Thursday, March 26, 2015

Boston 2024. The Olympics come to Cambridge.

I haven’t closed my mind to Boston 2024, the bid to draw the Olympic Games to the Hub, and that should come as no surprise. I am not naively hostile to projects simply because they imply new construction. Being both urban and a planner, I don’t think it makes sense to be afraid of the future, a fear which has always struck me as reactionary, conservative, and most of all, unthinking. The future contains as many opportunities as it does pitfalls, and for every major failure there will be an offsetting success.

Furthermore, becoming an Olympic city is not an insignificant accomplishment. To say Los Angeles 1932 or Rome 1960 or Moscow 1980 is to say something real.

Nevertheless, the Boston bid deserves our skeptic’s gaze. Urban salvation never comes through a sporting event nor does it come through a series of construction projects spurred on by one. Not that Boston is looking for salvation, but these projects often take on meanings that they don’t deserve.

So when a Boston 2024 organizing team walked into Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School auditorium last week, the audience was ready. I arrived late, as usual. I didn’t catch the names of the presenters but I certainly recognized a familiar sound —  hostility from the crowd, high dudgeon, factual inaccuracies and sanctimony. Nevertheless, it presented a useful counterpoint to the rah rah, of which there was very little.

In my estimation, the presentation was well organized, though to be expected given the money already flowing through this project. The Powerpoint slides, however, were illegible and pink in color.  Unexpected, given the money already flowing through this project.

Boston 2024 at CRLS, with a pink Powerpoint

I knew one of the presenters, David Manfredi, from my time as a Cambridge city councillor, when I saw him frequently from his repeated trips before that body. Back then, the idea that his firm would design the entire Kendall Square district made me uneasy. Arborists don’t plant only one species of tree for a reason — if one of them gets a disease, they all get the disease — and cities should follow this wise advice when choosing architects for their large-scale urban design work. Nevertheless, Manfredi was always sane, rational and competent, traits that stood him in stark contrast to some of the others in those debates. He also could handle projects of the size and scale that Kendall demands.

No doubt, the Boston 2024 committee felt the same way. In some ways, the ability to do large scale projects becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy — the more big projects you do, the more qualified you are to do them.  These days, Elkus-Manfredi sits at the top of that pile in the Boston market.

In these Olympics discussions, there is a natural tension developing. On the one hand, it is important to use the infrastructure that this region already has. On the other, we need a more sustainable, inclusive regionalism, a challenge that the Olympics do nothing to address.

Let’s look at infrastructure. The organizers have called their plan the Walkable Games and they intend to exploit existing resources in the Boston area. This list would include the T and the universities.
They cite the following statistics ...

  • 26 of 33 venues will be with 1.3 miles of a T station
  • 28 of 33 venues will be with 10 kilometers of each other

The majority of events will be held in Boston, with others scheduled for Newton and Lowell. Cambridge will host archery (at MIT) and swimming events off of Magazine Beach.


They also say there is a commitment to legacy, what is left over when the Games are gone. Agenda 2020, approved by the International Olympic Committee last December, calls for greater sensitivity to prevent another Beijing, where The Birdcage, the famous stadium built exclusively for the 2008 Games, now sits empty and completely unused. In the words of IOC president Thomas Bach, "With a new philosophy in the bidding procedure we are encouraging potential candidate cities to present to us a holistic concept of respect for the environment, feasibility and of development, to leave a lasting legacy."

An example of legacy might be the Boston Olympic Village, to be built in proximity to the UMass Boston campus. It’s housing that will get a second life as part of the university system. However, it will be paid for by taxpayers.

Budgets and cost overruns remain a major concern. Of course, one man’s cost overrun is another man’s budget expansion, but leaving that aside for the time being, the organizers have committed not just to transparency and accountability, but also to insure against the extreme “what if?” scenario when catastrophic failure occurs. With insurance.

The overall budget numbers are based on the London 2012 numbers, with an operating budget of $4.7 billion and a capital expenditures budget of $3.4 billion. The money will come from broadcast rights, ticketing, sponsorships and some public-private partnerships. Some expenditures will presumably fall off-budget and be part of the public bill for the Games, like the housing at UMass. Nevertheless, the Boston 2024 team expresses confidence all targets can be reached, citing data that the Tokyo 2020 Games are ahead of schedule in money raising. Olympics in the U.S., they say, have a good track record of turning a profit. Los Angeles 1984 ended up with $232.5 million in surplus, Atlanta in 1996, $10 million, and Salt Lake City in 2002 a positive $56 million.

