Monday, June 30, 2008

Jan.-June: The Big Issues on Beacon Hill

We're at the halfway point of the year. I thought I would review what were in my opinion the top six issues that percolated on Beacon Hill in Boston during the last six months, just for fun. Here goes:

6. Boston Common Activity
From March until December of last year, the City of Boston renovated the Parade Grounds on the Boston Common (roughly the area above the Boston Common Garage). Ever since that effort began, the rumblings about the proper use of the Boston Common have resonated. They have gotten pretty loud this year, probably at their loudest when the Boston City Council hosted a public hearing on the Common. Your latest update: Kudos to Boston City Councilor Mike Ross, who went to New York City recently to survey how Boston's rival city makes use of public areas. The creative juices are flowing. A cafe on Boston Common? A mid-afternoon hot dog and beverage near the frog pond? Why not.

5. Towing for Street Cleaning
Last year, Boston Public Works Chief Dennis Royer instituted the most aggressive policy on towing imaginable. With the use of outside contractors, he removed cars whenever he could, in all neighborhoods, when those cars were parked illegally. The good news? Street cleaners could reach the curb, and when that happens, the cleaners actually make a difference. The bad news? Dozens of neighbors had their cars towed, which is not a pleasant experience. The Boston City Council held two hearings, one earlier this year, to discuss whether the towing should be eased so as to reduce the burden. While I empathize with those whose cars are towed, the benefits outweigh the inconvenience. And I am happy the aggressive towing remains, thanks to Chief Royer and Mayor Tom Menino.

4. The Parade vs. the Primary
For two weeks ahead of the Super Bowl (where the Patriots played the Giants), downtown neighborhoods braced for a potential disaster. We learned that, at the request of the NFL, the Superbowl parade would be scheduled on the Tuesday following Superbowl Sunday, which in Boston would be the same day as the Massachusetts Democratic Primary. Unlike some previous contests, turnout for the primary was expected to be high. However, the planned parade route in Boston, if based on previous years, would potentially block polling locations (in particular the West End Library and City Hall, which are polling locations for Beacon Hill residents). The image aroused tales of a potential apocalypse. How could something as American as the Superbowl directly lead to a restriction of voting rights? In the end, there was one minor twist to the tale that saved us all. The Patriots lost the game. Do we have Eli Manning to thank for an event-free election day?

3. Phillips Street Park
Let's face it, Phillips Street Park, a tiny enclave of land tucked away on a residential street in Beacon Hill, looks tired. More importantly, the only drainage point in the park is the back yard of the home of Rajan Nanda and his wife. So the City of Boston appropriated money to renovate the park and fix the drainage issue. Easy enough, right? Well, as I was to learn, redesigning a public space that is within baseball-throwing distance of hundreds of residents is not as easy as one public meeting. Try four, as well as countless phone and in-person meetings, and a process that took well over a year. In the end, the design for Phillips Street Park is a compromise that pleases no one but benefits many. Kudos to Karin Mathiesen in Mike Ross' office, and to the City of Boston Parks Department, for their hard work over the many months.

2. The Storrow Drive Tunnel
I don't understand all the ins and outs of the Storrow Drive tunnel issue, but it goes something like this. Storrow Drive is falling apart, slowly but surely. To figure out how to fix it, the State (which owns the land) started a public process. The State told the public it was considering creating a bypass road into the Esplanade while the Tunnel was to be repaired. The Beacon Hill and Back Bay neighborhoods went crazy (and rightly so, in my opinion). A fellow board member on the Beacon Hill Civic Association threatened to tie herself to an Esplanade tree in protest. The State retracted the idea and the public process has stopped. From that point, it gets hazy in my recollection, but I have heard that there are repair efforts under way on a limited basis (i.e. at night when traffic is light) on the tunnel. Note to self: Don't mess with the Esplanade.

1. Suffolk University's Institutional Master Plan (IMP)
If you are at all surprised by the number one item on this list, you need a Beacon Hill 101 refresher course (maybe Suffolk would offer one?). I have never seen any other issue suck all of the oxygen out of public discourse more than this issue has over the past several months. It was a lesson in town-and-gown, NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) politics, and age prejudice all wrapped into one. In the end, the Beacon Hill Civic Association and Suffolk reached an agreement. Many of my neighbors and Suffolk officials spent several late nights to hammer out the deal. I look forward to working with Suffolk this Summer as we prepare for move-in day in September (for the past two years, I have walked the neighborhood with some friends who work at Suffolk and neighbors to welcome our new residents).

