WILL THE SUFFOLK DOWNS MEGA-PROJECT PEAK THE MARKET ?

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Last night I attended the last public meeting for the initial phase of HYM Group’s huge Suffolk Downs development. For the past two years HYM has hosted these public affairs, at every sort of East Boston and Revere  neighborhood association and to other sorts of locally resident communities. I’ve seen it so often that I’ve practically memorized the presentation. It is worth remembering, because it involves 10,000 units of housing — 2200 of them for sale — as well as 50,000 square feet of commercial space, 40 acres of open space, and an estimated cost of $ 320,000,000 just to build the necessary infrastructure, not to overlook $ 23,000,000 in so-called “mitigation payments” — in reality a kickback — to the City of Boston and probably an equivalent kickback, er “mitigation,” to the City of Revere.

In effect, HYM proposes to build an entire City, occupying — so its CEO, Tom O’Brien, tells us — 20 years to complete it.

I have no problem with the presentation. HYM has gone the extra mile, maybe an extra ten miles, to involve everyone it could reach out to, assuring that the public is fully aware of its plans and all the details, which are long and manifold. I also have no problem with the proposal. If HYM’s investors want to take the risk involved, that’s what capitalism is, and kudos to its capitalists for accepting risk when they could just as easily own Treasury bonds.

My two problems, which I will now discuss, are with the nature of the capital risk and the strong likelihood that HYM’s 10,000 units of housing will peak the market, moving maybe the entire northern half of metro Boston toward oversupply, with all the consequences. Don’t call me alarmist. I’ve seen many real estate projects — huge ones — top off a market easy to topple, given the immense degree of borrowed-money leverage that real estate markets always take on. We think today that there’s no stopping the Boston building boom, that people in need of housing will continue to clamor to live in Boston; but these trends can change, and quickly. In 2004 there seemed no end to the rush for suburban McMansions, yet by 2008 these over-sized houses far from Downtown were almost unsaleable. Who of today’s home buying generation wants one ? not many.

Those who live in Boston — and who are not homeless — already live in a housing unit. New housing is Boston needed only for those who do not yet live here. So : will 10,00 new residents be available for HYM’s 10,000 units ? Or, if current residents decide to live in the HYM’s city, will those 10,000 current units find 10,000 people to rent or buy them ?

That is the risk that HYM’s investors are taking on, and I am not convinced that it’s a slam-dunk. The enormous costs of building housing in Boston already motivate builders to seek outlying locations. Why else is the Governor’s zoning reform bill so powerfully backed by Mayors and realtors ? HYM has it even worse : it can’t only build. It has to implant the entire infrastructure that on existing streets is already in place : electric lines, sewers, water mains, cable, and roads. O’Brien told last night’s meeting that the total cost of building a Suffolk Downs unit is $ 500,000. I think he’s under-estimating. That might be the cost now, but he is committed to use union labor — which is a good thing — and union wages rise over time, as do the costs of materials and permits. Remember : the HYM proposal will be built in four phases over TWENTY years.

The other problem is that Tom O’Brien asserted that his investors have accepted a 5.7 percent rate of return (ROE). If he is correct — and I’m not convinced — then his investors are taking way too great a risk of market change. Most REIT’s look for ROE’s of 11 to 15 percent. Given the immense degree of leverage — borrowed money — involved in major real estate projects, if sales fall short by ten percent, or if mortgage borrowers’ default rate is higher than the usual two to three percent, an ROE of 5.7 runs a substantial risk of default or loss. HYM’s record of success with big projects may well have induced its investors to accept a 5.7 ROE; but reputation is not immune from market change. A 5.7 ROE by itself suggests that our market is peaking, because no serious investor would accept less, and very few would accept 5.7. If this is the present price level, it is one that likely can’t be sustained without major boosts in our region’s median family income.

Speaking of median income, some activists showed up at last night’s meeting asking, or demanding, that HYM offer more “affordable” units than the 13 percent required by City development rules. Personally, I don’t see why there should be any such rule. It’s the investors’ money. They are risking it, they should be free to set the rules. The 13 percent requirement has squeezed developers already. Anything more than that would likely stop development altogether. I think the entire notion of “affordable” in our housing market has gone for the duration and won’t return unless family income rises significantly — a subject of itself , well worth discussion — or the market turns seriously down — in which case we’ll have, as a City, worse economic problems than affordability. In any case, the affordability demand with respect to HYM seems to get the market wrong. I think you will see HYM doing some serious price cutting well before its 20 year build period ends.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

A DISTURBING DEVELOPMENT

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^ 119 Leyden Street : a beautiful, 1880s gem, to be torn down, according to a proposal that should never be allowed.

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Last night I attended a monthly meting of the Orient Heights Civic Association — my first since January. What I saw surprised and concerned me.

The 75 or more locals who saw and listened to two development proposals expressed the usual — and correct — objections to a development process in which the City’s Zoning Board of Appeals approves proposals that aggressively alter, rather than support, the character of the Orient Heights neighborhood. These normal objections should be honored by the Zoning Board, but they are not. I have written before this about the duty given by State law to Zoning Boards of Appeal : that any variance they may give from an area’s zoning designation must enhance and carry out the purposes of that designation. In Boston these past several years, the opposite is the rule, and people are right to dislike that.

Yet what I saw at the Orient Heights meeting went beyond the usual Zoning variance case. In both the proposals offered, 119 Leyden Street and 192 Gladstone Street, two perfectly good, well maintained homes, one an 1880s gem, are to be torn down and replaced with, respectively, a nine unit and six unit condo building. I headed this column with the photo of that 1880s gem to illustrate the audacity of what was being asked. By what whim has development in Boston now reached a point where dwellings that enhance the character of a neighborhood are to be torn down and done away with ?

To put it another way : Are we now at the point where houses — normal houses that establish a neighborhood’s personality — are to be eliminated entirely, purchased by a developer who can afford to pay more than any ordinary, resident home buyer because he or she can turn the parcel into 6 to 9 units each selling for almost the price of a single home ? Well, yes, we ARE at that point, if developers know that the Zoning Board of Appeals will grant them the variances they need to make such an outcome work. And if we are at that point, then neighborhoods like Orient Heights, where normal homes sit on lots large enough for developers to build 6 to 9 condominium units, have no defense. Might as well cash out and say goodbye to a neighborhood that has worked well for a century.

