A Home in the Digital World
October 24, 2018
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
When writing about human-induced global warming on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to pace oneself. Because it’s such a relentlessly depressing topic that highlighting it too often can backfire. Faced with an existential threat of such magnitude that human civilization—and perhaps the human race itself—may well be doomed, people have a tendency to just tune out. Figuring that “we may indeed be doomed, but not just yet.” Which reflects a serious misunderstanding of how doom works. And more importantly, neglects to factor in how the avoidance of thinking about approaching doom makes its swift arrival all the more certain. By cultivating inaction, when immediate and militant action is called for.
Be that as it may, there are times when journalists like myself cannot just let a notable happening pass without comment. And Mayor Marty Walsh’s global warming-related press conference of last week was certainly such a one.
In keeping with previous junkets on the same theme, Walsh rehearsed yet another version of the same report he’s been trotting out for the last couple of years. This time entitled “Resilient Boston Harbor.” Where the fashionable foundation buzzword “resilient” stands in for “doing the cheapest, least effective thing possible.” Since like previous versions the report:
1) doesn’t propose binding regulation to force the corporations responsible for the lion’s share of carbon emissions in Boston to do what is necessary to make the city carbon neutral by its target date of 2050
2) continues to use lower estimates for threats like sea level rise and ever-increasing air temperature rather than higher credible estimates when planning city responses, and
3) doesn’t set hard timetables for actually building the limited defensive measures it does call for… measures that basically assume that efforts to make Boston—and every significant polity on the planet—carbon-neutral will fail.
Most everything the city might do to achieve carbon neutrality and adapt to the negative effects of global warming—beyond generating more reports—is conveniently pushed off to a time well after the Walsh administration is likely to be out of office.
Worse still, the new Boston paper got released just days after a devastating new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was published by the United Nations—which says if governments worldwide haven’t made their nations carbon-neutral by 2040, then humanity has no hope of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius. Meaning that we’re on track for the far worse scenarios of 2 degrees celsius of warming and above… that IPCC report authors say will be much more destructive to multiple planetary systems than previously anticipated. Making Boston’s current plans even more inadequate than they already are.
In fact, the only mention of completed (or nearly completed) climate remediation efforts in the press release for the “Resilient Boston Harbor” report is a brief passage indicating that “a deployable floodwall system has been installed across the East Boston Greenway, and a section of Main Street in Charlestown is being elevated.” And most every proposed initiative in the report itself is still in the planning stages. Lots of nice drawings of all the stuff that hasn’t been built yet, though.
However, according to the Boston Herald, there was one bright spot the day of the mayor’s presser when “a group of East Boston residents stormed City Hall Plaza, demanding that he hear their concerns about Eversource’s proposal to put a substation near Chelsea Creek.”
It seems that the local environmental justice group GreenRoots has been trying to meet with Walsh for about a year to attempt to stop regional power utility Eversource Energy from building the structure. To no avail.
A petition to Walsh being circulated by the group on Change.org on the matter makes it clear why: The high-voltage substation is slated to be built in an area around Chelsea Creek (a.k.a. Chelsea River) that’s flooding more and more frequently because of global warming-induced sea level rise. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, a similar station was flooded—causing it to explode and burn. A bad enough outcome in the best of circumstances.
But the Chelsea Creek substation will be located very close to storage tanks holding over eight million gallons of jet fuel for nearby Logan Airport. Should those be ignited by such an explosion, the effect on surrounding neighborhoods would be catastrophic. In both human and environmental terms.
The GreenRoots petition concludes: “We find it odd that your office has pushed for many sustainability initiatives concerning the Creek when this project isn’t compatible with this vision.” The initiatives include measures meant to reduce flooding from sea level rise on Chelsea Creek by “connecting high points near Boardman Street and Eagle Street,” according to the city’s 2016 Climate Ready Boston report. Although that is not mentioned in the latest report.
The Herald reported that Walsh’s office responded with a brief statement: “‘The substation in East Boston will better support East Boston’s growing population and facilities, including the city’s investments in a new police station, ambulance bay and a public works facility,’ adding that the city worked with Eversource to choose the site.”
The mayor has not yet agreed to meet with GreenRoots. Yet he really should. Because how is the public supposed to take any of his administration’s global warming remediation initiatives seriously when he’s still playing politics as usual with a major energy distribution corporation for a project that could have profound negative environmental effects?
