Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Monday, December 8, 2008

Menino Adds to His Energy-Saving Campaign

By Ali Bhanpuri

DOWNTOWN—For the last two months, the skyline’s silhouette has blended into the black of night. The new darkness is the result of Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Mass Audubon’s Lights Out Boston initiative.

Lights Out, which began in early September to conserve energy and assist bird migration, ended Oct. 31.

“Our goal was to save money and do it in a visible way,” said Jake Glickel, an assistant at the city’s Environment Department. “The amount of energy saved will not be overwhelming, but it was a p
otent symbol for the residents of Boston.” The city won’t report the savings until early next year.

As city officials and property owners meet in the upcoming months to decide whether to continue Lights Out, on Tuesday Mayor Menino added to his citywide clean-energy campaign by announcing a new green standard for Government Center. The program aims to add wind turbines and solar panels to Government Center buildings.

“We want to make Government Center a green development area by encouraging buildings to go the extra steps to becoming energy efficient,” said Glickel, who attended the mayor’s unveiling of a wind turbine on top of City Hall on Wednesday. “We hope to be a shining example for the city.”

The mayor’s plan, which he announced at the beginning of the three-day Greenbuild International Conference and Expo held in Boston, calls for government and public agencies within a 100-acre area to use energy-efficient and sustainable technologies to reduce spending and carbon dioxide emissions.

Lights Out Boston was one of Menino’s first environmentally friendly programs. The initiative encouraged the city’s property-owning companies to dim lighting in their buildings between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. to save money, reduce carbon dioxide emissions and safeguard birds during their migration season.

“We were originally thinking of one pilot building for Lights Out,” said Jack Clarke, director of public policy and government relations at Mass Audubon. “Then, 37 others said, ‘me too.’”

The buildings’ lights disorient and confuse birds when they migrate, according to the Environment Department’s website. Clarke said property owners would like to continue the program year round.

Mass Audubon and the mayor’s office modeled Lights Out after similar programs in Chicago and New York City. Clarke said the cooperation of 38 skyscrapers in the city and strong leadership has helped Lights Out Boston achieve positive results more quickly than the other cities’ programs.

“The Mayor has really been influential in [environmental programs in Boston],” he said. “We support Mayor Menino in turning Beantown into Greentown.”

Budget Cut Hurts Immigrant Programs

By Ali Bhanpuri

DOWNTOWN—Jairo Arboleda was 25-years-old when he emigrated from Colombia to New York City in 1978.

Arboleda, who worked at a shoe-repair store named Blacksmith, says his inability to communicate with his boss made their relationship very difficult.

“I was upset because I couldn’t speak English,” says Arboleda, 55, who owns a shoe-repair store in Downtown Crossing. “I could feel him watching me all the time—like he didn’t trust me. I decided I had to go back to school.”

After nine months of classes and listening to the storeowner speak to customers in English, Arboleda finally broke the language barrier. At dinner with his boss and other shoe-repairmen in the area, Arboleda ordered from the menu in English, impressing his boss and gaining his confidence.

“He couldn’t believe that I could speak English,” says Arboleda, who moved to the United States because of poor living conditions in Colombia. “The next day he gave me the key to lock up—that was the first time he did that.”

At a time when one in four Bostonians was born in another country, Governor Deval Patrick in October cut $1 million for immigrant programs such as English for Speakers of Other Languages and Citizenship for New Americans as part of his $1 billion budget cut.

The Languages program, part of the Adult Basic Education line, initially received nearly $32 million in the 2009 fiscal year budget, an increase of more than $1.1 million from 2008.

The city’s foreign-born population has “human capital deficiencies”—their workforce value is low—related to low English language proficiency, according to MassINC’s “The Changing Face of Massachusetts.” The Languages program’s purpose was to help build English proficiency among the immigrant population to increase opportunities in the job market.

The Metro Boston workforce totals 1.8 million people, of which 55,000, or 3 percent, have limited English proficiency as defined by the 2000 U.S. Census. The Census defines individuals with limited proficiency as those who report speaking English “not well” or “not at all.”