Fittingly enough, official word of the Boston Redevelopment Authority's approval of the Suffolk IMP reached my email inbox today. The last day of June. Six months of '08 down, six to go.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

True Blue

Tsongas Arena
June 7, 2008
(Courtesy Rob Whitney)

I think "True Blue" should be the motto for the Democratic party in Massachusetts. Full disclosure: The shirt is a UCONN Husky shirt, and of course the University of Michigan has also adopted the "true blue" slogan.

I am sitting in the 2nd Suffolk section of the State Democratic Convention floor. To my right is Laura Sargent, and to my left is Fay Sliger. We were all delegates.

Anna's... Finally!

Cambridge and Garden Streets, Boston
June 23, 2008

It was the end of the biggest tease in Beacon Hill restaurant history. And it ended with little fanfare.

Anna's Taqueria opened two weeks ago on Cambridge Street, at the corner of Cambridge and Garden.

My friends and I had long given up on Anna's even having a place here. The producers of the city's best burritos announced several years ago their plans for a Beacon Hill establishment. It became a constant source of frustration.

I think we all just assumed that Anna's would never show up. And then, a text message from old roomie Blake letting me know, while I was traveling, that not only was the shop open, but free burritos were given to the first day's patrons.

I have a carnitas burrito with no salsa. Very tasty.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Round One: Wilkerson vs. Chang-Diaz

This past week the Ward 5 Democratic Committee, of which I am a member, hosted a forum for the two Democratic candidates running for the 2nd Suffolk Mass. Senate seat. After the forum, the committee endorsed the incumbent, Senator Dianne Wilkerson.

It was my first significant vote as a rookie member of the committee, and I decided to abstain. Further, I think the endorsement by Ward 5 is premature. This is going to be a very exciting race between Wilkerson and her opponent, Sonia Chang-Diaz, and it's way too early to pick a horse.

Prior to the meeting, I was leaning toward Chang-Diaz, but I decided to enter the forum with an open mind, given that I really do not know much about either woman. Here are my impressions on this race:

--- Both candidates are exceptional, and the 2nd Suffolk district is blessed to have them (even though turnout at the Sept. primary will likely be tiny).

---The forum last week identified only minor differences between the two candidates. Chang-Diaz and Wilkerson both believe that casinos in Massachusetts are a bad idea. Listening to the the forum, one heard a series of "I agree with that," or "Yes" from either side as the two "debated" the issues. Fellow committee members and I exchanged a note in the crowd that stated: "Is there anything that they don't agree on?" [Note: I spoke to the Chang-Diaz campaign on June 25, and they noted that Sonia Chang-Diaz opposes the Level 4 BU Bio Lab until there can be significant research that shows the lab will not pose a risk; Senator Wilkerson supports the Bio Lab.]

---Seniority is a somewhat loaded term. Senator Wilkerson has seniority in the Senate, however I debate how important this is. Senator Wilkerson has had her difficulties in the past, including forgetting to get her name on the ballot two years ago to defend her seat. By choosing to ignore these issues and approach this race with a level playing field, I feel that the Senator's successes over the past many years also should not sway my opinion.

Given these first two points, I would like to hear more from both candidates on issues that I care about, such as how they are going to keep young professionals and young families in Boston, and how they can encourage those residents to settle and contribute to Boston's communities.

--- Senator Wilkerson was better in the debate this past week (though Chang-Diaz did have excellent answers to the final two questions on health care and education), but Sonia Chang-Diaz, in my opinion, "wants it more." As "squishy" as this sounds, in recent races the style of the candidate has ultimately swayed my decision, whether that's good or not. Chang-Diaz spoke to me three times ahead of the meeting; whereas Senator Wilkerson called me once. Chang-Diaz talks of change; I think her campaign is better characterized as raw energy. You can see the energy when she talks (and she sometimes talks fast).

I remain undecided. And by virtue of my abstention in the recent Ward 5 meeting, I encourage others to come to their own opinions. We're still in the early days of this race.

I also hope this race will lead to a broader discussion on the role of a Mass. Senator in local campaigns. I had never seen Senator Wilkerson in person before the State convention two weeks ago. Contrast that to my State Representative, Marty Waltz, who I see all the time. Obviously, Rep. Waltz represents less people, but you'd think Senator Wilkerson would show up at (the very least) the high-profile meetings, such as the meetings regarding Suffolk University. Admittedly, the state's role in the Suffolk issue is non-existent, but that didn't stop Marty Waltz from being there.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Salinas, California

I am wrapping up a long trip tonight for work that took me to Orlando, Florida last week and San Jose/ San Francisco this week. I had a chance this past weekend to catch up with my good high-school friend Adam and his wife Suzie. They live in Salinas, which is about an hour south of San Jose.