“The city worked with Eversource to choose the site,” the city statement says. Lovely. But how much did it work with the East Boston community? And the grassroots environmental advocacy group working there and in neighboring Chelsea? Beyond the dog-and-pony shows necessary to put the barest sheen of democracy on the “Climate Ready Boston” process of which the “Resilient Boston Harbor” report is part? Not much at all, apparently. Basically Eversource wants the substation at Chelsea Creek. And it’s going to get what it wants in the current corporate-dominated political moment.
If Walsh is willing to kowtow to that big company on an issue of such serious environmental import, then why should anyone expect him to put the kind of political pressure necessary on other major Boston-area corporations that will be needed to make the city carbon-neutral and better prepared for global warming-induced disaster by 2050? Let alone 2040.
This is the guy who never saw a huge city government giveaway to major companies like General Electric during his tenure in office that he wouldn’t support. What could possibly make him change his modus operandi for conducting business as usual? Which is “give the corporations whatever they ask for—big tax breaks, free services, and public funds—and try to get a few crumbs for working families around the edges of any ‘deals’ thus cut.”
The obvious answer is that concerted grassroots political action will be required to pressure Walsh and politicians like him the world over to do the right thing consistently on the global warming front. Which is a herculean task, if attempted in one go.
But rather than take on the world’s global warming emergency all at once, Boston-area readers can send a message to Walsh that the old politics will not stand if he wants to remain in the mayor’s office—by signing the GreenRoots petition and getting involved in the fight to stop the Eversource substation from being built in environmentally sensitive Chelsea Creek.
Then folks can plug into the growing number of local battles to bring environmentally destructive natural gas utilities like National Grid and Columbia Gas to heel.
And along the way, a political movement may coalesce that can force Boston city government to take stronger long-term action to stop all activities that add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere—while saving the city from global warming-induced sea level rise and the many other deleterious effects of climate change that have already begun at our current 1 degree celsius average air temperature increase planetwide since the dawn of the industrial era.
But human society had best not take too long with such activist baby steps. Because the IPCC report is quite clear: If we have not taken giant leaps toward global carbon neutrality by 2030—only 12 years from now—then there will be no hope of stopping warming at the Paris Climate Agreement’s “aspirational target” of 1.5 degrees celsius by 2040.
If we can’t do that, then cities like Boston will have bigger crises to worry about than “just” accelerating sea level rise and ever-higher average air temperature. We will have stepped off the ecological precipice… and our doom will be upon us.
Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
June 13, 2018
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
Environmental groups protested Mayor Marty Walsh last week during the International Mayors Climate Summit and subsequent US Conference of Mayors meeting—demanding fast action to make Boston carbon neutral (achieving net zero CO2 emissions) and better prepare the city for the many threats to the region from the already-visible effects of global warming. Like the two “once in a generation” storms this winter that both quickly flooded our waterfront.
According to WGBH’s Greater Boston, “The good news, for advocates who think the city is falling short, is that Walsh says he welcomes public pressure in this area—and that big changes to the way the city operates are coming. Soon.”
The bad news, of course, is that pols can say anything they want. But are unlikely to act until their feet have been held to the fire. So, kudos to area climate activists for continuing to do that.
Interestingly, the summit was scaled down from a huge confab that would’ve hosted thousands of public leaders from the US and China in 2017 to a smaller 2018 conference that featured “20 US mayors and four officials from cities in other countries, including China,” according to the Boston Globe.
Walsh is doubtless happy to blame the election of the Trump administration for the lack of State Department support for the conference leading to a year’s delay and the lower turnout. Democrats like himself and former Secretary of State John Kerry—who originally announced Boston summit plans in Beijing in 2016—are getting a lot of political mileage out of poking holes in Trump’s slavish support of the oil, coal, and natural gas industries that are directly responsible for global warming. While pointing to his pulling the US out of the Paris climate accord by 2020 as tantamount to ecocide.
Unfortunately, the Democrats have been no less slavish in their support of the oil, coal, and natural gas industries at every level of government. And the Paris agreement is perhaps the best example of that slavishness.
Because the Paris climate accord is voluntary. So, even in countries that ratify it, the treaty can’t force the fossil fuel industries and the governments they often effectively control to do anything. No surprise there, since the process that launched it—the annual Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—allows fossil fuel corporations to participate in everything from funding its meeting sites to directly influencing its negotiations and implementation rules, according to 2015 and 2017 reports by Corporate Accountability International (CAI, formerly INFACT). An advocacy group that previously helped organize the Network of Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals—a coalition of mostly third world NGOs that helped exclude nicotine purveyors from the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a World Health Organization treaty process. CAI and its allies have repeatedly called for the fossil fuel industries to be similarly banned from participation in the negotiation of climate change treaties. To no avail, thus far.