Fortunately for the rest of East Boston, the same strategy cant work. Homes in Jeffries Point and most of Eagle Hill sit on much smaller lots. There’s no room to do what the 119 Leyden and 192 Gladstone developer is trying. Not that downtown East Boston hasn’t its own weaknesses against the moves of grand-design developers; but at least they aren’t naked to this one.

It’s also an easy tactic to counter. The tear-down proposal can’t work if the City won’t approve the necessary variances. That’s all it takes to safeguard the character of Orient Heights, as the State’s zoning laws were adopted to do. Why won’t the City administration put a stop to it ?

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

STAYING IN BOSTON : THE HYDE PARK and ROSLINDALE MESSAGE

 

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^ Better schools are the key to having this young mother and her family stay in Roslindale rather than moving out. Nor is she the only young parent who will either stay, as we say we want them to, or leave.

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Having just spent more than a month knocking Hyde Park and Roslindale doors with District Five candidate Maria Esdale Farrell, I have a large plate of first hand voter opinion to offer you on the issue most often on voters’ minds in these two neighborhoods of Boston. What to do about Boston schools ? That is the subject most often voiced.

It was the same way back in the 1980s, when, then living in Roslindale, I ran for a public office based in Roslindale, Hyde Park, and points southwest. Then, however, the almost universal view was that Boston schools were hopelessly mired in busing from a child’s home neighborhood to one far away, a thing parents understandably refused to accept and so moved, out of the City entirely. Thus began an exodus of “Rozzie” and Hyde Park people that continues to this day.

If the turnover of homes continues, especially of the most affordable properties, the school issues that began it have changed. The fundamentals are not the same. In the 1980s, busing was a Federally ordered remedy for school segregation arising from segregated neighborhoods. Today the neighborhoods of Boston — all of them — have integrated racially and ethnically, which means there’s a solid basis for rescinding the 1975 Federal busing order. It is now seriously suggested by people on all sides and is certainly seen as crucial by people who own homes in “Rozzie’ and Hyde Park. Nor is rescission of the busing order the only school reform people in these neighborhoods bring up as they set forth the conditions they require if they’re to stay in Rozzie or Hyde Park — to not take half a million dollars for a home that in the late 1980s was worth maybe 50,000 at best.

Here, then, is a list of school reforms that Hyde park and “Rozzie” voters talk about, along with my own suggestions  generated by what voters told my candidate :

( 1 ) end the busing order. The City’s School Budget allocates $ 96,000,000 to transportation. Imagine what that $ 96 million could do for classroom equipment, teacher aide salaries, school lunches, and after-class activities.

( 2 ) bring back an elected school committee. Voters want to participate directly in Boston schools governance and see the appointed committee as too subservient to the Mayor, who is accountable to the voters on far too many fronts for school accountability to get proper priority. Some voters are willing to allow the Mayor one or two appointees to a reformed School Committee, but they want nine to twelve members elected from three districts exclusively drawn for school elections. (District Five opinion on this issue must take into account Rob Consalvo, who was Five’s Councillor and who now serves, by Mayoral appointment, as the School system’s chief of staff. I see no reason why Consalvo cannot respond to an elected committee as readily as to an appointed one, but his opinion on the change must be respected.)

( 3 ) reconstitute parent-teacher associations (PTA’s), which back in the days before busing assured each Boston schools of its direct response to the concerns and priorities of the parents of kids attending.

( 4 ) be open to alternative schools, because education today is no longer a one size fits all service. Charter schools of many kinds should be available to serve parents who want them, but locating charter schools is the sticking point. The Roxbury Prep proposal currently on offer proposes to occupy the old car dealership premises on Belgrade Avenue, and its proponents strongly believe in the location, close to public transportation; but all three neighborhood associations adjacent oppose the location; the result is that a school which ought to be built right now may not be built at all.

So —- local schools locally attended, directed by principals with power to hire and fire, subject to oversight by a committee elected by those who use the school system, and rigorous administration of a schools budget poorly managed and vastly over-committed to employee wages and benefits (these take up 86 percent of the current budget and have done so in all the last four budgets as well), as well as allowing alternative schools to flourish in local settings — these reforms would do wonders toward persuading current — long-term or recent arrival Rozzie and Hyde Park home owners to stay; to not cash out and leave the City; to feel good about the future direction of these two neighborhoods, which offer the same driveway, front lawn, back yard, and abundant verdure that one finds in much-desired suburbs : and which, unlike many suburbs, offer vibrant community connections, funky businesses, and plenty of social network venues, as one expects of a City setting. Yes, Rozzie and Hyde Park today have all of these, the funky social networking downtowns having come to full fruition only recently; but it won’t matter much if the area’s schools do not respond to what locals insist upon.

Lastly ; there are some who feel that the reason for long-term home owners leaving is “white flight.” I disagree. Those who left thirty years ago may well have feared a neighborhood becoming largely brown people or those who speak different languages. That is not true today. What I heard at the door was the same for every voter I listened to, of whatever skin hue or native language. And why not ? Those who think that people with brown skin or whose native language might be Albanian, or Spanish, or Yoruba (Nigeria) want something different from what Bostonians of prior immigrant origin want could not be more mistaken. Voters of Rozzie and Hyde park all want to be ordinary Americans and live ordinary American lives, no different, no matter what you hear from politicians with an agenda. On the schools front that’s absolutely true. You want Rozzie to remain ‘quirky” and Hyde Park to maintain Hyde pride ? Give them better schools better governed. It really is that simple.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

OF CARS, TRAFFIC, AND HAVING A CONVERSATION

tough traffic, but not unmanageable

My District Councillor, Lydia Edwards, has called for “having a conversation” about Boston’s traffic problem and how, perhaps, to reform it. I commend her for inviting conversation.

Actually, it’s already begun : at Large Councillor Michelle Wu proposed a $ 25.00 fee for resident parking stickers. How this assessment alleviates the traffic, I have no answer. Presumably Wu thinks that imposing a fee for Boston resident street parking permissions will induce many to park their cars somewhere other than on the street.

