Assembly Square

So, the new Assembly Square station on the Orange Line is now open which means my commute will now take a bit longer and be a bit more crowded (although almost no one actually got on or off from there yesterday or today). What’s interesting is that buses will replace the subway on September 14, so I guess it’s not done quite yet–they probably wanted to open it as soon as possible to make things look better. I also love how everyone talks about the new neighborhood:

“We invest in infrastructure to increase private development, revitalize urban neighborhoods and bolster growth and opportunity across the Commonwealth,” said Governor Patrick. “The new Assembly Orange Line station is a concrete reminder of what can be achieved through public-private partnership and investment in our communities.”

“A demand for enhanced access to transit, for smart development centered on transportation access and for livable, workable communities has been heard loud and clear by this Administration,” said MassDOT Secretary & CEO Richard A. Davey. “The opening of the new Assembly station today is a direct response to that demand that will provide easy, affordable access to rapid transit in this new neighborhood of Somerville.”

“The first new MBTA station in 27 years is a testament to the key role that access to transportation plays in the growth and redevelopment of our cities and towns,” said MBTA General Manager Dr. Beverly Scott. “Assembly is a modern, fully accessible, environmentally-friendly Orange Line station that will serve this blossoming new neighborhood and the City of Somerville well for years to come.”

“Assembly Row is an excellent example of a well-rounded development project that aligns our jobs, housing and transportation needs to better serve our residents,” said Housing and Economic Development Secretary Greg Bialecki. “Through these types of collaborative efforts we are making our communities great places to live, work and play.”

“The opening of the Orange Line Assembly Station is a win not only for Somerville but for the Commonwealth, and I want to especially thank Gov. Patrick for his deep commitment to this project and to forward-looking transportation policy overall,” said Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone. “The smart, transit-oriented development taking place around this T-stop that our community outlined in our SomerVision plan will not only connect more workers and residents to sustainable and healthy transit. It represents tens of thousands of construction and permanent jobs, more than a billion dollars in private investment into our local economy, and a commitment to the infrastructure we need to thrive in a 21st century economy. As we get projects like this moving forward, we get the entire state moving forward.”

“The development of an Assembly Row T station has been a true public and private partnership as Federal Realty, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the City of Somerville have come together to improve a city’s economic future and connect a region through public transit investments,” said Don Briggs, President of Federal Realty Boston. “Assembly Row is a neighborhood unfolding that is now more accessible to all of Boston and beyond. From nationally known outlet retail to locally loved dining, interstate access to corporate campus amenities, Assembly Row is quickly becoming one of the region’s top destinations for the next-generation of work, live, shop, eat and play. ”

The new Assembly station is a true public-private partnership, funded through a combination of federal, state and private investment. The total cost of the station is $56 million with the Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development contributing $25 million through a MassWorks grant, $16 million in federal funds and a $15 million investment from Federal Realty Investment Trust, the developers of the Assembly Row project.

What no one mentions, an oversight I’m sure, is that this is pretty much exclusively luxury housing–so all this work, public money, and private-public partnership is to help the rich get some nice housing on the T. Great job guys.

It would have been nice if they had upgraded the system before they added the extra traffic, but since ridership is up it’s not really a priority.

The new Kenmore and the new Rat

From the mid to late 1980s, I went to the old Rat in Kenmore Square many times. It was a great place for me for a few reasons:

  • it was close–I lived in the West Fenway
  • it had good music (on the punk end of rock mostly)
  • it was cheap–Friday night was usually $8 for three or four bands

The old Kenmore Square was a great place for a college student for similar reasons:

  • it was pretty close to NU and close to BU
  • it had cheap food, cheap records, cheap other stuff (Army-Navy)
  • it had a great variety of music–there were 4 or 5 clubs in Kenmore itself and at least another 5 within a few blocks

Now it’s a sterile, boring upscale place. But it’s going to have the Rat again:

Early next month, the spirit of the grungy basement bar will be revived at the luxury hotel when the Commonwealth unveils a suite in its honor. Memorabilia from the club will fill every nook and cranny of the 600-square-foot room: the mirror that hung in the Rat’s dressing room, covered with band stickers; the duct-taped keyboard that belonged to club mainstay Willie “Loco” Alexander; drumsticks signed by Marky Ramone; a Cars guitar pick. And, of course, a papier-mâché rat.