One can certainly argue, and many do, that having even a voluntary treaty on global warming is better than not having one at all. But if multinational energy corporations like ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, Peabody, and BHP Billiton were willing to voluntarily phase their fossil fuel lines out of existence, I would think that they would be well on the way to carbon neutral status by now. After all, most of them knew about the dangers of global warming decades back. According to a timeline by Climate Liability News, Exxon knew in 1977, Shell in 1988, and those companies and many others formed the Global Climate Coalition specifically to cast doubt on climate science in 1989.
Almost 30 years later, it seems foolish to bet on companies that make obscene profits by selling fossil fuels to suddenly have a change of heart and agree to stop making those superprofits.
Circling back to Boston, Mayor Walsh drew fire from groups like 350Mass and Mass Sierra Club last week on largely the same grounds. The city is not doing much more than drafting plans to implement mainly voluntary measures to mitigate the effects of global warming in the coming years.
It’s also working on those plans—formally and informally—with major corporations that play a variety of roles in worsening global warming. From investing in fossil fuel industries to developing environmentally unfriendly buildings. And it’s potentially underestimating the threat from global warming by choosing to ignore more dire climate models in its planning that are still well within the mainstream of climate science. City government is also not addressing all the major systemic “tipping points” under investigation by climate scientists that could conceivably affect the Boston area and their interrelation to each other. Focusing instead on three imminent threats: sea level rise, air temperature rise, and more intense storms.
Major planning processes on minimizing the risks presented to us by global warming are absolutely necessary and a difficult undertaking at the best of times. Yet there’s little sense that Boston’s developing climate plans are going to result in the policy pedal being pushed to metal anytime soon. Hence, last week’s protestors’ event hashtag: #WalktheTalkonClimate. The environmental groups made clear that we need Mayor Walsh and the rest of city government to take swift action to reduce the many threats from runaway global warming as much as any one city or region can… and do less talking about the need to take swift action.
That means divesting the city of all financial holdings in fossil fuel corporations. And moving on the Boston City Council’s resolution of last fall unanimously supporting “Community Choice Energy”—a plan that would allow Boston to join with other municipalities in buying energy in bulk on behalf of residents and small businesses. Enabling the city to mandate a higher percentage of renewable energy in such purchases. Then creating regulations with real teeth aimed at mitigating the many likely harms to our city from climate change.
For example, Boston (and the Commonwealth) can enact regulations that would force developers of the millions of square feet of new building projects sprouting up around the city to prepare for flooding from global warming-induced sea level rise. Especially new construction in the city’s now massively overdeveloped waterfront. Hub solons can also pass regulations that would compel those same developers to power new buildings with genuinely renewable energy (i.e., not natural gas or nuclear). And regulations that would also make such buildings as energy efficient as possible.
Beyond that, the city should get going on actually building flood defenses and neighborhood cooling centers; and pressing ahead with operationalizing other big ideas currently under discussion in various city planning processes. Or outside of them in my case—as with my support for moving key city infrastructure to higher ground at speed, and eventually moving the seat of Massachusetts state government to Worcester.
Ultimately, properly preparing the city to deal with the negative effects of global warming is everyone’s job. Because politicians can’t do it all themselves. Nor should they. So, readers should contact the mayor’s office regularly to demand faster action on the issues mentioned above, participate in relevant public hearings and meetings to make your voices heard, and get active with any of the environmental organizations large or small that look to be fighting hardest in the public interest.
Just remember, Bostonians failing to be vigilant can result in city government dropping the ball on even fairly straightforward climate-related promises. Like former Mayor Thomas Menino’s plan to plant 100,000 new trees by 2020. As of this month, there’s been a net gain of 4,000 trees since the initiative was announced a decade ago.
In the same period, New York City promised to plant 1,000,000 new trees by 2017. And reached that goal two years early. They’re also well ahead of Boston with global warming preparations.
Worth considering why that might be. Before the next mayoral election.
March 13, 2018
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
Much ink has been spilled in the Boston press over a plan by luxury developer Millennium Partners and its subsidiary Cargo Ventures to spend $100 million to build an aerial gondola system from South Station up Summer Street across Fort Point Channel to the possible future site of what may one day be either its 2 million-square-foot (Boston Globe) or 2.7 million-square-foot (Boston Business Journal) “office campus.” Millennium and Cargo have development rights on “at least three major parcels in South Boston’s Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park and adjacent Massport Marine Park,” according to BBJ. All of which is public land.
According to the Globe, “The proposed gondola system on the South Boston Waterfront would include a hulking terminal across Summer Street near South Station, 13 large towers spanning the one-mile route to the marine industrial park, and about 70 cable cars that can fit 10 passengers each, running every 9 seconds.” The cable cars are currently slated to run from 30 to 50 feet above the street.