Adam and Suzie Gavalla and me
Frog & Peach Bar
San Luis Obisbo, California
June 14, 2008

On Saturday, June 14, we went to Hearst Castle, which is two hours south of Salinas. The castle was built by William R. Hearst of newspaper fame. After the trip to the castle, we went into San Luis Obisbo (Slo-town, as the locals call it) for dinner.

Adam and Suzie are doing great. No surprise. Adam has been talking about living in California since I met him in 1990.

Also during my trip to Salinas, I met an amazing man, Mags, or Mac. He's the father of one of Suzie's friends. He's 101.

Mac has amazing genes, and I was honored to meet him and talk to him. He emigrated to the United States in the 1920s, as part of a program offered by the U.S. government that awarded Filipinos dual citizenship if they agreed to serve in the U.S. military. It was great to see him light up when he spoke to people. I will never forget that.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Open Letter to Hillary Clinton Supporters

Dear Friends and fellow supporters of a Democrat for President--

I need you.

I have worked with some of you on previous campaigns, from local City Council elections to trips to Manchester in 2004. I have debated politics with you. I have learned from you. You are among the most gifted, politically attuned individuals I have ever known.

I understand you are upset and frustrated. I know that many of you worked 20-hour days for Senator Clinton. You made countless phone calls and drove many, many miles.

The media did a horrible job covering this race. After an endless series of broadcasts discussing momentum one way or another (when there wasn't any), the media were quick to declare a winner. The AP couldn't announce it fast enough the Tuesday of the final primaries in South Dakota and Montana, even before the necessary endorsements were made. The horse race distracted reporters from the realities of this election-- and the fact that our party did not have a nominee until Senator Clinton decided to suspend her campaign, not a moment before.

I offer you one piece of solace: Know that Senator Barack Obama cannot win in November without each and every one of you.

And for that reason, I humbly ask again for your help. The choice this fall has never been more stark, and the ramifications have rarely been more significant. I need your help to convince the country of what course is best.

I believe strongly that the Democratic party is better off after the primary season we've just had. And I believe our strong party can now best argue that our vision for the future is better than that of the Republicans.

Now, let's get to work, together.

Tribute: Tim Russert

George Stephanopoulos put it best this morning when he said that Tim Russert believed in an educated electorate, and he made us believe that too.

I met Tim Russert in October of 2004, when I was at a Boston bar following a Red Sox game. His son Luke was a freshman at Boston College. I told Tim (I joked with friends after meeting him that "Tim and I were close") that I admired how well he researched his interviews.

"Meet The Press" was the first show I ever recorded via Comcast DVR. It was a staple of my viewing each Sunday. And the reason was Tim Russert. He asked the questions that deserved answers-- and he asked them not in the "gotcha" style of a journalist looking to "trip-up" an interviewee. He asked them because he believed the answers would best inform the American public.

Tim Russert was a true American. Everyone who watched his show knew he was from Buffalo. He was authentic; a real-life manifestation of WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get).

There's no question I will miss Tim Russert. I remember that back just before I met him, I believe he had just interviewed President Bush from the White House-- a special interview that aired during the week and not on Sunday. I remember feeling relief when I heard Tim Russert was doing the interview. The nation was at war in Iraq. I did not trust Donald Rumsfeld. I knew Tim Russert would ask the questions that were important, and I knew I would leave with a clearer explanation of what was going on. I trusted Tim Russert; I always did.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Scenes from the Democratic State Convention

Tsongas Arena
Lowell, Massachusetts
June 7, 2008
I attended the Democratic State Convention today in Lowell, Mass. I voted for John Kerry to be the party's nominee for U.S. Senate-- in essence I voted that he be re-elected. Kerry won the endorsement of the party, but his challenger, Ed O'Reilly won enough of the vote to force a primary in September.

As a member of the 2nd Suffolk delegation, I had a very nice spot on the floor of the Tsongas Arena. I rode to Lowell on the commuter rail with Josh Dawson (pictured above), who is the 2nd Suffolk elected State Committee Man. He ended up being the "Teller" for our delegation, meaning he called out the roll and took the verbal vote from each delegate.

