dramatically under-assessed for real estate tax purposes. The 2009 total assessed value is $332,000 which yields a $9,000 annual tax bill for the owner. The City had the property assessed for the same amount in 2008, just after the property sold for $1.6M - almost 5 times the assessed value! If the City corrected its assessment the owner would pay an extra $36,000 each year, making it much less attractive to let his empty property sit idle. This is yet another example of the City's inequitable taxing system based on inaccurate real estate assessments.

Boston's Department of Neighborhood Development claims to do "an annual survey of buildings in the city that are abandoned", but the most recent data on their website is a 2007 survey that does not include this building.

Our City should be creating a safe and livable community for its residents and taxpayers, and blighted buildings like this clearly detract from both. When faced with a situation like this the City could start with having Inspectional Services issue as many fines as possible to try to get the owner to clean up the property. But if the City has done that it hasn't worked.

The much bigger stick that the City has, and should consider using in situations like this, is taking the property by eminent domain.

History is filled with horrible examples of cities using eminent domain to take homes where people live. The Kelo case from New London, CT received a lot of attention a couple years ago and Boston's history includes the destruction of the West End and Barry's Corner. But there is a big difference between throwing a family on the street and demolishing their home and taking a vacant commercial building that has been neglected for years. I doubt that the person in southern California who owns this building will experience any "personal pain and sorrow" other than the disappointment of not being able to someday sell the property to Harvard for millions more.

In most situations, Justice John Paul Stevens is probably right that “The free play of market forces is more likely to produce acceptable results in the long run than the best-intentioned plans of public officials.” But because of Harvard, North Allston and North Brighton don't enjoy a "free play of market forces".

Everyone knows, or has reason to expect, that Harvard will continue to purchase property along Western Ave to connect its Allston campus (Business School, Athletics, and the Science Complex hole) with its Watertown property (29 acres purchased in 2001 for $162 million). This gives property owners, who in some cases don't seem to care at all about the condition of their property today, motivation to wait until tomorrow (or a decade or two from now) when Harvard may come along and create an enormous payday for them.

Virus shuts Genzyme's Allston factory

Genzyme reports contamination at key plant - MarketWatch
"Genzyme said that although the virus is not known to be a threat to humans, production will cease in order for the facility to be sanitized. Genzyme expects the plant to be operational by the end of July."

Wildlife sighting

Just saw a small rabbit in front of Geekhouse Bikes on W. Sorrento St. Not like the deers that have been around Boston, but nice to see some nature in the city.

4th crane is back

Recently one of the cranes at the Science Complex construction site was taken down.
It is back to work now on a different part of the site.

What's up with all the dead trees?

Harvard planted approximately 150 street trees on Western Avenue in 2007 and it is amazing how many of them are now dead or far from flourishing.

Taking care of street trees is not rocket science - mostly is about choosing an appropriate species and making sure it get enough water. Many of the dead trees are London Planes - a popular species used as a street tree in Boston and elsewhere. The Boston Parks Department recommends at least 20 gallons of water each week regardless of temperature from the spring thaw to the winter freeze.

This tree, one of many ready to go through the wood chipper, is across the street from the Gulf station in Barry's Corner.

Will the train stop here?

Mark Trachtenberg thinks that an Everett St commuter rail stop is just around the corner and writes about it in his TAB column this week. Attend the Monday, June 15, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Honan-Allston Library to learn more.

Plan? What Plan?

This isn't a story about Allston, but I think many of us know how the residents of Shaniko, Oregon feel about the real estate monopoly in their town.
“We were like, ‘What’s your plan? What’s your vision? He would never tell us what his ultimate plan was.”

Shaniko Journal - A Lonesome Oregon Ghost Town May Remain So - NYTimes.com

Kudos to the Gardner and Lyon

In the last week the Gardner Pilot Academy and Mary Lyon School hosted their spring fairs and both were wonderful celebrations of school and community. The parents, teachers, and friends who organized and ran these events did a wonderful job. Neither of these events existed a few years ago and it is great to see new traditions like these be created and sustained by caring neighbors.

Nothing new, no commitments from Harvard

Harvard did not "present a revised neighborhood plan" at last night's meeting ("New roadways suggested in Harvard's Allston plan - The Boston Globe"). In fact, Harvard didn't really present anything more than fuzzy yellow and brown ovals on top of planning maps created by the BRA. What Harvard did was indicate general agreement with broad principles that the BRA has proposed during several months of planning meetings focused on the Holton St Corridor.

But general agreement with high-level ideas is nothing new. In the 2005 North Allston Strategic Framework, Harvard and the BRA agreed to many of the same concepts - enhance access to the river, create new housing, create "new local streets to knit the Brighton Mills district together with adjoining neighborhoods". That in 2009 all Harvard can do is generally agree with these same ideas shows how far we haven't come.

