Thursday, March 31, 2011

ENERGY EFFICIENCY: Don’t Like CFL Light Bulbs? Try LED or Halogen Options

March 04—How many tips does it take to change a light bulb? A few more, apparently.

Despite avid media coverage and education campaigns by the government and environmental groups, consumers still aren’t flocking to newer, energy-efficient light bulbs.

Even in states with long-running and well-funded programs to promote compact fluorescent lamps, only 1 in 5 household sockets contain those bulbs, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Energy. Sales of CFLs peaked in 2007 and have declined since, the report says.

But a switch could be good for your wallet. And besides, you won’t have much choice soon.

A federal law passed in 2007 requires manufacturers to make light bulbs that emit the same brightness using less energy. Traditional incandescent bulbs can’t do that, so they’ll effectively be dropped from production over the next few years. As a consumer, you can continue using incandescents, but eventually you won’t be able to buy any more unless it’s a specialty bulb.

A phase-in of the new rules starts next January with 100-watt bulbs. That’s news to a lot of people. Just two in 10 people know about the 100-watt bulb’s impending extinction, according to a recent survey by lighting manufacturer Osram Sylvania.

Some consumers aware of the coming change—13%—plan to stock up on incandescent 100-watt bulbs while they can get them, the survey found. A Consumer Reports blog referred to them as “Lightbulb Luddites.”

That’s probably because consumers have a better alternative to hoarding inefficient 100-watters. That is, switching to new energy-efficient bulbs, probably CFLs and perhaps halogen incandescents or light emitting diodes (LEDs), experts say.

“People don’t like change, even when it’s good for you,” said Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy. “This is a change that can do good for your pocketbook and not do harm to quality of your life or the quality of your light.”

Here are questions and answers about energy-efficient lighting.

What’s changing? The demise of traditional 100-watt incandescent bulbs will be followed by 75-watt bulbs in 2013 and 60- and 40-watt bulbs in 2014. The new regulations actually don’t ban or promote any particular lighting technology. They require bulbs to be about 25% more efficient. Traditional incandescent bulbs can’t meet the new standard.

What about specialty fixtures? You’ll still be able to buy the same incandescent versions of decorative, appliance, and other specialty bulbs.

What should I buy instead? The most popular and affordable replacement is the CFL, many of which have a swirl design.

“CFLs are a pretty good technology, and they’re getting better,” said Maria Vargas, spokeswoman with the federal Energy Star program. “But it’s not an exact replacement for incandescents, because it is a different technology.”

Today’s versions are far superior and come in sizes that fit most standard light fixtures.

“CFL manufacturers have responded favorably to all the historical consumer complaints,” said Terry Drew, director of energy efficiency and sustainability for CSA International, which tests and certifies light bulbs. More than 85% of consumers report they are satisfied with the performance of CFLs, according to the report by the Energy Department.

But halogen and LED lights are available, too, and have advantages. For example, LEDs and halogen bulbs are fully dimmable, come to full brightness instantly and contain no mercury. But they cost more.

How much money can I save? Anything that uses energy has two costs: the initial cost and the energy cost over its lifetime. CFLs win on both counts. The initial-cost advantage might not be obvious because a CFL bulb will cost more than an incandescent, maybe $1.50 per bulb compared with 50 cents. But the CFL will last up to 10 times longer, making it far cheaper over the long run on initial price alone.

“In the time you would replace one CFL, you’d have 10 spent incandescents sitting in your trash can,” said Chad Bulman, program manager for the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance.

Then you have the energy savings. A CFL uses 75% less energy than an incandescent bulb. Each CFL can save you about $40 over its lifetime, according to Energy Star. Those living in regions with high electricity costs save more. The range is $30 to $60 in savings per bulb. More broadly, the new standards will save an American family of four an average of about $200 per year, estimates the Alliance to Save Energy.

A minor benefit to CFLs are they don’t burn hot. So, in the summer, you will potentially use a little less air conditioning.

What about the quality of CFLs? CFLs have gone through growing pains. They once were pretty lousy: expensive and with poor-quality light. But today they are cheaper and are more similar to regular light bulbs. Those who were disappointed by CFLs in the past might give them another try.

Are there drawbacks? CFLs still don’t work well in most dimmable switches. And while you’ll get most of the light right away, it might take a minute or so to achieve full brightness. They also have mixed effectiveness in outdoor fixtures, especially in cold weather.

Consumers have complained about the brightness of CFLs. But that might be due to the bad advice of buying a CFL equal to one-quarter the wattage of an incandescent.

“I think that’s a mistake; it’s more like one-third,” Vargas said.

CFLs also have trace amounts of mercury, which is a potential health problem only if the bulb breaks, and you’d have to break several CFLs in a confined space to be in significant danger.

“The threat of CFL mercury is a bit overblown,” Bulman said. And environmentalists prefer you recycle burned-out CFLs, rather than throwing them in the trash. You can drop off spent, unbroken bulbs at any Home Depot. You can also visit

How about other technologies? LED is the other major type of energy-efficient lighting. LED bulbs don’t suffer from many of the drawbacks of CFLs. They are fully dimmable and great for using outdoors. They are more energy efficient than CFLs and can last 25 years. But they are very expensive. An LED bulb might cost $40.

Another alternative is a halogen bulb. They are not that energy efficient, comparatively. So, they will save more money than traditional incandescents but less than CFLs. But they don’t suffer some of the CFL shortcomings. They, too, are fully dimmable and give good light. They might cost $4 to $5 a bulb.

Neither LEDs nor halogens contain mercury.

Bottom line: If you want to start easing your way into energy-efficient bulbs, replace your five most-used, nondimmable lights with Energy Star-certified CFLs. For best prices and variety, buy multipacks at big-box stores, such as home centers, mass discounters, and warehouse clubs.
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Copyright (c) 2011, Chicago Tribune

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

TECHNOLOGY: Smart Meters Raise Suspicions

Coast to coast, from Maine to Marin County, Calif., the number of homes being outfitted with smart meters that keep a close eye on home owner electricity use is on the rise. And so is the number of folks who think smart meters are a dumb idea.

