Month in Review: July, 2014: Part 1, Cities and housing

August 21, 2014 | Affordable Housing, Apartments, Boston, BRA, Cities, Development, Month in review, New York City, Occupancy, Rent control, Rent Guidelines Board, Rent stabilization, Rental, US News | No comments 35 views

By: David A. Smith

Housing, I have said over and over, is what makes cities, and the converse is true.  Among land use, zoning, taxation, economic development, and urban renewal, a city can help its housing markets thrive or wither – or, as in New York City, it can put them in an extended chokehold, then wonder why no one wants to develop more housing in the city and why the city always has a housing shortage, as I profiled at length in Groundhog day at the Rent Guidelines Board: Part 1, “A historic low”:


Why does this always happen to me?

Those these factors are intriguing, and can be quantified (and the Rent Guidelines Board commissions annual research on these topics, for instance income and expenses, housing supply), in fact they guarantee food fights, because:

1. There is no stated goal.  What is the purpose of collecting information?  What is the Rent Guidelines Board’s goal?  Is the RGB trying to approximate market rents, to have Net Operating Income (NOI) rise with inflation, to enable owners to maintain and upgrade their properties to market quality (most don’t, because they cannot afford to), to promote new affordable housing (as if anyone would be foolish enough to develop new Rent Stabilized housing).


You are a snob and a half!

2. Insofar as goals are implicit, they are contradictory.  The first set of data seems to want the ‘residential real estate industry’ to be healthy; the second seems to want residents to have affordable cost of living.

RGB chair Rachel Godsil [said] the RGB’s job was to prevent “unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive rents.”  

‘Oppressive’ is a value judgment that betrays its speaker’s prejudices.


Godsil believes that your biases are implicit, and she can find them for you

Naturally, any contentious political process repeated annually between the same combatants eventually devolves into street theater and show trials, as we covered in Part 2, “These horror stories”, Part 3, “Scores of screaming tenants”, Part 4, “Off the wall, off the wall”, Part 5, “No airborne chairs”, Part 6, “A different situation by law”, Part 7, “Some of it dirty”, and Part 8, “How the duck did this happen?” :

See you next year


The moment before Mr. Flax voted (go to 51:00 in the YouTube video)

After all the sturm und drang, after the absence of airborne chairs, the presence of earplugs and stage-storming tenants, of off-the-wall mayoral reactions, the Rent Guidelines Board voted 5-4 for the 1% rent increase, with Mr. Flax casting the decisive vote:

“This moment is a nightmare.  Unlike anyone else on this board, I’ve had intense, intense pressure from both the right and from the left.  Some of it dirty, some of it principled.”

He added (you can hear it on the YouTube at 52:15), “But again, I have to vote my conscience.  This is my proposal.  I apologize, but I vote in favor of the motion.”

After he voted “yes,” the crowd erupted in a chorus boos and shouts of “sellout.” Mr. Flax could be heard on the microphone asking one of his colleagues [Chair Godsil], “How the [expletive] did this happen?”

Whatever it was, you get to do it all over again next year – and New York’s courts still think this is Constitutional.


Rent guidelines Board hearing, NYC, 1943 – back then, there was a war on

Showing that New York City has no monopoly on questionable municipal housing practices – though as a Bostonian I can only stand in awe of Gotham’s ability to stick the city’s finger into every eye but its own  – I explored the surprisingly principled start to Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration in The making of the political atomic bomb:

It sounds as if the auditors did a classical procedures and box-ticking review (goodness knows what they charged, or what level of seniority they assigned to staff the assignment. 

(For that matter, did anyone at KPMG read my eight-part post on the BRA’s rottenness?  For reference, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8.)


Eleven footprints to Satan

“I want them to tell me what are some of the problems.”

To do the job Mayor Walsh wanted, KPMG would have to dig into:

1. Purposes.  What goals the BRA should be pursuing – growth, economic development, affordable housing, transit-oriented development – how they convert into measurable objectives, and how the authority trades off among competing objectives. 

“I didn’t think it was a deep enough dive. I asked them to go back and do a deeper dive. They kind of came back with, you know, ‘economic development could be beefed up,’” Walsh told the Herald last Wednesday.

Boston Mayor Walsh’s administration is likewise noteworthy for the rediscovery of Boston’s own Man in the Iron Mask, Don Chiofaro, who is still trying to develop the Harbor Garage After release from Coventry: Part 1, Not worthy the cognizance, and Part 2, On a proper submission:


Mayor Menino put him in Coventry and threw away the key

Aside from the spectacle of a public official allowing personal pique to rule his decisions [Like that never happens anywhere else in America? – Ed.], Mayor Menino’s fixation with ‘retail’ development politics – every decision being made by him – slowed down city development.  That gave candidate Walsh an opening: city development and redevelopment was part of his shake-em-up campaign persona to propose relocating City Hall and redeveloping the entire Government Center parcel (a great idea, by the way), a political Miley that helped him win election.

The Walsh administration is striking a different tone, saying it would consider building proposals that exceed the area’s recommended height limit if they provide the open space and waterfront access required by law.

The mayor realizes that policy will be changed partly by the reform of institutions like the Boston Redevelopment Authority (for reference, see my eight-part opus, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8), and partly by the advancement of individual development proposals and the treatment of prospective developers – and who better to signal a new perspective than pugnacious Don Chiofaro?


I’ll punch the man who says I’m pugnacious


For Mr. Chiofaro, every square foot of ground floor area he surrenders is an economic loss, but if in the process he gains (say) three square feet like height allowance, then he wins.  As we saw before, to a developer, every architectural or visual feature is negotiable if it gets more verticality.  Mr. Chiofaro has learned his public-relations lessons well, for he now speaks the language of new urbanism:

“We will continue working from the ground up and describe how we think re-imagining a site with zero open space today can ultimately provide so many of the benefits contemplated” in the municipal harbor planning process, Chiofaro said.