As for the indirect impacts, The Boston Foundation recently found that a Boston 2024 effort would have a significant positive financial effect. According to news reports, “the study predicts a Boston Olympics would generate roughly $4 billion in new construction from 2018 to 2023, $5 billion in economic activity from the operations of the Games in 2024, and $514 million in additional tourism-related activity the year of the event. Researchers figure $2.1 billion of the construction spending and $2.9 billion in operational spending would be new money coming into the state from outside the region and directly benefiting Massachusetts companies."

The Games also create the opportunity to accelerate transportation investments, as happened in Salt Lake City in 2002 with a roadway expansion and a light-rail system that was put in five years ahead of schedule. With the failures of the T over this past winter, these words are welcome sounds.

Those are the potentials of a Boston 2024. Still, there is a huge missing element in all of this and it is regionalism.

These Olympics must address an issue that isn’t so much about people as it is about place. We live in a region with a fractured geopolity and we have a very difficult time cooperating on plans that extend beyond a city’s edge. We are a region that struggles to act like a region. The Olympics as they are currently construed do nothing to offset that. We need an Olympics that will spread the benefits of this endeavor beyond the usual locations: central Boston, Cambridge, the immediate inner core.  Indeed, these Olympics need to reach the people and places that aren’t within a five minute walk of a T station. This is so challenging because it’s contrary to sound planning principles.

Machinations will continue over the coming months, and don’t listen solely to the naysayers or swoon easily for the advocates. The Olympics represents a huge opportunity for not just for our city but for our region, for a specific reason David Manfredi alluded to in his testimony, in which he mentioned a 2011 white paper out of NYU’s Wagner School entitled “How New York City Won the Olympics.” Of course, New York didn’t win the 2012 Olympics, but the Wagner paper asks if it’s possible to “win” the Games even if you lose the bid? "Do cities benefit from hosting large-scale sports events such as the Olympics or the World Cup? Some cities have derived real, long-term benefits from hosting the Olympics: Tokyo in 1964 and Barcelona in 1992 are usually cited as best examples. Others – such as Montreal in 1976 and Athens in 2004 – have been left with little more than underutilized facilities and inflated debts."

The report continues …

Six years ago, New York City lost its bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games. Contrary to popular belief, the New York City Olympic Plan has largely been implemented, even though the 2012 Games will be held in London. New York City’s bid for the 2012 Olympics explicitly sought to use the Olympics as a catalyst for development of facilities and infrastructure that would have lasting value. New York’s bid went much further than what was required by the International Olympic Committee. From the outset, New York City’s plan for the 2012 Olympics was designed to spur action on, and obtain resources for, projects that would have a long-term positive impact on the city whether or not the IOC chose New York City to host the Games.

With this vision in mind, NYC2012 – the organization formed to develop the city’s bid – formulated a plan that focused on seven areas of the city that had been the subject of multiple studies but were still relatively underdeveloped – the Far West Side of Manhattan, Brooklyn’s East River Waterfront, Long Island City in Queens, the Flushing section of Queens, Harlem, the South Bronx, and Downtown Brooklyn.

Although New York City ultimately lost its Olympic bid, comprehensive plans were approved for the targeted areas. In each, a major rezoning was completed, which included planned affordable housing, mass transit enhancements, new parks and amenities, and other new infrastructure. In addition, four of the facilities that were to be part of the Olympic Plan have either been completed or are under construction.

This makes sense. As I said in my public comment last week, we “fail" if all we do is invest in those communites that already are thriving — Boston, Cambridge, neighboring communities. We “win” though the process of good planning and creative visioning, addressing the needs of our communities in tangible, lasting ways that tie this disparate region together.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A few from Shakespeare.

Have you ever heard of this man Shakespeare? A playwright mostly. Quite good, some say. And some heap even more praise on him than that. Worth the look. Here are a few, just minor scraps for us groundlings, fallen from his plate. (The internet will guide you to their provenance.)

