Tagged: somerville

Assembling the price of a happy city

How long does it take to go from one of Boston’s newest hip neighborhoods, the Innovation District, to one of Somerville’s even newer, actually not quite finished, ones, Assembly Row by public transit? During evening rush hour on a weekday, this trip of about 4.5 road miles took me almost an hour as I traversed the Silver, Red and Orange lines and the #90 bus. Somebody determined enough and in decent enough shape could have run this in about half an hour or walked it it not much more than an hour. Cutting Assembly Row a bit of slack, there will be an Orange line station there later this year.

Still Assembling the Orange line

But why, you ask, would I undertake such an errand? Well, oddly enough, I was headed to a lecture on urbanism set up by the virtual and estimable Design Museum Boston. Christine McLaren, lead researcher of the book, Happy City, was giving a talk at Assembly Row’s outdoor amphitheater (!) overlooking the Mystic River. Well, that’s my second favorite local river and I do love a good amphitheater, so naturally I had to attend. Plus, I wanted to check out Assembly Row.

McLaren served up what I have to describe as the usual New Urbanist kool-aid – of which I heartily partook – but she brought a key insight I hadn’t been paying attention to. Cities, she says, are machines for happiness. The objective function of a city is not efficiency, environmental impact, or GDP, it’s happiness. The key determinant of happiness, according to McLaren’s research, is social connectedness, so urban designs that increase such connectedness are the ones that make people happier and the ones we should build.

View of the Mystic river over the amphitheater

Here’s where I partially part company with the happy city people. They say the research shows that the far-flung suburbs are isolating and so are the densest apartment towers. The happy medium – attached townhouses, for example – is where you get peak happy. That may be so (I have my doubts but my sample size is small) but how can we get all the people who want to live in a city housed if we can’t go higher than townhouses? Like Matt Yglesias, I’m partial to density and don’t think it has to reduce happiness. A well-designed apartment building of any height is just a stack of floors, each one being a group of homes sharing some common space, not unlike a townhouse or courtyard.

Back to Assembly Row. It seems to meet many (though not all, watch those unprotected bike lanes!) the criteria of Happy City, at least it will once the Orange line station opens and the rest of the development is finished. So far as I can tell, there are 195 housing units from studio to 3 bedrooms in the 5-story Avalon development. I’m already thinking this isn’t enough.  As of Bastille Day, they’ve pre-leased 2/3 of the units, including all the 3BR. Mostly studios remain, starting 451 square feet or so for $1.,985/mo. Cheaper and no doubt more modern and well-appointed than downtown Boston but not so different from many existing mixed-use neighborhoods also a few T stops from downtown.

I don’t know how much taller the apartment building could have been by law, but I have to believe that the marginal cost of the 6th floor would be less than the average cost of the first five, and would have provided a 20% increase in housing units for less than 20% more cost. Repeat this logic as high as you care to go, and eventually the supply starts to reduce the price, and equilibrium tells you where to stop.

The median household income in the Boston metro area was a bit less than $72k in 2012. If you spent 1/3 of your gross income on housing, that would be about $2,000/mo, the price of the smallest studios at Assembly Row. If the average household is more than one person (looks like it’s about 2 and a quarter) the studio won’t work so well. One bedroom units start at $2,380, and 2BR at $2,835. It looks like the rent is too damn high and happy new urbanism at Assembly Row is out of reach to the average Boston family. To be fair, the developers have no particular obligation to serve the average family but I do think the new urbanists should strive to do so. It wouldn’t hurt if lawmakers lined up better incentives for developers to do so, too.

How did I get home from Assembly Row after 8pm? The Orange line would be of no use for going to Cambridge and the buses had largely gone to bed for the night. I took Uber, 3.5 miles in 16 minutes for $10.

Wine unboxing

At one of the frequent tastings a Ball Square Fine Wine, I noticed that they now stock Chat en Ouef and I also tasted a nice Bordeaux for a wooden box. Well, most likely from a plastic bag inside that box. But anyway, at $39 for 3 liters (that’s four regulation 750ml bottles) it seemed like a good buy. Here’s the unboxing – and reboxing as it were.

It’s got a convenient carrying handle and sure looks nice with my Vanshnookenraggen MTA subway map posters. I’m sure you know by now that I think wood is the new white.

Chateau Lhorens 2011 Bordeaux

Unless you’re already drunk you can probably manage these directions.

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I was a bit unnerved by the prolapsed wine sack, but everything got neatly tucked back into place.

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Here’s the spout, ready to serve.

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I think putting box wine in a nicer box – with a nice spout – was a great marketing move by the Lhorens team. I’m not really sure you should age wine in a plastic bag, but if you’re not up to drinking three liters at a sit-down, I bet it’ll keep better in there than in a glass bottle with lots of extra air.

The bottle is half full, but can you take it home in Somerville?

In 2006, I was one of many celebrating a change in the law of the Commonwealth allowing restaurants to send diners home with unconsumed portion of the bottle of wine they ordered. This opened up the full wine list to any casual tippler, assuming they would have occasion to drink the remainder in the future. While full bottles might be a better deal per ounce for the diner, don’t weep for the restauranteur, markups on whole bottles are still pretty rich, and now smart waiters can upsell you to a bottle with a sly, “well, you can always take the rest home…”

Since then, I’ve taken many a partial bottle home and become quite comfortable with the procedure. Until this weekend, when I was suddenly and without warning refused. A certain Somerville establishment told me that they were not licensed by the city to let me take the half full bottle away.  I even snuck off and got a second opinion from the bartender after the waitress turned me down – same story.

As I read the state law on wine to go, Massachusetts restaurants are allowed but not compelled to do this, so I believe they could have simply said, no sir, we don’t do that, and been in the clear. But they told me they were not allowed to, and I’m having a terrible time verifying that claim. Can anybody tell me if there is an additional license needed in Somerville for leftover wine carryout?  I’ve carried enough Somerville wine out to know that there is no city ban on the practice.

I won’t name the restaurant until I can figure out what the real deal is – I may well owe them an apology – but here’s what I think happened: I think they failed to get the equipment (not the license) necessary for letting patrons take leftover wine home. The equipment turns out to be a special kind of plastic bag and a stapler, and quick search found these wine to go bags available for $72 per 500 pack from a restaurant supply house.

In Massachusetts, the restaurant is required to recork or rescrew the bottle, put it in a clear plastic self-sealing bag made specifically for this purpose, and staple a copy of the meal receipt to the whole shebang. The sealing is to prevent exposing anybody to the dreaded open container laws, and the meal receipt is to substantiate that you ordered and ate food with your partial bottle of wine, another requirement of the wine to go law.  So I’m thinking that this restaurant didn’t stock or possibly ran out of these special baggies, and just took the lazy way out by saying that they were not licensed – which, unfortunately, is a pretty believable excuse for almost anything in Massachusetts.

If anybody knows the real rules of the Somerville wine take-home game, please clue me in so I can either try and help this place get the proper license or equipment, or self-righteously demand a compensatory half bottle of wine.  Because if I could take wine home in a bottle, that’s the first thing that I’d ever do.

Help Aguacate Verde serve more than agua

Passing through one of Camberville’s lesser squares, Wilson Square, I ducked in to Aguacate Verde for a quick lunch with Professor M. A casual Mexican place with an emphasis on healthy choices and a specialization in Salvadorean Pupusas, Aguacate Verde has the feel of comfortable neighborhood place. M had a veggie burrito (bonus points for whole wheat tortilla) and had two tacos, one veggie and one al pastor.

Veggie and al pastor tacos at Aguate Verde in Wilson Square

Everything was fresh and flavorful, especially the pork in the al pastor and the beans in every dish. I guess I might have wanted more avocado in my veggie taco given the place’s name, but it’s hard to argue with these tacos’ value at $3 each.

As we were leaving, the woman behind the counter asked us to sign a petition in support of their application for a liquor license, which we did, and I encourage you to do the same when you visit Aguacate Verde, which I hope you do soon. The lack of a liquor license can really hurt the dinner business of a place like this. I’d hate to lose a source of such nice tacos, pupusas and tamales for want of a cerveza.

At Nave Gallery Annex, the door to summer is a jar

I am sitting in a room probably very different from the one you are in now. I am sitting on a metal glider swing in the front parlor of a Somerville home facing two intensely bright lamps and listening to recorded sounds of nature. It’s artist Lyn Nofziger‘s installation, Home, at the Nave Gallery‘s new Annex on Chester Street, part of the group show, Picnic.

I’m too stuffed up to know if there’s an olfactory component, but except for the temperature, Home does in fact deliver on the promise of Picnic, to glorify “the lush serenity, the ripe thriving growth, the vibrant color of what’s living in these sultry days of summer.” In January and February, of course.  It’s a bit like a sunset but maybe even brighter and yet it makes you want to linger.

There’s almost too much going on the four or so rooms of an otherwise typical apartment that the Nave Gallery has taken over. The card lists 16 artists and there are almost certainly more if you count the dozen or so conributors to the open call to “preserve summer” where local artists were asked to “capture the endless and invincible season of summer in a mason jar.” This is at least as cool as when you could seal anything you wanted into a can at the now-gone Museum of Useful Things.

In an awesome three-part sink next to the jars of summer you might notice Sophia Sobers’ installation Abandoned Nature, a series of organic forms whose shape recalls coral or some kind of fungus, but whose location and color also remind you of flora that flourish in the dark corners of some ill-attended kitchen or bathroom.

The lith prints of photographer Adam Gooder are sprinkled around the galleries (and some prints in a bin are for sale at criminally low prices, by the way) and depict flowers in closeup with a delicate sunshiney tonality and delicious grain.  I don’t know if Gooder has a stash of old Kodalith paper or has an alternate chemical or digital method, but it works for me.

There’s a tremendous amount more work in this show, it could take you till summer to digest it all, but since the show closes on February 8 with a reception and mason jar auction, I suggest you get over there soon and join me in welcoming this art space to Davis Square.