With a $40,000-plusdecorating budget and a rate that will set guests back$500 to $900 a night, the opulent suite will be a far cry from its gritty namesake.

There’s a famous quote by Marx: History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. I don’t think the first run of the Rat counts as a tragedy, but this certainly counts as farce.

Class warfare

This isn’t exactly something to be proud of:

Boston has the fourth-largest gap between rich and poor among the nation’s 50 largest cities, according to a  study released on Thursday by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit. Only Atlanta, San Francisco, and Miami had wider income divides between the top 5 percent of earners and the bottom 20 percent.

If you go to the study, you find the numbers: the 20th percentile for household income in Boston was $14, 604 in 2012 while the income for the 95th percentile was $223,838. The city of Boston mandates that 15% of the units of new housing is ‘affordable’–there’s not even enough affordable housing being made for the bottom 20%. It’s pretty obvious why inequality is so bad in Boston, almost all of the housing is being made for the rich and near rich–some of the poor can find housing through federal and state subsidies (which are being cut) but the middle-class is out of luck.

‘Affordable’

I’m on the BRA’s affordable housing email list. Here’s the latest:

Unit Size: Three studios, three one-bedrooms.
Price: $1,724/month for studios, $2,008 per month for one bedrooms.
Maximum Household Income: One person HH: 120% at $79,300; two person HH, 120% at $90,600; three person HH, 120% at $101,950.

That’s right, a studio that costs $1724 is listed as ‘affordable’. I guess I won’t be living in Boston in the near future.

But that might have consequences

This would be a good thing:

Outside political committees pumped nearly $4 million into the Boston election, most of it to help elect Martin J. Walsh.

But current law does not require those groups to reveal their donors until January. That means voters had no way of knowing, before they cast their ballots, who funded many of the ads that saturated the airwaves during the race.

Galvin, who is the state’s top elections official, said he is working with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance in hopes of passing the law before the governor’s race next year, when outside committees are expected to spend even more money to influence the outcome.

Of course there are opponents:

But David N. Bossie, who is president of Citizens United, the group that was plaintiff in the 2010 Supreme Court case, said forcing the disclosure of donors flies in the face of the country’s founding principles.

“Since the founding of our republic, individuals have wanted to be anonymous, whether it’s in political writing or political donations, and that has been a right of Americans for over 200 years,” he said. “That’s not something I think we should be giving up because some liberal groups in a liberal state want to even further erode the First Amendment.”

Bradley A. Smith, a Republican and former member of the Federal Election Commission, said forcing disclosure could also burden small independent committees that rely on volunteers to manage their finances. And more broadly, he said, he was skeptical that requiring outside groups to disclose their donors would matter much to voters.

“You don’t find many voters who will come in and change their votes based on who has given someone money or even bother to look that up,” Smith said. “I sometimes fear we put too much emphasis on disclosure and think it can do things it cannot do, and then we overlook the potential problems and costs it could create.”

Bossie has refined his argument a bit since here:

Big corporations are the new whipping boys in the wake of taxpayer-financed bailouts, Republican operatives argue. They say chief executives can’t take to the public square to share their unpopular views on legislation without being personally attacked or — worse — dismissed.

“You want to speak your peace without political retribution,” said David N. Bossie, president of the conservative group Citizens United, whose fight to air its video critical of Hillary Rodham Clinton led to the Supreme Court’s ruling.

That would be the ‘I want to say anything I want with no consequences’ argument. For some reason, he uses a more general argument here. Smith’s argument is even stupider. This old Kevin Drum post shows why:

let’s turn instead to Proposition 16, a measure sponsored by PG&E that was billed as a “taxpayer’s right to vote” but, in reality, was a cynical play to use the ballot box to prevent its competitors from expanding. PG&E spent nearly $50 million on Prop 16 and its opponents spent nearly nothing, but it went down anyway. Why? How about “ratepayer rage”?

Fed up with big bills, distrustful of new meters that show higher usage and chagrined by power shutoffs when payments are late, PG&E’s customers sent a vote of no-confidence to the giant utility this week when they rejected the utility-sponsored Proposition 16.

Voters in counties served by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which spearheaded the measure to deter government-run power providers, rejected the measure by large margins while counties less familiar with the state’s largest electric utility supported it.