Ironically, though I think Mr. Chiofaro is singing from a libretto, I also believe he means it; he’s an aggressive visionary for the technological city, and as a lifelong Bostonian he can appreciate how people come to love a city through their personal experience of its quirks whether cultural or historical.  All he is doing, I believe, is vocalizing what he thinks is so self-evident it needn’t be mentioned. 


Any idiot should know that

We inhabit housing every day, we invest it with our private lives, our sleeping and dreaming hours, our childhood memories and our parental hopes for the hopes, and hence with our souls – and because of this, our connection to housing and place becomes so powerful that if we inhabit it, we believe it belongs to us.  That spiritual connection was visible in my two-part update on the faithful vigilantes of Scituate, who believe in Occupancy if not ownership: Part 1, Parting from friends is a sadness, and Part 2, A place is only a place:

Emotionally if not legally, possession is nine-tenths of the law, and in real estate, occupancy is nine-tenths of possession, emotionally if not legally or contractually. Ownership is a legal condition and it is also a state of mind: the longer we are able to occupy a place, regularly even if not continuously, the more we emotionally own it, all legal facts to the contrary notwithstanding. Thus, when our deeply held emotional faith is confronted with contrary reality, faith is shattered, as reported in the Boston Globe (June 22, 2014; blue font) and the Boston Herald (June 22, 2014):

Protest group loses bid to keep church in Scituate open

While this story is about deconsecrated churches, the emotional psychology of occupancy can apply equally well to long-term renters losing their lease, or mobile home owners whose park is closing or whose space rent is raised beyond their ability to pay. 

1. Occupancy encourages us to feel we own property even when we don’t


Note the Thou shalt not steal sign, as if the parishioners own the church

Most of the closed churches went quietly. But about a dozen either filed civil suits or appealed to the Vatican court system, and a handful began around-the-clock vigils in their church buildings, ensuring that the archdiocese would have to forcibly remove them to carry out the closures.

The psychology of this recalls Susette Kelo of New London and her little pink house, who caught the public’s attention out of her emotional ownership. Not that the public knew or cared much about eminent domain for economic development (ED4ED) in the abstract, but rather because she seemed owner of the neighborhood, not just of her house, and her defense of occupancy resonated with Americans’ belief in the right of individual property ownership.

Rogers said lawyers for the parishioners notified him Saturday that their last-gasp attempt had been denied by the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest court.

Rogers’s group, The Friends of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, had appealed a Vatican ruling allowing deconsecration of the church building, a step that would allow the archdiocese to repurpose, lease, or sell the building.

Ms. Kelo had legal freehold title ownership on her side, and was defending her right to hold out in the face of a community need – and the parishioners don’t own the church or its land. What they do have and have had for nearly ten years, is physical occupancy – adverse possession, as it is called in real estate law. By contrast, in East Boston it acted in the more traditional, non-judicial manner of an owner.


Walk like an Egyptian

Evict like an owner

Read like a blogger

Come back tomorrer

[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]

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That’s rich, Harbor Towers: Part 10, “Coming from the likes of you”

August 20, 2014 | Apartments, Architecture, Boston, BRA, Chiofaro, Cities, Condominiums, Development, Downzoning, FHA Lending, Harbor Towers, History, I. M. Pei, Rental, Urban renewal, Waterfront, Zoning | No comments 53 views

By: David A. Smith

[Continued from yesterday's Part 9 and the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, and Part 8.]

Principal sources used in this post

Chicago Tribune (February 7, 1993; olive-green font)

Boston Globe (March 14, 2004; lavender font)

Boston Globe (November 1, 2007; red font)

Boston Globe (November 20, 2007; emeraldfont)

Boston Magazine (February, 2008; blue font)

Apartment listing review (July, 2010; bronze font)

Boston Business Journal (July 2, 2014; brown font)

The Boston Globe (July 23, 2014; black font)


Isn’t he done yet?

Hard though it may be to believe, we have arrived at the end of our exhaustive [Exhausting? – Ed.  Hey, you try writing it. – Auth.] post on Harbor Towers’ history, though it would not be Harbor Towers if the story had an ending, much less a happy ending. 


It lacked certain elements that we need to market a film successfully. Suspense, laughter, violence.

Hope, heart, nudity, sex.

Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.

There are residents who support the proposal — that eyesore of a garage must go!  Then there is everyone else, armed with concerns about the project but also conscious of being cast as NIMBYs.  

Many of them, I dare say, are in fact NIMBYs, they just don’t want to be unmasked as such.


Got to keep my identity secret

Quite a few units will have their views blocked, and a massive new neighbor — 1.3 million square feet of offices, condos, retail, and restaurants — also will bring new congestion and noise.

It will also bring walkable access to downtown, plus restaurants, stores, and a new-urbanist dynamic that Harbor Towers has never had:

Missing from the ‘hood is a grocery store, CVS, restaurants, any place to hang out on a weekend night. You will have to go outside the general vicinity to find any decent restaurants or entertainment. I think they are trying to change that with the development of the “greenway district” but it’s slow-moving. Young singles in Boston should prepare to feel isolated and bored — or constantly be going back and forth to other parts of the city.

None of this influences the vocals:

The worriers don’t talk about the height of Chiofaro’s plan, but its density. Traffic, they say, is bad enough on Atlantic Avenue.

“It’s going to be worse than Fifth Avenue,” said Marcelle Willock, chair of a Harbor Towers condo board.

Our now-departed renter psychoanalyzes those who are the self-selected left-behind in Harbor Towers:


Why two towers, anyway?

You will find lots of die-hard Harbor Tower folks here, most of them retired and have lived here for years. They all paid that $80,000 assessment to fund the rehab project, so they are married to the building.

