Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Monday, December 8, 2008

South Boston Groups Favor Development, Under Stipulations

By Joshua Schubert

SOUTH BOSTON – Over the past decade, cleanup crews have spent years ridding the Boston Harbor of debris clouding the water.

But property overlooking the harbor has become valuable, and new building projects threaten to repollute the harbor and increase traffic congestion, said locals.

“The fact that the waterfront is so clean has made it very attractive for development,” said Vivien Li, a spokeswoman for the Boston Harbor Association.

As developers prepare to build new hotels and other buildings, neighborhood groups are welcoming the growth, despite fears of pollution and poor use of land.

All new buildings in the neighborhood are required by law to meet minimum green standards, but they are not the only standard important to local organizations.

Green certification “tends to be a good system,” said Jon Seward of the Seaport Alliance for Neighborhood Design, but “I’m not so much concerned with a building getting a specific rating.”

A green building is one that is well-engineered and constructed, Seward said.
“The longer it can persist, the greener it is,” he said. It keeps the energy of the manufacturer from being wasted or downgraded.”

The Fort Point Arts Community “doesn’t have a specific environmental policy or mission,” said Paul Bernstein, community president. He is more concerned with the neighborhood’s cultural life.

Bernstein and other neighbors are concerned about the neighborhood’s cultural landscape and the amount of land that will be accessible to the public.

The organizations prefer the land to be used for parks, benches, open spaces, public art and other cultural facilities.

“What we’re looking for is a richly mixed-use sort of district,” Seward said.
But as growth contributes to an influx of tourists and consumers, locals also seek to limit the harmful emissions caused by increased traffic congestion.

There is a “lack of available parking for residents [and] guests,” said Timothy Brown, community liaison for City Councilor Bill Linehan.

But additional parking would cause more people to drive, Seward said.

“Traffic congestion is already a problem,” said Seward, who hopes that the lack of parking will lead to an increase in mass transit use.

The threat of water pollution as a direct result of construction is less of a concern among neighborhood groups.

“Requirements for development [along the harbor] are more stringent than inland,” said Li, explaining that the law evolved from the British concept of public access to the waterfront.

There is “very little [construction] right by the water,” so the chances of debris causing pollution are relatively small, Seward said.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

State Law Permits Obama’s Aunt to Live in South Boston

By Joshua Schubert

SOUTH BOSTON – For years, Zeituni Onyango, one of President-elect Barack Obama’s aunts from Kenya, lived in a Flaherty Street public housing facility, uninterrupted
by the media blitz that the release of her immigration stats sparked.

Obama was unaware of Onyango’s illegal status, his campaign staff said in a statement.

Immigrants in Massachusetts are allowed to keep their immigration status private under a 1977 federal consent decree.

The legal status of immigrants seeking protection in the United States is confidential and can only be released to police or elected officials upon federal permission, according to a 1995 asylum office memo.

“It appears that the Department of Homeland Security rules were likely violated when confidential materials were released for partisan purposes,” said Michael A. Olivas, an immigration law professor at the University of Houston.

The confidentiality rules were written to protect the immigrants’ safety.

Releasing information “can put any such asylee at risk---especially if they are identified and well-known,” Olivas said.

The Massachusetts decree is not uncommon and other states have similar laws, said Peter Spiro, author and immigration law professor at Temple University.

“Many states extend various benefits to undocumented aliens, but usually on their own initiative and not at the behest of the federal government,” Spiro said.

Spiro was initially “surprised that such a consent decree exists,” being as recent measures, including the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, have limited the rights of illegal immigrants.

Since Obama’s victory last Tuesday, Onyango in staying with family in Ohio, where she hired local immigration lawyer Margaret Wong.

Some say that her move will endanger her chances of remaining in the country.

“If this is so, the matter [of the Massachusetts decree] is moot,” said Sheldon Goldman, professor of constitutional law at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

But Olivas said that the courts may be sympathetic to Onyango’s case, based on the leak.

“These confidentiality rules are approved government practice and are taken seriously by courts," Olivas said.