Is this feasible ? Probably not, in the zones most impacted by heavy traffic. So, is this proposal then a device for raising city revenue ? I can’t imagine any other purpose of it, and I object on that ground. Car owners are already taxed and fee-assessed : the excise tax, parking garages Downtown, car insurance, license and registration, annual inspection fee, and if you get a parking ticket, fees galore added. Car owners are easy prey for revenoo-ers : add the gas tax, the cost of a car loan, gasoline and car repair : in my own case, as my wife and I both keep a car on the road, it costs us about 1100.00 a month to pay for everything assessed or charged to us. It’s also twenty percent-plus of our monthly income. I doubt we’re the only ones. Wu’s $ 25.00 parking permission fee could not possibly be moire regressive. I reject it out of hand. It shouldn’t be part of the conversation at all..

What sort of proposal should be talked about ? I’ll suggest some at the end of this column, but first I think we ought to figure out how our traffic mess got to where it now is. Boston roads developed in stages and represent very different, clashing eras of transportation assumption. Downtown, East Boston, Charlestown, the South End, and much of South Boston were laid out long before cars existed. Most of Dorchester, Roxbury, Mission Hill, Brighton, and Jamaica Plain were planned out when cars were few. Mattapan, Roslindale, Hyde Park, Readville, and West Roxbury came about with street plans allowing for every family owning a car.

Hardly any allowance was made for cars at first, not enough allowance was made second, and full allowance came only for some of us — which means that Boston voters entertain contradictory interests in the traffic and parking.

I know of no one who lives in third-phase Boston who believes that Boston should make it more difficult for  City people to own and use a car. In first-phase Boston, however, many residents feel otherwise: they see their narrow streets filled with Airport-bound Ubers and Lyfts and visitors — for these are all tourist destination neighborhoods — parking where residents need to park. First-phase residents can’t easily drive their neighborhoods, much less get from them to other places. East Boston people see even worse, as Route 1-A brings immense volumes of North Shore commuters into and through the neighborhood on its way to the Harbor Tunnels. (Which adds a fourth phase to the three I have already outlined — Route 1-A and the Tunnels were built, in the 1930s and 1970s, onto an already existing neighborhood almost without regard to their impact on it. You could not get away with that today, but back then there was no organized neighborhood action, and what action did arise arose almost too late to make a difference.)

Charlestown has been all but cut off from surroundings by the Rutherford Avenue by-pass and a bridge to the North End that forms a traffic bottleneck almost every day. As for the North End itself, cars are almost an impossibility in its European-narrow streets, yet they’re everywhere, and parking if you’re not already in a space, is almost an impossibility.

All of that said, the requirement that you be a bona fide resident in order to to obtain a parking permit seems to me sufficient restriction.

Parking takes second place to the traffic situation, which affects everyone who needs to get to or through Downtown. The let’s-ban-cars folks say, make car use so prohibitively expensive that people are forced onto public transit. Leaving side the intolerable overreach of such proposal, public transit only goes where it wants to go and when it wants to go there. Fine, if its destination is yours, and its schedule fits your schedule, but if not, then public transit is a burden we should free to not take on.

Public transportation exists to serve those who have no other means and for those who have only one destination, not three, and who don’t want the hassle of finding parking in Downtown or paying upwards of $ 25 for it. And that is ALL it is for. Public transport can NOT be made mandatory. We live in a free society.

I have no problem with public transportation managers seeking to induce new ridership. That’s what any service provider seeks to do : attract new customers. What I object to is having a governmental authority order it, or force it by imposing taxes, fees, and street bans.

Now let’s talk about traffic in a traffic context and not as a justification for imposing other “mobility”: systems on people.

As traffic moves on roads, the conversation ought to confront the miserable design of Boston’s major roads. The Central Artery was built to traffic assumptions from forty years ago. Its designers evidently saw no problem with ( 1 ) squeezing traffic at exits down to one lane ( 2 ) building ramps onto the left lanes of a four-lane roadway barely a half mile from exit ramps on the other side of said roadway. Coming from the Ted Williams tunnel you enter the main highway from the left, then have to nudge your way across bumper to bumper traffic over to the right side in order to exit onto Massachusetts Avenue. 

These mistakes cannot just be wished away with a magic wand. Redesigning our major traffic roads, re-framing them and, perhaps, rerouting them, is out of the question. The disruption would be worse than the congestion. We’re pretty much stuck with what’s there. Nor is the congestion fatal to business. Thanks to cell phones , you can conduct a negotiation while stuck in traffic; can call whoever needs to be called, can plan ahead for when you — and your team of negotiators, or the other side — arrives at wherever. You can also schedule stuff, because even at peak traffic, it takes on average about 30 to 35 minutes to drive from the tunnel entrance at North Station to the Massachusetts Avenue exit. If you’re driving from Eastie to the other side of the Harbor you can also use the Ted Williams tunnel. From entrance to South Boston exit takes about fifteen minutes even at peak traffic. With a fully charged cell phone in your car you should be able to surmount inconvenence of this degree.

What, then, do I suggest ?

First : do not over-react. City ordinances should not be a kind of scratch to an itch.

Second : enough of dedicated lanes. Setting aside road for MBTA buses exclusively, and for bike travel does not better the situation, it worsens it. European cities set no such policy. All “mobility” types mix it up in the same traffic ; vespas, bikes, cars, jitneys. If there’s one principle of traffic management that we must apply, it is equality.

Third : It is maddening to have to find which lane allows you to turn left, or to go straight ahead, at a stop light; and drivers shifting lanes to meet the preference required by current traffic managers only thickens the jam.

Fourth : maintains roads and bridges in good repair. This is far more important than re-routing or creating dedicated lanes. Poor roads cause unnecessary car repairs (potholes everywhere), and bad bridges force complete shut-downs at the worst possible stretch of road.

Fifth : there are some road routes that do need re-thinking. The bridge at Readville, from one side of Wolcott Square and Sprague Street to the other, at Truman Parkway and Hyde Park Avenue, comes to mind. Too many roads intersect in too many competing combinations. There should be an underpass here, for through traffic, alongside the bridge for local option. I imagine there are other similar anomalies, locally defined, in our road system.