The voter was voted down because the people who knew PG&E knew this was a cynical ploy to reduce competition, but what would have happened if they didn’t know it was funded by PG&E? Citizens United was a terrible decision, it’s made even worse when we don’t know who’s giving the money.

Redistribution

In some ways this is refreshing:

Rosenthal said he has also approached Governor Deval Patrick’s office of housing and economic development to ask for help with his $7.8 million shortage but has not received a reply. Greg Bialecki, Patrick’s secretary of economic development, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Rosenthal said the money would fill a gap in funding needed to satisfy his primary financial backer, Bentall Kennedy Group, a major real estate investment firm that wants a 6 percent return on the project.

But by the time the deal was finalized, the project’s construction costs had risen by $48 million. Rosenthal said that increase threw off the expected return of Bentall Kennedy, requiring tax assistance to get the firm to commit money for construction.

This is always true, but usually the actors aren’t quite so direct in saying that they want a tax break so they can get bigger profits. This isn’t much better:

Participating in the event was Jeffrey Simon, the head of real estate for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which owns the 4.5-acre property on which Rosenthal is seeking to build, and which stands to collect $226 million in rent from the development.

Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation approved revised lease terms with Rosenthal, who has committed to pay rent to the state for 99 years.

The state built the highway through the middle of neighborhoods against the wish of the neighborhoods, left it open and ugly because that was cheaper, all to benefit commuters. Now they want to make lots of money off of it which is why this project is so big and so complex. Thanks state of Massachusetts.

Arbitration

The Boston Globe has really been pushing stories like this:

Under current law, arbitrators must consider what a municipality can afford. Walsh’s bill includes that same provision, but his campaign could not identify any new fiscal safeguards in his legislation.

The campaign maintained that the threat of binding arbitration could force compromise. But the campaign could not explain how the shift would better ensure that a community could pay for an arbitration award. Under Walsh’s proposal, an arbitrator’s ruling would be final, and the city council would have no say.

“That’s a major difference from current law,” said Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a budget watchdog funded by businesses and nonprofits.

“Taking the city council out of the equation gives much more power to the arbitrator. It’s really a step backward for financial accountability to the taxpayer. It would seriously weaken the city’s hand.”

The idea is that binding arbitration is bad because it weakens the hand of the city, of course that means that the current system gives the advantage to cities but I guess that’s ok. In any case this is a complex situation–to decide which side we favor we would need to know how objective the arbitrators have been in the past (do they tend to favor one side) and the nuances of what happens when one side strongly objects to the decision.

What makes this interesting is that the Globe has not said much about binding arbitration that is much more common and definitely slanted to one side:

Stephanie Mencimer, noticed when she went to buy a car that there was a clause saying that she couldn’t sue for any reason, but would have to go through mandatory binding arbitration for any problems. This doesn’t sound too bad, but since the businesses hire the arbitrators there’s a built in conflict of interest. Here are a few bits:

Public Citizen found that in 94 percent of 19,000 cases, NAF arbitrators ruled in favor of the businesses that hired them. One arbitrator handled 68 cases in a single day, awarding every penny that the big companies were seeking. In one case Public Citizen looked at, the NAF also charged $1500 for a three-page document explaining the arbitrator’s decision, something unheard of in regular courts.

One reason businesses often come out on top in arbitration is that arbitrators who rule for consumers have a tendency to find themselves out of work. Such was the case with Richard Neely, a former chief justice of West Virginia’s Supreme Court, who worked briefly as an arbitrator for the NAF. In an article called “Arbitration and the Godless Bloodsuckers,” Neely reported that he had refused to award a bank arbitration-related fees that he judged to be far in excess of what a court would have charged. He never got another case. Neely is not alone. A 2000 study of forced arbitration in HMO contracts found that on the rare occasion that an arbitrator made a significant award for a patient, the HMO never hired that person to arbitrate a case again.

There have been bills to try to get this changed, but the Globe hasn’t been writing a bunch of editorials for those (though they do publish an occasional article). This has been amplified fairly recently:

The issue of arbitration fairness is front and center after a Supreme Court decision in April 2011, which allowed companies to use forced arbitration clauses to ban class actions against them.  Senator Franken recognizes the fundamental unfairness of the court decision, remarking that the decision “essentially insulates companies from liability when they defraud a large number of customers of a relatively small amount of money.”

I wonder why the Globe cares about one situation and not the other–it couldn’t be that the Globe cares more about corporations than unions could it?

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