Love comforteth like sunshine after rain.

We know what we are, but know not what we may be.

To do a great right do a little wrong.

If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to me.

Oh, what a bitter thing it is to look into happiness through another man's eyes.

Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.

Be to yourself as you would to your friend.

The object of art is to give life a shape.
(A wonderful line, actually not Shakespeare, though often attributed to him. It comes from the Jean Anouilh play The Rehearsal.)

Monday, March 9, 2015

Complete Streets v. First Mile/Last Mile, a planner's dilemma.

At the recent Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s annual winter meeting, the Boston area’s regional planning agency conducted one of those board game exercises where a tableful of participants gets a certain number of poker chips and places them on a game board to represent their transportation priorities. The pot of money was supposed to be the almost $2 billion in regional discretionary funding expected over the next 25 years.

My table went overwhelmingly for something called “Complete Streets”, the planning concept that says we plan and design streets to “enable safe, convenient and comfortable travel and access for user of all ages and abilities regardless of their mode of transportation." Sounds good, no? My group spent almost nothing on major infrastructure. Advocates for the T and for pedestrians liked this allocation, and argued passionately for it.

I didn’t like it so much and argued against it. Complete Streets, while it will have many ancillary benefits, is still a rich people’s problem. I maintained that we should have allocated less to it and more to "Community Transportation and Parking," the wedge on the game board that includes something called First Mile/Last Mile — how you get people onto a transit system and then back off again as near to their point of origin and destination as possible. It is a challenge every transportation system deals with, and it's called “First Mile/Last Mile” because the most difficult segment of that journey is covering those very first parts or the very last.

My table didn’t go for it because they overwhelmingly heard the word “parking”, as in the construction of new parking lots to handle suburban commuters. I heard something else — I heard projects that would enable poor people to gain more equitable entry to the system. I also heard a most cost-effective way of turning dollars into projects, $1.5 million for one of these projects versus $6 million for every new mile of Complete Streets.

Most of all, the focus on Complete Streets struck me as another predictable misread by affluent whites wherein they impose their values (and spending priorities) onto the poor and then congratulate themselves on having solved a problem. It sounds like a bad case of “I know what’s good for you,” but it’s really a perfect case of “I know this is good for me. Don’t you like it too?”

My own experience is that when you go into these communities, ask relevant questions and really listen to the answers, you hear something quite different from what you expect. I cannot imagine that a construction worker with a 12-mile commute on public transit to his job site cares much about Complete Streets. Nor do I think an immigrant with a 6 a.m. start time to their building cleaning gig cares much either. What they want is a simple, reliable, predictable way to get where they are trying to go, on time, day after day.

MAPC has adopted a commitment to tackle the inequities in the region, whether they be in opportunity or income or access to adequate transportation. That’s an appropriate agenda for MAPC to have.

As we move away from auto-centric thinking to a more techno-centric society, our public money should be spent on public systems that support all and particularly have extensive impacts in those areas and on those people with the fewest existing options. First Mile/Last Mile spending is particularly important in the suburbs, which are increasingly home to poorer workers as the housing costs in Boston, Cambridge, Somerville and surrounding communities continue further out of reach. These workers are more reliant on public systems for employment and other important essentials of daily life.

In comparison, a Cambridge mom wanting to ride with her kids to school might be a laudable goal, but it's not equity, it’s accommodation. Accommodation is an equally valid undertaking in its own right, just as long as we call it by what it is.

At least that’s how it seems to me. I am prepared to be wrong about this — any of it or all of it. But my own experience tells me I'm not. It’s one of the great problems progressives have nowadays. It’s not clear who they actually speak for.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Edmund Pettus Bridge.

On waking, I saw through the Venetian blinds a bird on a tree and thought "Spring is coming. It is.”

I made breakfast and set the remaining clocks forward. I ate the food, washed up the plates and went to the front room. I noticed myself staring longingly at a large pile of grey, frozen snow out the window. There are few exercises more pointless than trying to detect snow melting.

Then I looked at photographs of Selma, Alabama and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, March 7, 1965.

They did absolutely change a nation.

Then I thought, when do liberals become conservative? When they too live in the past.  

Friday, March 6, 2015

How would we view Audie Murphy today?