The “regulations safeguard information that, if disclosed publicly, could subject the claimant to retaliatory measures,” according to the asylum memo.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

South Boston’s John Hancock Financial Looks to Woo Nervous Consumers

By Joshua Schubert

SOUTH BOSTON – From within the curved glass walls of its headquarters on Congress Street, John Hancock Financial’s position within the insurance market is now nearly as enviable as is its newly-designed building beside the waterfront.

John Hancock has withstood the steep financial market declines and is in position to take advantage of the floundering competition in the insurance business.

The company has reported steady earnings, while not cutting its advertising budget or quarterly dividend.

John Hancock is the US division of Manulife Financial, a Canadian insurance provider that bought John Hancock four years ago.

The company’s stock price is down 52 percent from its peak of $46.05 last November, as compared with losses of 56, 74 and 97 percent for competitors Sun Life, ING and AIG, respectively.

Losses at John Hancock have been comparable to those at Metlife, whose stock price has rebounded steadily since anxious investors pulled their money out last month following comments by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid regarding a nationally-known insurer that needed cash to survive.

In April, John Hancock began airing new TV ads using “the future is yours” slogan. The goal of the campaign is to “let consumers know that John Hancock understands [their] concerns and that the company has the products and services to help them face the future with confidence,” said Brian Carmichael, the company’s director of corporate communications.

As AIG has been forced to cut its advertising budget, John Hancock increased its ad spending on sports, including the baseball playoffs and college football, during the final months of the year.

“Our media strategy is to have a presence in news, lifestyle and sports properties,” said John Hancock spokesman Melissa Berczuk.

“We can say that we are a top player in the markets where we participate,” said Carmichael.

John Hancock has maintained a 98-cent yearly dividend, while ING and AIG have suspended their dividends, as has been the standard for companies receiving federal cash injections. ING received money from the Dutch government, while AIG was aided by the US government, which now controls the insurer’s operations through a federal conservatorship.

Standard & Poor’s independent rating agency reaffirmed a positive outlook for the company.

“Manulife will continue to exhibit the ability to effectively navigate through these difficult times, given its excellent risk management practices,” according to a statement released last month.

Traders and economists, including Nouriel Roubini, contacted for this story did not respond to requests for comment prior to deadline.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

UMass-Boston Construction Plan Remains Unchanged, Despite Economy

By Joshua Schubert

SOUTH BOSTON – Along the waterfront, construction sites remain abandoned. Further inland, an upscale hotel chain backed out of a deal to open a new location.

Still, the University of Massachusetts at Boston is pressing on with a plan to build two academic buildings and parking garages, while moving roads.

We are moving “full steam ahead,” said Steven Dansby, the university building authority’s chief financial officer.

Construction of new student residences is under consideration, said David MacKenzie, the building authority’s executive director.

The current science buildings and parking garage will be demolished once the new structures are completed. Demolition of the garage is scheduled for 2013.

“We haven’t yet gotten to the point of going to the market and borrowing,” Dansby said.

But MacKenzie is optimistic, sensing that the marketing has already reached its lowest point.

The bond market “is starting to loosen up,” he said.

“We expect that the overall bond market will return to near normalcy in six to nine months, which is about the time horizon in which we will need to go to market,” he said.

Vivien Li, a spokeswoman for the Boston Harbor Association, which has been focused on development in South Boston, said the cost of borrowing is not a developer’s only concern.

“The [price of] construction materials have gone up exponentially,” said Li, and
“everyone’s concerned about the instability in the market right now.”

But the new leadership is not expected to alter plans.

“The new chair and vice-chair are completely committed to our current schedule,” Dansby said.

The authority will take steps “to stabilize the existing [parking] garage for the period before it is demolished,” MacKenzie said.

The building authority is constructing plans for as far as 20 years into the future.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

S. Boston Emerges as Bastion of Environmentally Friendly Construction

By Joshua Schubert

SOUTH BOSTON – The massive Seaport Square project, which is to include residential and hotel buildings, in addition to retail and office space, is planned to cover 6.5 million square feet on 23 acres along the waterfront.