The convention was a lot of fun. It was great to chat with fellow Democrats, including Matt O'Mally, State Representative Marty Waltz, and Ward 5 Democratic Chair Rob Whitney, among others.

The two Democratic candidates for the 2nd Suffolk State Senate seat, Sen. Diane Wilkerson (incumbent) and Sonia Chang-Diaz, were among the delegates. I had a chance to speak to both of them. The Ward 5 Democratic Committee will consider its endorsement in that race at its next meeting on June 18. It's time for me to start researching my choice, and the conversations today were a good starting point. I can tell you that both candidates are very gifted, it will be a hard decision, and my fellow committee members and I are being careful in our research and will be careful with our choice. Watch this space; no doubt I will share my thoughts here.

Sonia Chang-Diaz at the Convention

One thing about Lowell: The commuter rail is great to get there, but the bus system-- especially on a Saturday-- leaves a lot to be desired. A group of about 20 delegates who arrived in Lowell on the commuter rail had to wait about 35 minutes for a bus. If we had only known the Tsongas Arena was a mere 15-minute walk away.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Suffolk and Beacon Hill: Is an Agreement Near?

Big developments this week on Beacon Hill with regard to Suffolk. The first part of this post is the facts as they currently stand. The second part is my opinion. I clearly differentiate the two sections below.

First, the facts. As noted in earlier posts, Suffolk University has filed an institutional master plan (IMP) with the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), and the BRA is accepting public comments regarding that IMP. The IMP is a detailed plan regarding Suffolk's growth and potential development, and the BRA requires the insitution to file it. During this comment period, which is dictated by the BRA, Suffolk has been in near-continuous discussions with the Beacon Hill Civic Association (BHCA). Suffolk was founded on Beacon Hill, and several of its buildings are located on Beacon Hill. Suffolk officials and Civic Association representatives are discusing an agreement between the two parties; in exchange Suffolk asks for the BHCA to support Suffolk's IMP.

As I have posted previously, the BHCA is concerned that the proposed development outlined in Suffolk's IMP (which covers ten years, by the way) will adversely impact the Beacon Hill neighborhood. The BHCA has been negotiating with Suffolk for a series of concessions from Suffolk that would mitigate the University's impact on the residential neighborhood.

Earlier this week, a negotiating team from the BHCA came to an agreement with Suffolk. However, that agreement is not technically accepted by the BHCA until the BHCA's Board of Directors votes to accept it. The next Board of Directors meeting is scheduled for this Monday. So we're currently in a limbo period, as the agreement is on the table and is waiting for final approval from the board.

A Boston Globe article this week would indicate that the agreement has been made and is behind us. In reality, the board still has to accept it, and the board meeting on Monday promises to be very contentious. Needless to say, Suffolk will be a hot topic of conversation this weekend around the neighborhood.

------- Now time for my opinion ----------

The Agreement Should Pass

Unfortunately, I will be out of town Monday night, traveling on business. As a BHCA board member, I support the current agreement on the table between the BHCA and Suffolk, and I would support it if I were able to attend Monday.

With the current agreement, Suffolk makes significant concessions to the neighborhood. Suffolk agrees not to build any building across almost the entire neighborhood, and the agreement places significant restrictions on what Suffolk can do with other buildings in the neighborhood. The agreement includes a process to ensure that Suffolk does not increase its student population beyond the figures noted in the IMP. It also includes a signficant pledge to try to house as many students as possible in dorms by the end of the IMP's 10-year coverage period.

Finally, Suffolk agrees to continue many of the programs it has instituted over the past few years to police and mitigate rowdy student behavior in the neighborhood.

On paper, Suffolk is making more concessions in the agreement than many other institutions in the city. To be fair, there is a reason for this. Suffolk does not have the best track record regarding adherance to previous planning documents. The student population at Suffolk has increased far more rapidly in the past few years than Suffolk had predicted.

Suffolk students live on Beacon Hill, and they play here. But they are also my neighbors. I have worked side-by-side with them during Beacon Hill clean up days. I have strung garland on lamp posts with them during the annual neighborhood decorating day. I recently spent time outside with them watching a total lunar eclipse. Always an optimist, I believe there's a way to harness the energy and ideas of these students to better the neighborhood. It would be a shame if they weren't here.

We cannot expect Suffolk to leave. But we certainly should expect them to take a proactive role in the neighborhood. I hope that Suffolk will continue to be active on Beacon Hill. I look forward to working with them in the many months that come.