A Texas congressman has filed legislation to make Chris Kyle a Medal of Honor winner. Kyle, the former Navy SEAL sniper who has been credited with the most confirmed kills in U.S. military history, was shot and killed at a Texas shooting range two years ago by fellow Iraq War veteran, former Marine Eddie Ray Routh.

Kyle’s four tours in Iraq became the basis of the book American Sniper, and then Clint Eastwood’s recent box office success by the same name.

For conservatives, Kyle is an American hero, a man of lethal intent and accomplishment successfully serving our nation in one of the most demanding and elite units that the United States military has to offer. For liberals, Kyle is an American psycho, showing with bare-boned candor the pathological bloodlust of the warhawks and their supporters, creating men and machines programmed to operate outside the boundaries of civilization.

For conservatives, it is 1944 and the Normandy beaches all over again.

For liberals, it is 1968 and the My Lai Massacre all over again.

It got me to thinking — how would Audie Murphy be viewed today?

A Texas sharecropper’s son who grew up in a hardscrabble life — abandoned by his father at age 5, orphaned on his mother’s death when he was a teenager — Audie Murphy joined the army in 1942 at the age of 17 only after his sister falsified his papers saying he was old enough.

From his time in combat, he became not only a Medal of Honor winner but one of the most highly decorated members of the U.S. military in history. His record of is extensive, incredible, and unquestionably blood-soaked. According to Wikipedia, it included these:

Murphy received the Distinguished Service Cross for action taken on 15 August 1944, during the first wave of the Allied invasion of southern France. After landing on Yellow Beach near Ramatuelle, Murphy's platoon was attacked by German soldiers while making their way through a vineyard. He retrieved a machine gun that had been detached from the squad and returned fire at the German soldiers, killing two and wounding one. Two Germans exited a house about 100 yards (91 m) away and appeared to surrender; Murphy's best friend responded to them, and they shot and killed him. Murphy advanced alone on the house under direct fire. He wounded two, killed six, and took eleven prisoner. 
Murphy was with the 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment during the 27–28 August offensive at Montélimar that secured the area from the Germans. Along with the other soldiers who took part in the action, he received the Presidential Unit Citation. 
Murphy's first Purple Heart was for a heel wound received in a mortar shell blast on 15 September 1944 in northeastern France. His first Silver Star came after he killed four and wounded three at a German machine gun position on 2 October at L'Omet quarry in the Cleurie river valley. Three days later, Murphy crawled alone towards the Germans at L'Omet, carrying an SCR436 radio and directing his men for an hour while the Germans fired directly at him. When his men finally took the hill, 15 Germans had been killed and 35 wounded. Murphy's actions earned him a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for his Silver Star.[56] He was awarded a battlefield commission to second lieutenant on 14 October, which elevated him to platoon leader. While en route to Brouvelieures on 26 October, the 3rd Platoon of Company B was attacked by a German sniper group. Murphy captured two before being shot in the hip by a sniper; he returned fire and shot the sniper between the eyes. At the 3rd General Hospital at Aix-en-Provence,[58] the removal of gangrene from the wound caused partial loss of his hip muscle and kept him out of combat until January. Murphy received his first Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for his Purple Heart for this injury. 
The Colmar Pocket, 850 square miles (2,200 km2) in the Vosges Mountains, had been held by German troops since November 1944. On 14 January 1945, Murphy rejoined his platoon, which had been moved to the Colmar area in December. He moved with the 3rd Division on 24 January to the town of Holtzwihr, where they met with a strong German counterattack. He was wounded in both legs, for which he received a second Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for his Purple Heart. As the company awaited reinforcements on 26 January, he was made commander of Company B.  
The Germans scored a direct hit on an M10 tank destroyer, setting it alight, forcing the crew to abandon it.[66] Murphy ordered his men to retreat to positions in the woods, remaining alone at his post shooting his M1 carbine and directing artillery fire via his field telephone while the Germans aimed fire directly at his position. Murphy mounted the abandoned, burning tank destroyer and began firing its .50 caliber machine gun at the advancing Germans, killing a squad crawling through a ditch towards him. For an hour, Murphy stood on the tank destroyer returning German fire from foot soldiers and advancing tanks, killing or wounding 50 Germans. He sustained a leg wound during his stand, and stopped only after he ran out of ammunition. Murphy rejoined his men, disregarding his own wound, and led them back to repel the Germans. He insisted on remaining with his men while his wounds were treated. For his actions that day he was awarded the Medal of Honor. The 3rd Infantry Division was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its actions at the Colmar Pocket, giving Murphy a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for the emblem.