Harvard refused to provide any information about when any of their Holton St Corridor property beyond the Charlesview 6 acres could be developed. That leaves unknown the future of 22 acres and Harvard certainly didn't show any eagerness or excitement about moving forward with any of them.

Harvard was clear that not much more land has been made available for the Charlesview relocation. The BRA was equally clear that they have instructed Charlesview to lower the density, include homeownership units, and add more income diversity in addition to relocating the existing 213 apartments. Still bound by a 6 acre site, it is hard to imagine how this is possible and it would seem that we remain in basically the same situation as when the Globe wrote the following in March 2008:
Felicia Jacques, a spokeswoman for the developer, Community Builders Inc., said the nonprofit is constrained by the 6.9-acre size of the site, obtained from Harvard University in a swap for the development's current 4.5-acre locale, and by the project's finances.
"Harvard has offered what Harvard has offered," she said.
So the next CWP meeting should be particularly interesting. On June 24 Charlesview will present their first update to the public since the plan they submitted to the BRA 16 months ago.

College Economic Impacts at TownGown World

TownGown World is a great resource for learning more about how communities and universities interact all over the world. A new section of the website on collaborative planning includes a short article that I wrote about Harvard and the opportunities in the Holton St Corridor.

Upcoming zoning hearing

29A Duval Street - Create off street parking for two vehicles
More info at http://www.cityofboston.gov/ons/pdfs/allstonbright.pdf

Urban planning: The key is collaboration

Larry Susskind's The Consensus Building Approach blog has a new post about collaboration and urban planning, two intertwined issues relevant to all the planning that is being done for our urban neighborhood. An excerpt:

"Urban planning fails whenever designs, policies and programs are imposed on unwilling or unsuspecting stakeholders. And, phony commitments to participation or consultation don't fooled anyone. Decide-announce-defend has been the mantra for far too long (and it still is) in a many urban planning settings. Serious consultation requires that problems be defined jointly, options be considered together (in light of information collected in concert), decisions be made transparently and accountably; and monitoring, adjustments and learning be truly collaborative"

Sam Yoon on Keller @ Large

A good chance to hear directly from one of the four candidate for Mayor in this 8 minute interview at WBZ-TV Video Archive

And then there were three

For most of the year there have been four huge tower cranes at the Science Complex construction site. But as the project turns from a gaping hole to a vast concrete slab, one of the four cranes is no longer active on the site.

Everett St PaintBox

Also on Everett St is the beautiful newly painted utility box at the top of the stairs near Lincoln Street. What a difference from a few months ago! Thanks to Dan Roan in the Mayor's Office, Karin Goodfellow at the Boston Art Commission, and the artist.

Raining feathers

as this hawk eats breakfast on top of an Everett St utility pole

How little is known about Harvard's Allston future

The Harvard Crimson :: News :: Stem Cell Generation?
While it is unclear if stem cell researchers will still eventually move to Allston, the current fiscal crisis has greatly complicated the University’s plans to bolster interdisciplinary science.

“Allston is just one part of the University. All the education and science currently happening on this campus—that’s what we are all concerned about,” says Catherine Dulac, chair of the Molecular and Cellular Biology department. “What the solutions are, we have no idea. The discussion is just starting.”

No new BPS zones, for now

Boston board delays school district assignment changes - The Boston Globe

Harvard Revisits Allston Planning

No new news here, but a great overview of Summers, Faust, financing, and Harvard's changing approach to development in Allston for the Crimson's Commencement issue.

The Harvard Crimson :: News :: Once Ambitious, Harvard Revisits Allston Planning

Allston - ready to improvise

Harvard is in the midst of graduation, and Drew Faust's Baccalaureate Address echos my observations last month in this blog about uncertainty. She tells Harvard's new graduates that "we do not need to become uncertainty’s victims. We must claim its uses."

This is a great idea, but it doesn't seem like Harvard has been "improvising our way to new solutions" in Allston. To the contrary, Harvard's closed and cautious approach couldn't be further from the jazz musicians and improv comedians that Faust sets forth as examples in her speech.

Faust is right that "the world needs good improvisers." So does Allston, especially in the Cambridge offices where so much power is held.

Gardner School's "Friendship Feast" on Friday

This Friday from 4-7:30 the Friends of the Gardner and Gardner Parents' Council will be hosting this year's Friendship Feast at the Gardner School (30 Athol St). As in the past, this year's Feast will be a great event for all ages with a wide variety of food at reasonable prices, games, activities, and much more.