Lastly : let’s not overdo, nor make impulse decisions. Boston traffic arises from the Boston boom. It’s a consequence of prosperity and economic growth. Routing mistakes were made, in the 1930s and in the 1970s, even in the 1990s, yet it would be worse to override these now. Best to apply the principle of traffic equality and to not tax Boston resident car owners beyond the already burdensome excise tax and gas tax. We cannot require car owners to pay even more for the sake of public transportation, as a kind of punishment because the “progressives”: do not like cars. No traffic and transportation policy should ever try to punish one transportation preference in favor of another. It’s up to the people — and not to government — to decide which form of transportation they want to use.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

EXTENDING THE GREEN LINE

photo courtesy of Boston Globe

In this morning’s Boston Globe there’s a feature report on the Green Line extension through Somerville to Medford. The new service runs for only 4.7 miles, yet the cost will run to almost $ 2 billion and the work will take two more years to complete (the target date for commencing service is 2021). AS the Globe reports, the new tracks involve bridge rebuilding, right of way widening, noise barriers, new stations, and in the meantime, much detouring of traffic on Somerville’s Broadway and Washington Streets:
https://www2.bostonglobe.com/metro/2019/04/21/slowly-but-surely-green-line-extension-coming-along/pVGdQ6TsSMmdU8p91zvBmL/story.html

I doubt this enormous dislocation and rebuilding could ever have been accomplished without solid support from Somerville’;s Mayor and City officials. How else to suffer the inconveniences for several years ? And all of that for a mere 4.7 miles of new track.

Keep that in mind when advocates berate the Baker administration — as many do, every day — about MBTA improvements. Reforming Boston’s public transportation isn’t easy or quick. It could be done 100 years ago, or even 60, before neighborhood activists learned to assemble, or zoning laws took hold. Then, eminent domain moves could easily acquire a right of way. Today, not gonna happen. Extending the Blue Line, as many activists propose — disclosure : i support doing it — sounds good, but it involves Revere and Lynn, and maybe Swampscott and Salem, and it means buying up a right of way — or widening existing rights — and building stations. Blue Line extension was first seriously proposed at least 25 years ago. It still hasn’t moved beyond the talking stage. Will it do so now ? I wonder. Connecting the Red Line to the Blue Line is simpler : an existing track already exists, bet.ween Bowdoin Street and the Charles Street Bridge. (T trains once traveled that track. Why did they stop ?) As for other MBTA reforms, they face every obstacle that the Green Line extension spent a decade overcoming.

More radical transit advocates want much more draconian moves. They see the presence of cars on city streets as the big problem — it is one, to be sure — and the T as the solution. make it so expensive to drive a car into Boston that only the rich will be able to afford it. To these advocates, its not enough that those who drive into Boston face parking fees of $ 20.00 a day and up, or that they pay tolls to use the fastest roads, or that municipalities impose a once “temporary” excise tax on vehicle owners, or that parking meter fines continue to rise, $ 90.00 now being the bottom line in Boston, or t.hat if you happen to get towed in Boston, you’ll pay 4 142 to $ 245 just to get your car back, plus the inconvenience of finding a way to get to where it has been towed. Boston and its adjacent communities already crush car owners. Add to their imposts the cost of car insurance — I pay $ 181 a month, $ 2200 a year — and of inspection, car repair, gasoline, and maybe an auto loan, and you’e put car ownership way out of reach for people on limited incomes. None of t.his is enough for radical anti-automobile advocates. They seek to penalize Uber and Lyft rides with fees and fines. They want the State’s gas tax, already onerous, raise even higher. They want a “miles driven” tax. Some have recently proposed something called ” congestion pricing,” a law which, if enacted, will credit those who drive in off-peak traffic hours. That’s fine, if you can do that. Most of us cannot. As for the explosion of Uber and Lyft cars taking commuters to Logan Airport or picking them up, why should they pay a fine or a fee for providing a service vital to our City’s hectic economy of prosperity ? I suppose that one-way designation can fend Uber and Lyft cars off East Boston local streets: why not institute that ?

Without question traffic on East Boston streets has ballooned past the toleration point : residents on residential streets reasonably wish their street to be free of pass-through traffic. East Bostonians — and others — thus ask why the State cannot push major MBTA build-outs quickly. At least put plans in place, they ask. And so ? The State is doing so. A comprehensive transportation plan was released three months ago — I wrote about it at the time. It’s an ambitious plan that takes environmental issues into account as well as traffic concerns. It will not, however, be quick. How can it be ? We would like to see many more trains put in service on the T lines, than the few which now ruin ? That requires major upgrades to track, switch, and signaling — all of which is being done now and will be be done all the way to 2022, at a cost of $ 8 billion. The Baker administration has also begun work to repair some major bridges in serious need: these include the Mystic River span and the bridges that connect Charlestown to Boston and to Everett. Doing these all at once requires “two years of pain,” as my friend at the T said to me, but “that’s less than the four years it would take if we did it piecemeal.”

In sum, there is no easy or simple answer to our transportation predicament. I do not favor making it even more expensive for cars than it already is, and i do not favor tax impositions arising from the desire to hurry transportation improvements. We do need more trains on the T lines, and more effective bus routing, and these will require the line upgrades which I mentioned earlier and the coming on service of the T’s electric buses, now planned for 2022-2023. We’re not wrong to want more people to use the T and buses, and fewer to choose car travel into the City; but I think we’ve already reached the maximum T and bus preference that can be expect without penalizing people for preferring the precision and efficiency of cars. Public roadways are not property of those who reside on them. If residents want power over who may use their street, let their street become private, as some streets are. As long as tax dollars are used, however, to maintain a public street, the public has a right to use them. If we are going to bring the T and buses to optimum performance, many years of incremental improvement will be needed — to stay within budget and to meet all of the myriad concerns and interests that any transportation proposal faces, from environment and convenience to cost and design. Let the decade and more that it took to get Green Line extension on its way be alesson t.o us all in t.his complex matter.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

TO IMPEACH, OR NOT TO IMPEACH ?

Comngressman Nadler has known Mr. Trump for decades. Theyre both from NYC. He knows where to look, and what to look for.