An early version of the plan would have had the gondola system traveling as high as 160 feet and traversing a Mass Pike interchange to go directly to the Millennium campus, according to BBJ, but the company just released a scaled-back version that terminates on its Summer Street side—after pushback from state port authority Massport over safety concerns and from the owners of the future $550 million Omni hotel.
News coverage of Millennium’s Seaport project has focused on the gondola itself over the last several months. Which is understandable because it’s an easy target. In fact, my first reaction to the plan was that a giant catapult would be a better idea—if the developer’s goal was simply to get buzz for its project. But it’s a rather specific solution to a real transit logjam that could help keep lots of cars off Seaport roads daily. And, as Boston.com pointed out, it has been proposed before—in 2016, by the office real estate quarterly Blue by Encompass. So I don’t think that it’s just a marketing scheme. And I don’t think the support it’s garnering from South Boston politicians Mayor Marty Walsh, Rep. Stephen Lynch, Rep. Nick Collins, and Councilor Michael Flaherty is necessarily ill-considered either. Especially since Millennium is already discussing a “second phase” for the gondola project that will go—surprise, surprise—across the Reserved Channel into the heart of South Boston proper.
Millennium has an agreement with the city to spend up to $100 million to mitigate the negative effects to Seaport transportation of dumping a big new job site on an already crowded neighborhood, according to Boston.com. The existing transportation options in that district currently being the MBTA Silver Line restricted access bus service, some regular MBTA bus lines, cars, walking, and bicycles.
My problem with the proposed gondola system, then, is not the idea itself. I don’t think it’s practical, but I do think that some kind of elevated mass transit system makes a hell of a lot of sense if you want to avoid existing vehicular traffic and prepare for future global warming-induced flooding.
If crosswinds and storms are a serious concern for gondolas—and, in a Twitter dustup with project boosters, critics like former Mass Secretary of Transportation Jim Aloisi have made clear they are—then perhaps a sturdier alternative like a monorail would fit the bill.
Sure, the idea would trigger mocking laughter even faster than a gondola system, given how much of the population has seen The Simpsons’ infamous monorail boondoggle episode. But the biggest issue with any private alternative transportation proposal for the Seaport is that it would be yet another example of major corporations having too much power to set public policy agendas. Developers like Millennium both dominate policy that applies to their core business and literally get to change the face of the city by completing their developments. With little or no meaningful input and control by the various communities affected by its several projects around Boston. From the completed Millennium Tower to the nearly greenlighted Winthrop Square Tower.
From that perspective, Millennium is cooking up a new way to privatize what should be part of improved and expanded MBTA service. Just like the MBTA’s On-Demand Paratransit Pilot Program—currently extended to April 1—is already doing by contracting some of its “The Ride” service to Uber and Lyft. Instead of developing a municipal ridesharing program that’s a more equitable deal for both drivers and riders like Austin, Texas, did.
If more transportation options are required, then better to focus on ideas already under study by government planners and transit advocacy groups like Transportation for Massachusetts. Create more dedicated bus lanes throughout the Seaport, add more buses, and build separated bike lanes. Also, consider one active proposal that hasn’t been mentioned much in the feeding frenzy around the gondola idea—revive passenger service on the unused Track 61 that runs from Back Bay Station to the Seaport. The MBTA is already adding a third rail to part of that track and using it to test new Red Line subway cars between 2019 and 2023. So it should be possible to fund its reactivation all the way out to Marine Park, as Rep. Collins proposed to the Globe last summer.
However this particular fight plays out, local and state governments should never invest in expanded transit alternatives to serve the needs of one particular corporation or group of corporations. And they certainly shouldn’t allow companies like Millennium to create unfunded mandates like a private gondola system that could simply shut down the moment there’s a market downturn or the initial investment is spent. Rather, Boston and Massachusetts should carefully plan public transit expansion that best meets the needs of all the communities it would serve. And properly fund it by taking the Big Dig debt burden off the MBTA, and increasing taxes on corporations (again, like Millennium) and the rich (like its owners) to pay for the markedly improved service that the public at large deserves.
If, after a deliberative public process, it turns out that a gondola actually makes sense for parts of Boston like the Seaport, then let the MBTA build and maintain it out of government funds. In a MassLive article last August when the plan was first being floated, Rep. Lynch “said he would prefer the gondola system to be part of the MBTA, rather than a standalone system.
“‘If it goes to a private firm, they can pretty much charge whatever the market will bear, which might not accommodate everyone.’”
