Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Courthouse Update, April 2007

Former Rifkin law offices on Federal St.

The houses on the corner of Federal and North, including the Rifkin law office shown above, will be demolished in the next week or two.

John Donahue had wanted this building to put on a lot of his on Federal Street Margin St.  but a neighbor sued to prevent that.  (No surprise here.)  So the building, and two others, will go down.  I will have pictures.

The design of the courthouse will be tweaked:

In related news, Mayor Kim Driscoll, state Rep. John Keenan and representatives from several preservation and neighborhood groups met privately in Boston yesterday with the architect for the $106 million courthouse. Many of them had expressed concerns about the size and design of the proposed J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center.

Architect Joan Goody of the Boston firm Goody Clancy unveiled sketches yesterday showing a slightly smaller building with more attention to the rear, or Bridge Street side, of the courthouse, according to several people at the meeting.

"The feedback at the meeting was overwhelmingly positive," Driscoll said.

"I think she made a strong argument that the design ... of this new project is consistent with Salem's architectural history," Keenan said

I've written about and photographed the Bridge St. side of the court complex before.  Of all the conceptual drawings I've seen, there are none of that side of the complex, of "my" side.  There's only the model, which was at the July  2007 meeting (but not the March meeting):

The view in real life would be high in the air over the North River looking south.  My building would be almost two blocks "east" of the model.  I remember looking at the model and crouching down to envision the view at Ash St., but I don't think I have a photo of it. 

People at the March meeting made much of the 91 foot height of the complex at Bridge St.  I would notice it over the existing rear of the building (seen at the lower center) but I'm not sure if I would object.

As an example, next door, the owners of 10 Federal blotted out the sunlight in my apartment by building three stories on top of the existing two story building right next door to me.  (My living room overlooks the building.)

There are no residential buildings on Federal St. that are as close to the court complex as I am to 10 Federal. 

So I can't get excited about 91 feet.

The next spin of the plans is to be presented in a month.  I just ask that Polly Wilbert and her Federal St. cronies bear in mind that shouting the same two talking points and then accusing the state of cutting off discussion after numbing everyone's brain for three hours is not the way of getting one's point across.  Besides, she got a "private meeting" with the architect, more than any of us have gotten!  (The Salem Commission on Disabilities will be standing in line for that, thanks!)

Salem News: Demolition looms for Salem's Federal Street buildings

Update:  Corrected the site that one demolished building was to be moved to.  John Donahue had wanted to move that house to Margin St.  I love to harsh on the "Federal Street Meanies" but credit where credit is due.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Courthouse Shouting Match

It's been a month since the most recent public meeting was held on the courthouse project. I haven't really wanted to comment on it. I was at the meeting recording it for SATV and I have never felt more alienated in my city than when I was there. Nevertheless, my thoughts and photos follow. This will be a long post.

This is the proposed design for the Courthouse complex at 30% design completion:

Proposed Salem court complex 30% design complete

[Source: Goody Clancy 30% Courthouse Site Plan and Renderings [PDF] at Studies and Reports.]

"It's ugly! It's too big! It doesn't fit the "character" of the City! It doesn't look 'historic'!"

If it were a knockoff of a McIntyre design, I'm not sure it'd be much better. When I see that courthouse I see my building in it:

This is where I live. Notice the similarities in the window treatments.

Or consider this familiar view outside my parking lot:

This is a view of the Essex County office complex at the back of the courthouse, taken a few years ago at winter sunset when the rotary still existed on Washington St.

This building was constructed in the mid '70s, at the height of the Brutalist architecture fad. It's an ugly building in the same way that Boston's City Hall is ugly. Yet, it is a familiar sight from my building and I never get tired of seeing it. It's become one of my favorite subjects to photograph, with all the lines and rectangular shapes that draw my eyes in, looming large in the frame as I shoot with a telephoto on Ash St, a half-block away.

(I enjoy photographing this "neighborhood" much more than I do the yuppie, twee, neighborhoods of Salem Common and Federal St! Another photo, and yet another!)

I can't get outraged about the design, even if it were presented as the final design rather than one that is but one-third complete.

The loudest voices in the courthouse shouting match were from those who wanted "history", whatever it is. The courthouse, according to them, should have been smaller. It should be "historic".

I believe they wanted the idea of a historic courthouse, the one you see in so many illustrations, and in films like "To Catch a Mockingbird". A cute little courthouse for a cute little sentimental historic town.

Except that Salem has never been such a place.

Salem has had a concentration of courthouse functions for as long as it's been a county seat. In a sense, the proposed complex just continues the historic pattern that has been a part of Salem's downtown for a very long time.

"The state just came in and railroaded the project!"