Some complain about the meters’ accuracy. Some worry about potential burglars watching when they turn off the lights. Others center on fears the radio waves from the meters could trigger ringing ears, headaches, nausea, sleeplessness, and worse. There’s no medical evidence for the concern, but people still worry.

“I’m old enough to remember running behind the DDT trucks as a child (which sprayed the insecticide as a gas cloud to kill mosquitoes), and everyone told us those were safe,” says South Portland, Maine, Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis. She had her home’s freshly installed smart electricity meter removed last fall. “It feels the same way now when people say smart meters are no problem.”

Nationwide, some 3 million homes have smart meters, digital electricity gauges equipped with wireless communications, according to the federal Department of Energy (DOE). According to the utility industry’s Institute for Electric Efficiency, about 65 million smart meters will be working in U.S. homes by 2020.

Giving consumers more power
The meters mean the end of the meter reader wandering into the back yard to record numbers off the whirling gauges. Instead, a radio signal either goes directly to the utility company over power lines or is sent by cellphone signal. The meter puts access to that same information inside for the home owner to see.

“For consumers, it really is about empowering them to make choices about their energy use,” says DOE’s Stephanie Mueller. Hooked to the coming “smart” electrical grid, home owners with smart meters should be able to select pricing plans that let them purchase juice at off-peak hours when it is cheaper, saving them money and the power company the extra cash it spends to run generators during peak afternoon hours.

Boosted by $4.5 billion in federal smart-grid spending over the past two years, 140 power company projects have started installing smart meters in homes.

“A lot of smart meters are being installed quietly, and with no complaints,” says Intelligent Utility magazine’s Kate Rowland. “The success stories aren’t noticed, while a handful of complaints get all the media attention.”

One of the utilities getting attention is Central Maine Power, which installed, and removed, the smart meter in De Angelis’ house. The utility matched a $96 million federal grant last year to start installing 650,000 meters across southern Maine. But with only about 56,000 in place, the meters have become political footballs. The state utility commission will hear complaints in a March 16 meeting, and Maine Gov. Paul LePage says he favors letting home owners “opt out.”

Various complaints dog the technology
Similar protests, including arrests and demonstrations, have bedeviled Pacific Gas & Electric’s rollout of smart meters across Northern California. And in Texas, the power company Oncor received hundreds of complaints about the accuracy of its new smart meters, leading the state utilities commission to hire independent analysts to confirm their accuracy.

Complaints have come in various flavors:

Accuracy. In both California and Texas, higher bills led to independent audits of smart meters. A lawsuit by a Bakersfield, Calif., resident Peter Flores, who said his monthly bills went from $200 to $500, halted installation of meters there. A hot summer in California and a cold winter in Texas seem to be partly at fault for the anger, the audits concluded. But misperforming meters have led to utilities handing out refunds, says Mark Toney of The Utility Reform Network (TURN) consumer group in San Francisco.

Security and privacy. Smart meters can communicate when power demands go up or down at individual houses, leading to more anxiety. “Who is getting the information about when my garage door is going up and down?” De Angelis asks. “I don’t want to come home and find my house has been ransacked by someone who knows when I’m gone.” For this reason, the Energy Department and most states require rules that prohibit sharing such data in smart-grid designs. But with firms such as Google and Microsoft marketing software to manage home power that will rely on smart-meter signals, De Angelis and others worry about private data leaking to the open market.

Health. In an era of cellphone and power-line worries, news that a radio-frequency-equipped meter has been installed on your house worries some home owners. Such concerns led to the California Council on Science and Technology issuing an independent report in January that concluded smart meters delivered less radio frequency energy to home owners than cellphones or microwave ovens. Both the Food and Drug Administration and World Health Organization found no evidence linking such radiation to health problems.

“In the absence of information, people assume the worst,” says Peter Honebein of the Customer Performance Group in San Diego, an industry consultant. Around San Diego, Georgia, Ohio, and the District of Columbia, where smart meters were rolled out only after utilities made intense efforts to educate customers, there have been far fewer complaints.

De Angelis sees the value in that. “I felt like it would be a lot ‘smarter’ if they had answered my questions before they installed it.”

(c) Copyright 2011 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
A service of YellowBrix, Inc.

Dan Vergano March 9, 2011
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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

MARKET CONFIDENCE: Americans Confident in Recovery of Real Estate Market

The majority of America’s potential home buyers and sellers—68%—believe that the real estate market and property values will recover in the next year or two, according to a survey released today by Prudential Real Estate and Relocation Services, Inc., a Prudential Financial, Inc. [NYSE:PRU] company.

That’s way up from last April, when only 47% of people who answered a similar survey thought home prices would recover that fast. Despite the market volatility of the past few years, 86% of Americans believe real estate is a good investment.

The Prudential Real Estate Outlook Survey reveals that six in 10 respondents are more interested in buying real estate (58%) and are optimistic about buying given the momentum of the economic recovery (59%).

It also shows that although the price of many Americans’ homes declined during the recession, 89% recognize they can also buy a new house at a lower price.

“A key takeaway from the survey is although consumers recognize that it is a good time to buy, they are concerned about their ability to sell their homes. This is one of the reasons the market is still struggling to recover,” said James Mallozzi, chief executive officer of Prudential Real Estate and Relocation Services, Inc.

For those on the fence about buying, uncertainty about selling an existing home (77%), concern about getting a fair price for the home (67%), and emotions (58%) are holding them back.

Despite the tough market, 78% of Americans who sold a home were satisfied with the sale. Of these, 32% were very satisfied with the final price of their home and 46% were grateful they were able to sell given market conditions. A relatively small number, 22%, were disappointed or resentful about the price they received for their home.

Source: Prudential Real Estate and Relocation Services, Inc March 11, 2011

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Monday, March 28, 2011

HOME SAFETY: Most Children Sleep Through Smoke Alarm

Most children and teens can sleep through a smoke alarm that sounds for 30 seconds, researchers in Australia found.

“Parents should not rely on their children waking to the smoke alarm in the event of a fire and should not assume that they will immediately evacuate if they do wake up to a fire,” Dr. Dorothy Bruck of Victoria University in Melbourne said in a statement.