The die-hards are indeed digging in:

Willock and other residents crave many more details before deciding whether the proposal is a plus for the neighborhood.

“Development is a good thing. It’s good for the city,” said Dwayne Bertrand, an investment executive who last year moved into a 28th floor unit. [VP Hjead of North America Workout and Recovery] But, he added, “Can it be done to the magnitude being shown here?”

But does anyone speak for Harbor Towers?  Or is it just cacophony?

Other residents of Harbor Towers who attended the meeting Wednesday voiced their approval of the proposed new towers.

All that external-relations campaigning Mr. Chiofaro did had some payoff at least.

Whither Chiofaro?

The anonymous renter said it well:

We are sitting on prime real estate, and the residents at Harbor Towers are paying through the nose to keep the place afloat. Why not just replace it with some beautiful glass condos (like the Intercontinental down the street)?  

A condo association will never order its own death; for a change of the type our renter imagines, the property would need to be sold, in bulk, to … a dreaded developer.  That’s not happening for several decades anyhow.

With all the money being spent to keep these buildings alive, they could have built an entire city of modern, clean condos that don’t have any mechanical problems like the Harbor Towers.

That’s the curse of exoskeletal strictures – and it’s a reason to welcome new, better development:

Chiofaro said the arcade represents a dramatic improvement from the total lack of public space on the Harbor Garage site currently. He noted that it would allow for year-round festivals and public events, and open new views of the water from the greenway.

All of that is true, as Rowes Wharf proved.


Joseph Staska, Rowes Wharf archway, 2000

“The project we have been discussing for the last two months looks like nothing else on the Boston skyline and nothing else at the ground level,” Chiofaro said. “In its uniqueness, it shares a common bond with a distinguished collection of Boston architecture and engineering.”

Epitaph for the living Towers


Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons

If 90% of life is just showing up, then ninety percent of becoming an architectural icon is longevity: “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores, all get respectable if they last long enough.”


“‘Course I’m respectable.  I’m old.”

Todd Lee, the architect on the 32nd floor, has lived in the building three separate times: once after his first wife took ill, once after she died and he wanted to “live like a monk,” and again after he married Karen C.C. Dalton, a charming art historian from Texas now teaching at Harvard. “I don’t know of any building in the city that has affection like this,” he says. “People who live here understand what an anomaly it is, and how extraordinarily lucky they are.”

Eventually those who associate with a building come to view it with affection.


Yes, he’s ugly, but he’s mine

It’s clear that people who live in the towers, particularly those who have been there for a long time, feel a profound, idiosyncratic connection to them. They point to the appealing rarity of the modernist residential buildings, the likes of which can never be built again;

Thank goodness.

the erstwhile barren location; the close-knit, if often querulous, community; the astounding views; and the absence of traditional yuppifying condo perks like valet parking, in-house chefs, a health club, or even washers and dryers in the units (by design, these are limited to the basement).

Sounds like a lovely pied-a-terre – for the old.

All of this lends to the experience of residing in the towers a glint of austerity.  The people who live here really are pioneers,” says Maryann Hoskins.

Maybe thirty years ago; not today.

“They suffered through the Big Dig, and all of that digging and noise, and they stayed here because they loved it.”

Or they stayed because it was easier than moving; people do that.

Beth Dickerson, a realtor with Gibson Sotheby’s who deals in the luxury market, says flatly, “What it comes down to is: This is what it is to live in these buildings.”


Ms. Dickerson and her pioneering luxury couch

“In a sense, Harbor Towers is kind of an island,” says Peter Forbes. “They fight everybody on the outside, and when there isn’t anybody on the outside, they fight each other on the inside.”


The trustees send their regards

“There have been coups left and right when one group gains ascendancy over another. But their victories seem to be short-lived, and then somebody else comes in and dethrones them.”


I’m king now, and I shall be king for a long time – yes?

Is there nothing more to Harbor Towers’ opposition than that – envy at potential supersession?

Chiofaro closed his presentation with a series of images of other major structures in the city — his International Place buildings, the John Hancock Tower, the Custom House Tower and Prudential Center.


The new John Hancock Tower, going up in 1971

(It had window troubles, too)


The Custom House, 1949: for thirty years the tallest building in Boston

Decaying and decrepit pre-Harbor Towers India Wharf at upper right


Aerial view of Boston looking east, circa 1955


The Prudential Center, shortly after completion in 1965

All of them, he said, were seen as unusually tall at the time they were built –

In this Mr. Chiofaro is unquestionably righkt.

– and have since become signature elements of a thriving city.

So too was Harbor Towers ‘unusually tall’ – and while height itself is no sin, Harbor Towers sinned in so many ways:

Ahistorical.  Though located on one of the oldest locations in Boston, Harbor Towers vaporized that history,  I find myself echoing the Holy Roman Emperor Carlos V, who upon visiting the Great Mosque of Cordoba, into which the Spanish had built a baroque cathedral, said:


Emperor, conqueror, preservationist: Carlos V of Spain

“What you have made here can be found in many places, butwhat you have destroyed is to be found nowhere else in the world.”


In the midst of this …


The Spaniards retrofitted a cathedral

Monolithic.  On that site, they built two towers so tall, gray, and obstructive that the angered city subsequently down-zoned the entire area so that nothing else could ever be unilaterally built that way again.

Free-riding.  Having had nothing to do with the harbor cleanup, they then benefited against when the Federal government decided to fund over ten billion dollars’ worth of the cost of eradicating the Central Artery and building in its stead the Greenway park, a huge windfall to every Harbor Towers condo owner.

Substandard.  They inhabit a building with balky elevators, no washers or dryers in the apartments, historically leaky (epically leaky) windows, and a squabbling anti-everything owners’ association that split into factions when confronted with a major upgrading cost.

But those views – oh, those views!


U. S. S. Constitution, heading back to her berth, viewed from Harbor Towers

“It’s not often the city finds itself with the opportunity for a transformative moment,” Chirfaro said. “But that moment is now before us.”

I close this odyssey where I began it, with that trustees’ letter quote:

“We believe the proposed development is historically and contemporaneously inappropriate in scale, height and density for a location adjacent to two Boston treasures, the Rose Kennedy Greenway and the harbor,” wrote two trustees of Harbor Towers

That’s why I so instantly thought, that’s rich, coming from the likes of you. 

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

– T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, Little Gidding


Now, about those high condo association fees …

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That’s rich, Harbor Towers: Part 9, The new neighbor, “A two-star hotel always under construction”

August 19, 2014 | Apartments, Architecture, Boston, BRA, Chiofaro, Cities, Condominiums, Development, Downzoning, FHA Lending, Harbor Towers, History, I. M. Pei, Rental, Urban renewal, Waterfront, Zoning | No comments 65 views

By: David A. Smith

[Continued from yesterday's Part 8 and the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7.]

Principal sources used in this post

Chicago Tribune (February 7, 1993; olive-green font)

Boston Globe (March 14, 2004; lavender font)

Boston Globe (November 1, 2007; red font)

Boston Globe (November 20, 2007; emeraldfont)

Boston Magazine (February, 2008; blue font)

Apartment listing review (July, 2010; bronze font)

Boston Business Journal (July 2, 2014; brown font)

The Boston Globe (July 23, 2014; black font)

Even as the residents were distracted by internecine disagreements over how to fix their decrepit and collapsing HVAC system, their landward neighbor (both of whose towers are taller than theirs) was sizing up another investment opportunity, and in 2008 Don Chiofaro achieved his objective: in financial partnership with an institutional investor, he bought the Harbor Garage


But now it has flags!

With that purchase, Mr. Chiofaro suddenly had a two-part foothold into Harbor Towers’ decision-making:

Harbor Towers residents lease several hundred parking spaces in the garage. (The 624 units have long-term leases for spaces that are set to expire in 2022.)

Mechanical equipment for Harbor Towers is located in the garage building.

As President Nixon’s aide Chuck Colson said, when you’ve got them by the mechanical systems, their hearts and minds will follow.


Now that I have everyone’s attention …

Chiofaro acknowledged that whatever he builds there, “It will have to have a lot of parking. We’re going to replace in some fashion a lot of it.”

The residents of Harbor Towers ought to have been thanking their lucky stars:

Last November, International Place developer Don Chiofaro bought the aquarium garage, with plans to turn it into a hotel, condominiums, and office space. Add that to Rowes Wharf and the now more-or-less-clean harbor, and the Harbor Towers will soon be fully enveloped, for the first time, by respectable society. The surrounding area will see the increase in activity and density that planners had always hoped the towers’ construction would spur.

That Harbor Towers needs such activity is evident from a hilarious cri de coeur Apartment listing review (July, 2010; bronze font) from a renter moving out:

I lived here for two years. I was a renter. The pool and grounds are awesome, sure. The front desk staff are charming and nice. The lobby is impressive. But none of that makes up for the everyday inconveniences of living in this place! Please read my entire review ….

I won’t quote all of it, though interested readers should click over and savor it, because our Deep Throat source reveals what living in Harbor Towers is really like:

You won’t be dealing with the rehab project if you move into the Harbor Towers today. You will be dealing with:

Ongoing maintenance

Never-ending system breakdowns

Unreliable laundry machines. 

As referenced in the 2008 Boston Magazine article, “by design, these are limited to the basement.”

In this day and age, can you imagine such a thing in a high-end condo?

Fire alarms at 4:00 am

Many other annoyances.

Every week there is some kind of massive project going on, whether they are replacing carpets in the lobby, “testing” the elevators, or fixing something that breaks. Most of these “projects” are unnecessary and serve primarily to keep the HOA contractors employed. You will feel like you live in a (2-star) hotel that is always under construction.


But the views are fantastic … if the elevators are working to let you get to see them

Though these well-reasoned and detailed complaints come from only one (former) renter, they all relate to the entire structure(s), and that suggests that where one condo owner has been renting his or her apartment, perhaps many do. 

If you want to own a condo here, think again.

The condo fees are astronomical, and personally I would feel very uneasy with the way the HOA spends money around here. Every week there is a new contractor doing something in the building. 

Renting out the apartments (while living elsewhere) might well be a shrewd strategy for the moneyed elite. 

As they were when they first opened, the towers remain a place where people go to start over, says Hoskins, who moved in after she divorced. “Most everybody I know [here] came from someplace else. It may have been a different life or a different circumstance, but it’s kind of a new chapter in the book. A lot of that energy pervades down there.” 

The towers’ appeal is visual; their flaws are experiential, and for many renters, by the time they are briefed on the problems, they will already have signed the lease.  (Are some also acting as Airbnb hosts, I wonder?  It would be entirely logical.)

The most annoying aspect of living here is that there are all sorts of spontaneous problems that have no explanation. On Friday night, we came home to find no running water. Believe it or not, this is common at Harbor Towers. We couldn’t flush the toilet, take a shower, wash hands, nothing. We called the building manager and they said someone was working on it. We had no water until 10:00 am the next morning. This affected the entire building, not just our unit.

If there has emerged a constituency of owner-landlords, that will represent yet another interest group within the building, further complicating governance and decision-making.

The problems in this building are never-ending. I have spoken with realtors who show units in the building, and they don’t even like bringing their clients here.  One lady said she couldn’t recommend this building with a clear conscience.  The main problem with renting here is that you have to deal with things that are unethical or illegal in Massachusetts – like lack of heat, power, or running water.

Actually, one month we only paid half rent because there were so many problems and interferences in the building (that was the month we went without heat). So maybe try to negotiate with your landlord and use my review as leverage.


Hey, whatever works

2014 and forward

With his company’s acquisition of the garage, Mr. Chiofaro has long known that he would eventually have to address his querulous abutters across the Greenway.  Our 2010 renter again:

[Harbor Towers residents] are trying to do whatever they can to stop the development of the Boston waterfront (there is propaganda all over the building) but what they don’t realize is that the Harbor Towers are the biggest eyesore on the harbor … and the best thing that could happen is if someone took a wrecking ball to this place.


Stand against the imperialist developers next door

That insight gives a different perspective to the incumbents’ objections, as penned in the trustees’ July letter to the Boston city officials:

The letter said the project would worsen traffic, result in high winds, and cast shadows on the water and surrounding properties. The trustees also questioned whether Chiofaro’s arcade through the building constitutes open space under state regulations meant to protect public access to the water.

To that end, Mr. Chiofaro started with an obvious concession:


I’m offering to unfold my arms

He made clear that, at a steep expense, he was going to keep all 1,400 parking spaces to ensure that every Harbor Towers resident can rent or buy a spot.

Long before he announced his plans publicly, Mr. Chiofaro was developing a strategy for securing Harbor Towers’ residents acquiescence if not their enthusiastic support:

After his first proposal for the garage failed spectacularly in 2009 — Menino deemed it too tall — the outspoken developer retreated. Chiofaro, who built the ginormous International Place, decided to win people over behind the scenes in a series of low-key meetings.

These did him some good:

Harbor Towers’ residents are warming up to the developer’s second act, but they remain wary.

Are they?

In a sign that the massive opposition to Donald Chiofaro’s proposed $1 billion twin towers by neighbors at Harbor Towers is thawing, a longtime resident and spokesperson for Harbor Tower residents said the revised 1.3-million-square-foot mixed use project is worthy of consideration.

“I applaud Don for his effort to open up the debate in an intelligent and responsible fashion,” said Lee Kozol, chairman of Harbor Towers’ Garage Committee who has lived in the complex since 1999, during an interview following the project’s public unveiling last week. “Don and his team have made a creative effort to deal with waterfront access.”

In addition to esthetics, Mr. Chiofaro also has some practical arguments on his side:

The fate of the ancient mechanical systems, however, is still up in the air.

Like an artificial heart, Harbor Towers’ mechanical systems exist outside its own body, under Mr. Chiofaro’s garage.  Pity if something were to happen to them, wouldn’t it be?


Them towers might have a little … accident, you know?

Through the years, Chiofaro has offered to move the coolers and boilers or even build new ones on Harbor Towers property.

As Gordon Gekko observed, money clarifies; Mr. Chiuofaro’s proposals aren’t altruism, they’re development economics.  He will have to clear the site of the existing garage (and its subsurface mechanical systems), and the easier a time he has of that (particularly with the parking garage leases that run until 2022 and presumably can be terminated before then only on buyouts), the sooner he can develop.

If residents insisted he keep them at the new development, he’d probably do that, too.

Those living in Harbor Towers ought to find such proposals appealing:


That’s a lot of seduction, isn’t it daddy?

I am not a crazy person, or super-negative. I loved living in other parts of the city (North End, Brookline) and would probably enjoy this area a lot more if the building wasn’t so shoddy.

Don’t be seduced by the beautiful grounds at Harbor Towers. There is a reason why I have a 1-bedroom apartment on the 40th floor with harbor view — for only $1,700 per month. The landlords know that it sucks living here, and they want to give tenants a ‘good deal’ to keep them from complaining on a monthly basis or threatening to withhold rent.

But to some degree, Harbor Towers has become its own tontine:

The average age in Harbor Towers is probably around 60. Unlike other buildings in Boston, I think this place has an older demographic because all of the young condo owners were forced to move out when they were faced with the $80,000 assessment in 2007. The neighbors are all very pleasant and nice, but you’d have to be a pleasant person if you are going to live in a building where you may or may not have running water tomorrow.

Quite possibly another schism is looming inside the building:


Could we have a redo of 1054, Bartholomew?

I doubt it, Francis

[Concluded (!!)  tomorrow in Part 10.]

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That’s rich, Harbor Towers: Part 8, The HVAC replacement, “A certain godlike remoteness”

August 18, 2014 | Apartments, Architecture, Boston, BRA, Chiofaro, Cities, Condominiums, Development, Downzoning, FHA Lending, Harbor Towers, History, I. M. Pei, Rental, Urban renewal, Waterfront, Zoning | No comments 97 views

By: David A. Smith

[Continued from Friday's Part 7 and the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.]

Principal sources used in this post

Chicago Tribune (February 7, 1993; olive-green font)

Boston Globe (March 14, 2004; lavender font)

Boston Globe (November 1, 2007; red font)

Boston Globe (November 20, 2007; emeraldfont)

Boston Magazine (February, 2008; blue font)

Apartment listing review (July, 2010; bronze font)

Boston Business Journal (July 2, 2014; brown font)

The Boston Globe (July 23, 2014; black font)

As there is no silver lining without a cloud, the rapidly rising values at Harbor Towers arrived just as the building’s essential systems – heating, ventilating, and air conditioning – were breaking down:


Great when it works; bad when it breaks

The Harbor Tower trustees decided the only solution was a one-time assessment that averaged $121,000 per apartment.  Naturally, everyone in the building took it well:


Run away! Run away!

The whopping assessments have bitterly divided residents into two camps: those who have faith in the condo’s trustees and the experts hired to examine the systems’ conditions, and those who do not.   About 40% of the owners signed a petition asking that collection of the assessments be stopped until more analysis is done. Francesco Pompei, the most recent leader of the opposition, a penthouse owner with MIT and Harvard engineering degrees, filed suit Tuesday charging the trustees with “breach of fiduciary duty” and asking the court to halt renovation work.  “The trustees have never asked the critical question of the engineers – take out the samples and look at them,” said Pompei.

The divisions became a campaign issue and had electoral consequences:

The long-running dispute resulted in a contentious election a year ago, after the old board of trustees was unable to generate sufficient support among unit owners to go forward with the costly repairs. Half of the ten-member board was replaced with new faces.


Elections have consequences, don’t they?

The rancor was especially fueled by that most dangerous of neighbors, a person with professional expertise in a relevant area:

And yet the scorn felt toward the towers’ exteriors doesn’t compare to the enmity now [2008 – Ed.] coursing through their own halls. The man fueling the tensions is Frank Pompei, founder and president of Exergen, an engineering firm that, among other things, manages the heating, ventilation, and cooling (HVAC) systems at Harvard University. Pompei is a short guy, a little rotund.


“A short guy, a little rotund”

Those leaky windows

The protracted fracas over the windows was also key to the formation of Frank Pompei as the ‘change agent,’ as he calls himself.  “I’d just as soon back away from all this stuff,” Pompei says, “because I have other things to do with my time. But the reason I’m involved at this level is that I happen to know a lot about the subject, and I can’t sit on my hands, as a neighbor.”

As a back-yard expert, perhaps he is right, but when authority and money are involved, a person’s motives may also be suspect:

Having paid her $90,000 assessment shortly after the trustees handed it down (this was roughly $6,000 more than she’d paid for the unit when she bought it in 1982), Elizabeth Cook is a Pompei opponent and, like the others, questions his motivation.

Mr. Pompei’s approach also left much to be desired:

His manner of speaking (fast, precise) and his dress (leather suspenders, big gold cuff links, power tie) call to mind an old-time big-city mayor.


New York City needs an upgraded airport, demanded Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia

Pompei and his wife, Marybeth, who’s the chief clinical scientist at Exergen, had rented two adjoining sixth-floor units in Tower I from 1990 to 2003, but they “fell madly in love” with the penthouse, which they’d had occasion to visit while living in the building.

(The space offers a staggering panorama of the city; an acquaintance of the Pompeis, Tower II resident Edward Gleichauf, says there’s a “certain godlike remoteness” to it.)

When the Pompeis, who’d resettled in a condo in Cambridge, heard it was on the market, they snatched it up last May for $1.3 million.


Ms. Pompei have her retina scanned by the TSA at Logan airport, 2004

Pompei believed the trustees were being too rash, that their plan to spend millions to swap out the relics from the late ’60s, rather than upgrade them, was folly. In an attempt to debunk the trustees’ proposal, he brought in his own engineers, as well as William Coad, past president of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, then pressed to gain access to some of the towers’ engineering reports, which he says the board was withholding from owners.


Coad left the ashrae to consult on the tower

A high-rise condominium is a business, and it hires contractors to do work for it, so there is at least the possibility of favoritism and cronyism.

The buzz among the residents is that these contractors are ‘insiders’ who know the HOA trustees and are promised regular work.

Who knows?  It might be true; it might be calumny.  With 624 apartments and only 10 trustees, anything is possible; the trustees can be effectively remote from their neighbors, so long as they win the votes in the periodic condo association trustee elections.

Last October, he also launched a campaign to get himself elected to the board, and filed a lawsuit calling into question the scientific grounds for the repairs, along with a request for an injunction to stop the work, at least until tests could be done to make sure the levy—which amounts to about 20% of each unit’s value (in his case, roughly $360,000)—was warranted.

Mr. Pompei appears to have taken lessons from the Don Chiofaro school of How to Lose Friends and Antagonize People. 

That request was thrown out by a judge; the state (Chapter 183A, MGL) accords condo boards nearly unlimited power to handle their buildings’ affairs.  

So Pompei pushed forward, appealing the ruling, and continued working on his board election bid, along with three supporters, to try to bring the project to heel from the inside.  


A tower blown to bits!

Confronting the last days of Frank Pompei’s campaign

Mr. Pompei failed in his quest:

Pompei’s opponents — worried about falling property values caused by the uncertainty of the assessments, skyrocketing construction costs, and the risk of system failures — say he is a “megalomaniac,” a rabble-rousing “snake-oil salesman” intent on wasting everyone’s money to satisfy some inscrutable grudge.

Few grudges are more enduring than academic-professional grudges, because the ego is entrenched behind ravelins of erudition.


From this position I can safely shoot down any argument against me

Mr. Pompei’s campaign echoes the Great Leaky Window War fifteen years earlier, which also had its

Resident Frank J. Balk Jr. has become the most caustic and highly visible critic of the trustees favoring window replacement. Balk, a former trustee, contends those who favor total replacement are overly generous with owners’ money and too close to the towers’ suppliers and managers.

Outsiders often distrust insiders, even when the insiders and outsiders are residents of the same building.  The aptly named Mr. Balk could have provided advice to the aptly named Mr. Pompei:

Several mention Pompei caused a similar stir at his old condo complex in Cambridge, running for the board there twice, and losing both times. “He could be dangerous if he lived in Bosnia,” muses one longtime resident who supports the trustees.

While Pompei declares, via email, that “our efforts continue,” even some who share his point of view seem too battle-weary to do anything but go along with the renovations. “I think people are so fed up with the whole mess that they just want to get it over with,” says Terry Lyman, who’s among those who’ve vowed to keep fighting. Tower II resident Maryann Hoskins, a Realtor and former secretary to Mayor Kevin White, says, “Frank Pompei is a wonderful guy and very credentialed—and, by the way, I think he’s right—but it’s too late. We just have to get on with it.”

