Substandard “luxury” housing construction, from New York to Newton

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an article titled They Expected Luxury. They Got Leaky Ceilings and Broken Elevators. While the article was about pandemic-era construction, the comment from someone who claimed to have worked in Manhattan real estate development pointed to a problem that has been ongoing for many years:

I worked in luxury construction in Manhattan for nearly two decades, building and installing every type of bespoke metalwork that architects and designers could imagine. I was almost always appalled by the dysfunction on job sites, even on projects with multi-million-dollar budgets. In my opinion most of it was the result of construction companies hiring the cheapest possible labor and pushing them to go too fast. I can’t count how many times “bargain” laborers damaged my work or that of other craftspeople involved, simply because they were inexperienced or poorly managed. Until developers and general contractors begin to truly respect EVERYONE involved, whether they’re skilled artisans or merely sweeping up the sawdust, these problems will continue.

Another commenter said that the problem wasn’t only in New York:

Not just New York! I moved into a BRAND NEW “luxury” mid-rise in Florida in 2020 (building opened December 2019). Such terrible terrible awful construction! So glad I was only there for some months. Worst living experience I’ve ever had and that was the most expensive place I’ve ever lived in my life. Examples: Slanted (instead of straight) handing kitchen lights. Super thin walls – could hear my neighbor sneeze rooms away. The three elevators (placed in very awkward locations) took turns being broken every single month. Broken coffee machine. Thin exterior walls – could never sleep bc you can hear the highway all day and night. Leaning cabinets. Peeling wooden floors. Warped balcony doors. Low water flow (wouldn’t send solids down the toilet so I’d have to pour water in to manually flush!). And remember… this was a brand new place. I was the first ever occupant.

A third person said:

The best builders and contractors and sub-contractors have to turn down work because they’re in such high demand and so who gets those jobs instead of then? A lot of people who are learning on the job and making a lot of mistakes. Many of those “luxury” buildings are not luxury construction. EVEN in super high-end buildings you still get issues so it’s no surprise that with the sheer amount of building in NYC places that claim to be “luxury” are certainly not and full of behind the sheetrock fixes. If you’re going to buy find out who the builder is and do your research. I’m not talking about the developer, I’m talking about the company in charge of the actual building process. Then look up one of their buildings and see how it’s doing a couple of years down the road. And look in the cabinets and check the finishing work. Look at the plumbing under the sink and behind the toilet… How well is it finished? Go to the basement and get into the service areas and see what it looks like where there’s no sheetrock. Walk down the stairs and look at the concrete and the electric conduit and water pipes. You’ll start to see how much care and oversight was put into a building.

Reading these comments, I was reminded of the scenes outside of Trio Newton when it first opened on Washington Street in Newtonville, on the site of the former Orr block (Karoun, Ken Kaye Crafts, Newtoville Camera, etc.). Trio is the luxury apartment block built by Mark Development after steamrolling opposition from local neighbors and northside ward councilors with the help of the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce and pro-development politicians like Newton’s former Mayor Setti Warren (see “Upzoning” in Newton: A tool to turn over the city from one class of people to another?).

When going to the Newtonville Post Office next door to Trio in 2020, I noticed long straps of plastic-like material hanging from an overhang above (below the 2nd floor of Trio). One strip was so low to the ground that someone could jump up and pull it down.

I wasn’t the only one to notice something was amiss. In April 2021, Ward 2 Councillor Julia Malakie compiled a list of other construction problems she had observed at Trio Newton under the heading “Is Trio Tired?” and shared it with her newsletter subscribers:

trio newton construction 2

Mark Development Construction

That wasn’t all. Other parts of the brand-new Trio showed signs of poor construction:

mark development newton luxury construction

mark development newton luxury 2

Despite Mark Development promising the moon to neighbors and councilors, this is what Trio looked like less than one year after its official opening. These problems have since been fixed, but I wonder about other issues that can’t be seen from the street. If anyone has knowledge, please leave your comments below.

Keep in mind that Mark Development has been given the green light by the Mayor and a bloc of pro-luxury development City Councillors (mostly from south-side wards, far away from any of these projects) to build not only overpriced rentals for the rich, but also science labs for pharmaceutical companies … and potentially housing for Newton’s seniors.

Mark Development is now planning another giant 7-story development on the Newtonville/Lake border. As noted by Ward 1 Councillor John Oliver in his newsletter:

Two concerns that I have heard most frequently, and share, are that the building exceeds even the generous allocation in the Washington Street Vision Plan, as well as how the developer intends to satisfy their Inclusionary housing requirements (ie., affordable units).

Substandard work on these types of buildings is not only unacceptable, it risks the safety of Newton residents.

Yet we hear nothing from Mayor Fuller and the pro-luxury development bloc in the City Council. Has any City Councillor from the southside wards ever challenged Mark Development about stuff falling apart at Trio, or the implications for future construction at Riverside in Auburndale or Washington Street, including scientific labs and housing for senior citizens?

Why is that?

Best printer in Newton or Waltham

Best printer in Waltham or Newton is Red Spot Printing I’ve used a lot of printers in Newton and Waltham, from small shops to the big national chains. I even had my graduate thesis at the Harvard Extension School bound by a book bindery located on a Waltham back street. Currently, I print hundreds of thousands of sheets every year for my business including consumer stationery, ISBN reference sheets, and direct mailings. The best service and quality comes from the smaller printers, and among that select group, one company stands out: Red Spot Printing at 182 Newton Street in Waltham.

I first got to know Red Spot Printing in 2015, when we needed a new local printer to work with. Julie and the Red Spot team not only provided wonderful service, but were also willing to work with us on all kinds of new genealogy sheets requiring special paper, ink, or printing techniques. Some of these designs, including the large print genealogy sheets and the Genealogy Kit for Kids shown above, are printed nowhere else. All are printed on acid-free paper on Red Spot’s array of offset and digital printers.

Why we like local Waltham and Newton businesses

Red Spot, like our own company, is a family-run business. We like that, and value the face-to-face contact. Julie’s father founded the print shop in 1974, and some of the employees have been there for decades. When we are doing pickups, family members and other staff will often help us load up the car. When Julie’s kids are old enough, I expect they will pitch in with the family business, just as our son for our own does from time to time.

While we could search for cheap printers services overseas, switch to a national chain, or opt for less-expensive paper, Nicole and I wouldn’t dream of doing so. For our core partners, trust, quality, and personal service are paramount, and Red Spot checks all the boxes. We think when you handle our high-quality genealogy charts or technology cheat sheets in person, they will check all of your boxes, too!

Redesigning our Genealogy Kit for Kids to include fillable PDFs

Last month, my company redesigned the PDF edition of our popular Genealogy Kit for Kids using fillable PDF fields. This means kids and grandkids can type into the PDFs using the free Adobe Acrobat Reader app on a PC, Mac, or iPad, and print out the results.

Many family historians, ourselves included, were bitten by the genealogy bug when we were young. It often starts with simple questions:

  • Why do we have this last name?
  • Where was grandma born?
  • Why do we celebrate certain events?
  • Why do we eat special foods in our family?
  • How is this cousin related to us?

The Kids Genealogy Kit taps into this natural curiosity with interview sheets, simple ancestry charts, and maps to trace global origins. It really encourages children to talk with their parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents in order to better understand family history, origins, and cultural traditions. For instance, it includes maps covering every inhabited country that kids can mark up with ancestors’ home regions, and includes interview sheets that children can use to talk with cousins, siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives about family history and traditions.

These conversations is where some of the best learning experiences can take place, revealing stories and clues that can become the foundation of family history in the years to come. It also helps to build family bonds through personal conversations.Genealogy for Kids

When we officially unveiled the Genealogy Kit for Kids at the RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City a few years ago, we got a LOT of positive feedback. Some attendees liked the fact that it wasn’t yet another screen-based activity for children. A few educators were excited about the possibilities of including the kit in classroom activities.

Last year, the following review really touched us:

I bought this for my 12-year-old niece, who has recently begun asking questions about her heritage and family history. It has made a wonderful introduction to Genealogy, and a great guide to asking the important questions of their older relatives. This Kit has passed the time at family gatherings and on car trips. It has gotten everyone involved in collecting and recording a gold mine of family information, stories, and anecdotes.

However, this same reviewer also had a request: Would it be possible to make fillable PDFs so her daughter could type the information using her iPad on long car trips? It took some time, but the fillable PDF set is finally here. You can learn more about kids’ genealogy PDFs on the EasyGenie website.