Thirty-seven percent of the limited proficient workforce lives in the city, according to a 2007 report by the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University.

“Learning English is very important,” he says. “If [immigrants] don’t speak English they can do something [in terms of work] but not much.”

Citizenship for New Americans, a program that finances organizations to assist immigrants in the naturalization process, saw $4,000 cut from its $650,000 total. The $650,000 provision awarded by the House and Senate budgets was only half of Governor Patrick’s request.

John Perez, 23, who works at Tequila, a Mexican restaurant on Bromfield Street, says the biggest problem facing immigrants is obtaining citizenship. He says government programs aren’t doing enough to help. Many of his family members have had difficulty in the naturalization process because of all the paperwork involved, he says.

“It’s difficult for immigrants to get citizenship now, much harder than before,” says Perez, who immigrated to Boston from Colombia as a child and received his citizenship shortly after. “Language is something you can learn, but your paperwork doesn’t always depend on you.”

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Trying Times for Small Businesses

By Ali Bhanpuri

DOWNTOWN— For 125 years there has been a bookstore at the corner of Milk and Washington streets.

In 2005, Joe Phillips bought Antiquarian Books of Boston and renamed it Commonwealth Books. The store has long drawn customers from the Filene’s Basement department store, but when the landmark was demolished earlier this year, business slowed.

“Couples would come in [to the city] on the weekend, and while one shopped at Filene’s, the other would wander around Downtown Crossing,” says Phillips, 44, who owns another used bookstore on Boylston Street. “There has been a big decrease in traffic with Filene’s gone. The area has lost some of its vitality.”

As the city tries to fill the void of store closings such as Filene’s Basement and Barnes and Noble, store owners like Phillips struggle to cope with steep rents or taxes as customers dwindle.

Kristen Keefe, retail sector manager of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, says the best retail districts have a balance between local and national businesses.

“Often national chains can increase foot traffic to an area because they can afford to do large-scale advertising and promotions,” she says. “The smaller retailers benefit in theory from the spillover of the foot traffic.”

If the balance of stores tips in favor of national businesses, small, independently owned stores are usually unable to compete on price, which can be a “stumbling block for some entrepreneurs,” Keefe says.

In January, construction teams bulldozed the Filene’s Basement to make way for a $650 million redevelopment project that will include 250 hotel rooms, 166 condominiums and four floors of retail stores slated to open in 2011. Filene’s Basement, set to re-open in the fall 2009, has the owners of many downtown stores fervently awaiting its return.

“I’d love to see Filene’s come back—it was an anchor for this part of town,” says Janine Fabiano, manager of the Old South Meeting House’s gift shop. “People feel that the clientele level has gone down [without Filene’s]—more kids hanging out instead of shoppers.”

Joyce Kosofsky, owner of the Brattle Bookshop, says the loss of the Barnes and Noble has been detrimental to the area and thinks the more bookstores in Downtown Crossing the better.

“People think we’re in competition with the larger bookstores, but that’s not the case,” says Kosofsky, who has worked at the shop’s West Street location for 24 years. “The larger bookstores bring in people who want to read. I like to think of [chain bookstores] as the breeding ground of used books.”

Phillips says independently owned businesses are leaving downtown because of increased property taxes.

“[The government] keeps raising the commercial property tax, which means businesses are paying higher and higher rents,” he says. “It’s a trickle down from the property owners onto us. The rates in Downtown Crossing are astronomical.”

The commercial property tax is assigned to properties based on how much the state assesses the property to be worth, according to the city’s website. City tax officials did not return messages.

Kosofsky, who owns the bookshop’s building, says the high market value of commercial spots in the area are hurting small businesses.

“There’s no way I could stay in business, if I had to rent,” she says.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Suffolk Set to Build New Residence Hall

By Ali Bhanpuri

DOWNTOWN—When Lauren Berardino received her acceptance letter from
Suffolk University in December of 2006, she immediately submitted her housing deposit to be first in line for housing, she says.

