Wednesday, December 10, 2008

THE BACK BAY

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NEWBURY STREET BUSINESSES CURB THEIR TRASH

By Jenny Speer

BACK BAY – Despite falling temperatures and the ignorance of rude passersby, Dave O’Neill spends every morning sweeping the sidewalk in front of Cuoio, a women’s shoe store on 115 Newbury Street.

“I can’t tell you how many times people have walked through my leaf piles,” said O’Neill, the manager for the building that houses Cuoio and five others along Newbury Street and Commonwealth Avenue. “But I’m a neat freak. My mother is a five-foot Irish woman who was always running around and cleaning, and all of that sunk in the second she wasn’t there to do the pile of dirty dishes in my sink.”

Representatives from the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay and the Newbury Street League approached Newbury Street businesses in June as a part of their “Clean to the Curb” initiative. The groups asked area local businesses to clean the areas in the front and back of their buildings up to the curb. They also provided city phone numbers for the maintenance of sidewalks and streetlights as well as graffiti removal.

“We weren’t looking for anything in particular,” said Jo-Anne Leinward, the project’s manager and head of the association’s city services committee. “We were just looking to keep the neighborhood clean, and for those who were already doing it, we wanted to show appreciation for the fact that they were paying attention.”

As fall's leaves clutter the street, the effects of the organizations’ effort shows as the initiative finishes its first season. Most businesses cooperated and improved the aesthetics and accessibility of the street before winter.

Sandy Gaskin, another member of the association’s city services committee who worked closely on the project, said are emptying trash cans themselves and even spraying gum off the sidewalks.

“The sidewalk in front of the Prince building [201 Newbury St.] is fixed now, too,” she said. “But some of [the businesses] were doing this before we even got there.”
For some businesses, the initiative only reinforced cleanliness standards.

“It’s important for us to keep clean,” said Patrick Kritchever, director of sales at Tapeo Restaurant and Tapas Bar on Newbury Street. “It’s difficult to maintain during the fall, but it takes less than five minutes.”

For others, like O’Neill, the initiative inspired personal dedication to maintenance.

“I used to sweep the sidewalk, but I haven’t had to do it since the beginning of summer,” said Pat Caldwell, the manager at Cuoio. “[O’Neill] takes really good care of it.”

The organizations are discussing how to show appreciation for the cooperative businesses in these initial efforts and planning another initiative for next year.

“This year, we wanted to bring awareness,” said Susan Kelley, the league’s chief administrator. “There are no penalties [for not cooperating]; we’re just looking for good neighbors, and they all have been for the most part. But who knows where it will go from here?”

FENWAY HOSTS FIRST CITIZENSHIP DAY

By Jenny Speer

FENWAY – On June 11, David Ortiz became a US citizen when he took the Oath of Citizenship at Dorchester’s John F. Kennedy Library. On Sept. 17, 3,081 immigrants from 138 countries came to his office to do the same thing.

“America’s Most Beloved Ballpark” opened its gates on Citizenship Day to naturalize thousands of applicants for citizenship. Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Judge Patti B. Saris of the US District Court for the District both spoke, welcoming the applicants as new citizens. The ceremony, a joint effort between the Red Sox and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, was the first to be held at Fenway.

“It was a beautiful day,” said Marcel Carboni, a representative from the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers. “It meant a lot to people. I mean, oh my God, it’s Fenway!”

As the US Citizenship and Immigration services received 1,051,000 applications in the fiscal year 2008 – more than ever before – Fenway was chosen to accommodate the thousands taking the Oath of Allegiance and introduce them to “America’s pastime.”

"Baseball itself is a universal language," said Meg Vallaincourt, senior vice president of corporate relations for the Red Sox. "It involves going far from home, going around and finding home again. We like to think Fenway ties Bostonians together and we're glad to welcome new Americans into that community."

The Fenway name attached to the ceremony caught the attention of many immigrants in the area who wish to become citizens.

“I have only been here one year, so I have to wait awhile,” said Herbert Santamaria, 22, a Colombian immigrant who works as a bus boy at Game On! next to the ballpark. “It would be nice to be able to go back to my country and see my mother.”

Santamaria’s father died earlier this year, but he was unable to return to Colombia for fear he would have trouble getting back into the United States. Immigrants must be permanent residents and of the US and green card holders for five consecutive years before they can become citizens.

“I miss my family, but I don’t want to leave,” said Jose Santamaria, another bus boy at Game On! and Santamaria’s cousin. “I want to learn better English and get a good job. That’s easier if you are a citizen.”

Chris Rhatigan, the deputy press secretary at the Services, attributes the influx of applications for citizenship to many things.

“The election played a big part,” she said. “But it’s more than that. These people will be able to go back and contribute to their communities. Plus, people who read the sports pages will realize that there are new people around.”

Many immigration activists, such as Cabroni, emphasize the importance of community in the naturalization process.

“[Immigrants] want to socialize,” he said. “They need a reason to live a little outside of working. At Fenway, they could, and it wouldn’t have been as special anywhere else.”

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

DIRE STEAKS: AREA RESTAURANT SUFFERS FROM WEAK ECONOMY

By Jenny Speer

BACK BAY – Brian Deschler walked through the bar at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Winebar on a recent Saturday night with his head held low.

“What happened in here tonight?” said Deschler, 26, Fleming’s’ wine manager, speaking to no one in particular. His answer was in the response he received: nothing.

Fleming’s is among several restaurants that are suffering from the dwindling economy as many people are unwilling to spend the restaurant’s average of $75 per person for dinner.

“We all know it’s bad right now,” he said. “But as soon as [management] starts talking about how bad it really is, the whole system is going to fall apart. We see things from a perspective that 99 percent of the serving staff won’t understand."

Fleming’s is a part of the OSI Restaurant Partners, LLC, group, which has been putting pressure on management to cut costs and assuage the concerns of worried employees. Labor is the primary cost that is constantly monitored, Deschler said, which means many employees – especially those paid hourly, such as line cooks and hostesses – have had their hours scaled back.

“Being corporate means we have to manage from paper, not from the heart,” said Jason Carron, 32, Fleming’s Boston’s chef partner. “Walk-in business is slow, so we use the best people possible when the business is there, but it’s a tough situation for everyone.”

The nation's restaurant industry employs 13.1 million people – 9 percent of the workforce, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2008 forecast report. Fleming’s employs 100 of those people, many who are nervous that the usually busy holiday season will not be as bountiful as past years. Sales in October of this year were lower than those of July – the slowest month of the year for restaurants – of last year.

“I haven’t been to work in a week, and I’m a little scared to go back,” said Matt Aylward, 22, a server. “I’ve saved on gas and parking, but there’s nothing coming in.” Aylward said that coming to work from his home in Hudson, N.H., usually costs $40 between gas, tolls and parking.
Many employees, though grateful to be employed at all, have started exploring other options.

“It’s not like I’m running for the hills,” said Kelly McCabe, 35, a bartender who recently put together her resume. “I have it pretty good here and I’m not planning on leaving, but it would be nice to get something else part time; catering or something.”

Despite pressures from above and below, the management team at Fleming’s has developed several marketing strategies to attract customers, including an opportunity for military families to contact soldiers in Iraq via the restaurant’s video conferencing system on Veteran’s Day.

“We do a lot of competitive and market analysis,” said Terrilynn Haak, 33, Fleming’s private dining director. “There’s still money around, you just have to know where to find it and how to get it. I’m not going to go to Fidelity, who just laid off 4000 people, and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you have a really expensive holiday party here?’”

Regardless of new marketing techniques, management insists that maintaining the reputation Fleming’s has developed over the past eight years will keep people coming.

“Every time we wait on someone or serve someone anything, it needs to be a home run,” said Rick Reardon, 43, a bartender and bar manager. “We need to make sure they’re going to come back.”

Though she admits business is bleak now, Haak is confident that sticking to the basic principles of hospitality and service will bring Fleming’s out of financial turmoil.

“We’re in a bump right now that we’ll get over,” she said. “We just need to stay true to our brand.”

RENTS UP AS ECONOMY SLIPS

By Jenny Speer

BACK BAY – Jessie Pernick hates the idea of having to move, even if it means she has to cut back on small luxuries.

“I’ve had to make adjustments,” said Pernick, 24, of the $175 per month increase in her rent at her one-bedroom Commonwealth Avenue apartment. “But if I have to forego a night out or two to stay here, that’s fine. I’m safe and comfortable, and that’s important.”

As the economy continues to deteriorate, more people are choosing to rent instead of buy. This increased demand has driven up rents and caused rental agents like Holly Ellard, a rental associate at Charlesgate Realty Group, to put in extra hours. Rents in the Back Bay have risen by 6 percent since January, she said, which has helped her business by raising her commissions.

On a Sunday afternoon, Ellard sat down at the bar at Stephanie’s on Newbury. After her first Sunday showing in months, she took some time to unwind.

"I never work Sundays," she said. "But that's just how it is right now."

Rents in the neighborhood have been rising since 2006, as the median advertised asking rent jumped 5 percent from $1995 to $2100 between 2006 and 2007, according to the Department of Development’s 2007 real estate trends report. This figure ranks the Back Bay as the second most expensive neighborhood in Boston. The Department of Development could not be reached for comment on 2008’s trends.

Despite the perks of living in the area, some former residents chose to leave after their rents spiked.

“I had a certain amount I was willing to pay,” said Brittany Wiggins, 22, who left for Allston in September after rent on her two-bedroom Commonwealth Avenue apartment increased by $100 per month. “I told my roommate I’d live with her somewhere cheaper, but she didn’t want to leave, so I moved out.”

The credit crunch also has some residents with mortgages reconsidering their options. Rich O’Brien, 45, looked into renting his Marlborough Street apartment when he was considering moving to Chicago.

“I had a potential tenant willing to pay more than the asking price I had in mind within a week,” he said. “And that was before I even decided whether or not I was moving.”
The National Association of Realtors reports that there are 4,188 dwellings currently occupied by renters in the Back Bay and 52 up for rent with an average residential turnover of 22 percent. Many residents have chosen to make sacrifices elsewhere in their budgets to hold on to their coveted addresses.

For many residents, the convenience of living in the neighborhood is enough to compensate for the high price of residency.

“I can walk or take a short cab to work from my place,” said Adam Hark, 37, a partner at MerchantPortfolios.com on Beacon Street who lives on Commonwealth Avenue. “Saving money on transportation might not totally even out the rent, but I don’t think I could be any further away from my office.”

Though Ellard said that the fall and winter months show a lower demand for rentals, she is confident that the number of available rentals will remain small – if not decrease – in coming months.

“I do not have to convince people to live in the Back Bay,” she said. “There is and always will be a high demand for this area. It sells itself.”

CHOWDER OR PAELLA? BERKLEE STUDENTS GET THE CHOICE

By Jenny Speer

BACK BAY – After nurturing the careers of musical innovators such as John Mayer, Melissa Etheridge and Quincy Jones, Berklee College of Music hopes to inspire new legends. But now, they may be from abroad.

Berklee, once one of Boston's smallest schools, has grown into the world's largest music college and is expanding its global influence from the Back Bay to Valencia. Berklee Valencia, Spain. Berklee Valencia, slated to open in 2011, will be the world's largest offshore American music college, offering classes and programs that students cannot find at the Boston campus.

"We're doing something entirely new here," said Allen Bush, Berklee's director of media relations. "Students will be able to come here to supplement their semester here or get a master's degree, which is not an option at Berklee Boston."

Berklee Valencia will hold seats for 1,000 students, with 200 reserved for Berklee Boston students studying abroad. The rest will come from Spain, Latin America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The curriculum will offer five primary tracks of study: music for film and integrated media, electronic production and design, global music and entertainment management, symphonic band studies, and Mediterranean music.

The college is a joint venture with Sociedad General de Autores y Editores – the Spanish creators' rights organization – and Valencia's local government. The Sociedad will send many of its prominent members to the Back Bay campus to hold residencies, workshops and clinics to bring Berklee students an international experience whether they choose to study in Valencia or not.

"There'll be some very distinguished visitors [in Boston] sooner than later," Bush said. "Maybe even as early as next semester, but we're not sure. We're still in the planning stage."

Though Berklee president Robert H. Brown hosted a ceremony to lay the first stone in Valencia on Oct. 16. the project began three years ago when Berklee first introduced international programs to students. The college offers programs in Athens, Greece and Frelberg, Germany, both of which have increased in popularity since their start in 2005. Thirty students participated in these programs during the fall semester.

"There's definitely been a rise in demand [to study abroad] over the past couple of years," said Danielle Cruz, a representative of Berklee's office of international programs. "There's a smaller amount of students there, so it allows teachers to concentrate and structure their curriculum around the students more. A lot of students want that."

Some students are intrigued by the idea of spending a semester – or more – in Spain at a school bearing the Berklee name.

"I don't know what I'm doing after I graduate yet, so that's an option," said Matt Aylward, 22, a graduating senior at Berklee studying guitar in the college's strings program. "Performing in front of a Spanish audience would be unreal."

The 1,000-seat outdoor concert hall beneath the 25-story "Tower of Music" planned for Berklee Valencia would afford students an opportunity to perform. The innovative facilities and new programs are already gathering attention from musicians worldwide.

"I think this college will be a great bridge between American and Europen and African music," said Gianluca Sgalabro, a Rome-based drummer who blogs about drumming and broader musical issues, in an e-mail. "It may become the center of an international music movement where tradition and innovation could lead music in new directions."

Some students are unsure of what the new college's curriculum will entail.

"I need to learn more about it," said Jenna Petrigno, 22, a graduating senior majoring in vocal performance. "I think it's great for the school, but I want to develop a little more here before I start thinking I can hold my own somewhere else."

Though the programs at Berklee Valencia are still in their developmental stages, Bush is confident that the new college will emobody the standards Berklee Boston has established over the past 63 years.

"At Berklee Boston, we reject 70 percent of applicants," he said. "A lot of people want to come here. As bad as it sounds, we're hoping that Berklee Valencia will reach that level someday."

SORRY, CHARLIE; T RIDERS LOSING FAITH IN ARLINGTON AND COPLEY STATION RENOVATIONS

By Jenny Speer

BACK BAY – In late June, a sign featuring a construction the MBTA's mascot, Charlie, hung crookedly on a wire fence surrounding the construction site of the new head house of the Arlington T station, asking pedestrians to pardon the mess. Across the sign, a graffiti artist offered a blunt response to the message: “$4 MILLION, 4 YEARS, ONE BIG WASTE OF TIME.”

The spray paint-wielding activist was off in the figures: Nov. 22 will mark two years since construction to add eleveators started on both stations. The costs for the project have jumped from the original $46 million to nearly $61 million. The sign has since been replaced, but some passengers remain disgruntled.

“It makes me want to not pay taxes anymore,” Sara Dart, 24, of Brighton. “I pay taxes and the ever-increasing fare; it’s like I’m paying double for a slower ride.”

The MBTA is sitting on more than $8 billion of debt, though it still awarded 240 executive employees a 9 percent salary increase in August.

“We are supposed to trust that the authority has the process under control and is managing it well, but what a commuter sees on a daily basis does not give them much in the way of hope,” Bill Daras, 26, of Jamaica Plain, who writes about transportation in his blog, said in an email. “They see banners proclaiming the shiny new, accessible station that will be ready for them in ‘Spring 2009,’ but they look behind the barricades that have stood for nearly two years and they find everything looks more or less how it did in 2006.”

Both the MBTA and the project’s architect, Leers Weinzafel Associates of Boston, declined to comment on the project’s status. Both stations are in the construction stage of development, according to the MBTA's website.

The project has faced opposition and delays since 1992, when the MBTA first proposed that the Copley station needed to be made wheelchair accessible to comply with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

"Obviously we want that station to be accessible," said Sarah Kelly, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance. "We just wanted to see a different location for the headhouse."

The Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, in association with the Boston Preservation Alliance, filed a lawsuit against the FTA and MBTA, claiming that the project would violate historical preservation regulations by destroying some of the stairs of the Boston Public Library.

“There was some damage to the side of the [library] building during construction, which was exactly what we were concerned about,” Kelly said.

Jackie Yessian, former chairwoman of the association, claimed that this mishap was avoidable.

“We gave them a lot of options that they didn’t study,” she said. “They damaged a historic national monument. There’s legislation in place to protect that.”

Despite concern over the welfare of national historic landmarks – the Boston Public Library, the Old South Church and Trinity Church are all affected by the renovations – local businesses have not felt the impact of the construction.

“It actually hasn’t been that bad,” Rich Marcella, bar manager of Parish CafĂ© on Boylston Street, said. “There’s a lot of traffic, so that’s inconvenient, but half of Boston is under construction.”

As the project’s two-year mark approaches, the estimated completion date – now winter 2009 – is met with growing skepticism by passengers like Daras.

“We're asked to have faith, but we're not given any rewards for our faith,” he said. “ Maybe that elevator will be finished next year, maybe the platform will be finished the year after that…Meanwhile, the high rise down the road has gone from excavation to completion in the time it's taken to pour a few inches of concrete.”