In the study, parents of 123 children averaging just under 9 years old—60 boys and 63 girls from 79 families—were asked to trigger their smoke alarm for 30 seconds after their child, or children, had been asleep for 1 to 3 hours.

About 70% of the participants were ages 5-10 years and 30% ages 11-15. Eighty-seven percent of the younger group slept through the smoke alarm, while 56% of children ages 11-15 didn’t wake up.

The children were split into two age groups because plasma melatonin levels drop with puberty onset and the melatonin hormone is known to be sleep-inducing.

The study, published in the journal Fire and Materials, found only one-half of the children who did wake up recognized the sound as a smoke alarm and half of those children knew they should evacuate.

“This data suggests fire safety training needs more emphasis on the need for children to evacuate the home in the event of an alarm sounding,” said Bruck, the study leader.

A service of YellowBrix, Inc.
House Logic March 13, 2011

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

DISASTER INSURANCE: Only 12% of California Home Owners Have Earthquake Insurance

Sacramento—The tragic tsunamis and magnitude 8.9 earthquake that have struck Japan—the 5th-largest quake in the world since 1900—are a stark reminder that earthquakes can happen any time, and it’s essential for home owners to prepare, not just for the quake but for what happens after.

“Preparing for earthquakes is critical, not just in California but in all the other seismic regions throughout the United States,” said Glenn Pomeroy, CEO of the California Earthquake Authority (CEA). “The simple truth is that our country is not adequately prepared for the destruction—and financial devastation—from the ‘Big One’ that strikes closer to home.”

Even though California has two-thirds of the nation’s earthquake risk and most state residents live within 30 miles of a major fault, just 12% of Californians with fire insurance also have earthquake coverage, Pomeroy said.

“The bottom line is that it’s very hard to imagine how a community would recover from a massive quake, when nearly all the damaged homes are completely uninsured for the loss,” Pomeroy said.

Quake not covered by home owners insurance
In California, home owners insurance covers fire loss but doesn’t cover earthquake damage—a separate policy is required. Without earthquake insurance, a California home owner pays out of pocket the full cost of fixing his or her home. And they’ll continue making mortgage payments while also paying the cost of living and eating elsewhere while their home is repaired.

Cars and other vehicles are covered for earthquake damage under the optional comprehensive portion of an auto insurance policy.

Earthquake insurance policies often carry a deductible, generally in the form of a percentage rather than a dollar amount. Deductibles can range anywhere from 2% to 20% of the structure’s replacement value. This means that if it costs $100,000 to rebuild a home and the policy had a 2% deductible, the policyholder would be responsible for paying the first $2,000.

U.S. earthquakes
Since 1900, earthquakes have occurred in 39 U.S. states. Minor earthquakes, for instance, struck states such as Illinois and Nevada in 2008. There hasn’t been a major quake on the U.S. mainland, however, since the 6.7 magnitude Northridge, Calif., event in 1994.

Nonetheless, a huge quake is more likely in Southern California than in Northern California over the next 30 years, according to a 2008 study compiled by experts from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The study also concluded that there is a 99% chance that a quake greater than or equal to the magnitude of the Northridge quake will hit California during the next 30 years.

The 1994 Northridge earthquake and the 1989 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta quake that struck the Oakland-San Francisco area during that year’s World Series were the two most costly earthquakes in U.S. history, as defined by insured losses. In 2008 dollars, Northridge caused an estimated $19 billion to $29 billion in economic losses while the Oakland-San Francisco quake resulted in losses totaling a little over $12 billion.

Sources: Insurance Information Institute and California Earthquake Authority

House March 16, 2011

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

NEWS: White House Threatens to Veto 2 New GOP Housing Bills

WASHINGTON—The White House is threatening to veto two more House Republican bills that would abolish a pair of programs aimed at helping struggling home owners and their communities.

The Home Affordable Modification Program is the Obama administration’s vanguard effort to help people facing foreclosure to refinance into more affordable mortgages. The $30 billion program has been criticized for helping only about 600,000 families, compared with an initial goal of 3 million to 4 million families.

The other program gives money to state and local governments to buy and refurbish abandoned and foreclosed properties.

The GOP-run House plans to pass both bills this week in its effort to cut federal spending at a time of massive budget deficits. The House passed bills killing two other housing programs last week, despite veto threats. March 15, 2011 A service of YellowBrix, Inc.
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Friday, March 25, 2011

GARDENING: Landscaping for Curb Appeal

A well-landscaped yard creates curb appeal and helps your property retain maximum value. Here are a few tips and tricks for sprucing up your outdoor spaces yourself.

beautiful yard is a head-turner, no doubt about it. The good news is that even if you can’t tell a tulip from a turnip at the garden center, you can still create eye-catching curb appeal by paying attention to the basics of good landscaping. Ignoring your yard—or doing something that’s out of character with the neighborhood—can jeopardize the assessed value of your home.

“We have several categories for design and appeal,“ says Frank Lucco, a real estate agent and professional appraiser in Houston. “That’s where we make those adjustments. Poorly maintained landscaping can be as much as a 5 or 10% deduction.”

Appraisers are quick to praise the allure of a well-tended lawn and good-looking landscaping when it comes time to sell your home, but most do not assign any specific increase in monetary value for upkeep.

“Landscaping is going to add to the appeal of the property and it may sell quicker, but it’s hard to determine value,” says John Bredemeyer, president of Omaha-based Realcorp. “You have to have a number to compensate someone if you drove into their tree and killed it, but is it really market value? Probably not.”

Nevertheless, most professionals agree that curb appeal and a well-maintained appearance prevent your property from losing value. Here are the top suggestions from real estate agents, appraisers, and landscape designers for boosting the curb appeal of your yard:

Green up the grass
If your house has a front yard, make sure it‘s neat and green. You don’t want bare spots, sprawling weeds, or an untrimmed appearance.

“It’s so simple to go to Home Depot, buy fertilizer, apply it every six weeks, and water it,” says Mitch Kalamian, a landscape designer in Huntinginton Beach, Calif. “It will green up.”