Because the university’s housing system is organized on a first-come-first-serve basis and does not guarantee housing to incoming freshman, Berardino says she knew she had to send in her deposit quickly.

“[Living on campus] is part of the college experience,” says Berardino, 19, a sophomore at Suffolk. “That’s how you meet friends.”

As incoming undergraduates compete for on-campus housing,
Suffolk plans to build a 12-story residence hall at 523-25 Washington St. in Downtown Crossing at the site of the historic Modern Theatre. The new residence hall is part of the school’s 10-year Institutional Master Plan approved by the city over the summer.

“It’s been exciting to be on the ground floor of the planning for the Modern Theatre project,” says Nora Long, the theater department marketing and special projects supervisor in a
Suffolk newsletter. “Suffolk will restore this historic space, which will give the university and the theatre department more visibility in the city.”

The $42 million housing and studio project features 197 beds atop the renovated Modern Theatre and increases the university’s housing outreach to more than 1,200 students or nearly a quarter of all undergraduates. With about 5,000 undergraduates, the school has also had to shelter students at the Holiday Inn on
Cambridge Street and the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Downtown Crossing. The university did not return messages.

Berardino supports the school’s goal of expanding housing but is concerned about the changes made to the Modern Theatre.

“I think it’s awesome that
Suffolk is expanding housing, and I think it will make the school grow in popularity,” she says. “I do feel, however, that the Modern Theatre is a classic that should stay as is.”

Louis Rocco, 18, is guaranteed housing for his first two years as a student in the honors program and says some of his peers “would die” for that assurance.

The university’s master plan includes proposals for a $68 million 10-story academic building located at
20 Somerset St., the site of the former Metropolitan District Commission. Designs for the academic building, which will become the permanent home for Suffolk’s New England School of Art & Design, now in the Back Bay, include an art gallery, 10 general-purpose classrooms and a memorial for homicide victims.

The university expects the residence hall construction to be completed by the summer of 2010 in time for a 2011-opening for the academic building, according to a university newsletter.

“I think it will be really good for the
Suffolk community as a whole because art students will be closer and can be a part of the school instead of being so far away,” says Beckee Birger, 20, a junior who gives tours of the design school to prospective students.

Birger says the design school’s closer proximity to the campus’ center will allow those who “aren’t in the art school” to “learn about it and utilize it for their degrees.”

The master plan also includes proposals for the future development of a student center and an athletic center. Sophomore Allison Poyser, 18, says the student center should have been a higher priority than the new dormitory.

“I feel that as a student, a union would be more beneficial to the
community than a new dorm,” she says. “A new dorm only benefits freshman and does not create a community—something I think we lack the most at the school.”

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Last Resort for Homeless

By Ali Bhanpuri

DOWNTOWN— Marlene Johnson rolls her jacket into a ball, lays it gently on the stained floor and uses it at as a pillow.

A few feet away hangs a framed replica of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” Printed beneath the painting is “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”

Johnson says spending the night at the Boston Night Center is better than on the broken, cold streets of the city.

“We understand we have to sleep on the floor with no blankets,” says Johnson, 50, who has been homeless since 2003. “I usually try [staying] at Pine Street first, but if I can’t get in there then I’m either here or on the street.”

For more than two decades, individuals such as Johnson have sought refuge at the Boston Night Center at 31 Bowker St. The Center—a subsidiary of the Pine Street Inn—provides emergency housing for 50 to 60 people nightly and is the last resort for most people, says Fred Lee, the center’s supervisor.

“We are not a conventional center in that people sleep on chairs, or lay their heads on tables or lay on the floor,” says Lee, who has worked at the center for the past five years. “[The Center] is less comfortable [than other shelters in the area], but people sacrifice comfort for the convenience of the area.”

The Center opens its doors at 8 p.m., four hours later than most shelters in the area. Those who stay at the facility have usually been denied entrance at other shelters earlier in the day, Lee says.