Um, no, they didn't. The courthouse complex has been discussed for a very long time. It may have even gone back to the construction of the District Court building (another Brutalist building) in the mid seventies, on the site of the former restaurant Grub and Grog's on Washington St. A courthouse complex, as the representative from DCAM told us at last summer's meeting, was in consideration for the Salem Depot site around 2000. The courthouse would be built on top of the Salem Depot parking garage. After 9/11 this was not seen as a good idea. (The experience of UMass Boston provides other good reasons not to do this.) There was even talk of relocating the courthouse complex to the old Danvers State Hospital site (now a residential development.)

As Patricia Zaido pointed out, this project has been in the works since its funding was approved in 2005.

The state is operating under some serious restrictions to get this courthouse in Salem. First, the existing buildings on the lot (except for District Court across the street) have to be preserved afterwards, and the complex must function while construction is going on. (The Registry of Deeds has already been temporarily relocated to Shetland Park.) And second, they must stay within the $106 million budget that has already been approved. Any delays would imperil this.

The state, as well, has some constraints to the design of a courthouse that they must follow. Any design must be functional and secure for several groups of people that use it: The judges and officials, defendants, witnesses, and jurors. All these groups must be safely managed and segregated until they have their time in court. The state has been very clear on this point. (It is to the discredit of the media that these details have never been mentioned, leaving people to imply it's a big courthouse just because the state wants it that way.)

In particular, juror services and amenities at the Salem complex are currently non-existent. Presently, if you want to erase court cases from the docket, for whatever nefarious reason, just let off the brake pedal as you move through Washington St. and run down the jurors herded across the street from the church that serves as a juror waiting room!

Now we come to the other controversy: The state will remove the east downramp to Bridge St. to accommodate the footprint of the court complex. The shouting against this was the most bitter I've ever heard in a public meeting anywhere. After the architect discusses the loading dock and sally ports needed to safely deliver defendants to the building, one guy goes "You don't need 40-foot trucks to deliver prisoners!"

I suppose if everyone on Federal St. conducts a sit in at the construction site, we might need those trucks! More to my point, there are 40-foot trucks outside anywhere you may live or work:

[Credit: iirraa on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons License.]

The courthouse has 11 courtrooms and it is a good sized office complex in its own right. Perhaps delivery trucks like these should be prohibited on Federal St? I'll support that!

The state cited traffic sensor data (PowerPoint) as evidence that the ramp was underutilized. Here's a picture of the ramp from last summer:

This was taken around weekday noon in summer I could have walked all the way down. I couldn't resist being a wise-ass when I suggested (during an unrelated meeting, when the topic came up) that this be Rowling's next book: "Harry Potter and the Magical Slip Ramp", as this ramp is purported to have the power to solve Salem's traffic forever. (Like the Bypass Road!) I though fewer ramps were good for the environment, or for urban character, or something to that effect.

I cannot think the state (specifically, DCAM, which is in charge of facilities) would take on the extra hassle of coordinating with MassHighway (working on the roadway) just because it felt like it.

What do I think of the courthouse?

I have some sympathy for those people worrying about traffic. Changes in traffic patterns are very hard to take and we have had outside consultants with failed plans come in before. Not to mention our home-grown Riley Plaza, Salem's quintessential failed urban renewal project.

I have a little sympathy for the architects who are concerned about the plans at 30%. One can hope the next spin of the plans will make it look better. Still, I could not muster much outrage if this were to appear outside Ash St. tomorrow.

I have no sympathy whatsoever for Polly Wilbert and the Federal Street crowd. They only want something that doesn't disrupt their property values. They would gladly sacrifice functionality towards a distorted sense of "history".

Right now, the state has every reason not to build the courthouse in Salem. The county government that concentrated our court system where it is no longer exists. Essex County disappeared as a government entity in the early '90's, except for the Sheriff's Department.

Were I head of DCAM, I would be looking towards Lynn or Beverly or Peabody, or even Danvers once again. Who needs a bunch of snobs?

I'd gladly let the courthouse go as well.

Except that if it goes, we probably won't get a new train station.

And we're in a recession that I think will get much worse, perhaps 1929-era worse. Worse than anything in my living memory.

That courthouse could loom large in more ways than one.

Postscript: Road reconfiguration has already started.

More thoughts on the courthouse.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Monday, April 14, 2008

Pedestrian crossing too short in Brookline; short in Salem, too?

I saw a story in Brookline about a favorite subject:  Pedestrian crossings.  When MassHighway rebuilt the busy Coolidge Corner crossing,  home of two intersecting streets and a Green Line stop, they removed the countdown signals and replaced the signals with "regular" audible signals.  The timing was adjusted by MassHighway for motor traffic, but pedestrians believe it's too short:

Brookline - As a commuter who bicycles up Harvard Street to Allston twice a day, Nathan Gunner knows well the daily battle between cars, trolleys and pedestrians for impossibly short green lights and walk signs.

So he was surprised when the town put up new signals that cut pedestrian crossing time in the interest of getting cars through the intersection faster.

“You can only make it halfway across in the time you have now,” the Highland Road resident said. “And not everybody dashes, not everybody is young.”

People with disabilities are concerned as well:

The redesigned intersection presents a special challenge for handicapped and blind pedestrians.

Kurt Kuss, a blind Brookline resident that runs a disability-consulting firm, said the new signals could be misleading because they announce that a crosswalk light is on without identifying which street — Beacon Street or Harvard Street — is safe to cross.

Other crosswalks, like that at St. Mary’s Street, identify the street.

“It ought to be a fairly simple thing, because they’re all recorded messages anyway,” Kuss said.

A number of major intersections in Salem have also been upgraded by MassHighway, including these intersections:

  • Lafayette/Canal/Jefferson (near SSC Central Campus)
  • Vinnin Square at the Salem/Swampscott line
  • Marlborough Road from Highland Ave. to the Peabody line
  • Washington/New Derby/Norman (replacement for the old Riley Plaza)
  • Bridge at Washington (Salem Depot)
  • Bridge at St. Peter (Bypass Road);  not yet built

The first three intersections have voice signals for visually impaired.  Washington/New Derby and Salem Depot intersections have buzzer signals.  Bridge and St. Peter is promised to have voice signals when the intersection is constructed this summer.

Salem has one countdown signal, at the Witch House at Essex and North.

Apparently, there are different pedestrian signal activations at Coolidge Corner depending on whether one is crossing Harvard St. or Beacon.  There is one signal in Salem like that, at the intersection of Bridge and Flint.  (The signage at that intersection is very confusing so I avoid going that way when I walk to North Salem.)

It's interesting that voice signals in Brookline speak the name of the street.  So far as I know, ours do not.  It would provide a much needed sanity-check for the visually impaired.

The Commission on Disabilities has gotten scattered complaints about the timing of pedestrian signals in Salem over the years, most notably at New Derby and Washington.  I don't doubt there are short signals, but some of that is perception;  most people expect the white walk signal to be on throughout the crossing and don't realize that even if the signal flashes red while you're still in the intersection, you can still finish crossing;  it's those of us waiting on the curb who must still wait when the red signal flashes.

In any event, the pedestrian still has the right of way no matter how fast or slow they are in crossing.  Anyone can trip on a brick in the middle of a crosswalk;  that doesn't mean the car waiting for you has permission to run you down.


Coolidge Corner crossing too short, pedestrians say - Brookline, MA - Brookline TAB

Many More Are Jobless Than Are Unemployed - New York Times

A Floyd Norris article in the Times confirms what I have long suspected for years:  Despite the rosy unemployment figures of the past 10 years (around 4.1-5%), there are many who have either chosen not to work (stay-at-home spouses, say) or have given up trying to find work.

In the latest report, for March, the Labor Department reported the jobless rate — also called the “not employed rate” by some — at 13.1 percent for men in the prime age group [27-54]. Only once during a post-World War II recession did the rate ever get that high. It hit 13.3 percent in June 1982, the 12th month of the brutal 1981-82 recession, and continued to rise from there.

That is more than 1 out of 10.

I suspect it includes many people with disabilities.  Working with a disability is a complicated dance that's influenced by many factors:  The nature of the work, the nature of the disability, and the level of health care--and even the availability of care--that the person with a disability requires for a stable life that allows him or her to keep working.

People with low-level jobs (Wal-Mart, Dunkin Donuts') who get disabled just don't come back to work.  Some can eventually come back, and some do only to find their condition aggravated, so they can't work anyway.

Even with "higher-level jobs", a term that needs to be put in quotes following the collapse of middle management and the era of downsizing over the past 20 years, it is precarious for one who becomes disabled.

One may be told that their health-care costs are too high for the productivity they bring.  Or that adaptations would be too expensive.  Or, most likely, they are not "dynamic" young enough.

Near age 54 with a disability, unless one is in a very secure job, he or she may leave.  A friend of mine in her fifties fell down a flight of stairs during a power failure at her workplace.  She settled with them, but never went back to work anywhere and eventually became semi-housebound due to the fibromyaglia she contracted as a consequence.

Add in overseas outsourcing, where all the workers are able-bodied and there is no ADA to worry about, and it's a precarious position.    It always has been.

Many More Are Jobless Than Are Unemployed - New York Times

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Gentrification in Salem

I don't often comment on pundit-bloggers like Instapundit or Daily Kos, but Megan McArdle hit a nerve with me:

One of the reasons that I left New York (I mean, aside from my awesome new job), is that I didn't like what the place had become. I grew up on the Upper West Side when it was still the place where Leonard Bernstein had set West Side Story: a poor-to-middle-class place with no good restaurants but all sorts of interesting local places. The fifteen-story co-op in which I was raised felt in a lot of ways like a very small town.

By the time I left, in my thirties, the Upper West Side south of 96th street was wall-to-wall investment bankers, and the ubergentrification was creeping towards me; I lived across the street from the last grocery store south of 125th street that didn't carry artisanal cheese. I have no objection to artisanal cheese, of course, but the monoculture was oppressive. None of the finance people or their associated service personnel seemed to live in my neighborhood; they came there to sleep. On weekends, they left for their country houses as quickly as their expensively garaged cars could carry them.

The road to Salem's gentrification began sometime in the late 1970's, when the Essex Street Mall was created, which blocked off Essex St. to traffic between Liberty St. (now New Liberty St. and the Museum Place Garage) and Washington St. The East India Square Mall (now Museum Place) was built, and there was the Pickering Wharf development (now a hotel). The first condo complexes were built on Central St., and Federal St. (at the corner of Washington across from the court complex).

At that time, the last remnants of the old Salem that I grew up with were fading away. The Paramount theatre that so many old-timers remember was gone by 1970. But in 1982, the biggest department store in Salem was no more.

Almy's, Bigelow & Washburn was gone. Due to congestion downtown and a declining economy, it closed forever. A condo complex--and the old Almy's clock--now sit on the site.

For me, that marked the end of the Salem I grew up in and the Salem I loved.

I had many happy memories of "going downtown" with my mom and her daughter to go shopping.

That was the start of my bitterness over Salem's change.

Salem experienced more decline. The Second Salem Fire happened around this time: The Salem Armory and the Masonic Temple were burned by an arsonist in 1981. (The armory's drill shed is now the visitor's center; the front shell, demolished, is now a park.)

Gentrification continued, with more steam, in 1985 when the Salem Common Neighborhood Association was established. My family lived in the public housing at the Phillips School in the neighborhood, so this was my first encounter with gentrification. Residents in my building were never really welcomed to SCNA's meetings. They still aren't.

Sometime in the late eighties and early nineties, yuppies began to discover Salem. They, and the city, also discovered Salem's history, specifically colonial history to 1812, to be good for property values.

Or, as I like to put it, the appearance of history is good for property values. Just ask Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Now, the forces of gentrification are just across my street. The Salem Jail is being developed.

And I'm unhappy, as you already know if you're a regular reader of mine.

McArdle references an article in the Times about the galloping class divide in Manhattan in explaining why she moved out. A money quote:

Robert H. Frank, an economics professor at Cornell, has written about the phenomenon of Americans who feel impoverished because of the towering wealth of those above them. In New York City, he said, those feelings are compounded by the sense that much of the wealth at the top is derived from financial instruments that merely move money around.

It’s one thing if people are adding value to society,” Professor Frank said. “But there is skepticism that this is all a shell game and these guys are not adding value, at least to the extent that justifies their salaries.”

What do people like Polly Wilbert do? I grew up around factory workers, my best friend Leo Jodoin is a carpenter, my mom raised foster children. What do the denizens of Washington Square or Federal Street do?

At least I can explain my own field of IT. I have never seen an explanation of gentrification in Salem that didn't involve historic-property owners capitalizing on their property values and refinancing, apparently to fund lawsuits against the city for destroying the "character" of their neighborhood, or against their own neighbors for repainting their houses in the "wrong" colors.

In New York, no one knows where gentrification will stop. I don't, either, but I know I won't like the journey.

Salem Jail update

[Rendition of the Salem Jail looking east down St. Peter St., from the SRA meeting in February]

The Salem Jail project that I've written about before has gone before the Planning Board. New Boston Development officials went before the board tonight to present their updated plan.

No surprises for the most part; they reiterated what had gone before at the SRA meeting in February.

It's been mentioned before that some units will be marketed as apartments to take advantage of federal funding. These will be in the "old" part of the Jail. There will be a "new" part of the jail in the existing parking lot at St. Peter, part of a new "parking structure". (Not mentioned, but I presume the old barn will be taken down.)

One member of the board asked about affordable housing. There will be one affordable unit.

That's one more than I thought would be there!

I'm not surprised. The SRA doesn't need low-income folks downtown. The Jefferson was supposed to be for "up-and-coming, affluent and hip" people too.

There'll be one parking space per unit per downtown zoning, which has been extended to the Jail. This means no families.

(I would like to see Federal St. zoned for no resident parking--horses only! But another post, please.)

There'll still be a restaurant. So they say. The rep from New Boston wasn't going to speculate further.

There is one last round of approvals from the city before construction starts. I didn't hear this part of the meeting very well, but I had thought I heard that this would come up at the regular SRA meeting on the 9th; not sure why it would come before the SRA again.

UPDATE: At the SRA meeting of April 9th, it was mentioned that the closing is scheduled for June. The project will be permitted in July and construction will start in August.