If, as is more likely the case, there are a number of other tried-and-true ways to reduce traffic congestion in the Seaport while increasing development, then do that instead.
Just remember that if the city doesn’t construct major defenses around the harbor soon, then ever fiercer and more frequent global warming-driven storms coupled with ongoing sea level rise induced by that same warming—like the three nor’easters we’ve now suffered in a mere 10-day span as of this writing—will wipe the floodplain that is the Seaport cleaner than the surface of the moon within a few decades.
Rendering the entire debate over the Millennium gondola even more pointless than it would otherwise be.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
December 12, 2017
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
Big local corps quiet about huge profits to come from Repub tax scheme… except GE
An interesting WBUR article, “Largest Mass. Companies Are Mostly Silent On GOP Tax Plans,” asked the top 12 corporations in the Commonwealth to comment on the recently passed Republican scheme to transfer vast amounts of money from the working and middle classes to the rich and the corporations they control—euphemistically called “tax reform” in most of the major news media. Unsurprisingly, Bay State business leaders didn’t want to take time away from rubbing their hands together and cackling with glee about all the free money they’re going to get—choosing instead to remain mum for the moment.
But WBUR did get a statement out of General Electric after the Senate vote on the tax plan:
GE commends Congress and the White House for their commitment to comprehensive tax reform. GE supports the Senate tax reform plan because it would upgrade the U.S. to a territorial tax system, bring rates in line with other countries, and allow U.S. businesses and workers to compete fairly around the world, so it’s the quality of our products that determine whether we win global deals, and not tax differences.
No surprise GE would say that, since it will benefit tremendously from the drop in federal corporate tax from 35 percent to only 20 percent. But it will also get to repatriate as much of the lucre it’s been offshoring as it would like at a one-time tax rate of merely 12 percent. And now that the feds are “upgrading” to a “territorial tax system,” the company will make even more money. Why? Because a territorial tax system means that all the profits multinationals sock away in offshore tax havens will be taxed at a rate of zero percent. You read that correctly. Nada. No taxes at all on foreign profits.
Currently, companies like GE stash profits in other countries because, although they have been technically taxed on all profits—foreign and domestic—at the base 35 percent rate (basically a total joke since there are so many corporate tax loopholes that big companies like GE actually end up with a negative tax rate some years, but let’s play along for the purpose of this explanation), they are only required to pay those taxes when they “repatriate” the money back to the US. Which has often been never thanks to a complicated system called “transfer pricing” where corporations book profits in low tax countries, and take deductions in the US and other higher tax countries. And then borrow cheap money on the strength of their foreign bank accounts to make more profits.
The result will be even more offshoring of both money and jobs by megacorps. Because why would a company like GE not move more of both away from the US if foreign profits are tax free—without nearly as much of the tricky accounting that’s currently needed to play the transfer pricing game? Just really bad news for Mass workers. And for boosters of the GE Boston deal. And anyone who thinks big companies like Amazon are going to have much incentive to add lots of jobs anywhere in the US going forward.
BPDA “PLAN: Glover’s Corner” protested in Dorchester
As the neoliberal capture of the government and the public sector continues apace, earnest technocrats at the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA, formerly known as the BRA) still find it necessary to play the communitarian “public meeting” game when trying to sell bad deals that advance corporate interests to the working families who are all too often the targets of such deals.
Communitarianism being the decades-old fad where institutions representing the rich and powerful work hard to make sure that “every constituency has a seat at the table” when they want to do something that will harm those constituencies. But, of course, the power relations remain unchanged. The rich and powerful remain rich and powerful. Everyone else does not. And “the table” isn’t the real table—where bankers, CEOs, and top government leaders meet to make policy decisions happen. Usually behind closed doors. It’s basically a kiddie table where regular people can pretend they have some impact on a process that’s over before it begins.
Which is why it’s nice to see that housing activists with the Dorchester Not For Sale coalition decided to crash a recent BPDA transit-oriented public meeting on its “PLAN: Glover’s Corner”—which is slated, among other things, to add hundreds of units of housing that will be mostly unaffordable to current Dot residents.
According to the Bay State Banner and the Dorchester Reporter, the Dorchester activists are taking a page from JP and Roxbury housing activists with the Keep It 100% for Egleston coalition who protested the larger BPDA PLAN: JP/Rox—which might ultimately involve thousands of units of new housing—until the city relented and mandated that 36 percent of the new units (and 40 percent overall, including units currently permitted for construction) must be affordable.
The definition of “affordable” for the JP/Rox plan area is pegged to percentages of the average median income of the Boston region set by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). So, for example, according to an August Spare Change News article, some “affordable” units being rented and sold as part of the 3200 Washington complex are being offered to households making 70 percent of the region’s average median income, and some to households making 100 percent.