We strongly support the impeachment of President Trump. In this column I will list and explain our reasoning. The question, therefore, is not whether Mr. Trump ought to be impeached but SHOULD he be ? Opinions differ. In my mind, the Mueller report — which you can read here :
https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/politics/read-the-mueller-report/?utm_term=.c12649065162 — is a referral to Congress of findings that support, maybe even require, an impeachment proceeding. On almost every page the narrative tells of acts and notions that reek of corruption, self-dealing, mendacity, indifference to the national interest in favor of personal interests. We see that Mr,. Trump and his circle not only do not live up to their oaths of office — “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” in the words of Article 2, Section 3 — but instead either violate laws or show complete indifference to them; we see cronyism, personal gain, laziness, incompetence, waste of taxpayer dollars, total lack of secure access and communication. We see not a Presidential administration but a clique of grifters, cheaters, shamelessly selfish and almost laughably indifferent to any obligation of trust. Such an administration has no business holding office under the Constitution, and the only question is, how best to end it ?

That the Mueller report amounts to an impeachment referral requires, I think, that the debate must begin : impeachment now, or later ? Or not at all, because, as some Congresspeople have posted, the matter will be decided by the voters 18 months from now ? I think that the impeachment process must begin now. If not — if Congress decides to take a cautious view — it sacrifices its Constitutional duty at a time when the powers given to Congress by the Constitution have already been seriously vitiated by decades of accession of primary power to the executive, accessions never intended by the Framers and for very good reason, as we now see in the gigantic power claims of Mr. Trump. Holding him fully accountable, via the means expressly set forth in the Constitution, recovers significant portions of the Constitution’s framework that have been compromised over decades thanks chiefly to World War II and the long Cold War, in which the President’s powers as Commander in Chief overrode the Constitution’s normal, non-wartime system. In sum, the impeachment process must begin.

Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee — which has jurisdiction over the decision to bring a bill of impeachment — will now begin by ( 1 ) subpoena-ing the unredacted Mueller report, so that Congress can know the full details found by SC Mueller. After his committee has that document, Nadler will call Mr. Mueller to testify before his committee. He also plans to interrogate Attorney General Barr and probably others. (All of this will take time, and it will go where Nadler wants it to go : Mr. Trump might have tried to fire SC Mueller — unsuccessfully, thank goodness — but he cannot fire members of Congress. Just the reverse. Congress has power to impeach the President; the President has no such power to impeach anyone.) I would be very surprised if, after Nadler has held his hearings, and more of the Mueller report is made public, a bill of impeachment is not put to a vote of the House. If so, it will certainly be adopted and impeachment trial mangers appointed.

Though I predict this outcome, it is not certain that it is the right outcome, politically. All during the Nadler hearings, right wing media will be blasting him with sensational stories mostly half true and otherwise taken out of context and made to look scandalous. This has been right wing media’s M/O for years now, accompanied by noise and kooky stuff all over social media. Expect, too, that Russian cyber attacks — and from other rogue regimes — will muddy the mix with lies and hallucinations cleverly disguised as they were leading up to the 2016 election. In short, Nadler and his committee won’t have the news cycle to themselves. Counter-narratives will dog them every step of the way, aided and abetted by most (but not all) House Republicans, as has happened already all along. The House Democratic leadership will have to work very hard, and smartly, to maintain the initiative and to make sure that its views dominate every day of the news cycle. Given this scene, is impeachment worth the trouble ? I say yes.

There can be no avoiding the duties that await Congress. Read these lines from Rich Wilson’s latest article in The Daily Beast over and over. They’re all spelled out in the Mueller report, and they aren’t pretty :

The smart legal folks are still parsing the things that kept Mueller from charging Trump, leaving that decision to his old friend Bill Barr. What’s clear from his report is that Mueller had the goods on obstruction, but saw no way to make the case given the DOJ’s rules.

We also know, with even more certainty than we already did, that Donald Trump’s cadre of people who lie with ease and dispatch made it hard for Mueller to do his job.

This is a damning portrait of a president with almost no command of his emotions or his government, one with no compunctions about wrapping up his most loyal staffers in his lies and crimes. The portraits of this White House as madhouse from Fire and Fury to Fear to freaking Omarosa are of an administration where no one is in charge, nothing is true, and chaos rules each day. All are borne out in the special counsel’s report.

In this White House bedlam, Trump has been saved his own ineptitude—with a big assist from Bill Barr—by aides and allies just brave or afraid enough to ignore his criminal diktats.

This is where we are at. Now back to my impeachment call.

As to the argument that Mr. Trump’s fate will be decided by the voters, I agree that if he is in office on election day 2020, he will be defeated, probably by a significant margin. Anyone who is not inside his support bubble is not likely to become a supporter; his approval rating stands at 38 to 42 percent, and in most polls the question “deserves re election / time for somebody else” runs about 38 for re elect, 57 to try somebody new. I doubt these numbers will change in his favor. Obviously, defeat at the polls ends his holding the office and, by returning him to private citizenship, opens him to a host of potential criminal indictments. That would b e a just outcome, but the question of impeachment involves another scenario, one that is completely political : if Mr. Trump[ is impeached and convicted, Mr. Pence takes over; and he would certainly ask the voters to give him a chance to “right the ship.” Such a plea would not fall on deaf ears. Mr. Pence is almost the opposite of Mr. Trump ; a careful man, one who likes people and is liked by those who know him, a man of the House not unlike Gerald Ford, who acquired the Presidency after Nixon’s resignation. I can well understand why Democrats would not want Mr. Pence to take over and be able to make that plea. I share their unease with such an outcome, because Mr. Pence supports laws and policies that I do not and cannot. Nonetheless, I am uneasy with making a calculation decision about impeachment,. I don’t think that Congress can hold the people’s trust if it puts Democratic party interests ahead of upholding the Constitution and the oaths that office holders take to it. These must come first.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

WAYS TO AVOID A DEVASTATING WORKERS’ STRIKE

These folks deserve every bit of the support we all are giving them

The strike against Stop & Shop by UFCW workers has almost completely closed the grocery retailer’s New England business. As the Boston Globe reports, even in wealthy communities people aren’t crossing the picket line. In my own neighborhood, parking lots at the two Stop & Shop stores stand as empty at 10.00 am as they normally do at midnight — maybe even emptier, because on a usual midnight the Stop & Shop clean-up crew is working, and delivery trucks are being unloaded. Not now.

