Posts by Author: Sandra Larson

Federal Tax Credits and Local Dollars Keeping Akron Downtown Lively

Downtown Akron. (AP Photo/Greg Ruffing)

On Main Street in downtown Akron, the former ExxonMobil Advanced Elastomer Systems building still occupies a key position in the psychology of the former industrial powerhouse city. The building was originally part of the B. F. Goodrich tire manufacturing plant that once employed 15,000 people.

“It was Goodrich. It ran 24 hours a day, and that still resonates,” says Daniel Burnham, who runs the Development Fund of the Western Reserve. As an Akron native, Burnham recalls the heyday of Rubber City’s manufacturing past. “Goodrich, Goodyear, General Tire, Firestone — whole families worked at those places,” he adds. “That’s how you grew up.”

The six-story, 452,000-square-foot building sat idle for a decade before being redeveloped with an entirely new interior in the 1990s, when ExxonMobil arrived and leased two entire floors for nearly 20 years. The exit in 2015 of ExxonMobil and its 200 employees was a blow to the building and the downtown area.

But over the past two years, new commercial tenants have brought more than 500 employees into the building, according to David Schipper, president and CEO of Schipper Group, which owns the building. Two new businesses, a health service company and an engineering and architectural firm, will soon fill another 17,000 square feet and bring about 70 more jobs to the downtown location.

A below-market rate $580,000 loan from the Development Fund of the Western Reserve is helping to cover the costs of renovating the space for the building’s two new commercial tenants. The loan was important, Schipper says, because it allowed his firm to pay for the renovations without having to dip into its reserve funds. Having refinanced the building about a year ago, he said, a healthy reserve fund is crucial for remaining ready to land larger tenants and do any necessary buildout. He hopes to have a thousand workers in the building by the end of 2018.

The below-market rate loan is part of the Akron Community Revitalization Fund, a revolving loan program that aims to spur private sector investment in economically depressed areas of Akron. The Development Fund of the Western Reserve administers the program, with an initial $6.75 million in capital coming from a mix of loan and grant funding spurred by a federal New Markets Tax Credit allocation.

The New Markets Tax Credit program was established in 2000 to provide an incentive for private sector investment in businesses and development projects located in distressed census tracts. The Akron Community Revitalization Fund is targeting loans of $500,000 to $2 million to areas with high poverty or unemployment rates.

“New Market Tax Credits are powerful,” says Burnham. “They help projects that otherwise can’t happen.”

Akron, once the site of half the world’s rubber tire production, has ambitious plans for building itself back up after suffering a long decline in jobs and population in the decades since the city’s slate of major tire companies ceased manufacturing operations there in the 1970s and 80s.

Several of the Akron Community Revitalization Fund’s initial loans are for projects in old industrial buildings that have been or are now being adapted for new uses. One of the larger loans so far, for $1.28 million, will aid the development of a 71-room jazz-themed hotel in the historic United Building, constructed in the 1920s for United Cigar Stores.

The new Northside Marketplace, developed by Testa Companies, provides scores of local entrepreneurs brick-and-mortar space along with business coaching and mentoring. Vendors include food, coffee and local craft beer establishments, clothing and art businesses, and even a bicycle shop. A below-market rate $650,000 loan from the Akron Community Revitalization Fund is helping to expedite the marketplace’s second phase of construction, which will include a year-round farmers market and retail pop-up and event space.

Testa Companies President and CEO Joel Testa said that his firm developed Northside Marketplace with its own capital, and the low-cost loan allowed them to free the money back up for other investments. “Akron is at a unique time where the demand is quickly increasing for housing and businesses in the downtown area, yet there is still a large [gap] between the cost of developing spaces for them and what the marketable rates are,” a company spokesperson says via email. “Low-cost financing is a crucial part of filling that gap.”

Burnham says assembling the Akron Community Revitalization Fund was no small task. It started when his organization dedicated a $6.75 million New Markets Tax Credit allocation to the fund in 2015. But because of the way the federal program works, $6.75 million in tax credits provides only about $2.3 million in actual cash equity, so in order to fully capitalize and launch the fund, the Development Fund of the Western reserve had to gather another $4.45 million to fill the gap.

Over a two-year period, Burnham says, his group received more than $2 million in philanthropic grants from the Akron community through 30 different grant-making entities. “That was a lot of work,” Burnham says, but it still brought them only halfway. Next, they sought assistance from the Chamber of Commerce, which lent $1.5 million at a favorable rate. A conventional loan from PNC bank closed the remaining gap.

By pooling all the above, the Development Fund of the Western Reserve can offer revitalization loans at a below-market 2.5 percent interest rate. New Markets Tax Credit program rules also mean that for the first seven years of each loan, payments are interest-only — another attractive element for borrowers. Also as part of the New Markets Tax Credit process, Burnham’s organization is required to keep close track of community impact metrics such as the number of jobs created and the number of jobs filled by residents of low-income communities.

Finally, as the loans are slowly repaid, the fund will be replenished.

“What we’re excited about — the whole logic behind going through all this pain — is everybody will be repaid, and we’ll have generated some interest income, and the $2.3 million [of tax credit-fueled equity] and the grant money stays in the fund forever,” Burnham says. “So we’ll have a loan fund to serve Akron in the long run.”


Paint the Town with Data in Boston’s New 3D Model

The Boston Planning and Development Agency recently unveiled a public version of its new 3D smart model. (Credit: Boston Planning and Development Agency)

Last year, a bitter battle arose over a proposed 775-foot downtown tower whose shadow would extend over historic Boston Common. A state law on shadows had to be changed to allow it, and the project eventually gained approval from the Boston Planning and Development Agency. (The developers have since revised the plan to satisfy the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates the nearby Logan International Airport, slightly reducing the height of the tower.)

According to agency director Brian Golden, the controversy over the tower’s long shadow came as an “unwelcome surprise” after proposals were submitted. The shadow dispute helped spur the agency to develop greater capacity to perform its own analyses, earlier in the process. That included developing a 3D smart model, providing an interactive, detailed view of some 129,000 buildings across the entire city. As of this month, it’s freely available to the public.

Officials say the digital tool will not only aid the agency in its internal planning and increase transparency in the development approval process, but also allow ordinary residents to inform themselves on existing land use, building heights, shadow effects and flooding projections.

“There can be antagonism when we engage communities, because it’s not clear to the outside world what we know and what we’re thinking,” Golden said at a press event unveiling the tool. “Adding this sophisticated tool allows the public to see what we see, increasing transparency.”

By selecting various layers, users can alter the map to show zoning districts, trees, buildings by land use, transit lines, and points of interest such as schools, health centers and supermarkets. The 3D map is divided into one-kilometer squares that can be downloaded for use with design-oriented software such as AutoCAD and SketchUp, but much of the functionality is accessible with nothing more than a web browser. A ruler tool enables measurement of the dimensions of existing and some under-construction buildings, and a daylight slider reveals where shadows will fall at various times throughout a day and over the seasons.

Boston is among the first cities to present such a model and to make it publicly accessible. (San Francisco also has one) What’s groundbreaking, said Carolyn Bennett, the agency’s GIS manager, is integration of a 3D model with other GIS data layers such as development review and zoning, along with incorporation of information from other city departments and models from architects and developers.

The map available to the public doesn’t include developments for which construction has not begun, but an internal version lets planning agency staff see proposed buildings as well. Potential uses of the new model, officials said, include being able to show proposed projects and alternate scenarios at community meetings where development plans are presented and discussed.

One of the most up-to-date pieces is a street flooding map showing the specific downtown, Seaport and East Boston streets that took on water during the heavy rains and high tides of early January 2018.

David Queeley, eco-innovation director at Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, has taken an initial look at the new model’s base map, flooding maps, and some of the features reflecting data from a 2016 citywide community energy study. The model’s topography lines could be valuable for planning project locations in flood-prone areas, he says, and maps indicating potential community solar projects are of interest, so long as they prove to be accurate and current.

Queeley and others say they see potential for the model’s public use and benefit, but also noted room for improvement in such areas as sufficiently updated information, additional features and user-friendliness.

Kay Mathew, who co-founded a grassroots group working to save mature trees along a boulevard slated for a major street redesign, sees the tool as useful for CDCs and neighborhood groups, but suggests that most citizen users would need some training to access it fully.

“The concept and the hope for it is great, getting more information to neighborhood groups working with the city around development or road design projects,” she says. “My feeling is, there needs to be some technical assistance. If it’s accessible to everyone, that’s useful.”

As of now, the model’s base map is current as of February 2017. Larger developments now under construction have been added, but some smaller ones — often the subject of intense community interest and debate — are not yet visible.

Bennett says she will be adding further description of the 3D model to the website more information on how to use it. In addition, she said the planning agency is working now to update the model to be current as of Spring 2018. While the agency is not promising the tool will be able to show development in “real time,” they are developing a process to update the model every six months or so, according to Bennett.

Meanwhile, it’s not too soon for neighborhood groups to study existing buildings and agency-owned land parcels, and for wedding photographers and picnic planners to start poring over exactly what time to expect shadows over the Boston Public Library courtyard or the Rose Kennedy Greenway on that early summer weekend.


Eau Claire Has Plan to Fight Climate Change, Unlike Governor

A new community solar garden in Eau Claire — the largest in the state, with more than 3,000 solar panels — on a former landfill site in the city. (Credit: City of Eau Claire)

While Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is busy deleting the role of humankind in causing climate change, Eau Claire, the 68,000-strong former factory town in northwestern Wisconsin, has adopted an ambitious sustainability plan to achieve carbon neutrality and 100 percent renewable energy.

By a unanimous vote at the end of March, Eau Claire City Council passed a resolution formalizing those two primary goals, setting a timeline to achieve a net-zero carbon footprint by 2050 at both municipal and citywide levels; and to achieve 100 percent renewable energy for both the municipal government and citywide by 2050.

Ironically, Walker may have helped spark the plan into existence. Eau Claire formed a temporary committee in 2013 to explore curbing or banning plastic bag use in the city. After a long period of convening with multiple stakeholders and nearly creating a plan to do so, the city gave up on the effort when the state specifically banned such efforts.

Out of the ashes of the plastic bag initiative sprang a new Sustainability Advisory Committee, formalized by city ordinance in 2014 as a nine-member volunteer citizen group with a mission to advise the council broadly on sustainability policies and practices. In light of the Trump administration’s decision last year to pull out of the Paris Agreement, Eau Claire City Council directed the committee last year to come up with a laundry list of recommended ways the city could align itself with the global climate change mitigation agreement. The council approved those recommendations unanimously last month.

Of Wisconsin cities, Madison is the only other one to commit to 100 percent renewable energy; Eau Claire is the first to commit additionally to carbon neutrality.

“In Wisconsin, and for a smaller city, we are pioneering,” says Associate City Planner Ned Noel, the primary city staff person working with the Sustainability Advisory Committee and author of the recommendations report. “Everyone knows Madison is progressive, but this is opening the door for other communities that are smaller and have less staff.”

Noel lists a number of factors that helped bring about his city’s climate action readiness: being a university town; a level of resident support, confirmed by a survey created with the help of a student intern; an “openness and willingness to be educated” on the part of local officials, businesses and residents; having an energy utility, Minnesota-based Xcel Energy, that’s already expanding its use of renewable sources; and having some local emissions data prepared in advance from a previous goal the city had set in 2008 to achieve 25 percent renewable energy use by 2025.

The March city council resolution also directs the city to formulate a climate action plan this year in concert with multiple area stakeholders, from residents and businesses to institutions, utility companies and transportation providers—and that’s where a picture will start to emerge of what, exactly, the city and community will do together to dramatically cut fossil fuel use and carbon emissions.

“These are big goals. It’s going to be a process,” Noel says.

Other projects in the Sustainability Advisory Committee’s 2018 work plan include updating emissions data; supporting electric vehicles; strengthening partnerships with utility companies to increase customer participation in renewable energy programs; exploring incentives to attract clean energy companies; continuing to promote Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing, a program that reduces upfront costs to homeowners shifting to clean energy; and joining the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy.

The 10,000-student University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire is an important presence, with faculty lending science and policy expertise and students becoming active in the Student Office of Sustainability. The school had calculated its own carbon footprint, which helped Noel in creating the city’s own baseline figures. A student intern from the university created a survey that revealed solid resident support for city sustainability efforts, and even for paying more on their energy bills—with nearly half indicating they’d be willing to pay an extra $10 per month, and 26 percent of surveyed residents open to paying an extra $25 per month.

“That helped officials see their constituents across the city do care about these issues,” Noel says.

As one of the Sustainability Advisory Committee’s successes, Noel cites its productive collaboration with Xcel Energy, the city’s main electricity provider, to plan and implement a 1-megawatt community solar garden in the city — the largest in the state, with more than 3,000 solar panels — on a former landfill site in the city. Dubbed the “Sky Park Community Solar Garden,” it opened last October, offering subscribers a credit on their utility bills for the solar power without having to install or maintain their own solar panels. Subscribers so far include the city government, schools, and some homeowners, according to Noel.

Eau Claire’s sustainability efforts are attracting attention on several fronts.

A Gold award last year from SolSmart, a U.S. Department of Energy-funded program that awards communities laying the groundwork for attracting solar industry, recognized the city’s efforts on community engagement, utility engagement, zoning, planning and development.

The new sustainability resolution landed the city a spot in the Sierra Club’s “Ready for 100,” a program that honors and support cities committed to 100 percent renewable energy.

And later this month, Eau Claire will be the site of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters’ annual Local Government Summit, where local leaders working on clean energy, climate mitigation and resilience will share ideas and resources.

Perhaps most important for the future of Eau Claire and following through on the city’s sustainability goals: attracting attention from millennials, whose influx into Eau Claire has helped boost population three percent since 2010.

Jeremy Gragert, a Minnesota native and environmental advocate who came to Eau Claire in 2000 to attend the university, played a role in building grassroots support for the city’s sustainability efforts and creating the Sustainability Advisory Committee. Now, he is a brand-new city council member. (Though he was not part of last month’s vote, having just won election and taking his seat on April 3.)

Gragert credits the successful passage of the sustainability plan in large part to Noel’s leadership along with a groundswell of popular support. “Noel brings people together to make things happen,” he says.

“The state has been taking local control away on almost every possible front. [But] there really is a shift, a bipartisan shift that local action is appropriate on energy issues,” says Gragert. “Wisconsin sends a lot of money out of state to buy coal and oil and gasoline. We’re wasting money, and it’s not very clean. We’re in a situation where a lot of people are thinking, ‘Yeah, we can do this.’”


Down Payment Assistance Program Meets People Where They Are

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

When it comes to housing, Boston often finds itself unhappily among the top ranks on issues from astronomical rents to astounding racial disparities in wealth, which often is closely tied to home ownership.

Housing affordability issues extend beyond Boston proper as well, threatening the state’s ability to attract and keep workers. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker recently cited high home prices as one of the most serious impediments to the state’s long-term economic growth.

Still, there’s no shortage of people yearning to enter the market. And for some, mortgage payments would be manageable — and might even be lower than their current rent. But when facing high rents along with child care and car expenses and student loan debt, saving for a down payment can become a never-ending treadmill.

Now, a new down payment assistance program from MassHousing aims to administer some relief, allowing qualified low-to-middle-income buyers to purchase homes with no down payment at all. Instead of requiring its usual three percent down, the agency will now offer to cover that three percent with a second loan (up to $12,000), repayable at one percent interest over 15 years.

The idea of zero-down-payment mortgages may spark bad memories of the foreclosure crisis of 2008-2009, but MassHousing Executive Director Chrystal Kornegay says her agency’s underwriting safeguards, homebuyer education and fixed-interest loans make this assistance a far cry from the predatory practices that lured so many buyers into agreements they couldn’t possibly sustain.

“This program intends to reach folks who are credit-worthy, but don’t have the savings to get into the marketplace,” says Kornegay, the first woman and the first person of color to lead the agency. “I’m very happy that people remember those [foreclosure] issues, but we’re about not just affordable mortgages, [we’re about] mortgages sustainable over the long haul. We want to ensure that home ownership remains accessible to working families.”

MassHousing was formed in 1966 as a nonprofit, quasi-public agency that finances construction and preservation of affordable housing and provides affordable mortgages for low- and moderate-income homebuyers. It builds capital through its loan portfolio, reinvesting the ‘profits’ into programs to make homeownership accessible to more residents. The agency is not tax-funded. The new down payment assistance program, Kornegay says, will be sustained by MassHousing’s existing portfolio.

With no down payment, new homeowners will have to wait longer to build equity. But on the long road to building wealth, buyers can still savor the satisfaction of ownership and the stability of fixed housing payments.

Tom Callahan of Mass Affordable Housing Alliance says his organization typically supports low down payments as opposed to zero, but sees promise in this program at this time.

“[A down payment] helps people demonstrate that they can handle financial hardship, like a blip in their incomes or a tenant moving out,” Callahan says. “But that being said, what’s happened to housing prices in Boston, and how high rents have become, it’s really difficult for people to save right now. We think this program will help some people enter the market.”

The down payment assistance will be available to first-time homebuyers with household incomes at or below the area median purchasing a single-family home or condo. Buyers will need to meet the agency’s normal underwriting requirements, including minimum credit scores and debt-to-income ratios.

With the upper limit for the new down payment assistance loans at $12,000, the practical upper limit of home prices for the program will be about $400,000. Meanwhile, area median income varies widely across Massachusetts, as do housing prices. In the Boston area, the area median income (and thus the upper income limit to qualify for this program) is $103,400, yet Boston home prices — with the median at $569,000, according to Zillow — meaning few options within reach for those in the program who want to buy in Boston. In other communities, where there’s more overlap of moderate incomes and lower-priced housing stock, the math may work out better: for instance, in Worcester County, area median income is $85,700, while Worcester’s median home price is $227,000.

Jacqueline Cooper, founder and principal of Financial Education Services, says that in Boston, supply of affordable homes is a continual problem. In a recent homebuyer education class, instructors searched for Boston properties under $400,000. Of the 28 that popped up, she says, “Eleven were parking spaces or developable land. Another 15 were big enough for one or two people, but not a family.”

At City Life/Vida Urbana, a 44-year old tenants rights and anti-displacement organization in Boston, Organizing Coordinator Steve Meacham is cautiously optimistic.

“I think it’s basically a good program that will allow some people to buy who wouldn’t otherwise be able to,” says Meacham via email. “[But] most of our people can’t afford the monthly payments for a $400,000 property.”

Meacham suggests an even larger subsidy, as well as some sort of limited equity arrangement, such as a cooperative or a community land trust, which would limit the wealth-building aspect of homeownership in exchange for preserving affordability for subsequent owners of the same home.

A number of Massachusetts municipalities have their own down payment assistance programs, but not all do, says Ginny Gilmartin, manager of home ownership services at Boston’s Urban Edge, which develops affordable rental and home ownership units in Boston’s working class communities of color. She sees potential for MassHousing’s zero down payment loans to fill the gap for buyers in towns and cities with moderate-priced housing stock, but no down payment assistance.

“A lot of Boston buyers look to Randolph,” Gilmartin says, “but there’s no down payment assistance available there. So [this new program] will be great for that.” Randolph, about 15 miles south of Boston, has a more attainable median home price of $338,000, while sharing Boston’s area median income of $103,400, and it’s also on a commuter rail line into Boston.

Gilmartin also notes that taking the low-interest loan to cover the down payment could help people preserve other important financial cushions.

“We see people taking from their retirement savings for a deposit, and that’s not something we like to see,” she says. “Though it’s available, if they can leave the money there and secure their future, that’s obviously better.”

Rachel Heller, CEO of Citizens Housing and Planning Association, expresses confidence that for buyers who make it through the qualification process, the zero-down-payment program will be valuable.

“This is a pretty great product,” she says. “It increases purchasing power for people struggling with high rents. A tremendous number of people are seeking this help.”

Citizens Housing and Planning Association works with 48 housing counseling agencies that have provided education to 20,000 prospective homebuyers in the past year, Heller said, demonstrating a widespread hunger for home ownership.

“Many of these 20,000 households will be the first generation of their families to own homes. That’s tremendous for wealth-building,” she says. “Home ownership is not for everybody, but for those who can do it, it means a tremendous amount for their futures and the futures of their families.”


Boston Vocational High School Program Opens Multiple Doors at Once

Madison Park Vocational Technical School. (Photo by Tim Pierce on Wikimedia Commons)

Janice Williams is a senior at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Boston. Williams has chosen to study facilities management. On a recent afternoon, about to head into the school’s facilities management shop, she ticked off some of the skills students can learn within that broad category: plumbing, carpentry, painting, drywalling, flooring and green building technology.

Williams has taken a liking to painting, and wants to get in on Boston’s building boom, doing interior work in some of the many apartment buildings she sees going up around town, or perhaps for the new casino under construction in nearby Everett. She also envisions earning a master’s degree in the future, probably in business.

Now, her path forward has come into sharper focus. Williams, 18, will be one of the first students to take advantage of a new program offering a three-year apprenticeship in the painting or glass trades, paying about $18 per hour, while also providing college credit toward an associate’s degree.

The apprenticeship program, affiliated with IUPAT DC35, the local chapter of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, gained accreditation as a degree-granting college in December 2017. While not the first or the only union apprenticeship program to gain such accreditation, this particular program makes another key connection to Madison Park, the only vocational school in the Boston Public Schools district.

The student body at Madison Park High School is more than 90 percent black and Latino, and a majority of students are economically disadvantaged, according to school district data. Programs that combine training in employable skills and living-wage work along with a door to further academic education could be key to helping students break through racial and economic opportunity barriers.

“What this partnership does is put these students on a pathway to the middle class,” said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who was a longtime labor leader before becoming mayor in 2014, at the program’s launch event last month.

Starting this year, Madison Park students can begin earning credits toward an apprenticeship while still in high school and then — once they have turned 18, received a diploma or GED, and have a driver’s license — complete the formal apprenticeship program. Madison Park students who start the program as sophomores can amass experience equivalent to the first year of the training and enter their apprenticeship already a year ahead. (Others who did not attend Madison Park but join the apprenticeship program may also earn college credit while earning income from the apprenticeship.)

Having an associates degree, with credits transferable to a four-year college, could make it far easier to pursue a higher degree later to move up in a trade industry, or shift to a new career.

Janice Williams inside the Park facilities management shop at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Boston. (Credit: Sandra Larson)

Williams plans to start her first apprenticeship a year after graduating this spring. While the associates degree piece is not mandatory, Williams says she “definitely” will choose it.

“It’s a free education,” Williams says. “It will keep me out of debt.” She says she was surprised by the apprenticeship’s high starting pay rate, and by the prospect of a raise to $43 per hour upon completion.

Skyrocketing college costs and student loan debt and default rates have become a well-known issue in recent years, and students from low-income families and “first-generation” students who are the first in their families to attend college face a number of financial and other barriers to successful completion. Raj Chetty’s mobility report cards have shown that some for-profit colleges with alluring promises of career training leave students both saddled with debt and no further up the career ladder. What’s more, racial wealth gaps and other factors mean a disproportionate share of college debt burden lands on students of color.

Dubbed “Partnership Works,” the collaboration was forged by IUPAT DC35, the Painters and Glaziers Employers Association of New England, and Madison Park. The union and employers association kickstarted Partnership Works with a $125,000 donation to the school. Some of the funds will go toward upgrading the school’s training facilities, enabling students to earn apprentice-level credits while still in high school, and some will be used to fill other needs, said John Doherty, IUPAT International’s communications director.

“We also looked at barriers [students face],” Doherty says. “Things like a driver’s license — it’s needed for construction fields, but many city kids don’t have it.” The program may also help provide drivers education, he said.

Kevin McCaskill, Madison Park’s executive director, says 60 students are currently pursuing facilities management, and he hopes “as many as possible” see fit to join the new apprenticeship-plus-college credits program. IUPAT members have been involved with the school for years, serving as guest lecturers and mentors and involving students in hands-on work projects around the city, he said, but this new partnership is “taking it to another level, deepening the relationship.”

Williams summed it up this way: “It makes it a lot easier for us. We had a door open, but with this program, multiple doors are open.”


Montreal’s Iconic Subway Cars Becoming Creative Spaces

A rendering of F-MR Station, the pilot project opening this summer in Montreal, made of four repurposed Montreal metro cars. (MR-63)

Old subway cars (need) never die. They could be your city’s next art gallery, cafe, public garden feature or meeting space.

While some retired cars are unceremoniously junked, others end up with a second useful life in a technical high school’s hands-on training lab, say, or in a facility for disaster and rescue scenarios. As symbols of community pride, sweet nostalgia or collective mourning, a few cars end up in museums made possible by passionate devotees of subway lore — though restoration of long-dormant vintage cars can be an expensive labor of love. In the 2000s, New York City’s MTA submerged thousands of subway cars in the Atlantic Ocean to serve as artificial reefs for sea life; steel scraps from Boston’s dismantled elevated Orange Line, as chronicled by a local filmmaker, journeyed to Japan before ending up in Arizona as part of the Roosevelt Dam Bridge.

In 2016, the Société de transport de Montréal (STM), facing the aging-out of the original MR-63 cars on its 50-year-old subway system, put out a call for proposals for creative reuses. From 30 submitted ideas, a round of seven finalists was announced in fall 2016, and some of the projects have now been completed or launched.

One of the largest projects, Project MR-63, launched earlier this month. In a pilot phase called F-MR Station, four subway cars will be transformed this summer to hold a snack bar, a temporary art gallery, a recording studio and a design showcase, near the Lachine Canal National Historic Site in southwest Montreal. In its later phase, expected to open in 2020, eight cars will form a multi-level permanent space to showcase local artists and food vendors and host community events.

MR-63 is the brainchild of a pair of entrepreneur brothers, Frederic and Etienne Morin-Bordeleau. They understood that the subway has been a source of pride and fond memories to many Montreal dwellers.

“We wanted to reuse those iconic metro train cars. We didn’t want to lose them, but get them out of the ground and put them on a pedestal. That was really the beginning of the project,” says Etienne Morin-Bordeleau in a video about the project’s genesis. “Then we thought, why only get one? We could get several of them … [and] integrate what we are passionate about: gastronomy, art, culture and all that represents Montreal.”

Their project is helped along by a team of some 40 volunteers and pro bono assistance such as over $100,000 of architectural work, according to the video. Some logistical and financial steps still remain, including land use approvals, according to the STM.

Not all the projects are as large. The first project to be realized was “Grand-Métis Station,” a single-car installation designed by ABCP architecture for the Jardins de Métis/Reford Gardens, a historic site and garden 350 miles northeast of Montreal. There, the iconic blue-and-white car appears to have dropped into the garden from nowhere. The improbable artifact provides locals, tourists and Montrealers who summer in the area a chance to relive the old Metro or experience it for the first time, says Jardins de Métis Director Alexander Reford.

“A train car in a garden is unusual in itself,” says Reford, “but it’s also an interactive space. It still has the driving unit inside, so it’s great for kids who want to play driver and play with the switches.” The car contains its original seats and poles and a new sound feature designed to replicate the old metro cars’ distinctive sound, which, Reford adds, “all Montrealers would recognize.”

A grant from a local arts council helped pay for the project, including purchasing the car from STM for roughly $1000 CAD, transporting it up the highway and lowering it with a crane onto a platform at its new home.

In its second life, the garden subway car has gained a more convivial atmosphere. “If you travel the metro in North America, people usually don’t talk to each other on the metro, they sort of sit glumly,” Reford observes. “This place is happy and chatty—people are spontaneously interacting. So it’s interesting how the same spatial unit can be transformed in a different environment.”

Another of the reuse projects will place a car entirely inside a building. At Polytechnique Montreal, the engineering college of University of Montreal, students plan to repurpose a subway car into an interior meeting and conference space associated with the school’s fab lab, its makerspace for students, university staff and the general public.

“Our young engineers of today will see how technology was done at that time, in the 1960s,” says Jean Choquette, director of strategic planning and government relations. “The lighting and ventilation will be upgraded, but we want to keep the original integrity of the car as much as possible.” Between now and the installation in 2019, a slew of engineering and design tasks will need to be done to ready the space for the 26-ton, 60-foot-long car, not to mention continued fundraising to support the estimated $500,000 installation.

Only a few cars were offered in the call for proposals. Most of the 336 retired cars have been recycled in an environmentally conscious fashion, says the STM. Providing cars to community groups does not save the agency money; in fact, it costs more than recycling because of the need to first remove hazardous materials, which for recycled cars is done by the recycling firm. But the innovative program brings intangible benefits in creative energy and municipal pride.

“The MR-63 métro cars have been part of Montréal’s heritage for more than 50 years,” an STM spokesperson said in an email. “While the majority of metro cars will be recycled, the public was offered a chance to give them a second life. …We encouraged entrepreneurs and visionaries to design a project that provided citizens with a new experience to share in, while contributing to the longevity of an exceptional heritage.”


Job Training Synced With Childcare Gets Boston Mothers Into New Careers

 Laurence Kouame completed the GATE program and is now working toward becoming a dentist. (Courtesy ABCD)

Manisha Rowell, 25, spent two years out of the workforce after the birth of her son, who had urgent medical needs that kept her by his side day and night. When he turned 2, doctors gave him a clean bill of health and Rowell started a job search. But for the single parent with only a high school diploma, living in a shelter at the time, prospects seemed slim.

Then she heard about Generations Advancing Together through Education, a pilot project started by a Boston nonprofit that pairs job training with childcare.

Lack of adequate childcare is one of the top barriers preventing women with children from completing job training programs, a 2016 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found. Added support services such as child care increase the rate of training completion, the IWPR report indicates, but they often are unavailable because of insufficient funding or difficulty coordinating across separate agencies and systems.

GATE, which is led by Action for Boston Community Development and funded by a three-year, $3.5-million grant from the U.S. Dept. of Labor’s 2016 Strengthening Working Families Initiative, aims to solve that problem by coordinating childcare with training programs.

It’s been miserable over the years, trying to help folks who want to go to work and can’t because they can’t access childcare,” said Sharon Scott-Chandler, executive vice president and COO of ABCD. “Their training programs and childcare needs never match.”

GATE aims to end that disparity. ABCD lends its expertise in childcare referrals while partnering with three workforce development organizations to provide job training: YMCA Training Inc., the Asian American Civic Association and Jewish Vocational Services. Training options include computerized office skills, banking and finance, and certified nursing assistant and pharmacy technician training. Each of the training programs already has links to employers who can offer hands-on externships and post-training employment.

GATE is managed by a four-person team within ABCD. The team assesses participants’ interests and matches them with both an appropriate training program and childcare arrangements that fit the needs of all children in the family up to age 13.

A number of factors make the childcare piece complex, said GATE Project Manager Tiffany Ramos. The training programs start on different dates and run for different durations. Some of the families GATE serves are living in shelters or other unstable housing situations. A family’s children could range from infants to middle schoolers.

“It gets complicated,” Ramos says. “People are in various stages, and their child care needs change.”

One success factor is that the GATE team contracts directly with providers and pays them at their market rate instead of the state discounted rate, Ramos said, which provides an added incentive for childcare centers to participate in the program.

For parent participants, childcare is free during training and for 90 days afterward. After that, GATE coordinators work to help graduates transition to paid or voucher-supported childcare.

At a recent event celebrating GATE’s first year, parent participants, training program managers and employers talked about the program’s results. So far, 45 parents have completed training through GATE. Of those, 36 of are already employed, and the others are taking steps in that direction.

“The whole thing is just so seamless,” said Hayley Yaffe, director of family support and subsidized services at Greater Boston YMCA, who spoke on behalf of GATE’s multiple childcare providers. “There’s a really quick turnaround to get children into care. If the children aren’t being cared for, the families can’t attend the training they need. So having that intermediary [GATE child care coordinator] has been integral.”

As for Rowell, she entered the pharmacy technician training, and it turned out to be a good fit.

“I liked it,” Rowell said. “It was tough, but I liked that they had hands-on training with the externship at the stores. We started one week, and the next week we were in the stores two days a week.”

Now, she is employed at the CVS pharmacy where she did her hands-on training. She started at $14 per hour, a big step up from the $10.50 wage at her last job at a mall boutique. Her pay will rise when she gains certification, she said.

The childcare GATE provided allowed Rowell to attend classes from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. In her new job, she works “mother’s hours,” she says, and her son was able to continue in the same daycare center that he had grown to love.

“He’s doing great right now,” she said. “And I feel good, because I can work now.”

GATE may have caught the interest of the city of Boston’s new cross-sector Economic Mobility Lab. The Lab, charged with exploring innovative approaches to improving economic mobility, has reached out recently to Ramos, though they have yet to meet.

Interest and support from the city could potentially help sustain GATE when the federal grant runs out in July 2020.

“We want to keep this conversation going and figure out how we can sustain this,” Ramos said. “We’re seeing a successful program, and would hate to see it just end in 2020.”


In Two Years, Boston Goes From 5,000 Questions to 15-Year Plan

Go Boston 2030 was released by the city at a public event Tuesday. (Photo by Sandra Larson)

The city of Boston this week released its vision for a transportation future in which neighborhoods are interconnected by multiple modes of travel, streets are substantially safer and Bostonians’ commute times are shorter.

Two years in the making, including a multiphased community engagement process, the Go Boston 2030 Vision and Action Plan presents 58 policy and project action items, each accompanied by a map and details about the issues it addresses, its implementation and best practice examples from other cities.

Beginning in the snow-pummeled winter of 2015, Go Boston 2030’s early outreach captured 5,000 questions (which, for inquiring minds, are all listed here) via an online portal and a Question Truck that traveled to neighborhoods offering pens, sticky notes and hot drinks. Then, a two-day public Visioning Lab led to a draft that laid out guiding principles — equity, economic development and climate responsiveness — and primary targets like ensuring non-car transit options within a 10-minute walk of every Boston household by 2030. In the final phase, a series of idea roundtables and “ideas on the street” pop-ups drew nearly 4,000 project and policy ideas from residents across the city.

The new plan includes technology-rich, safety-focused and eco-friendly ideas, among them smart signal corridors, pedestrian-first traffic signals, neighborhood complete streets efforts and a “green links” network of bicycle and pedestrian paths. Some projects aim to lift communities economically, such as a new rapid bus route to provide commute-burdened Mattapan residents better access to the city’s job-rich medical area.

Go Boston 2030 is a 15-year plan, but the process has already sparked some early actions. A pilot program is testing variably priced parking in high-demand areas of Seaport and Back Bay, for instance, and the city’s default speed limit was reduced from 30 mph to 25 mph recently as part of the Vision Zero campaign Mayor Marty Walsh launched in 2015.

Policy directives include a requirement that all city transportation contracts take climate impact into account. Last year’s Climate Ready Boston report painted a sobering picture of the flooding and heat wave threats the coastal city faces.

Rob DeLeo, a professor of public policy at Bentley University whose research focuses on preparedness policymaking, has cautious enthusiasm for the new plan. The climate piece is essential and the extensive citizen engagement striking, he says, but pushing the long-term plans forward won’t be easy.

“We’re asking politicians to invest in things that may not be visible for 10, 20, even 50 years. This is difficult,” DeLeo says. “[But] the Go Boston visioning process is a great way to overcome barriers to incentivizing policymakers to engage in long-term planning. It creates a feedback loop where citizens are asking policymakers to make long-term policies. Unless voters ask, it’s not going to happen.”

(Photo by Sandra Larson)

The vision was unveiled with mild fanfare Tuesday at the Boston Public Library’s main branch in Copley Square, with an official announcement by Walsh and an interactive exhibit illustrating the action plan items. Outside the library, Go Boston representatives educated visitors on the features of a “mobility microhub,” a key location with access to bus, subway, bicycle sharing, secure bicycle parking and car-sharing as well as nearby community resources and businesses. Copley is an exemplary mobility hub already; creating more of these in neighborhoods outside the city’s center is part of the Go Boston 2030 plan.

Transportation leaders from Boston, D.C., Seattle and Pittsburgh participated in a panel discussion, parts of which were live tweeted and captured on video by local transportation advocacy groups LivableStreets and TransitMatters.

Obvious questions loom: Can the city pay for these projects? Can the excitement of the vision be sustained through mayoral election cycles and the nitty-gritty implementation tasks?

“Seeing all these transportation needs acknowledged and folded into a singular vision is great,” says TransitMatters co-founder and president Marc Ebuña. “[But] we wish the city were more willing to broach the subject of paying for it. We would be behind the city all the way if they stuck their neck out.”

City officials point to several funding strategies, touting the city’s five-year $700 million capital plan that includes investment in Vision Zero, infrastructure maintenance and repairs, multimodal street plans, and smart signaling and microhubs for speedier travel. Additionally, the city will seek greater contributions from developers and work with neighboring towns on cost-effective regional networks. In enlisting state support for Fairmount Line improvements and other transit projects, Walsh, a former state legislator, will make the case that robust transportation is critical to the region’s economic vitality and the state’s tax base.

While public participation in the visioning may indicate a level of buy-in from city residents, voters can be fickle when it comes to allocating dollars and tearing up their streets unless the benefits remain crystal clear.

“The best way to keep engagement going is for us to deliver,” Boston Chief of Streets Chris Osgood said during the panel discussion. “That is the work in front of us.”


Outside Boston, Park Offers Multisensory Experience for All

Watertown Riverfront Park and Braille Trail

The new Watertown Riverfront Park and Braille Trail in Massachusetts exemplifies not only innovative accessible design, but the potential of effective private-public collaboration to nurture an idea to fruition.

Nearly 10 years in the making, the park, 8 miles from downtown Boston, offers a peaceful wooded area for people of all abilities and ages to stroll (or roll) along a wide and level path, get close to the Charles River on wood platforms, and relax or play in the “sensory garden” filled with creations by local artist and craftsman Mitch Ryerson.

For blind or visually impaired visitors from the nearby Perkins School for the Blind and beyond, the quarter-mile Braille Trail provides a guide wire with shape-coded wooden beads alerting users to features and information kiosks. Plaques in Braille and English explain area history and wildlife. A signaled street crossing and new sidewalks create a safe and welcoming gateway to the park.

For years, this narrow stretch of state-owned riverfront was neglected and hazardous, with eroded banks and a deteriorating asphalt path. Thick invasive vegetation rendered the path and the river barely visible from Charles River Road. There was no obvious access from the street.

“People were just going down on their own with machetes and hacking away vegetation to go fishing,” recalls Chris Hayward, Watertown’s conservation agent, historic preservation agent and tree warden. “The asphalt paths were beat up, the benches had been vandalized, and there was no money to replace them.”

Enter the Solomon Foundation, a family foundation with a mission to support the preservation and improvement of Greater Boston’s public parks and greenways.

The foundation kickstarted the riverfront project back in 2007 by funding the entire planning and design process and tapping local firm Sasaki Associates to provide pro bono early stage design work.

Herb Nolan, Solomon’s deputy director, says that a willingness to test bold ideas is where private foundations can play a key role in catalyzing public projects.

“We can afford to try something and find out it doesn’t work. It’s harder for people in government to do that and have people feel they’re wasting taxpayer dollars,” Nolan says. “It’s key to come up with rudimentary cost estimates, reach out to the public and abutters and interest groups, find out if there’s opposition. We can poke the bee’s nest and get stung.”

When design, cost estimates and community awareness are already in place, it becomes easier for policymakers to act.

In this case, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation was interested, but funds were scarce. The onset of the Great Recession didn’t help, and the project was “left for dead two times over,” Nolan says, before a federal Land and Water Conservation Fund grant came through to seal the deal, eight years after the idea was first conceived.

In the end, besides federal and state funds, money for the $1.5 million project came from the town of Watertown, the Perkins School and the Watertown Commission on Disabilities.

The Solomon Foundation also supported a part-time director for the Friends of the Watertown Riverfront group, which advocated for the park through the years. And late in the project, the foundation pulled Ryerson into the mix to provide what Nolan calls “the ‘x factor’—the bit of magic every project should have.”

At the Braille Trail’s sensory garden on a recent fall day, Travis Mazerall, a landscape architect at Sasaki, pointed out details that make for an accessible and multisensory experience.

“We tried to choose fragrant plants,” he noted. “Magnolia smells really sweet in the spring. Spicebush, when you crush the leaves, has a fragrant smell.” In addition, Ryerson’s sleekly crafted wooden boats are smooth to the touch and fun to climb on; a bench doubles as a marimba; a table-size chunk of stone has rough sides but a smooth-as-glass depression that catches rainwater.

Besides magic, into all projects a little resistance must come. Some residents objected to a stoplight that might slow parkway traffic flow. The final plan was a small compromise: The signal was installed, but remains flashing yellow for cars until pedestrians press the button to cross.

Kim Charlson, director of the Perkins School library and president of the American Council of the Blind, was an adviser on the park project. A blind person herself, Charlson took inspiration from the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s accessible trails projects and from a blind-accessible trail in Cape Town, South Africa, that she had experienced. One of her recommendations was the Braille Trail kiosks’ “roof top” shape, with the English on the front and the Braille down the back side.

“People ask, ‘Why put the Braille on the back?’” Charlson says, “but think of your hand going up the slope and down over the other side; it’s an easier way for your hand to read it without bending back at the wrist, which is uncomfortable. So that design is very ergonomic.”

As another layer of partnership, Perkins School has an agreement with the DCR to handle park upkeep and maintenance, marshaling volunteers to clean up the trail.

The new park has been a thrill for Perkins students, who range in age from 4 to 22. As much as park designers had to consider the needs of elderly and frail walkers and people using wheelchairs, for some, the park means rare freedom to speed up.

“The kids like to hold onto the guide wire and run,” Charlson says. “Blind kids don’t get many opportunities to run.”


Silo-Busting Data Analytics Help Mass. Cities Tackle Vacant Properties

(Photo by Nick Allen)

Cities large and small grapple with neglected properties that can give rise to public safety and health risks, push property values down and drain city tax coffers. Whether stemming from Rust Belt deindustrialization or the more recent foreclosure crisis, the problem is entrenched and widespread enough to spur advice from HUD and even creative responses like vacant home tours and art installations that highlight the human stories behind deteriorated facades. The annual Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference, held last month in Baltimore, draws some 1,000 attendees from diverse disciplines and communities to seek and share solutions.

No city wants blight to proliferate, yet municipal governments struggle to identify and resolve vacant properties, much less prevent them. Even when a city does have a problem property list, there may be no easy way to prioritize the most urgent cases. And when separate city departments operate in silos, holding data in unshared spreadsheets (or paper records!), the early indicators that portend vacancy and blight can remain under the radar.

The Innovation Field Lab at Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation wants to fix this.

Led by Jorrit de Jong, a lecturer in public policy and expert on public sector innovation, and Somerville, Massachusetts, Mayor Michael Curtatone, the Field Lab’s graduate student teams are working with five Massachusetts cities to implement new systems that foster data-sharing and collaboration and help prioritize each city’s greatest areas of risk.

“We’re helping the left hand understand what the right is doing,” says de Jong. His team’s data analytics tool, dubbed CityNexus, creates a shared platform by which department data sets can be cross-referenced and visualized to score and map problem properties.

Curtatone, who is also an Innovations in American Government Fellow at the Ash Center, is no stranger to using data analytics to improve services and collaboration in his own city. With the Field Lab, he relishes the chance to introduce technology solutions to other municipalities.

“Enabling collaboration and creativity forges a team approach,” he says. “We put data and analytics in everyone’s hands and that empowers everyone to ask why, and to question assumptions.”

Liz Murphy, director of housing and development for the city of Fitchburg, says her city of 40,000 residents has been struggling with problem properties for many years, particularly since the recession and foreclosure crisis.

Before partnering with Field Lab in 2015, Fitchburg department heads had formed a problem property task force. A city ordinance defined problem properties as those experiencing in a single year four or more instances of certain types of code violations and police or fire calls.

But even with these efforts, data remained decentralized.

“We were not very well organized,” Murphy says. “Our information was not aggregated. Police data was with the police department, fire calls with the fire department, code information in the health and building departments.” When data was shared, it was in “manual ways” such as emails.

“When the task force met,” she adds, “we would go through a list, but there was no prioritizing. It was complaint-driven. We reviewed them all. There was no systematization.”

Field Lab graduate students worked with Murphy to create a shared Google Docs system first, which then evolved into the more sophisticated CityNexus, introduced by a second cohort of students in summer 2016.

While the CityNexus concept was developed by de Jong and his students, the software tool was built by Sean Alaback, an Ash Center Summer Fellow and course coach. He says part of the tool’s strength is that it can clean up data set variations so they can be merged across departments. Properties can be tagged with keywords, and users can specify priorities such as sanitary violation tickets, 911 calls, tax assessment data, or unusually low or high water bills that may flag an unoccupied or overcrowded property. While not as robust as the ArcGIS mapping platform some city planners may use, CityNexus is easier for non-techies to adopt quickly.

“The long-term thinking is CityNexus collects this data, and you could export it to GIS if you wanted to analyze it more deeply,” Alaback says.

Alaback also says that while the pilot cities haven’t added others layers of data such as health and social services yet, the tool is built to be adaptable, so those options are possible.

De Jong envisions the tool helping not only to deal with visible blight, but to prevent buildings — and the households occupying them — from falling off the radar and through the system’s cracks.

“We’re not determining how a city should respond,” de Jong says. “It’s up to the city to say what they care about most.” For example, cities with a lot of families living in poverty might start tracking frequent moves, homelessness and unsafe or unhealthy living conditions, all of which could help schools and social service systems intervene earlier.

“[A property] is not just the bricks and mortar. People live there, or used to live there,” says de Jong. “Abandonment is a result of a process. Someone was laid off, couldn’t pay the mortgage anymore, or a bad landlord used the property for less than good purposes. It’s not just a physical risk — it’s a social risk to not intervene. Rather than reacting to a problem property, we think it’s more helpful to intervene early, to act before it becomes a problem.”

This article is one in a 10-part series about reclaiming vacant properties underwritten by the Center for Community Progress. Read more here.


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