But JP and Roxbury advocates have continued to protest PLAN: JP/Rox even after it was made official because its definition of “affordable” remains too high.
Spare Change continues, “For the Boston metropolitan region, the average median income is just over $100,000, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average household income for all of Jamaica Plain is $76,968. However, households within the plan’s range have an average income of just over $50,000.”
According to a March Bay State Banner article, activists three goals for the plan are “to deepen the affordability level on designated affordable housing units so that they are attainable by households making less than $35,000 per year; increase goals for the portion of new housing that’s designated as affordable from 36 percent to 55 percent; and require the conversion of 250 market-rate units into affordable units..”
So while their activism raised the amount of “affordable” housing the BPDA planned to offer in the deal from 30 percent to 36 percent, it’s not going to help many people currently living in or near the affected neighborhoods to stay in the area unless the definition of affordable is changed to reflect economic reality. Given that fact, Mayor Marty Walsh’s much-vaunted progress on getting more affordable housing built on his watch is based largely on smoke and mirrors because much of it remains unaffordable to the people who need it most.
The Dorchester activists, meanwhile, are demanding that the BPDA accept a six-month moratorium on PLAN: Glover’s Corner, use the extra time to provide more data to the community on the plan, and do things like provide childcare at public meetings to allow more locals to attend.
Thus far, the BPDA is blowing off such demands and trying to plow forward without significant changes to its plan. Boston City Councilor Frank Baker, who attended the Glover’s Corner meeting, agreed with the BPDA in a recent Spare Change article, saying “As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a valid request.”
Seems the fight for housing justice is far from over in Dorchester.
Townie (a worm’s eye view of the Mass power structure) is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
November 15, 2017
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
What a surprise. General Electric is tanking, and the scheme to bring the multinational’s headquarters to Boston is looking worse by the day. And whom shall the public blame if that once-secret deal cut by Gov. Charlie Baker and Mayor Marty Walsh in January 2016 goes south? Potentially tossing away millions in tax breaks and direct aid to a company that has already done massive damage to the Bay State over the past few decades? Readers of the dozen columns I’ve written criticizing the boondoggle will already know the answer to that question. But for those of you who have made the mistake of believing all the massive amounts of PR bullshit that the Boston Globe and other area press have been tossing around about the affair since that time, here’s a bit of a recap.
Where to begin? So, the governments of Boston and Massachusetts agreed to shovel tens of millions of dollars at GE in “exchange” for “800 jobs” in a new corporate headquarters campus in the Fort Point district of the Hub. Many of which would simply be transferred from the old headquarters, and most of which would be executive level jobs that will not help Boston’s struggling, underemployed working class.
Now there’s a problem. GE’s been losing money all year. According to the New York Times, its stock price had already dropped by 35 percent since January. Then, according to CNBC, the company’s share value dropped another 13 percent this week as of this writing after new CEO John Flannery announced a restructuring initiative—including the one thing investors hate most of all: dividend cuts. Only the second for GE since the Great Depression. So the knives are coming out around the beleaguered behemoth, and it remains to be seen whether some internal reorganization (doubtless costing legions of employees their jobs) and some belt-tightening by its execs will be enough to stop investors from moving to carve the conglomerate up like a Thanksgiving turkey. But let’s not assume the worst just yet.
Funny thing about that belt-tightening, though. According to the Boston Herald, cuts are now in store for GE’s still-small local workforce, and construction of the new Fort Point headquarters building was already pushed back two years from 2019 to 2021 in August. The plan is to make do with the two old Necco buildings already being refurbished on the site at first. The PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement signed by the Boston Planning and Development Agency (formerly the Boston Redevelopment Authority) and the city of Boston guarantees up to $25 million in tax breaks to GE if it provides the much-ballyhooed 800 full-time jobs. But by what date?
The discussion around GE moving its HQ to Boston has focused on the corporation creating those jobs by 2024. Herein, then, lies the rub about the PILOT deal: The agreement is framed around GE hiring “approximately 800 employees at the Headquarters Building and the Necco Buildings within eight years of the Occupancy Date.” But that occupancy date is explicitly defined as “the date upon which the Company initially occupies the Headquarters Building.” Which has now been pushed back from 2019 to 2021, according to the Boston Business Journal. So 2024 cannot be the year that GE will need to have 800 employees on its new campus. 2027 would have been the earliest it had to meet that target. And now that’s been pushed back to 2029, given the delay with the headquarters building.