Eventually they did:

The delay added significantly to the cost. “We came up with an estimate between $62 [million] and $65 million,” said Joe Baerlein, head of a prominent Boston public relations firm, who voluntarily left the board a year ago after it struggled unsuccessfully to get renovations going. “Each day was real money and cost.”


Baerlein’s public relations improved by leaving Harbor Towers’ board

The new board signed a contract with the construction firm Walsh Bros. in October [2007]. Repair work is underway and scheduled to end in mid-2009.

While the Harbor Towers board members were distracted by all this strife (and by January 2008, the internecine battle was won: “over 95% of the assessment had been collected” and the work was proceeding), Don Chiofaro joined the party (Boston Globe, November 20, 2007; emerald font):

Donald J. Chiofaro, who developed International Place, has agreed to buy the Harbor Garage, between the New England Aquarium and the new Greenway on Boston’s waterfront, for about $155 million and will probably replace it with a large complex of offices, residences, and a hotel.

“We’ve been looking for a big deal, and this is the deal we’ve been looking for,” an ebullient Chiofaro said yesterday. “We love this site. It’s on the Greenway and on the water.”

For a developer, development is life; the rest is waiting,


Karl Wallenda, July 4, 1976, crossing Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia

“To be in the wire is life; the rest is waiting.”

After more than a decade in capital hibernation, Mr. Chiofaro had the type of opportunity to do his CC&F brethren and before them the India Trade buccaneers proud:

Sometimes referred to as the Aquarium garage, the seven-story block of concrete, with parking for 1,380 cars, went on the market in June. It was designed by the firm of I.M. Pei and built in the 1960s, and has been owned since 2002 by InterPark [a national parking-garage owner/ manager with a Boston regional office].

Chiofaro said it’s too early to say what shape his redevelopment of the project will take. But, he said, “To build a significant nice project there, you’re going to have to build something that has some scale.”


Mr. Chiofaro before his pride and joy: International Place’s 2½ towers

Whatever he does replace the garage with would probably include office, residential, hotel, and retail space. The site is next to the two 40-story Harbor Towers condo buildings.

“If Rowes Wharf commands the highest rents, this is comparable,” Griffin said. “It’s one of the best sites, if not the best site in the city,” said Rob Griffin, president of Cushman & Wakefield of Massachusetts Inc., which represented the seller.  “It’s a billion-dollar project on the water.”

Funny how, with the arrival of Rowes Wharf, the harborside locations had gone from worst to first.  Such is the additionality of urban upgrading. 


Encouraging visions of billion-dollar sugarplums in buyer’s heads: the seller’s broker, Rob Griffin of C&W

The dollar bids among finalists were similar, but Chiofaro prevailed because of “flexibility and creativity in dealing with issues surrounding the management and ownership of the parking garage,” Griffin said.

‘Flexibility’ meaning ‘additional non-cash concessions.’


Can the other bidders do this?

Under the agreement, InterPark will manage the parking now and when a new garage is built.

 [Continued tomorrow in Part 9.]

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That’s rich, Harbor Towers: Part 7, The condo assessment, “Cut my losses and get out”

August 15, 2014 | Apartments, Architecture, Boston, BRA, Chiofaro, Cities, Condominiums, Development, Downzoning, FHA Lending, Harbor Towers, I. M. Pei, Rental, Urban renewal, Zoning | No comments 109 views

By: David A. Smith

[Continued from yesterday's Part 6 and the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.]

Principal sources used in this post

Chicago Tribune (February 7, 1993; olive-green font)

Boston Globe (March 14, 2004; lavender font)

Boston Globe (November 1, 2007; red font)

Boston Globe (November 20, 2007; emeraldfont)

Boston Magazine (February, 2008; blue font)

Apartment listing review (July, 2010; bronze font)

Boston Business Journal (July 2, 2014; brown font)

The Boston Globe (July 23, 2014; black font)

As the new millennium rolled around, even as Harbor Towers was passing its thirtieth birthday (without a structural renovation), its location was improving by leaps and bounds, and effectively transformed by its new chi-chi neighbor, Rowes Wharf and the Boston Harbor Hotel. 


Please circle the least attractive high-rise in this picture


Planting Rowes Wharf and designing it for visible openness both to the harbor and the city was a bold commitment by the Beacon Companies to a reclaimed walkable waterfront; and it worked handsomely.

Take all these things together, add in many smaller improvements, and the result is ‘‘an increased sense that this is a very walkable city that is open to its waterfront,’’ said Mark Maloney, director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

That walkability was made real by the Greenway development; like Park Avenue that emerged when New York rerouted Grand Central’s railroad tracks, the linear space left by the Artery’s submergence may not be the most park-line space, but it is certainly a welcome perambulation area that it is generally (though not always, when it was occupied by the squatters) a pleasure to cross.

For LeFevre’s sister-in-law, the end of the artery can’t come fast enough. If some residents have enjoyed great harbor views, others have endured vistas of rush-hour traffic and a decade of the Big Dig. For Ann LeFevre, who lives in a second-floor condo with her husband Jacques, the artery has been an eye-level ‘‘eyesore,’’ and Jacques has sometimes had to assure her that a nuisance that some folks call ‘‘the other Green Monster’’ will soon be history.

‘‘I’d say, ‘Here’s this green thing that’s so ugly,’ ’’ she said. ‘‘And Jacques would say: ‘Don’t worry. It’s coming down.’ ’’

Remove the eyesore, and values rise.  (And today, the area’s biggest eyesore is the harbor Towers parking garage, a fact that its current owner, Mr. Chiofaro never fails to point out.)


Few are the owners who will plaster a big sign on their building pointing out its flaws: not open to the sea

That’s something Jim Foster expects to see at Harbor Towers. A Towers resident since the 1970s, he sells condos there as a vice president of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage.


