Boston's new Lack of Innovation Center

[gallery] I love Boston. I lived and worked here for 20 plus years. My own little office has been in the Seaport district and South End for the last 8 years. Open loft office, bad HVAC ,cheap rent. It is, or rather was, a place for small start up companies to live. But developers are always looking for the next big thing. These areas are being bought up and developed into condos and apartments.

Reading Scott Kirsner's article this morning sadden me. He is right of course, as he is well plugged into the start up ecosystem in the area. This new "Boston Innovation Center" is just another insult. It is not cheap office space for start ups. It is a conference center and a restaurant. But wait -- is there not a beautiful and mostly unused conference center across a few block? How about asking the Boston Convention Center to contribute part the space for used by smaller businesses? A quick look at their schedule shows that they are not that booked up.

If the city actually meant to foster innovation and small business instead of pander mostly to large real estate developers, they should try the affordable housing model. Each time a developer gets approval to put up any new buildings, they have to contribute to a portion of low rent office space elsewhere.

The City's responsibility is to bring infrastructure to these low rent office space areas to help them thrive -- we need:

  • affordable and working transportation
  • parking and bike lanes
  • high speed internet connection (city of Boston is one place where you cannot get cheap FIOS)
  • cheap food and cheap rent

As a bonus if you target problem areas in Boston, it will help energize the neighborhoods. Except sadly I know this will not happen without some new innovation from the top.

Family living, South End vs Lexington

Now that we moved, I have started blogging at the Lexington Patch. This article talks about my initial observation about what has changed from living in the South End to living in Lexington. One additional point about our move -- our new place is very close to Lexington Center. So everything is within walking distance, exactly like the South End. While we miss the Chinese supermarkets and Peters Park, we still get the benefits of having everything else very close by. If we have to get into a car to drive 5 minutes to get to anything, we may feel a little differently.


Nice Folks, Mean Folks Part Two

In my previous post, I described the nice things that happened this morning. This post tells you about the not so nice people I encountered today. Remember my "dumber than a dumbbell" post last year? I thought that is behind me but I thought wrong. My Tai Chi student has signed up for some program at the Boston Sports Club that gives her a lot of coupons for "free friends visit". So she has been using them on and off to get me into the club to do the Tai Chi class. Since she has been away for almost two months we actually have not been going for awhile. Today, only our second time since the beginning of Summer, a BCS staff stopped us at the entrance.

"You can't use that coupon, it is for new visitors only", she waved that in front of my friends face. My friend explained that she was told that she could. In fact, the only reason she signed up for the special program is to get those coupons to use for the Tai Chi classes. "No you cannot, see what it says here" the lady pointed at this little postage stamp sized coupon again.

The conversation went downhill from there. I explain to the lady that I am truly puzzled why she explicitly go out of her way to annoy my friend and myself. I told her the additional irony -- I just received a flying from (a different location up the street) BCS offering corporate membership at my office. And her attitude turns me off Boston Sports Club completely.

I really try to understand this lady's mental process (or the lack of). What does she think she is doing? Is she profiting from this or being hurt by this. Today we paid the extra $15 guest fee. So Town Sports made $15. Hurrah! But would we ever go back again? Highly unlikely. So there is no future $15. My friend currently has a family membership. She is so annoyed that she wants to quit now. So that are more hundred of dollars of annual due lost. Why?

You think the lost of one membership is not a big deal. But this is a tight neighborhood. This is my second blog posts that I am writing on this topic. Will this in anyway be positive PR for Boston Sports Club? Or negative?

I quickly checked their yelp listing here. Here are some juicy excerpts:

  • "Staff, including the General Mgr. in particular, often looks like they would rather be anywhere else.  Can't say I blame them, but it's called "acting", I do it at my job all the time."
  • "The hairdryer holders in the women's locker rooms are all broken so the hairdryers just lay on the shelves leaving no room for toiletries etc. Towels are thin with wear. The staff, both front desk and trainers, are indifferent. Asking a question generates attitude - especially the trainers."
  • "The 1-star is for the woman who handles the memberships at this location. Every time I talk to her, she gives me incorrect information. She seems so vibrant, confident and well-versed that you want to believe her - sadly it's a facade."
  • "The staff always says "Have a good workout" even though they clearly don't mean it and don't care."

Enough said.

Nice Folks, Mean Folks

Two things happened today within 10 minutes of each other. Once involved a Boston Police officer. One involve a neighborhood health club manager. If you guessed the nice folk is the Boston Police officer, you are correct. I parked my car on the street early in the morning today right next to my loft and my office. I did not see a poorly taped sign that says temporary no parking. (I still cannot read it). Late morning I got a phone call from an unknown number. This is what happened:

The police officer, instead of towing my car away because turned out that they are doing construction around my parking spot, looked up the registration. He then walked around the block to my building. Fortunately he miss read the loft unit number and knocked on my old neighbors door. They answered the door and rightfully was surprised that a police is at the door. The nice police officer explained that, instead of towing my car, he just want the owner to move it. Once my neighbor realized what is going on, he called me on the phone. I ran downstairs, moved the car and waved a quick thank you to the officer standing next to the construction site.

There is a bit of luck involved here, with the police officer knocked on the wrong door, and that my neighbor was home. But clearly he could have just towed my car. Instead, he and my neighbor saved me a lot of brief and money.

The mean folks tale is here in a different blog post.

Back to Lexington

In the PK's tradition of making important announcements on April's First, it is now semi-public knowledge that I am giving up the city living and heading back to the burbs. At this point I only wished I kept my last house in Lexington. Instead it is now a delicately timed project of selling, renting and buying, in some order between Boston and Lexington. I know I am really going to miss living in the South End. At this point the kiddos are half complaining about leaving "the best house ever". But then they have never had a backyard, nor a private driveway, nor a school that actually has a playground and ball field attached. The pros and cons have already been analyzed in this other blog post. I won't repeat it here. But it is a large part a financial decision. Having stared at risk assessments for over a year while developing WealthMate, the financial implications are getting to me. Also, it seems that, while we are still in the East coast, why not give the kids a bit of the typical American suburban life experience.

Spin out on 93, live tweeting a car accident

First real mini snow storm in Boston. 8:30 am on a Saturday and I am on my way to a tech seminar. Going 50 mph and traffic was light. Must have hit a patch of ice. The car's skid warning sounded. Yeah I know! Trying to steer out of the spin, but the rear end is coming around. I caught enough of it to not tuned 180, but the driver side still hit the guard rail. It's one of those helpless moments! Insurance, miss the seminar, flashing through my head.

That thought quickly gave way to more immediate attention once the car ended up facing the wrong way on the fast side of the highway with cars coming at me. I backed the car up onto the median strip. At this point there is really nothing between me and on coming traffic. What to do?

I called 911 which got routed to the state police. They said to stay in the car. I am only about 200 yards from an exit, which will help them find me. A tow truck was called. As I am contemplating what to do another truck spun out at the same spot, luckily he stopped before hitting anything, especially not me.

10 minutes later a plow truck comes by. Wished he would be 10 minutes early, but at least he stopped and see if I am ok. Another few minutes later an SUV pulled up. I saw the driver took some pictures with a camera from his car. Turned out he is a state police, maybe on his way to work? He has built in flashers in his car. He put on his bright fluorescent vest and turned on his flashers. Stopped traffic and help me pulled to the safer side of the highway. I told him I already called it in, and he left. He was nice and helpful.

Another 15 minutes later a cruiser pulled up. He wonder if he needed to file a report on any guardrail damage and I told him I don't think there are any. He looked over, and said ok. I think their hands are pretty full at this point. Much later yet another cruise pulled up and traded places with him. So what to do? Start tweeting!

Almost an hour later the tow truck arrived. He asked me where I need to go? And he dropped me at the commuter rail station. So here I am, waiting for the next train, an hour away.

What to do? Write this blog post, on my iPad, post via tethering via the iPhone...

Post Accident Update

A few things that I learnt:

  • because I called the police, and they call a tow truck, it is considered a "police tow" and at least in this case the tow yard wanted me to physically go to them to sign a form before they will release the car to my repair shop.
  • Since I have AAA -- perhaps I should have called them (still trying to figure this out).

City of Boston, Do not Trust Us, and No Refund

Update to my property tax overpayment issue. Read the first part here. Here is a quick summary of the situation:

Executive Summary

After some back and forth with the city, I found out that my South End Condo is classified as a mixed residential and commercial property. Therefore I have been paying more property tax for the last 7+ years. The city said:

  • - I should have noticed that the little "C" on my tax bill means I have been paying commercial tax (30+% instead of 12+%).
  • - I should have applied for reclassification 7 years ago
  • - Now they will not, by law, refund all the overpayment over the years, totalling more than  $10,000

In short, Do not trust us, and we do not refund money collected in error

Do not trust Us

Give the city credit, the city people has been nice and helpful in communication. The chairperson of the assessment department review board called me to explain the situation to me after I contacted the Mayor's Hotline on the web.  She even screen printed and emailed me all the documentation. However, during the 30 minutes phone conversation, the following exchange summarized the situation really well:

Me: Nobody would know to look at the "C" on the tax bill and question the property classification.

Chairperson: "You do check your credit card statement each month to see, if a waiter put on a $100 tip would you? You should have checked your tax bills too."

A city official is telling me I should treat my government like a bad waiter, and check everything?

Really? I cannot trust my local government for not doing their job correct? Looking at all the city services that I use, I cannot trust them? It is my job to question everything? This is sounding like a bad episode of the X-Files.

  • My children play in city parks. (How ironic, I am even on the board of the Friends of Peters Park). They drink from the water fountain. Should I now have the water quality checked periodically?
  • I drive in the city. When I reach a junction, should I get out of the car and make sure the traffic like in the other direction is red before moving forward?
  • Should I start shadowing our Mayor to every meeting and question every decisions the city makes? Where does it start? Where does it end? A bit absurd?

No Refund

If I find a problem, do not expect the city to fix it? I wonder, if the tax error was not in the city's favor, but in mine, would they also not come after me, by law? If I run a restaurant assessed at 2 million dolllars for 7 years and I have been paying residential only tax on the property. Once they found out, would they tell me "oh don't worry, we won't ask for the extra, say 2 million dollars assessment times 18% tax difference times 7 years = 252,000.? Really?

How you can Help

  • If you have access to news organization, tell them do a story.
  • If you are a city official that can help, let me know ( p k @ p k s h i u . c o m )

No Refund for Overpaid Property Tax in Boston?

I have a loft at the South End of Boston. It is a great loft building with almost 100 units. Some of the units are designed artist lofts, with a below market rate price and can only be bought and sold to certified artists.

My property tax problem started a few years ago (or more), but I only realized it this year, 2011. My tax bill is almost 3000 dollars more than what it should be. That means I have probably over paid tens of thousands of dollars over the years. And the city said they will not pay me back.

The problem is not due to a wrong valuation of the loft. I understand that valuation is tricky. The problem is that, someone at the tax department has wrongly classified my loft as a part commercial unit. Every year I was taxed, 25% of my property value, at the 31.04% commercial rate instead of the 12.79% residential rate.

For example: The loft currently is valued at about 600,000. The property tax should be roughly 600K x 13% = 7800 dollars. Instead it is: 600K x 75% x 13% + 600K x 25% x 31% = 5850 + 4650 = 10500, 2700 dollars more. That's right. And they city said they will not refund me the difference.

How did the error occur? The tax department mis-interpreted the master deed of the building. The master deed explicitly stated that certain units in the building are artist lofts, and they allow artists to work in them. There are two relevant exhibits to the master deed. Exhibit C is a simply listing of ALL the units in the building, noting the percentage ownership and size. All the units are listed as "studios", as this is a loft building. Lofts have no bedrooms. They are by definition "studios".

A different exhibit, exhibit D lists specific lofts units within the buildings as artist studios. These are the ones that are bought and sold as artists lofts, and allow live work. This is defined by paragraph 6 of the master deed.

See the problem? The tax department read the wrong list of units, mis-interpreted the word "studio" and decided to classify my non artist but a studio (no bedroom) loft as part commercial.

I spoke with the tax department and they have come out on a "site visit" to verify the unit is not an artist loft. Of course that makes no sense since it is a documentation error. Physically seeing the unit will not make any difference. But whatever. They have agreed to change the classification back to pre residential. But they also told me that "under no circumstances they will refund any past paid tax to me".

Does this really make sense? My residential home was mis classified by a mis-interpretation of a legal document by the tax department. This is a clear mistake. They took my money, tens of thousands of dollars worth. Can I get a refund? For the city official looking into this, the parcel ID is 0306395084 .

Update: See part two, the city called.