Less than two years after the opening of the first nationally certified “green” buildings in South Boston, local developers are planning several more buildings that would conserve energy, lower carbon emissions, and use recycled materials.

“Seaport Square is designed to be a LEED-certified neighborhood,” said Janet Logan, Gale International’s marketing director.

The first phase of Seaport Square three buildings, said Vivien Li of the Boston Harbor Association, who expects construction to begin in 2010.

The developers plan for the projected to be completed before 2017.

For a building to be designated as green, the US Green Building Council’s LEED certification system reviews water efficiency, building materials, roof design, and additional energy-related factors.

Buildings are scored based on a 69-pointsystem, with 26 points the minimum to achieve certification. Buildings that score between 39 and 51 points receive a gold certification.

LEED certification is required in Boston for new building projects of at least 50000 square feet, but the developers of Seaport Square aim to achieve a silver certification for their buildings.

In May, the Boston Children’s Museum, following large-scale renovations, became the second building in South Boston to achieve gold certification.

Developers added a 6400 square-foot roof composed of organic materials, as well as larger windows to add natural light.

During renovation, more than 76 percent of debris was “recycled or salvaged,” according to the museum’s website.

In 2007, the luxury condominium complex in South Boston known as the Macallen Building was the first development project of its kind to receive the LEED gold certification in the area in 2007.

The building “set the standard for green construction in Boston,” said Timothy Brown,
City Councilor Bill Linehan’s community liaison.

It was constructed using recycled materials, including natural fiber carpet, bamboo and cork. Total energy use within the building is approximately 30 percent less than the average residential complex.

The children’s museum did not respond to a request for comment prior to deadline, nor did Pappas Enterprises Inc., which manages the Macallen Building.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Parking Freeze in S. Boston Problematic as Tourism Rises

By Joshua Schubert

SOUTH BOSTON – With fine dining, brand new hotels, a concert venue and recently renovated museums, the South Boston waterfront has all the amenities a visitor could desire.

But as city officials push to transform the neighborhood into a tourism center, they are struggling to make room for the tourist to park.

The area is under a city-mandated parking freeze, which limits the number of possible spaces.

The limits were put in place “to promote the use of public transit and manage transportation demand,” according to a Boston Air Pollution Control Commission report.

Public transportation service to the area remains limited. The MBTA Red Line, which services South Boston, does not stop along the waterfront.

Plans for expansion of the Silver Line, to better service the tourist population, are underway.

The opening of the Institute of Contemporary Art in 2006 and the reopening of the Boston Children’s Museum the following year, in addition to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center and new hotels, sparked an influx of business growth.

“Since opening our new building in 2006, there has been tremendous local, national and international interest in the new ICA and Boston’s revitalized waterfront,” said Colette Randall, the institute’s representative.

The interest has benefited local businesses, which have enjoyed a new customer base.

“[The] museum-goers keep us very busy,” said Joanne Chang, a nearby business owner, whose staff has difficulty finding parking.

Jack Schoaf, one of the many restaurant owners to open a location in the neighborhood, has seen his business grow, but “I don’t need [customers paying] $25 to park,” he said.
Schoaf cited a lack of attention to commercial interests on the part of local politicians as contributing to the problem.

“Ask [Councilor Linehan] the last time he came to the business owners down here,” Schoaf said.

The city’s most recent action came in 2006 when officials set aside 20 percent of the available parking within waterfront lots to drivers who arrive after 9:30 a.m., in an effort to reserve spaces for tourists.

Vivien Li, of the Boston Harbor Association, calls parking a cause for concern.
“It could be a problem when all the approved buildings are built on what are currently surface parking lots,” she said.

The city has also set aside 2,000 future spaces set aside in a “freeze bank,” which will likely be built as development continues.

Developers are required to apply for a permit before construction of new lots can begin.

“The permitting process in unpredictable with regard to timeframe,” said Janet Logan, marketing director for Gale International, the developer of Seaport Square in S. Boston.