Yet it turns out that the PILOT agreement doesn’t actually require 800 jobs to be created. Remember, it starts by stating GE will employ “approximately” 800 people on the Fort Point campus. But further down in the document, in a table explaining the specific tax break the city will actually give the company during each year of the deal, it allows for the creation of as few as 400 jobs in a chart with five tax break tiers between “Job Figure is between 400 and 499” and “Job Figure meets or exceeds 800.” Keeping in mind that the agreement also specifies a “stabilization” period of seven years between 2018 and 2024, during which GE gets $5.5 million in tax breaks no matter what and isn’t required to provide any jobs at all for the first six years. GE is then only required to provide between 400 and 800 jobs from 2024 until the agreement ends in 2037.
What’s super puzzling is that agreement first requires the company to start providing annual job figures “from and after” the aforementioned occupancy date. But the agreement already established that it only really has to start meeting any job targets as far out as eight years from the date it occupies its headquarters building. Making the job target requirement trigger as late as 2029, according to current plans. Despite the tax break table in the PILOT agreement using job targets to calculate tax breaks beginning in 2025 based on the 2024 job count.
The state, for its part, committed a total of about $120 million to the project. Late last year, GE spent $25.6 million to buy 2.5 acres on the Fort Point Channel that includes the land the existing buildings sit on and the land the new headquarters building will (perhaps) one day occupy from Procter & Gamble. MassDevelopment, part of the Commonwealth’s economic development apparatus, took out a $90 million loan from Citizens Bank—an interesting maneuver worth looking into—using $57.4 million to purchase the two old Necco buildings on the site from P&G, and the rest to refurbish the buildings. The remainder of the state’s “investment” is slated to go to fixing up the area around the site.
So, GE is getting basically free rent on the Necco buildings plus free upgrades on abutting public land courtesy of the state. And a big chunk of the taxes it would normally pay over the next 20 years is coming free from the city. Without any real requirement that it actually provide any jobs in Boston for many years, and then only (maybe) 400 jobs by 2029—assuming the headquarters building is built in 2021.
Which is the problem with all such erstwhile “economic development” deals in the Bay State. From their origin as a way to help encourage investment in areas of the state that were down on their luck precisely because GE and companies like it moved their manufacturing operations away from cities like Pittsfield, Lynn, and Fitchburg to places without the decent labor and environmental regulation that was in place by the 1970s, they have become yet another way for rich and powerful corporations to get richer and more powerful. Worst of all, such corporations hold all the cards in the deals. If they don’t get lavished with free public money, they can refuse to move their operations here or can leave if they’re already operating in the area. Once they get the cash they’re looking for, they can basically pull out at any time. Or as is the case with GE, they can “alter” the deal Darth Vader-style, leaving our local “Lando Calrissians” like Baker and Walsh to “pray” the deal is not altered “any further.”
The Boston Business Journal was correct to point out that GE will get $2.1 million in tax breaks on the Fort Point Complex by 2021—the year that the company now claims it’ll be completing its new 12-story headquarters building on the site. But what if it doesn’t build the new structure at all? It’s not clear. Because the PILOT agreement is pegged to job creation starting as far out as eight years after the headquarters building is built, and then allows for the company providing as few as 400 jobs between 2024 and 2037 rather than the 800 everyone’s been assuming. While not actually demanding any job creation until as late as 2029, making it unclear how the tax break will be calculated between 2025 and 2029 should GE drag its feet for the full eight years. The conditions for the company defaulting on the agreement are also pegged to job creation. Not to the construction of the headquarters building. Oh, and by the way, the PILOT deal only covers the headquarters building and the land the company purchased under and just around it (which the agreement calls the “Headquarters Project”). Not the Necco buildings, now owned by the state. Also, there’s no word about what happens if the company has less than 400 workers in Boston at any point from 2024 to 2037. Do these curious contradictions amount to loopholes for GE to bag the whole deal? It certainly looks that way.
The minimum GE will get in tax breaks from the city of Boston over 20 years is $5.5 million by 2024 plus whatever breaks it qualifies for between 2025 and 2037. However, the amount the company actually puts out in annual PILOT payments after 2024 is calculated by a complicated formula based on the taxes that would have been assessed without the PILOT agreement. And the assessed value of the relevant property could change from current projections. So it’s hard to know what the total value of the PILOT deal will ultimately be to GE, other than that it will be a bunch of money… however many jobs it actually creates.
But why exactly are Boston and Massachusetts giving a huge company that’s still profitable any money at all? And what happens if GE bails on the scheme by hook (simply running and fighting its PILOT default in court with its vast legal department) or by crook (not building the headquarters building at Fort Point and possibly getting away with delaying the job creation target trigger until the deal ends in 2037)? And what happens if worse comes to worst for GE, and the company actually does collapse?
These remain my central questions. And I continue to encourage all of you to ask those and related questions to every Boston and Massachusetts politician you can find. And ask the Globe while you’re at it. They’ve got a loooot of ’splaining to do about their cheap boosterism… which they’ve become awfully quiet about of late. Preferring, it seems, to focus on the next giant company that’s demanding public bribes to come to town, Amazon.
A shorter version of this column appears in this week’s DigBoston print edition.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
Photo by Kori Feener
August 22, 2017
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
Despite the “mission accomplished” happy talk in most of the news media, Saturday’s 40,000-strong Boston protests against extremism — and the tiny ultra-right rally that sparked them — were only wins for free speech to the degree their organizers and participants made them so. From a civil liberties perspective, they were highly problematic affairs.
First, Mayor Marty Walsh and various department heads in Boston city government slapped the right-wing rally with ridiculous restrictions on what otherwise would have been a very standard rally permit. Although scheduled for a public park that hosts dozens of similar rallies every year, only 100 people were allowed to attend. On the day of the event, the rally site — Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common — was surrounded by fences and a large number of police. The cops kept virtually everyone out of the arbitrarily-imposed cordon sanitaire — including a number of people who said they were supposed to participate in the rally and, as DigBoston reporter Sarah Betancourt criticized in the Columbia Journalism Review, the entire press corps.
Now, city solons certainly had reason to be concerned. But that doesn’t change the fact that, regardless of their extremist politics, the reactionaries had the right to hold a rally on the Common, and that right was severely and probably illegally curtailed.
Second, Boston Police Department Commissioner Bill Evans stated at a press conference last week that Boston would not use riot police at the outset of the protests and that “we plan on handling this on a very soft approach. You won’t see the helmets and sticks out there.” Yet “helmets and sticks” were very much the order of the day.
Platoons of Boston police and Mass State Police in nearly identical black riot gear were deployed all around the protests. Some were used to escort attendees of the right-wing rally off the Common when it ended and into waiting police wagons. But as Chris Faraone and other DigBoston reporters witnessed, those wagons tried to leave on the Boylston Street side of the Common where huge numbers of protesters were essentially trapped in relatively small spaces. When trying to move the wagons out of the park, the riot cops on hand did what riot cops do — they started shoving people, hitting them, and inevitably arresting those who argued they had nowhere to go. They even pepper-sprayed some people later in the afternoon.
That’s a problem right there — and the early stories we’re hearing from several of the 30 people arrested all around the protests are similar — but it’s not clear why the right-wingers were given a police escort at all. Aside from some black bloc-style antifa groups that typically limit themselves to defensive violence, and maybe a few random tough kids looking for a fight, the overwhelming majority of protest attendees were there to demonstrate peacefully. So the right-wingers were in little danger.
Ultimately, the BPD fielded at least 500 officers — including riot police and an unknown number of undercover cops. The MSP had around 200 troopers available and definitely deployed at least some of them, the MBTA Transit Police had a “substantial presence” including undercovers on duty, and security forces from other agencies were doubtless also on the ground. There’s really no way of knowing the total number of cops at this time. But even assuming the rough numbers we have are in the ballpark, that’s a lot of cops to deploy to a right-wing extremist rally that had already been cowed into submission by serious violations of its organizers’ rights to freedom of speech and assembly, and by the impressive outpouring of nonviolent protesters against it.
All of this is simply unacceptable in a democratic society. It’s perhaps understandable that any city government will have a police presence at such a big political event. But it makes little sense to have hundreds of cops — including militarized “robocops” — from a number of local, state, and, almost certainly, federal agencies on hand. Unless the city, state, and federal governments were more concerned about the protests against the ultra-right extremists than they were about the extremists. Which would absolutely be in keeping with the policies of most levels of American government — in ceaseless and ongoing collusion with the capitalists that own the country — since the founding of the nation. The things this “large-s” State fears most of all have always been democracy and social justice.
Returning to my first point: Why should anyone care about the right-wing extremists having their civil liberties violated Saturday? Because if the government can do that to a motley crew of nazis, fascists, racists, and little weasel shitposters of the type I regularly mock and deride on the interwebs, then they can do it to the broad left wing… and, well, anyone really. Which means that protestors interested in defending democracy won’t succeed by beating back a still-weak ultra-right street sideshow. No. The incipient movement for democracy won’t have won until the rise of what’s looking very much like a corporatist police state is stopped. But it wasn’t even slowed on Saturday. Quite the reverse actually.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
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