How did Ahold-Delhaize, the publicly traded international firm that owns Stop & Shop, so badly misjudge ? As the Globe story notes, if even five percent of Stop & Shop customers get used to shopping elsewhere and don’t come back, it’s terrible for a business that operates on a 1.5 percent profit margin. It’s not as though Stop & Shop has monopoly power. Shoppers have plenty of options, and Stop & Shop prices, on most items, are much higher than at Market Basket, for example; and Market Basket pays its workers better and offers them profit-sharing. I do stuff for a firm that performs contract work for Stop & Shop, and I am now shopping exclusively at Market Basket; the stores I shop at are super busy, and people who may not have shopped there before have to be amazed at the prices, compared to most offerings at Stop & Shop.

How the blazes did Ahold-Delhaize end up in this predicament ? I see a whole host of reasons :

( 1 ) as a publicly traded company, Ahold is, like all the rest, pressured by hedge fund speculators, quick flip day traders, and take-over specialists buying controlling amounts of company stock in order to force “maximizing stock value,” which almost always means squeezing thousands of workers out and cheating the rest, because the quickest way to widen a profit spread is to cut week to week costs. That this kind of very short term earnings boost hurts the company long term is of zero interest to the hedgers and quick flippers, because as soon as the stock price reflects the quick fix, they’re out, letting their buyers hold the wounded bleeding corporate animal their amputations leave behind. The only current way to avoid this kind of extortion is for management to own a controlling block of stock: but these days, few publicly traded corporations enjoy this level of long-term, stable financial commitment.

( 2 ) you do not try to protect corporate profits by squeezing workers at a time when there’s an actual labor shortage, as exists right now. Ahold can’t get replacement workers, because there aren’t any, and its strikers can easily find fill-in work themselves because almost every labor-intensive business needs line people badly.

( 3 ) the past two years, almost every kind of labor action, from teachers to utility workers to hotel and university service workers, has ended up a big win for the strikers. Did Ahold-Delhaize think things would be different ? For a business surrounded by easily accessible competition ?

( 4 ) If you operate a labor-intensive business, you have to accept that your workers are your asset — almost by definition. You cannot see them as a cost item, because that view leads to where Ahold is now. You really must follow the lead of Costco, Trader Joe’s, Target, and Market Basket : pay your workers a much higher wage than the minimum, offer stronger benefits and longer paid vacations than standard, and give every vested employee a profit sharing participation. This last item especially seems crucial. If your employee has an ownership stake in your success, she will work with some enthusiasm and also not seek a better job as quickly as possible, as many workers now do because they have to, given the minimal level of pay too many labor-intense businesses impose.

( 5 ) even a labor-intense business has to think beyond its niche. Business models aren’t guaranteed. Competition and innovation affect them. Grocery stores can’t continue to offer every sort of product on a very thin markup because far too many shoppers these days prefer special items that a general store can’t market as efficiently as a specialty store. Specialty retailers offer stuff that shoppers see as superior quality at premium prices — think Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, but also small, local, one or two-location stores — and even people who use food stamps and thus have to budget rigorously are willing to buy less quantity in favor of higher quality, because who likes goods inferior ? No one that I know. Ahold stores offer specialty items that differ from store to store, but too much of what they try to sell doesn’t sell; every cycle, their reset teams remove tons of, discontinued items — called “disco” — that did not sell but occupied shelf space and required much worker time to stock. (You’ve seen, I’m sure, those workers stocking 22 aisles of stuff; they do it all day long, from 7 am to 9 pm.) Specialty stores enjoy much more efficient control over their stock. Because they appeal to niche markets, they offer only products in that niche, which means that they have much less product to waste work time discontinuing because it didn’t sell. Ahold operates almost like a consignment store : a product gets a shelf space — which shelf and where on it is decided by a computer-generated shelf plan — and if it sells, great; if not, it is de-shelved. Yet Ahold is NOT a consignment store. Consignment stores are specialty retailers. Consigned goods are all that they offer, and they are usually very small operations with very few staff who work mostly on commission. Ahold can’t do that. If it wants to offer specialty goods within its store space, it probably should lease out a portion to a concession operation — assuming that union rules allow it.

All of the above explain, I hope, the predicament that Ahold finds itself in and for which it has no answer except the huge blunder it now has to find a way out of.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

WE SUPPORT THE STOP & SHOP WORKERS. HERE’s WHY

striking for a fair contract

Last Thursday, at 1.00 p.m., Stop & Shop’s wage employees began a strike against the company, which is part of Ahold-Delhaize, a firm headquartered in the Netherlands. We support the workers. Read our argument for why we support them :

Ahold is looking to increase workers’ dollar contribution to its health care plan. This has become a standard negotiation position for many companies. It was the central feature of the National Grid dispute that arose last year and of the Verizon conflict the year before that. It’s true that health care costs generally are rising much faster than the economy is growing, much of it resulting from vastly increased drug prices. The proper response, I insist, is not to penalize workers but to negotiate better price deals with pharma companies. Massachusetts is doing this, why can’t Ahold ?

The company also offers its workers a two percent pay boost. That’s less than the COLA upon which Social Security payments were raised last year (and will be raised again this year) and much less than the raises being won by service workers in other industries. If the average Stop & Shop worker wage is $ 21.50 an hour — which seems high — a two percent boost moves it from $ 21.50 to $ 21.93. That’s $ 17.20 a week, $ 68.80 a month. Not exactly a boost to one’s family budget, many costs in which incur much more than two percent increases. For example, MBTA fares, which on July 1, 2019 will rise by 6.3 percent. The price of gasoline in our area has also risen, from about $ 2.29 a gallon to about $ 2.55. That’s a 13 percent increase. Ahold should commit to a boost of at least the 6.3 percent, and the 13 percent would not be unjustified either. A 13 percent increase would accord its workers $ 24.30 an hour, $ 97.20 a week, $ 388.80 a month. That’s a significant change, one that enables Stop and Shop workers to increase their spending into the general economy, even.