Not just a broker, but also a resident: Foster

Even now, with Harbor Towers having done nothing except stand in place for forty years, the neighborhood has so improved (boosted dramatically by the Central Artery’s removal and the Greenway construction) that Harbor Towers’ condominium owners are seeing satisfying rises in their property values:

Last year [i.e. 2003 – Ed], a small one-bedroom condo had an average selling price of $375,000, up from a 1998 average of $157,000, he said. A large two-bedroom unit had a 2003 average selling price of $700,000, up from $500,000 in 1998. Looking ahead, he envisions prices rising by as much as 40%.

A condo with a water view can cost $100,000 more than a comparable unit with a city view, he added. But once the greenway is finished, Baerlein thinks prices for units with water views and units with city views will start ‘‘evening up.’’

I haven’t bothered to research this; readers are welcome to advise me.

‘‘It will be like having the Boston Harbor for your backyard and Central Park for your front yard,’’ said Baerlein, the chairman of a board of trustees for the towers’ condo association.

The artery’s demise has the potential to transform the area [written 2004; obviously, it did so transform it – Ed.]. According to developer Ronald M. Druker, the removal of elevated highways helped two recent urban revivals.


Mr. Druker (right) grinning alongside the man who controlled whether he could develop property in Boston

In 1989, an earthquake in San Francisco doomed a freeway, but the silver lining was nearby residential neighborhoods being reconnected to the waterfront.


The Embarcadero Freeway, San Francisco’s harbor-choking mistake


Nature does San Francisco a favor: Embarcadero Freeway after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake


Embarcadero today: from cars to people, from barriers to visual access

Barcelona enjoyed similar benefits after a highway was taken down for the 1992 Olympics. Not only did the quality of life improve in both cities, he said, but property values rose as well.

Of course, for property values to rise, it’s critical that the building not be falling down – and as observable from the hierarchy of values, right under location is the building shell/ major systems, which tend to give out after a few decades.


The HVAC has fallen and it can’t get up!


During the early and middle decade, Harbor Towers faced aging infrastructure and did nothing about it.

Ever since a 2002 report by R.G. Vanderweil Engineers LLP that documented corrosion on heating and cooling water pipes, the buildings’ systems have been studied by multiple engineering firms and consultants. 

As the 2000s decade rolled along (the economy booming throughout, fueled by what we now know to have been too-easy money predicated on financial perpetual-motion), new high-rises were springing up.  Via the Boston Redevelopment Authority, Mayor Menino immersed himself in the particulars of downtown redevelopment, and between 2000 and 2013 the city increased its stock of high-rises (18+ stories) by one-third, from 68 to 89, with many more planned or proposed.  For Harbor Towers, however, the boom actually accelerated a problem:

“The current board literally went through the project item by item and scrubbed it and said, ‘Do we need to do this?’ ” said Susanne Lavoie, a trustee of Tower 1 reelected last year.  [Sometime later, Ms. Lavoie and her husband moved to Cotuit.]  A former skeptic, she said, “They concluded basically that the work had to be done.”


Marty, something has to be done about your kids!

Waiting worsened matters:

The 500-plus owners at Harbor Towers on Boston’s waterfront are facing the mother of all bills:

collectively they owe[need to raise] $75.6 million for replacing much of the buildings’ main systems, allocated from $70,000 to over $400,000.  The assessments are roughly 20% of the value of most units. 

That was a big number: and an immediate one:

They’re due by the end of this month [November, 2007]. In full.

For 624 apartments, that is an average of $121,000 per apartment (doubtless calibrated up or down based on apartment size or some other formula that I guarantee someone in the building thought was unfair) – plenty to argue over. 


And in Boston, we know how to fight

In a temporal irony, I had only a year earlier written a post on property reserves, which said this:

Though in individual ownership a woman’s home is her castle, in multi-apartment buildings — condominiums and co-ops — group governance applies, and what may be self-evident for one owner is opaque to others.  Or even more fundamentally, the difference is not in perception but rather in economic position and personal economic value function.

A few months after that, New England Condominium (March, 2008; navy font) echoed the advice:

The start of under-funding reserves at many condos, says Ralph Noblin of Noblin & Associates, dates back to the mid-1980s’ building boom, when many condo fees were set at around $100 a month, with only $8 to $10 a month going toward repairs. “In the course of a year, that’s only $100 a year, per home going into reserves,” says Noblin, who adds, “The real numbers should have been close to $1,000 per year, per home.”


Noblin obliges by recommending you set more aside

Noblin says he and other engineers started telling boards in the late ’80s and early ’90s that their numbers were way too low, but “people looked at us like we had two heads.”


I’m telling you, you’re underfunding

Even if some board members did believe him, Noblin says inaction was frequently chosen “because most of their [capital improvement] projects were [years] down the road.”

Naturally, most people don’t:

The longer you own your property, the lower your personal occupancy cost relative to the property’s value.  This is the flip side of building up appreciation.  In multi-unit dwellings, where some apartments are changing hands all the time, the newer folks coming in have by definition always paid a lot more than the older residents, so they are — in general — richer, and particularly richer in cash terms, so they have a greater propensity to spend money. 


Thus capital improvements can kick off an inter-generational war. 


So out of date, man

Something along these lines happened at Harbor Towers, as assessment shock triggered owner turnover:


It’s been a bit of a shock

The owners are reeling from the news, delivered in August.  Some can’t afford the assessment and are selling their units.

“I’m just going to cut my losses and get out,” said Renee Greene, a market research broker who lives on the seventh floor of one of the two towers and was hit with an assessment of about $95,000 for her 880-square-foot unit.

Beyond the sticker shock, the enforceable assessment fractured intra-building community feeling:


Can’t shake hands with fractured feelings

[Continued Monday in Part 8.]

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