Upon returning to the States, Murphy was feted and celebrated as a war hero.  But he also suffered terribly. Again, Wikipedia:

Murphy had been plagued since his military service with insomnia and bouts of depression, and slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow. A post-service medical examination on 17 June 1947 revealed symptoms of headaches, vomiting, and nightmares about war. His medical records indicated that he took sleeping pills to help prevent nightmares. During the mid-1960s, he recognized his dependence on Placidyl, and locked himself alone in a hotel room for a week to successfully break the addiction. Post-traumatic stress levels exacerbated his innate moodiness, and surfaced in episodes that friends and professional colleagues found alarming. His first wife, Wanda Hendrix, stated that he once held her at gunpoint. She witnessed her husband guilt-ridden and tearful over newsreel footage of German war orphans. Murphy briefly found a creative stress outlet in writing poetry after his Army discharge. His poem "The Crosses Grow on Anzio" appeared in his book To Hell and Back, but was attributed to the fictitious character Kerrigan.  
In an effort to draw attention to the problems of returning Korean War and Vietnam War veterans, Murphy spoke out candidly about his own problems with posttraumatic stress disorder. It was known during Murphy's lifetime as "battle fatigue" and "shell shock", terminology that dated back to World War I. He called on the government to give increased consideration and study to the emotional impact of combat experiences, and to extend health care benefits to war veterans.

Why bring up Audie Murphy? I think the question is more accurately stated: How would we view such a war record as his, a war record we unquestionably lauded in 1945? How would we treat such a man in America today?

In 2015, we have been terribly reductive in our thinking. Every argument must be distillable into a Facebook post where one brilliant quip “destroys” the opposing argument and humiliates the other side. All human actions, no matter how nuanced, no matter how resonant of complex chords and melodies, some pleasant and some not so pleasant, become a Rorschach test with outcome predetermined. It looks like a fish because we believe in fish. It can’t be a fish, because there are no such things as fish.  Now replace the word “fish” with “hero” or "crime" and you’ll see what I mean.

In some ways, we are much more aware of our world.  We have experienced both the Second World War and Vietnam and they taught us different lessons. We now outsource our fighting, and we have multiplied our information sources. If the World War Two generation went off to fight and the Vietnam generation didn’t, still it bears remembering that a college senior burning his draft card in 1968 was born to 24-year-old army veteran in 1947, a guy who had just returned from Normandy or the Colmar Pocket or the Philippines and maybe said "you know, just because they have a lot of brass on their shoulder or a long title next to their name doesn’t necessarily make them right".  The revolution from the 1960s sprang from seeds planted in the 1940s and ‘50s by the generation who obeyed and did not question.

But what did the Vietnam generation teach us?

Today as Americans we are bombarded by the immediacy of it all but feel not its impact. We all care with such earnest intent yet struggle to understand why people don’t live as we do. And we are told that we are separating farther apart, each in our own worlds, each more distant from the other. We spend most of our time congratulating ourselves on being so right, and condemning them for being so wrong, without even a pause to stop talking and listen. Ever more strident, ever more self-righteous.  It can only be a recipe for something that hovers from the ridiculous to the disastrous. And our real enemies grow neither kinder nor gentler, at least as far as we can tell.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Three quotes for a Thursday.

We are changing from an auto-centric society to a techno-centric society, and we haven’t figured out what that new world looks like when it comes to transportation.  We do know, however, that the new generation is multi-modal and wants multiple platforms to get around.
— James Aloisi, former MA secretary of transportation under governor Deval Patrick, talking with radio host Christopher Lydon last week. (quoted from memory.)

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.
— Abraham Lincoln

Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.
— Oscar Wilde

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Sunday morning with more snow in the forecast.

Childhood is about filling the head with dreams.

Adulthood is about holding those dreams up to the mirror of the world, to see how the world sees them.

In the grand negotiation that follows, with any luck we give a little and the world gives a little, and out of this comes a life.