Ahold also proposes to pay its part time Sunday workers only a $ 2.00 an hour premium. Some have argued that the “time and a half” that workers once got for Sunday employment was bargained away in last year’s “Grand Bargain,” but that’s not appropriate here. Part time workers for Sunday only aren’t giving up one thing to get another, better thing. They work only on Sunday and so deserve to be bargained with strictly as such. A $ 2.00 premium would be OK if attached to the kind of regular hourly that I have suggested above. Otherwise, they ought to receive more.

Supermarket operations depend on labor intensity. You can add self check out, but cashiering is the least part of operating a supermarket. The bigger part is shelf stocking. Only humans can do shelf stocking — and price tagging. These jobs can’t be outsourced. It’s physical labor, all of it, a mind-numbing, detailed slog. You wouldn’t want to do it. There’s no skill acquisition in it that leads you to a more challenging position. You just do it, year after year. Exhausted physically and mentally scooped out.

Some S & S workers aren’t always smiling or gracious ? believe me, there’s a reason. I’ve seen Stop & Shop workers on the job because the job I have now involves interaction with them. It’s blue collar work requiring your full commitment, a job that isolates you from the social world and the political. You begin at 7.00 am and work through to quitting time; a second shift follows. The shelves must be stocked, old items removed, price tags updated, fast-moving items shelved favorably, other items shelved less so. Some of the items are fitted into sliding plastic slots which must be moved if the item being inserted has a different size. These shelves don’t always slide easily: the plastic becomes old and sticks on the sliders. Try doing this work for five hours and see how happy you feel about stuff…

Stocking items means constant movement of one item to another’s location, and that items to another spot, and so forth. Meanwhile other workers are off loading bulk deliveries from food service trucks, categorizing, moving them in quantity from off load rooms to the store floor. Other workers maintain the data bank upon which shelf plans are predicated and price tags — fully coded with store code and item code — updated and printed. Its both a body job and a mind job. Just you try doing it for a week and see how you feel at the end of the workday. The ,least Stop & Shop can do is reward its employees liberally enough that they feel valued and that the job is worth every minute of effort.

The company responds that it operates on a very thin profit margin — never more than 1.5 percent — and that it faces mostly non-union competition as well as the presence of specialty stores and online grocery applications. All true. It may be that the general supermarket business model no longer works, that people now prefer to buy specialty items, at higher prices, or to order stuff from online sources. This is how almost all retail is going, so it’s no surprise to see it dominating the current groceries situation. What’s the answer ? Clearly Ahold ought to think about restructuring Stop & Shop operations quite radically, to become both an online operation and a specialty store. In part, it’s already doing that : different stores offer different items, locally favored, on top of the general stuff. Until that decision is made — and I think it will have to be — Ahold has the market power to defend a profit margin one fifth of a percent less — 1.3 % — against all comers, a margin that it might have to accept in order to keep its workers fully engaged and economically viable. I don’t see how the current dispute can end any other way, which means that Ahold ought to reach such an outcome now, not two months from now when shoppers have found comfort buying from other food sources.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM AS A WEDGE

The progressive wedge : DA Rollins sees an opportunity to advance the entire movement

You might think that reforms to how we handle criminal charges might be easy now that major portions of both political parties support them. Unhappily, your thinking thus would be wrong. A big battle has recently erupted, between the Governor and the District Attorney in charge of Boston. How did this happen at a place and time of general agreement ?

Last year the Massachusetts legislature enacted, and Governor Baker signed, a significant reform to our state’s handling of criminal justice. Little controversy attached to the effort. Aside from objections chiefly by Bristol County’s Sheriff Hodgson, the legislation was enacted by an overwhelming vote: 37 to 0 in the Senate and 148 to 5 in the House. The bill moved Massachusetts criminal law in the direction of treatment and away from incarceration; it did away with mandatory minimum sentences for addiction crimes. Consensus is the essence of Masslive’s report on the bill’s enactment, in this article from a year ago :
https://www.masslive.com/politics/2018/04/gov_charlie_baker_signs_landma.html

As the report makes clear, Governor Baker offered a few tweaks to the bill, all of them itemized in the report. He then filed his own bill in support of those tweaks. So far his bill has not been acted upon. What is now clear, however, is that the next step in reform will not be as easy as last year’s work. Baker has found himself embroiled in a fierce debate with Suffolk’s District attorney, Rachael Rollins, over her now notorious “list” of fifteen smallish crimes that she will not prosecute absent special circumstances and office support. The debate started when Baker’s Secretary of Public Safety, Thomas Turco III, sent Rollins a letter critiquing her list of non-prosecutions. Masslive wrote the following report, in which Turco is quoted objecting to several items in Rollins’s list of changes :
https://www.masslive.com/boston/2019/04/top-public-safety-official-in-mass-warns-suffolk-district-attorney-rachael-rollins-that-her-policies-would-put-public-at-risk.html

Turco’s letter raised other concerns, ones that I admit to not having noticed when Rollins published her “list” last year : especially her suggestion that the criminal histories of persons cannot be accessed beyond 36 months back. As Turco points out, this limitation would, if adhered to literally, block out some of the most serious offenders, as — so he notes — most of them would have been incarcerated for the past 36 months (and more), during which they would therefore have no criminal history for that time frame. It’s a fair criticism.

That said, Rollins’s response to the letter was not to publish a rebuttal but to attack the Governor on a personal, family level. Her attack generated both outrage and celebration, and wisely, I think, she and the Governor called for a “reset” — not that anyone out here was lulled by the call, yet it was still a wise public move. Said “reset” lasted only one day. Next morning, Rollins was calling out Democratic office holders who had not rallied to her side ( and there were plenty of these).

(My thinking is that her advisers got to her and said something like “you don’t want to cool this dispute off, you want to charge it up, it’s an opening for our side — the “progressives” — against the beacon Bill Democratic establishment. We tried that with the Safe Communities Act, but they wouldn’t take the bait, and Baker didn’t either; now we have another chance, on a less thorny issue, let’s go for it.” I can’t prove that something of this sort transpired, but why else would Baker and Rollins agree to a “reset,” only to see Rollins go back to attack mode just one day after ? The opportunity is there, as Baker wants the tweaks of rigor which I discussed above, while Rollins wants criminal justice to reform even further in the direction of alternative sentencing rather than conviction and incarceration.)