Massachusetts has about 2,000 families and 2,900 individuals in shelters, an increase of 143 families and 93 individuals from Oct. of 2007, according to the state Department of Transitional Assistance.

“Several factors have contributed to the growth in the number of homeless families in shelters in Massachusetts: The overall economic climate is poor, and the symptoms of this decline are increasing unemployment rates, along with increasing gas, utility and food costs ” says Kristina Saunders, communications manager of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

The unemployment rate has increased in Massachusetts from 3.4 percent in Sept. 1988 to 5.3 percent in September of this year and has not been this high since 2004, according to the state Bureau of Labor statistics.

The Center functions as a meeting place for individuals with psychiatric disabilities during the day. Lee says the shelter’s occupancy rate has remained constant over the years, but he has seen “new faces recently.”

Steven Auger, 43, of Everett says he has been coming to the center since August. Auger, who painted houses and worked construction before suffering a debilitating hand injury, says the center is the only shelter where he feels comfortable staying.

“A lot of other [shelters] are cliquey,” says Auger, who sleeps near the Waterfront on the nights he cannot get into the center. “Here, they treat everyone equally—no buddies or special favors.”

Earlier this month, Governor Deval Patrick announced $1 billion in budget cuts to quell the city’s struggling economy, an economic move that may inhibit the homeless such as Auger from staying at the center.

Emergency assistance for the homeless, which was allotted $87 million in the fiscal 2009 budget (up $1.6 million from fiscal 2008), will see its budget sliced by $1 million. The average cost to house a person at a shelter is $99.

“During the winter, we usually increase capacity to about 70 people,” Lee says. “There are going to be cuts. We may have to turn more people away.”

Lee says even if they reach capacity, the shelter never turns away women.

Michael Bizzell, 43, who mops floors at the Center Club, the shelter’s daytime counterpart, and sleeps at 31 Bowker at night, says he worries how the cuts may affect his home and workplace.

“Budget cuts—man, I don’t know about those cuts,” he says. “But we’ll get through though. All of us together.”

Car Use Declines Despite Drop in Gas Prices

By Ali Bhanpuri

DOWNTOWN— Four months ago, Milo Milovanovic decided to use public transportation more and to drive less. He has continued to take the train from Malden into the city, even though gas prices have plummeted more than a dollar since July.

“I take public transportation much more,” says Milovanovic, 40. “I also take better care of my car; I don’t go over the speed limit or drive too fast.”

The price for a gallon of regular unleaded gas in Boston was $2.46 on Nov. 2; it cost $4.06 per gallon on average in early July, according to AAA Southern New England’s daily averages. Many Boston drivers are continuing to leave their car keys at home to cut costs.

Milovanonvic says he has maintined his new lifestyle because he wanted to do “his part to save energy.”

Across the country, the demand for gas has declined since the summer. Since July, the gas supplied has decreased by 8.2 percent or 777,000 barrels, according to official energy statistics from the U.S. government.

“People are driving less, and I think it has to do with the economy,” says Holly Sutherland, who works at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

Fewer people are driving on I-90 and I-93, according to authority statistics. Toll transactions have dropped 5.2 percent (1,830,868 transactions) between July and August from 2007 and 2008.

In fiscal 2008, about 375 million people used public transportation, 21 million riders more than in fiscal 2007, according to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. The MBTA did not return messages.

Desiree Ashong, 24, moved to Boston six weeks ago, leaving her 2003 Honda Civic at home to save on car expenses.

“Having a car is expensive, and it made me think,” says Ashong, who received train passes from her former employer as encouragement to use public transportation. “I feel passionate about conserving energy. After taking public transportation in Atlanta, I felt confident that I would be okay [in Boston].”

For Michael Anza, 25, of Weston, the change in gas prices hasn’t affected his driving habits.

“Are people really doing that?” says Anza, who recently started a health insurance job downtown. “Have I made a conscious effort to change how I drive? Absolutely not.”