If the yard looks really scruffy, you may decide to invest in some sod. According to the National Gardening Association, the average cost of sod is 15 to 35 cents per sq. ft. If you hire a landscaper to sod your yard for you, labor will add 30% to 50% to the total cost of the project.

Another alternative is to plant low-maintenance turf grasses. Turf grasses are durable and drought-resistant. Expect to pay $18 to $30 for enough turf grass seed to plant 1,000 sq. ft. of lawn area.

Add colorful planting beds
Flower beds add color and help enliven otherwise plain areas, such as along driveways and the edges of walkways. In general, annual flowers are a bit cheaper but must be replaced every year. Perennials cost a bit more but come back annually and usually get larger or spread with each growing season.

If you’re not sure what to plant, inquire at your local garden center. Often, they’ll have a display of bedding plants chosen for their adaptability to your area. Also, they‘ll be inexpensive because they’re in season, says Peter Mezitt, president of Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton, Mass. Try pansies in the summer, and asters and mums in the fall to add vibrant color. “That’s what we do around the entrance to our garden center,” Mezitt says.

Valerie Torelli, a California REALTOR® who dresses up her clients’ yards to sell their houses faster and for more money, says that in her market, she can put in a bed of colorful annuals and bark, as well as cutting down overgrown shrubs, for less than $500. “We can buy gorgeous plants for $3.99 to $15.99,” she says.

Add landscape lighting
For homeowners who have made a sizeable investment in landscaping, it makes sense to think about adding another 10% to 15% to the bill for professional lighting. “You can’t see landscaping after dark,“ says Brandon Stephens, vice president of marketing for a landscape lighting firm in Lubbock, Texas, “and buyers are not always looking at houses on a Saturday afternoon.”

The cost of a system runs from $200 for a DIY installation to more than $4,000 for a professional job. If you‘re doing it on your own, the key is to light what you want people to see, such as mature trees and flowering shrubs.

Plant a tree
The value of mature trees is particularly difficult to determine. Lucco says that in his market, mature trees contribute as much as 10% of a $100,000 property’s overall value. In addition, a properly placed shade tree can shave as much as $32 a year on your energy bills. Expect to pay $50 to $100 for a young, 6- to 7-foot deciduous tree.

You can make your own initial assessment of the value of your property’s trees by visiting the National Tree Benefit Calculator. For example, a mature Southern red oak tree with a diameter of 36 inches in the front yard of a house in Augusta, Ga., would add $70 to the property value this year, according to the calculator

Pat Curry Published: March 25, 2010
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Thursday, March 24, 2011

NEIGHBORHOODS: Newbury Street's next act

Borders, Louis stores await something new.

During a period of rapid turnover among the Back Bay’s retailers, the biggest change has yet to come. The closing of the Borders bookstore on Boylston Street will open a swath of space next to the vacant building that had housed LouisBoston, clearing the way for new stores in the heart of Boston’s key shopping district.

Real estate brokers hired to market the two buildings are considering an array of options, including dividing them up to make space for restaurants and boutiques, a move that would tweak the area’s ambiance and retail mix.

“I look at this as an opportunity to bring new life into these buildings,’’ said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association, a business group. “The important thing is to find retailers who can really create a presence in these locations and be successful.’’

The turnover in the buildings, which are on the block between Berkeley and Clarendon streets, is part of a wave of change caused by the economic tumult of the past few years.

Twenty-one businesses have opened in the Back Bay since July, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Among the district’s new occupants are the British clothier Jack Wills, athletic-gear giant Converse Inc., women’s retailer Forever 21 Inc., and a slew of restaurants, from the Mexican eatery Lolita Cocina & Tequila Bar to Towne Stove and Spirits in the Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center.

“We’ve seen tremendous retail growth over the last year or two,’’ Mayor Thomas M. Menino said. “We lost Borders, but I think you’ll see someone take that space very shortly. Combined with the Louis building, there’s great potential for a new gateway to Newbury Street.’’

Together, the buildings occupy a full city block and have entrances on both Newbury and Boylston streets.

Borders Group executives have said their compa ny’s Back Bay location will be vacant by the end of April as part of the chain’s bankruptcy.

The 24,000-square-foot, two-story building is versatile enough to house a variety of businesses, said Jeremy Grossman, an executive with CBRE-Grossman, which is marketing the Borders space for its owner, TIAA-CREF.

“You have opportunities and size ranges that don’t typically exist in the Back Bay,’’ Grossman said. The building could be subdivided for smaller shops or be occupied by a single retail store or a restaurant, he said.

A few doors down, the owner of the former Louis building is weighing the same options.

Thomas DeSimone, an executive with WS Development, the owner, said the firm wants to find a single tenant but has received inquiries from smaller retail shops, restaurants, and companies seeking office space.

“We’re not in a hurry,’’ DeSimone said. “We want to be sure we get the right tenant.’’

The building’s former occupant, LouisBoston, moved to the Seaport District last spring, leaving a 44,000-square-foot space at 234 Berkeley St. The 1863 building once housed the New England Museum of Natural History.

Because of its unusual size and layout, the building will require substantial renovations that could become complex if there are multiple tenants. DeSimone said he hopes businesses will open in the building within two years.

Casey Ross Boston Globe March 17, 2011

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

BOSTON NEIGHBORHOODS: A 10-year plan for City Hall Plaza

New incremental approach starts with remodeled T station, trees,

The transformation of Boston’s City Hall Plaza is supposed to take shape before you even know it’s happening.

Next year, the plaza’s bunker-like subway station will be replaced with a sleek glass structure. Then, trees will start to appear along Cambridge Street and in the plaza itself. Eventually, they will frame a new amphitheater for concerts, theater performances, and special events.

Within 10 years, the nine-acre plaza will scarcely resemble the barren expanse of red brick so many Bostonians have come to detest.

That’s the new strategy being pursued by city planners, who said they are finished with grandiose, all-in-one plans to revitalize the plaza. No longer will they entertain sweeping proposals for a baseball diamond, fountains, vegetable gardens, or a grand hotel and retail complex — all actual ideas from the past. A slower, step-by-step approach, they said, is the only way to fix a dysfunctional civic space that has rejected decades of efforts to improve it.

“The problem with all the previous proposals is that they all tried to fix the plaza with one big idea,’’ said Kairos Shen, chief planner with the Boston Redevelopment Authority. “This approach will allow us to gradually make changes over time that will create something really transformative.’’

The specific plans are being generated in meetings hosted by Utile Inc., a Boston architectural firm that won a $54,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to redesign the plaza to be greener, and with more usable public space. The next meeting is planned for early next month, though a date has not been set.

So far, the work has produced a pair of rough designs, each organized around the concept of adding bands of trees to create shade and smaller, more intimate gathering spaces.

“The idea is to give the plaza structure and create different scales of experience,’’ said Tim Love, a principal of Utile. “An important question to ask here is, ‘What can this space do well that doesn’t work on Boston Common or the [Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy] Greenway?’ ’’

For much of the year, the plaza is a dead zone between the two, with only occasional festivals and annual visits by the Big Apple Circus.

In his research, Love found some early designs that resemble the current proposal. A 1961 plan by I.M. Pei & Partners called for a lawn with a series of pathways through the plaza. An earlier effort called for a much wider, more gradual staircase rising from Faneuil Hall to the plaza.

A key aspect of the current design calls for smoothing out the slope between Cambridge and Congress streets, where visitors encounter multiple sets of stairs that make the plaza harder to traverse and close off spaces that could be used for cafe tables or small events.

Utile is developing the plan with the landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand, a Watertown company that has worked on designs for the Greenway, the Arnold Arboretum, and the Christian Science Plaza.

“We don’t envision creating a garden here. The plaza still has to be urban,’’ said Eric Kramer, a senior associate with the firm. “But we have to find ways to make the pervasive paved surface more accessible in a way that can still manage crowds and allow trees to thrive.’’

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

FOR SALE: Affordable Condo in Jamaica Plain

MARKET TRENDS: Home prices resilient in the beltway

Both Route 128 and its sister suburban beltway, Interstate 495, are vaunted technology corridors. But when it comes to home values, they are miles apart.

Though the economic crisis hit housing markets in both regions, prices along Route 128 suffered a milder fall and in some communities had nearly recovered as of last year.

Of eight cities and towns along Route 128 from Burlington to Dedham, only two saw median single-family home prices fall more than 10 percent between 2005 and 2010, according to data from the Warren Group. Lexington showed the most resilience, slipping just 1.5 percent.

It’s a different story along I-495. Of a dozen communities stretching from Littleton to Plainville, all but one saw price declines of more than 10 percent. Milford took the biggest hit: 27.4 percent.

It’s a contrast that makes Paul Yorkis, president of Patriot Real Estate in Medway and a veteran of the I-495 market, a bit envious.

“I was just talking with a friend and fellow realtor who does business within 128,’’ Yorkis said. “Good homes are receiving multiple offers.’’

He’s now hoping that some buyers, priced out of the 128 market, will make it out his way.

So what’s to explain the resilience of home prices along Route 128?

Well there’s no one simple answer. Proximity to Boston certainly plays a big role. John Prescott, who makes his living selling homes along the 128 corridor, says most newcomers are more familiar with those towns than with their cousins along 495.

“If you travel somewhere, it’s more likely someone in California will have heard the name Wellesley than Boxborough,’’ Prescott said. “Wellesley is a pretty well- known name around the country and even around the world.’’

And if they find Wellesley is a bit pricey, they are likely to end up in another town in the area. He pointed to a European executive who put down $1.1 million for a home in Natick after initially looking around Wellesley.

Median prices in 2010 ranged from a high of nearly $1.1 million in Weston to $346,850 in Dedham. Other towns along the Route 128 corridor included Burlington ($382,000), Lexington ($694,250), Newton ($735,000), Waltham ($385,000), Needham ($630,000), and Wellesley ($900,000), according to the Warren Group.

Median housing prices along I-495 last year ranged from $248,000 in Bellingham to $519,500 in Hopkinton.

There’s also a difference in how fast homes are selling along the two tech corridors.

A well-priced home along the 128 corridor, say in Lexington, can easily spark a bidding war and sell within a week or two. Even if it’s well priced, a home along 495 can still take longer to sell.

Monday, March 21, 2011

HOME IMPROVEMENT: Small changes add up to quality improvements

New knobs, lighting can make an impression,

The kitchen doesn’t flow, there’s nowhere in the back for coats and boots, the upstairs bathroom is too small, and the master bedroom is kind of plain. Sounds like a typical old New England home.

And if you own one, and you’d like to bring your home into the modern world, it may seem you don’t know where to start. If the big projects appear overwhelming — an addition attaching a family room to a kitchen, for example — then think small first: cabinet knobs and handles or lighting fixtures. Piecemeal remodeling, according to many architects and designers, offers different opportunities to improve the quality of your living environment without gutting rooms to the studs.

“Each client has his own agenda,’’ said Adolfo Perez, an architect based in Newton. “We usually tell people, unless this is strictly an investment, think about it first. You want to be smart about your budget. With the depressed values of housing, more people are going to stay where they are.’’

Perez suggested homeowners focus on the textures of those things they touch or use every day, probably without noticing — bathroom faucets, doors and knobs, handrails. Consider replacing them with higher-quality hardware, he advises. For example, he often recommends clients spend a little extra on oversized doors, which can make an immediate impression.

“The difference between an off-the-shelf handrail or bracket and something of a little higher quality is like wearing a custom-made shoe,’’ Perez said.

That may sound like an extravagance, but in the scheme of things, such creature comforts are small expenditures home owners will enjoy over and over again.

“The tub fills quicker, the shower’s better, better lighting and heating — [these are] the things you appreciate every day,’’ said Perez.

The real estate collapse has done a lot to remind homeowners that their houses are not merely investments to be flipped at the first sign of a big profit, but places to live and make their own. It’s at least as important to enjoy it while you live there.

With the economy slowly improving, homeowners are growing more comfortable putting money into their homes. Spending on home improvement rose around 3 percent last year, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, which predicts that growth will double this year.

Kermit Baker, director of the Remodeling Futures program at the housing studies center, said the really extravagant home projects — fitness rooms and media centers, for example — are yesterday’s projects, as homeowners focus more on the practical and prosaic. Home office conversions remain popular, he added, as more people telecommute or pursue outside employment.

Piecemeal remodeling has another virtue, of course: It’s less expensive than full-blown additions.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

HOME MAINTANENCE: DIY can save time, money but watch for hazards

It was supposed to be a quick and easy switch: a recessed light in the kitchen for a more decorative pendant fixture. But like Gilligan with his “three-hour tour,’’ Cambridge condo owner Daniel Evans had no idea the comedy of errors that lay ahead when he began tinkering with the electrical work.

Plan accordingly: Build or draw mock-ups of your project. Get all the appropriate tools.

Get a partner: A second pair of hands or eyes is necessary when working with electricity, power tools, or while off the ground.

Backstop: Know the locations of emergency shutoffs. Use caution in multifamily buildings. Don’t attempt unless you understand how your work affects other units.

Weather matters: Consult the forecast before working outside. Rain or sudden cold can ruin fresh finishes and set you back.

Bullpen call: Hire a pro for a day or so to get over a psychological hump, picking up yourself afterward if you can.

Know your limits: Sometimes you just have to ask for help. Also, be aware that energy levels wane around meal times.

Second opinions: Budget for a contractor to inspect your work.

“When I took everything out, I did not pay close attention to the way everything was wired,’’ Evans said. “This was probably my first mistake.’’

What followed was a series of miscalculations, missteps, and contractor blunders that ran for two weeks and resulted in one expensive light fixture. First, led astray in part by dubious instructions from the Internet, Evans couldn’t figure out how to connect the wires from the recessed lights which are all on one circuit to the pendant light, which is on a three-way switch. This resulted in him disconnecting all the lighting except the pendant light. When he took it apart again to rewire it, he discovered that he’d somehow turned off the bathroom lights as well.

“There was a point that I thought, ‘I am never going to have lights in my kitchen again,’ ’’ Evans recalled of the ordeal.

Hammer-wielding weekend warriors, take heed: The time may come when you have to fire yourself. Fixing something in your house can save big bucks and bring tremendous satisfaction. Conversely, failing to do the job right can be far more expensive than if you had called in a pro in the first place, and humiliating to boot.

“I think someone should call in a professional when a project starts generating more guilt because of failure to complete than it generates satisfaction in a job well done,’’ said Paul Eldrenkamp, owner of the Newton contracting firm Byggmeister.

Generally speaking, repair work typically done by a contractor who is required to be licensed offers the most hazards to the do-it-yourselfer. Plumbing for example, or, as Evans now knows all too well, electrical work. That doesn’t mean homeowners should be afraid to do simple tasks, such as running wires, said Ken Sparrow, owner of Gibbons Electric in Arlington.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

GARDENING: Spring Gardening Tips

It's still wishful thinking across much of the country, but the lure of budding trees and blooming flowers has many green-thumbers pressing their noses against the window panes.

The good news? It's never too early to start planning your garden.

First, you must establish what "zone" you live in. Knowing your zone will tell you when to plant what. You can find out your zone by visiting

If the risk of freeze is over in your zone, you might be able to start getting your hands dirty!

Everyone loves to look through Spring seed catalogs and dream up their perfect garden. And every perfect garden starts with a well-thought out plan. Now is the time of year to decide what you want to watch grow and bloom this season.

Draw out plans and pick out colors. Many flower buffs prefer to group like colors together. They'll have a pink annual garden one year and a yellow the next.

Others focus their attention on larger projects, such as decks, pathways, and patios. If this is your intent this year, start your research now. Garden books and magazines are full of inspiration and how-to books can even lead you down the do-it-yourself path. You can also get pricing estimates from local home improvement stores and lumber yards.

Spring is also a time to prepare your soil. This means checking the pH to see if it needs balancing, as well as prepping the soil with compost to ensure it is full of nutrients. Compost works especially well when you add it prior to planting, and it's a natural organic way to make your garden just that much better.

You can also take this time to prune bushes and hedges, clean dirty bird feeders, and service your lawn equipment. If you hire a landscaping company to handle the heavy work for you each year, then now would be a great time to interview potential companies and decide upon a service plan.

Above all else, be sure to enjoy the process of planning and caring for your garden. It really is a rewarding hobby that keeps on giving for years to come.

Carla Hill March 9, 2011

Friday, March 18, 2011

MARKET TRENDS: Are We Back In the Land of Affordable Housing?

I can hear the sound of gasps as those on bated breath begin to breathe again. This year may be “the end of the housing crash!”, according to The Wall Street Journal, (WSJ).

It seems that housing is again affordable and the bad news is, well, not so bad anymore. According to Simon Constable in the WSJ, the S&P/Case-Shiller home-price index, which tracks 20 markets, dropped 1% in December ... and that is the fifth consecutive decline.

The drum is beating loudly and the tune is “houses are a good deal”. In fact, experts at Mood’s Analytic’s, where income and housing prices are studied, claim houses are more affordable than in decades.

The WSJ reports that, for the first time in 35 years, nationally for the average family, the price of a house basically adds up to the equivalent of 19 months total pay.

Experts are pointing out that housing has dropped so much that the great debate of renting versus owning is clearly leaning toward homeownership.

Timing the real estate market or, for that matter, any market is iffy at best. But when you take a good look at the signs you can see that homebuying is becoming more attractive. Home prices have dropped about 31% from their high in 2006 (based on the S&PCase-Shiller national composite home-price index).

So if you put off buying a home because you were waiting for the best deal, now may be the time to re-launch your search. However, keeping in mind a few homebuying tips will help you navigate through the housing process.

Check your resources. No matter how affordable prices are, remember that buying a home is still likely your largest financial investment. With that in mind, you’ll want to make sure that you’re not just barely economically squeezing into a home.

It’s best to save up and have a solid, healthy downpayment. The new tightened credit rules may insist on a larger cash payment and insulate you from a possible dip in housing prices.

Call your agent. Even if you’ve been tracking the real estate market and watching the drops in your neighbor’s house that’s been on the market for a seemingly endless period of time, call your real estate agent. Why? Because he or she will have the inside scoop on your neighbor’s house and other deals in the community where you’re looking for a home.

I don’t need to spend a lot of time on this one because I’ve written about the importance of using agents in previous columns. It’s simply a good idea to consult with and use an expert when you’re investing a lot of money, time, effort, and–let’s face it–your heart–into something.

Stick around a while. I’m not talking about hanging at the open houses. Nor should buying a home with the intention of flipping it be a high priority right now. If you’re buying a home, plan to stick around a while. The cost of buying a home, moving, and paying for repairs/renovations adds up. However, experts say keeping a goal of owning the house you buy for a while (maybe 10 years) is the better route to take.

Weigh your options. I don’t like wasting time and one thing I could never understand as an agent was people who simply wanted to “window shop” for houses they really couldn’t buy. They would get agents to drive them around all over town looking at homes in price ranges they couldn’t afford. Not my idea of fun–for the agent or the buyers–it’s more like a lesson in frustration. Of course, comparison shopping in your price range is important.

The better option is to weigh your options, meaning know what’s important in housing. Know how much you can really afford to buy. Know your likes and dislikes. Know your needs in housing. Like choosing a mate, you’ll make some compromises. Keep track of what’s important to you by writing down what you hope to find in your next home. Keep the list handy, review it, adjust it during your house-hunting excursions, and then be sure to share your detailed list with your agent to ensure you’re all on the same journey.

Phoebe Chongchua March 4, 2011

Thursday, March 17, 2011

MORTGAGE & FINANCE: 30-Year Fixed-Rate Mortgage Drops for Third Consecutive Week

McLean, VA – Freddie Mac (OTC: FMCC) today released the results of its Primary Mortgage Market Survey® (PMMS®), which shows a drop in long-term fixed rates for the third consecutive week.

30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) averaged 4.87 percent with an average 0.7 point for the week ending March 3, 2011, down from last week when it averaged 4.95 percent. Last year at this time, the 30-year FRM averaged 4.97 percent.

15-year FRM this week averaged 4.15 percent with an average 0.7 point, down from last week when it averaged 4.22 percent. A year ago at this time, the 15-year FRM averaged 4.33 percent.

5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) averaged 3.72 percent this week, with an average 0.6 point, down from last week when it averaged 3.8 percent. A year ago, the 5-year ARM averaged 4.11 percent.

1-year Treasury-indexed ARM averaged 3.23 percent this week with an average 0.6 point, down from last week when it averaged 3.4 percent. At this time last year, the 1-year ARM averaged 4.27 percent.

Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist at Freddie Mac, reports, "Mortgage rates saw an overall improvement this week. Interest rates for 30-year fixed mortgages were almost 0.2 percentage points below this year's high set just three weeks ago. This means that homebuyers could now expect to pay $263 less per year on a $200,000 loan."

"However, housing demand still remains weak. New home sales in January were near record lows dating back to 1963 when the data began, according to the Census Bureau . Similarly, pending sales of existing homes fell for the second consecutive month in January, according to the National Association of Realtors® ." March 4, 2011

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

MARKET TRENDS: Housing Affordability Soars, Investors Move In

It's a good time to buy a home or invest in a property.

With so many distressed properties on the market, housing affordability has jumped to levels not seen in 20 years.

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index (HOI) for the fourth quarter 2010, reveals that 73.9 percent of all new and existing homes sold were affordable to families earning the national median income of $64,400.

That record-setting level beat the last record high of 72.5 percent set during the first quarter of 2009. It was also the eighth consecutive quarter that the index has been above 70 percent. Until 2009, the HOI rarely topped 65 percent and never reached 70 percent.

"Today's report shows that housing affordability at the end of 2010 was at its highest level since we started computing the HOI," said Bob Nielsen, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).

Unfortunately, tight money makes it tough to take advantage of low prices, likely to get even lower.

"However, while this is good news for consumers, both home buyers and builders continue to confront extremely tight credit conditions, and this remains a significant obstacle to many potential home sales," Nielsen added.

Where the bargains are

With 93.5 percent of all homes sold affordable to households earning the area's median family income, the Indianapolis-Carmel, IN area was the nation's most affordable large housing market.

Also ranking near the top of the most affordable major metro housing markets were Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, OH-PA; Syracuse, NY; Warren-Troy-Farmington Hills, MI; and Detroit-Livonia-Dearborn, MI.

Affordability was even higher in the smaller housing market of Elkhart-Goshen, IN, where 97.0 percent of homes sold during the fourth quarter of 2010 were affordable to families earning a median income of $58,600.

Other smaller housing markets with exceptionally affordable homes were Lansing-East Lansing and Bay City MI; Kokomo, IN and Mansfield, OH.

Where the bargains aren't

The least affordable major markets were New York-White Plains-Wayne, NY-NJ. In New York, only 25.5 percent of all homes sold during the quarter were affordable to those earning the area's median income of $65,600.

Other major metro areas near the bottom of the affordability index were in California -- San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City; Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale; and Santa Ana-Anaheim-Irvine, as well as and Honolulu, HI.

But housing in California markets may be as affordable as it's going to get if investor buying in January 2011 is any indication.

Real estate information service DataQuick reported the median sale price of single-family homes in San Mateo County in January saw the biggest yearly price decline since June 2009 while the adjacent Santa Clara County's (Silicon Valley) home prices remained flat on an annual basis.

Cash buyers, typically investors, made up more than 25 percent of January's buyers for all types of homes in Santa Clara County, a record in DataQuick statistics going back to 1988. In San Mateo County, 25.4 percent of buyers were making all-cash deals, compared to the record 25.3 percent set in February 2010.

Absentee owners, again, typically investors, made up just more than 17 percent of buyers in the two northern California counties, a record for Santa Clara County and a near record for San Mateo County.

Elsewhere in California NAHB's HOI reported the Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA area was among the least affordable smaller metro housing markets in the country during the fourth quarter.

In Santa Cruz, 45 percent of the homes were affordable to families earning the median income of $84,200.

Other small metro areas ranking near the housing affordability bottom included more California towns, San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles and Santa Barbara-Santa Maria-Goleta, as well as ; Laredo, TX and Ocean City, NJ.

Broderick Perkins March 3, 2011

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

MORTGAGE & LEGAL NEWS: AGs say they aim to repair foreclosure system

WASHINGTON — The state attorneys general investigating abuses in the mortgage servicing industry said yesterday that as they hammer out details of a massive settlement with banks, their main objective remains fixing a system that has subjected consumers to confusion and financial strife.

“What we’re really trying to do is change a dysfunctional system,’’ said Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, the point man for a 50-state effort.

The extensive foreclosure problems — from flawed or fraudulent paperwork to questions about improper or incomplete loan transfers — surfaced in September, when firms such as Bank of America and Ally Financial abruptly halted foreclosures. And others followed suit.

A core group of attorneys general has been working on the issue since October, Miller said, communicating regularly with the banks accused of the shoddy practices and nearly a dozen federal agencies that have been conducting their own inquiries.

Last week, state attorneys general, joined by a handful of federal agencies that included the Justice Department and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, submitted a 27-page term sheet of proposed changes to five of the nation’s largest banks as its opening bid in what is expected to be a series of intense negotiations.

The proposals attempt to address wide-ranging complaints about the servicing process. One would require the servicers to provide a single point of contact for borrowers looking to modify their loans. Another would require them to develop a portal that would allow borrowers to submit and track documents electronically in real time.

The document also spells out the conditions under which servicers should consider principal reductions for certain borrowers. It also suggests that servicers partner with retailers such as Wal-Mart and FedEx Kinko’s, so borrowers can go there to copy, fax, scan, mail or e-mail documents to servicers free of charge.

A common complaint from borrowers is that they often receive foreclosure notices even as they are negotiating in good faith with servicers to modify their loans. The attorneys general want to ban this dual-track process.

Several attorneys general acknowledged that differences of opinion remain among various stakeholders on two key issues — how to structure a feasible modification program and the precise amount of penalties that should be levied on the banks, some of which could go toward principal reductions for borrowers.

“We’ve struggled with that,’’ Miller said. “We have to recognize that whatever the proposal is, it’s going to have some limitations; it’s going to leave some people out.’’

As attorneys general from across the country gathered at the Fairmont Hotel, housing advocates rallied at several sites across Washington to press for tough sanctions against servicers

Brady Dennis Washington Post March 8, 2011

Sunday, March 13, 2011

LOCAL REAL ESTATE NEWS: Polaroid site work could start soon

Now that the state has given its draft approval for the first phase of redevelopment at the 120-acre Polaroid site off Route 128 in Waltham, the developer said work could begin this summer.

But developer Sam Park said even though he’s been given the go-ahead for constructing 280,000 square feet of retail and office space, he realizes the path toward his 1.28 million-square-foot goal will be long.

“We fully realize that the full project we want to build needs to be reviewed by other agencies,’’ said Park, the principal of Sam Park & Co. But he said that the first phase holds significant employment and shopping opportunities for area residents.

“It’s very exciting. I think we’re going to see a lot of jobs very soon,’’ said Park.

Park said about 500 jobs could be created through completion of the first phase, but the number is dependent on the tenants who lease space.

The state’s decision, released Feb. 25, grants a waiver to allow the project to move forward before completion of a full environmental review. The public has until March 23 to comment; after that, the draft decision can stand, be modified, or rescinded within seven days, said Richard Sullivan, head of the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

The reports are expected to be posted online soon under the Environmental Monitor link at

In his findings, Sullivan wrote that the majority of comments from the business community, regional agencies, local residents, and Waltham officials were supportive of the project. He said the first phase’s environmental impacts are insignificant, and the existing infrastructure can support it.

Park said the focus in phase one will be on bringing in national retailers, of which Waltham has few.

This desire was echoed by Mayor Jeannette McCarthy, who said she wants four things at the Polaroid site, which has been sitting vacant and attracting vandalism for years: national retailers; preservation of a 20-acre vernal pool on the Berry Farm parcel; a permanent easement for the portion of the recreational Wayside Rail Trail that crosses the site; and comprehensive reforms to alleviate neighborhood traffic congestion.

Park said the company is deeding Berry Farm to the city, and transportation solutions are the primary focus for the coming months and years. Both he and the mayor are hoping state and federal transportation officials allow direct-access links with Route 128/Interstate 95.

But until then, local traffic will surge, with an estimated 15,200 new vehicle trips on weekdays and 22,700 on weekends.

Local resident Paul Umbrello has been watching redevelopment plans for the property over the years as they morphed from a 1.8 million-square-foot project that was abandoned by the Related Cos. to its latest, smaller incarnation.

He has talked with Park, and said he supports the project.

“Obviously, we’re concerned about the additional traffic coming through the neighborhoods,’’ said Umbrello. “Whether it’s Sam Park & Co. or ABC & Co., whoever is going in there, anyone is within their right to build. I’d rather try and work with somebody so that it works out for everybody.’’

Park said he’s planning $20 million in mitigation projects up front. Detailed in the state’s decision, they include improvements to the Route 20 rotary; restriping, new signage and markings, and signal adjustments along Main Street; and a transportation management program that includes major public transit and ride-sharing initiatives.

“We’re looking to do it right, and right up front,’’ he said.

Park said the first phase will have about 160,000 square feet of retail space and 120,000 square feet of office space.

“The initial development is a small piece,’’ he said. “It’s all pretty much focused where the existing buildings are today.’’

Some parts of those buildings will be incorporated into the new development, he said, though most of the first phase will be new construction. He said that by this time next year, the steel structure could be going up.

Park said the first phase will take about two years to finish. In the meantime, he’ll be working with transportation officials to sort out the larger solutions for traffic mitigation, as well as with local communities and government offices to assess and address environmental impacts.

When the entire project is finished, there will be about 750,000 square feet of mixed-use retail space and 500,000 square feet of office space.

Park is finishing the 33-acre, $60 million Gloucester Crossing project. Mayor McCarthy said she talked with Gloucester’s mayor and confirmed that Park works collaboratively with communities in which he builds.

“I feel that he has not only the ability but the willingness to work with everybody,’’ she said.

Megan McKee Boston Globe March 6, 2011