Rollins may well be right to want further reform; a case can certainly be made that conviction and incarceration have been too liberally applied to smallish crimes which more confident Western societies in the past often handled as matters of fine or money compensation. Nor can anyone dispute that our incarceration preference costs enormous amounts of money and subjects far too many people to the horrors of imprisonment. It’s hard enough for people to become imprisoned thereby subjecting their lives and bodies to the whims of some guards, without their having to suffer the risks of injury, rape, and even murder, that occur in almost every American prison. Our incarceration preference has also led us to create private prisons — a barbarity that should never, ever have been permitted, in any jurisdiction. For these reasons, as well as the job and housing deprivations that cripple anyone who has been incarcerated, I support the general purposes that Rollins is advancing.

I also suspect that Governor Baker agrees with her and that they differ only on the details of her plan. So why has the discussion between them taken such an adversarial turn ? I think we know the answer : Rollins is not only the Suffolk District Attorney. She’s a leader of an entire movement, by “progressives,” to take charge of Massachusetts’s public policy generally. The movement has some legs thanks to her election and that of Congresswoman Pressley — not to forget the defeat of House Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sanchez by a woman whom Rollins campaigned closely with — and Rollins is now using the opening that Secretary Turco’s letter gave her to force the Democratic establishment — whose views on most issues are very different from hers and the movement’s — to defend itself on an issue where alternatives to Rollins’s agenda are few and risk sounding racist, a card central to her reform justifications..

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

THE TRANSPORTATION THING AGAIN…

Rush hour traffic on I-93 viewed from Southampton St. in Boston

A couple of days ago, a truck accident in the Sumner Tunnel turned Boston’s expressway traffic upside down. Gridlock extended for miles and lasted for hours. Thousands of drivers fumed and fussed; passengers missed appointments. Everybody was late for work, or to return home from work. Excess pollution barfed the atmosphere. It was a damned messy magillah with zero escape. Politicians swore to fix the mess. Alternative transportation became the golden calf. And so it went last Friday in Boston, a city booming with business, population, and bumper to bumper crush.

There isn’t much one can do about accidents, but that did not stop politicians from advocating all sorts of remedies that won’t work much. An accident in one of the tunnels leading into and out of Downtown definitely hits the weak points; yet it’s hard to see how our transportation system can account for them. Alternative transportation, such as ferries, doesn’t work because who would use them except during the one tenth of a percent time when an accident blocks the roads ? They’d be sitting there, bored at the dock, waiting for the magical hour of their greatest need. We could build duplicate tunnels : but the same argument applies to these. Who would use the duplicate tunnel except during a crisis ? That, or, maybe an extra tunnel would gin up extra traffic: it’s kind of an axiom that the more roads you build, the more cars will find their way to use them. In any case, it might take 20 years to plan and build extra tunnels and get them safely through 20 thousand environmental regulations.

If alternative transportation doesn’t work — it might be a good idea to create it, but on its own, not as a crisis savior — and as duplicate tunnels aren’t likely to be built, can we do anything at all to keep Boston moving during an accident in a tunnel ? We could, I suppose, forbid accidents in the first place — just penalize those who suffer an accident even more than those who cause one, by imposing a ruinous toll on big scary trucks at tunnel entrances. Perhaps we could ban vast trucks altogether and have big bulk goods transported only by Harbor barge. I dunno… Perhaps we could create truck-only lanes and wall them off from the general traffic. Only problem there is that entrances onto the Central Artery are one lane wide, not two. Oh well.

The big problem is that cities change much more flexibly than transportation systems. When you build an expressway, or a tunnel, or a rapid transit line, or exit ramps, what you build is literally cast in stone. The city around it may ebb or flow, boom or sag, grow busy or fall empty and do all of that naturally and easily because the human body can move on its own; it is NOT written in stone. Not so with roadways and rails. These use rights of way that can’t be shifted from here to there. The cement and steel they’re built with are a fact on the ground — cannot be moved. And if they can be blasted and demolished, and new ones created in their place, that’s not a project one can undertake on a whim or every time that traffic sticks.

Boston’s roads and transit lines were built in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1950s-1960s, or they were built in the 1990s to plans drawn up in the 20s, 30s, 50s and 60s. Their location and size concurred with traffic expectations and transport modes assumed two to three generations ago. If we now commit to a major transit and roadway overhaul, and to new devices for transporting, what we decide actually to build won’t be in service, likely, til the 2030s. By which time, who knows what Boston’s mobility demands will be ? Of course we could just decide to snuff the Boston boom out and revert to the Boston of 1970, that nobody wanted to live in, that had nothing going on, in which house prices were dirt cheap because everybody with an option at hand wanted out to the suburbs. We could go back there, perhaps, but chances are we won’t do that. Most likely the City will continue to boom and build for several decades to come. Maybe only sea rise will stop it. Which means that we and our kids and grand-kids are going to be living with stalled traffic and fewer transit lines than needed. (The Blue Line would benefit enormously from expansion to Lynn, or beyond, but this has been talked about since 1990 to no avail, nor do I hear any sort of viral outcry now to do said expansion.) There will surely be expansion in some service, and perhaps some alternative roadways and dedicated lanes, but the law of traffic likely applies : build more roads and more traffic will use them.

To sum up : we should continue to commit to T expansion where feasible, create dedicated roadway lanes, and add bus routes and increase our Harbor taxi service — not because it will cure the crush but because they make sense to provide. We can also bulk up highway and transit rescue crews — it should not take two or three hours to clear the expressway of an accident. We should NOT try to tweak the public with give-away T fares, or chivvy drivers by imposing price benefits on those who can flex their driving day into the off-peak hours (this magic is called “congestion pricing.” It would turn the work day upside down.) There is plenty, I suggest, that can be done and just as much, if not more, that shouldn’t be done. Other than these predictions, however, I have one more : almost certainly we’ll have to live with, perhaps sometimes enjoy, the density, in everything, that accompanies city prosperity.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere