By Matt Collette | News@Northeastern | March 8, 2013
In 2009, a massive earthquake struck L’Aquila, Italy, a town two hours north of Rome where generations of families have lived for thousands of years. The quake devastated the community so much that its citizens have not been able to return; anyone crossing into the city must wear protective gear and be accompanied by emergency personnel.
“It looks like a war zone of the worst kind,” said Matthias Ruth, a professor with dual appointments in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
Matthias Ruth is a professor of public policy and engineering. Photo by Brooks Canaday.
Ruth is part of a team of about 20 researchers from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that has studied the aftermath of the Italian earthquake in hopes of teaching other cities how to improve their resilience to major disasters. The research team released a report of their recommendations, “Building Resilient Regions after a National Disaster,” in Rome earlier this month.
“We need to prepare ourselves,” Ruth said. “That’s the intellectual question we have to face: When we rebuild, how do we do that considering the next disaster? Now that we are given the opportunity to rethink and rebuild, how do we do this in a smarter way?”
rePlanners, engineers, and government officials in L’Aquila have begun rebuilding the ravaged city, Ruth said. They are looking at how to balance its existing nature—a quintessentially Italian community of winding streets, sidewalk cafes, and close quarters—with the needs of a modern city to allow for both resilience against future disasters and an infrastructure that can support a new generation of entrepreneurs and innovation. Some structures will simply not be rebuilt; others may look the same but will be built using entirely new methods and materials.
Work is underway to rebuild L’Aquila, which was devastated by a 2009 earthquake. Photo by Matthias Ruth.
“The big question is, ‘How do we use technology to continue to give the feel of an old city with its own charm and recreate the social fabric and some kind of authenticity, while also incorporating modern materials, sensors, and information technology to make the city a safer place?’” Ruth said. These issues, he said, represent the key challenges facing urban resilience projects, and they align with the larger debate of designing sustainable cities that can evolve with both environmental and social changes.
Ruth said lessons learned in L’Aquila—gathered from more than 400 in-person interviews and intensive landscape surveys and assessments—can be applied to cities in places like New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, all of which were battered by superstorm Sandy. In a sign that Ruth’s report has had far-reaching effect, some officials have announced that destroyed waterfront structures will either not be rebuilt or, in cases like beachfront boardwalks, will be rebuilt out of concrete, not wood like the previous structures.
“This is not just about Italy,” Ruth said. “This is really a piece of the groundwork to be laid for cities all around the world.”
The century’s first decade has brought a historic surge of newcomers to the city, most settling downtown. They carry fresh expectations — and pose real challenges
By Casey Ross | The Boston Globe | March 3, 2013
Susan Mai’s Beacon Hill apartment is a postage stamp of a place. The kitchen isn’t much bigger than the bathroom, and entertaining friends is a bit like playing Frisbee in a phone booth.
But for all its drawbacks, Mai says she couldn’t be happier. She walks to work at a local publisher, eats out five times a week, and thinks of Boston Common as an ideal front yard.
“It hasn’t crossed my mind to ever want to leave the city,” said the 25-year-old Mai, who shares the 450-square-foot apartment with her boyfriend. “I’ve never thought of our place as too small. I really don’t need a big kitchen or a garden.”
Mai is among the thousands of young professionals whose devotion to urban living is causing Boston to grow at its fastest rate in decades. The influx has spawned a sweeping transformation of the city, with new residences and office buildings filling the skyline and reinventing commercial districts that once felt hopelessly time-worn.
Almost everywhere you look, it seems, is a new building site: A dozen towers are rising in the downtown area, and city-wide some 5,300 homes are currently under development. Boylston Street near Fenway Park is humming with construction during the day and crowds of diners at night. Downtown Crossing has lured fine restaurants and hundreds of luxury residences. And even once rough-hewn neighborhoods such as South Boston are increasingly drawing gourmet food stores, hip bars, and tony apartments.
The population surge has thoroughly reversed the suburban migration that began in the 1950s, when Boston peaked at about 800,000 people. Head counts in the South End and downtown have jumped by 20 percent since 2000.
In just one year alone — 2010 — Boston’s population grew by 7,500 people, and is now above 625,000, its highest level since the 1970s, according to city data.
Though largely driven by the generation between 20 and 34, the city is also swelling as empty-nesters trade suburban homes for urban pied-a-terres, and more young families opt for Boston over the traditional move to the suburbs in search of better schools. Regardless of background and interests, these people are drawn by the convenience and energy of busy urban neighborhoods.
“I like the feeling of being surrounded by people,” said Ece Gulsen, 27, who grew up on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast and now lives in the Charlestown Navy Yard to be near the water.
Companies are also moving into Boston to attract talented workers, developers are responding with even more housing, and restaurateurs, sensing a growing appetite for inventive food and entertainment, are opening eateries in places that defy conventional wisdom.
During the last two decades, Brad Fredericks, proprietor of Fajitas & ’Ritas, has watched the changes wash through the city’s downtown, where he recently opened a new eatery, the Back Deck grill on West Street. First, he said, Suffolk University and Emerson College expanded. Then the Boston Opera House was renovated, and the Paramount and Modern theatres reopened. Businesses then formed an association to help improve the area, and hundreds of apartments and condominiums are now under construction.
“I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been,” he said. “There have always been a lot of activity generators down here. But the crowds have become more consistent. You see more people strolling around.”
The Boston real estate market is one of the strongest in the country, according to the Urban Land Institute, in part because of its strong housing market and the medical and technology companies who want to be near its population of highly educated 20- to 34-year-olds.
Maureen McAvey, a ULI fellow who specializes in retail development, said young professionals have particular preferences for housing, shopping, and travel that dictate how a city grows. For one, they are more willing to live in small spaces. They don’t feel the need to own a car, and make more frequent shopping trips.
“From a consumer standpoint, we’ve seen a large increase in people buying food on a two- to three-day basis,” McAvey said. “This generation wants the access and convenience that the city provides. They are much less interested in having a big lawn.”
But it is not just young workers queuing up for the city. Dick Reynolds, 67, relocated with his wife to a two-bedroom condominium in the South End when their kids moved out of their old home in Needham.
“We’re delighted with it,” he said. “We’ve always loved the ambiance of the city. And we can go to a variety of things without getting into the car. We don’t have to worry about parking, cutting the grass, or shoveling snow.”
Though positive in many respects, the population growth creates many challenges for city officials and residents alike: crowded schools, roads, and transit lines, and harder-to-find housing at moderate prices.
“It’s virtually impossible for someone of my income level to own or rent in the city,” said Quinton Kerns, a 27-year-old urban designer who pays $600 a month to share a Harvard Square apartment with five roommates. And with $150,000 in student loan debt, Kerns doesn’t see himself moving up in the housing market anytime soon.
“It’s frustrating — I can’t just go to the community of my choosing,” he said. “I’m at the mercy of what’s affordable to me.”
Even though Boston added more units of housing in the last decade than in the three previous decades combined, the pace of new development is not keeping up with all the people who want to live here. The Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University predicts that unless annual housing production in the Boston area doubles — from 6,000 units to 12,000 units a year — already sky-high prices will soar.
“The circumstances call for a very different approach to housing,” Dukakis center director Barry Bluestone said. “There’s much more demand for multifamily rentals and condos. We need to get communities to rezone to allow for that kind of housing.”
Average rents in Boston are about $1,700 a month. But much of the new housing built in the past few years are luxury residences that command monthly rent of $4,000 and more. Both the city and state have launched initiatives to build more moderate-priced housing; the Compact Neighborhoods program by the Patrick administration aims to spur construction of 10,000 multifamily housing units a year in Massachusetts, largely to retain young workers being priced out of the market.
Mayor Thomas Menino’s administration has begun encouraging developers in the South Boston Innovation District to build micro-housing units — tiny apartments with rents that people just starting out can afford.
Yet here too that goal is proving elusive. At Factory 63, a newly renovated building with units as small as 375-square-feet, so many people applied for its first group of apartments that a lottery was required to parcel them out. The prices ended up at $1,700 to $2,400 a month, a few hundred dollars higher than officials had initially hoped.
“Just because the units are smaller doesn’t mean you can build them cheaply,” said Kelly Saito, president of Portland, Ore.-based developer Gerding Edlen, which built Factory 63 on Melcher Street and is also constructing a 21-story housing tower on A Street.
Boston already has among the highest construction and land acquisition costs in the country, he said, while a building full of studio-sized apartments means many more expensive kitchen and bathroom fixtures than normal.
“I think the effort to produce lower cost housing can be achieved at least partially,” Saito said. “But it really depends on where the expectations lie.”
Meanwhile Boston is grappling with another by-product of its popularity: crowded classrooms. Enrollment in city schools next year is expected to be at its highest in a decade, with another 1,200 children entering the school system, mostly at the lower grades. The additional students will require a $61 million increase to the city’s school budget, according to a recent report to the school committee.
Boston officials are in the midst of changing the classroom assignment process to make it more predictable and to provide easier access to quality neighborhood schools.
One of the fastest changing neighborhoods is the Fenway area, where the population increased 15 percent from 2000 to 2010. For decades its main boulevard — Boylston Street — was a scrubby, traffic-choked row of gas stations and repair shops. But in just a few short years, several modern, sleek apartment and retail buildings have gone up, and the strip now boasts a sushi place, Southern barbecue restaurant, and popular nightspots that spill crowds well into the night.
Dave DuBois, chief executive of the Franklin Restaurant Group, said the neighborhood’s rapid growth has quickly produced a creative food scene that is entirely distinct from Fenway Park and nearby Lansdowne Street.
“Five years ago, if I opened a restaurant in the Fenway, people would say, ‘Oh, you doing beer and nachos? Wings?,’ ” said DuBois, whose company opened Citizen Public House, a fine whiskey bar on Boylston Street that serves a pork pate melt. “The neighborhood has the energy of people in motion. Top restaurateurs are taking a serious look at it.”
In February developer Samuels & Associates proposed construction of another 22-story residential and retail building called The Point — a sharply-angled glass building that would replace a row of run-down retail buildings at Boylston and Brookline Avenue.
Mai, the Beacon Hill renter, said she would love to move into one of the new buildings rising across the city, but the prices remain stratospheric. She said she and her boyfriend are able to afford the $1,600 a month rent in their Beacon Hill unit. But her landlord has already increased the rent once, and may try do so again.
Mai is beginning to consider other options, but like many in her age group, communities outside the city are not among them.
“I think the farthest I would go is the South End,” said Mai. “I know a lot of people want to live in the suburbs because they crave the extra space, but it’s never been something I’ve wanted. I’m happy staying around the city.”
By Jack Encarnacao | The Patriot Ledger | March 2, 2013
Demolition of Quincy Center’s timeworn buildings is set to begin next month, the first step in the first piece of the long-awaited $1.6 billion downtown redevelopment project. When it starts, eyes far from Quincy will be watching.
The project, which will see the creation of 3.5 million square feet of business, retail and residential space in Quincy Center during the next seven years, has been picked up on the radar of experts in development and urban planning circles – experts who until recently did not know Quincy from Milwaukee.
In presentations across the country, the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute is citing the Quincy project as one to watch. Northeastern University is planning a course for the fall semester called “The Quincy Model,” in which the public-private partnership behind the project will be used as a teaching tool. The New York Times and trade journals have published articles about the project.
So far, the project has attracted nearly $200 million in investment from outside Massachusetts, and the venerable Boston firm The Beal Companies has signed on as a venture partner.
“It has the potential, really, to begin to redefine the conversation nationally,” Thomas Murphy, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, said about the project. “This sort of puts Quincy on the map. It catches the eye of other people. People like creative deals like this.”
If the sprawling development unfurls as envisioned, the model behind it could become a new paradigm for how cities and developers can work together and divvy up risk in a post-recession world to revitalize staid urban areas, experts say.
“It really will be one of the earliest major city projects to come out of the recession and into the recovery,” said Gregory Bialecki, Massachusetts’ secretary of housing and economic development.
The state is putting tens of millions of dollars in grants and financing into the development and related projects, like the ongoing relocation of Town Brook.
The project’s master agreement calls for master developer Beal/Street-Works to make $289 million of improvements to city assets like sidewalks, utilities and parking. Quincy will buy those improvements back, but only once Beal/Street-Works’ new buildings are producing more than enough tax revenue to cover the borrowing costs.
Such commitments are rare and not easy to wrangle, experts say, and they tell the marketplace that the project will not be slowed by politics or bureaucracy.
“It is very hard for public officials and the private sector to come to terms in a creative process,” said Alan Trager, chairman of the public-private partnerships study group at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “The fluidity required for creativity is sometimes not possible at all legal and regulatory levels of government.”
Bialecki, the state’s economic development chief, said the city’s $289 million bond commitment, made during an economic recession, makes the project jump off the page among a slew of half-baked urban redevelopment plans.
“There’s no question in my mind the reason it was able to start so quickly, and catch the wave of an economic recovery so quickly, was because of the public commitment in infrastructure made during the downturn,” he said.
The commitment is an acceptable risk, for the city, Mayor Thomas Koch said. The city’s bond counsel approved the plan because the revenue to cover the debt needs to be demonstrably flowing before the city is on the hook.
“It never touches the general fund; that was number one on our end,” Koch said. “We want to control our own destiny. We put together a plan that says, ‘Look, the city’s putting it on the line.’ ”
Street-Works, an urban development company, came to Quincy in 2005 to help client Stop & Shop assess whether it should keep its headquarters in Quincy Center. Soon afterward, it pitched a large redevelopment for downtown, and it made a statement with its $8 million purchase of the Granite Trust building, where its Quincy offices are now located.
The downtown project will also be tracked as a test case of how to build on the post-recession trend of Americans, priced out of the housing market due to tighter lending standards, seeking rental housing with services within walking distance.
A 2011 Urban Land Institute report, which cites the Quincy Center project, estimates that 6 million new renter households will be formed in the U.S. from 2008 to 2015. This, the institute reports, will require 300,000 new rental units to be built each year, compared with 100,000 in 2010.
Experts say the trend toward rentals is particularly pronounced among baby boomers and “millenials” – those from 18 to 32. The Quincy Center project targets that demographic with plans for loft apartments.
“You can see that they’ve got a vision here based on very good research, very good accounting, and a very good understanding of coming demographics,” said Barry Bluestone, director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University. “There are a few places, if this is carefully done, where this could, in fact, be quite feasible, financially feasible. It’s exciting to see it happening.”
By Angela Herring | Northeastern News | February 5, 2013
The majority of the world’s cities lie on a shoreline, and by 2020, two-thirds of all Americans are expected to reside in coastal cities. From San Francisco to Boston to Hong Kong, humans are living in ever-closer quarters with the marine species that set up shop here eons ago.
“We need to understand the interface between the human and natural environment and determine ways to solve problems for both,” said Brian Helmuth, a Northeastern professor of public policy and environmental science.
To address those issues, Helmuth and Geoff Trussell, chair of the Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences and director of the Marine Science Center, are organizing the Sustaining Coastal Cities Conference. The conference will be hosted by the College of Science this spring and is the first of its kind, focusing on key issues in urban coastal sustainability.
The event will bring together four of the country’s top research scientists to address the critical role and fragile state of marine ecosystems. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a world-renowned expert on coral reefs from the University of Queensland in Australia, will speak on predicting and preventing reef decline. Jeremy Jackson of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., will examine worldwide trends and bring with him more than four decades of expertise in science-based policy recommendations. Larry Crowder, a biology professor at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, and Steve Gaines, a rocky shore ecologist and dean of the University of California Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, will also make presentations.
Following the lectures, Helmuth and Trussell will join the guests for a panel discussion on the impact of climate change on urban coastal environments. Richard Harris, a science correspondent at National Public Radio, will moderate the discussion.
The conference will also serve to announce the university’s Urban Coastal Sustainability Initiative, which will be directed by Trussell. While the initiative began at the Marine Science Center in the College of Science, it has is expanded to include new faculty in the College of Engineering and College of Social Science and Humanities, with more expected in future.
“This conference is yet another demonstration of Northeastern University’s commitment to critically important sustainability issues,” Trussel said. “We are honored to have these global leaders joining us for this event and excited about the major contributions our initiative will make to science, policy, and society.”
The event will take place on May 23 from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Curry Student Center Ballroom. Participants can register on the College of Science’s website.
Joan Fitzgerald recently spoke on a panel at the Inner City Economic Summit, put on by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC).
“Cities across the country are creating innovative models and collaborative partnerships to lay the groundwork for sustainable economic development. By identifying industry strengths and then connecting capital, land use and business development strategies to these, city leaders can have a greater impact on their communities. At the same time, these strategies need a specific focus on the city’s most distressed areas in order to ensure that all city residents have a path to economic opportunity. What Works case studies along with groundbreaking research will equip participants with a framework to create accessible jobs and maximize investment in their cities.” – description from the Summit program
The theme of the panel was “What Works for Cities: Spotlight on Solutions. “City, civic and business leaders convene to share “what’s working” in their cities to promote job growth and sustainable economic development. Case studies will focus on three categories: city and anchor economic development initiatives; industry-led workforce development; and jobs and business creation in the food cluster. On-the-ground practitioners will present case studies and answer questions.”
Download a copy of Joan Fitzgerald’s powerpoint presentation.