Harvard College UC supports Extension School students on degree name issue (updated)

Updated – see below. Big news this morning: The Harvard College Undergraduate Council unanimously supported a bill that supports a student-led movement to remove “in Extension Studies” from Harvard Extension School degrees. The Extension School ALB candidate who is responsible for getting the bill in front of the UC, Kody Christiansen, described what happened on a private Facebook page:

Yesterday (March 27th, 2022), I was asked to speak at the UC meeting last minute by the Harvard College student body President. I went, I spoke my truth, told my story about how I got to Harvard, and told them how much their support for the bill I proposed last semester (a bill asking for the College students to support the removal of “in Extension Studies”) meant to me and so many others. In a wonderfully surprising move, a student sitting next to me, proposed they move my bill to the top for an immediate vote when the meeting was nearly over.
The board approved to move it up.

Then they voted…..

And it passed with all hands raised in the room! 👏🏻👏🏻

The UC bill contains some interesting language. First, it raises the level of publicity that the UC is willing to give to efforts to remove the “in Extension Studies” designation from ALB degrees. Second, it gives support to HES undergraduates in getting answers from the University on why the change hasn’t been made yet:

Harvard College UC support Extension School Students

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The only way to get “in Extension Studies” removed from Harvard Extension School degrees is through vocal, public demands for change. Having the voice of the Harvard College UC makes a real difference.

But what if the University still doesn’t listen?

In my opinion, if the University continues to do nothing, it will likely be necessary to hold demonstrations and other protests that cannot be ignored, just like Harvard graduate students and other groups have done in the past. These public demonstrations will need to take place in front of Mass Hall, where the University administration is headquartered, as well as outside of FAS faculty meetings, gatherings of the Board of Overseers, and meetings of the Harvard Corporation.

ESRI, HESA, and The Crimson

Christiansen leads the Extension Studies Removal Initiative (ESRI) and has been very active lobbying on this issue. He was one of the students interviewed by The Crimson last year and has also laid the groundwork for a Crimson editorial calling for the removal of the demeaning “in Extension Studies” designation from Extension School degrees:

the Extension School’s vague degree labeling process lacks reason and rationale, trivializing the achievement implicit in years of specialized study at the Extension School. Indeed, at the Extension School, students of all backgrounds, ages, and levels of experience are able to spend years honing in on targeted areas of study within disciplines such as global studies, technology, education, and business and management. Ultimately, their degrees ought to reflect their mastery and celebrate the effort students expend to hone and refine their individual interests.

Instead, the degree-naming system stands as a troubling marker of unequal treatment, one that treats field-specific recognition as an exclusive courtesy, rather than as a basic, requisite, and hard-earned honor deserved by all students.

Amazingly, with the recent Crimson and UC support, ESRI has made more progress on this issue in the last two years than the Division of Continuing Education (which oversees the Harvard Extension School) has made during the tenure of the last two deans. Indeed, the current administration went so far as to rig the rules for Harvard Extension Student Association (HESA) elections last year to prevent Christiansen from running and any other HESA officer from getting involved in certain issues that the Division of Continuing Education supposedly is working on.

The Facebook post detailing the vote is on a private page.

UPDATE: The Harvard Graduate Council followed suit. Quoting from the Crimson:

“I just think this is really important for the dignity of our students, and we represent the entire graduate student community who I think would very forcefully be in favor of this,” said Gabrielle “Gabe” L. Crofford, a Harvard Law School student, while expressing her support for the bill.

Ultimately, the Graduate Council voted to be a signatory on the bill.


Should diaries and other private papers be left to descendants?

We had a conversation recently about a book on Swedish Death Cleaning. It sounds morbid, but it got us talking about the types of papers we want to hand down to the next generation, which might be important to family historians and genealogists of the future. This ties into our family business, which designs and sells high-quality genealogy charts. for recording ancestry and family stories.

While we do not advocate saving papers of limited value (business records, financial statements, school reports) what about other types of documents, that may be considered core genealogy, like a diary?

1918 pandemic diary

Such documents could include personal letters, journals, or writings that reveal something of a person’s life or perspective. We had conflicting ideas about this:


What I wouldn’t give for a copy of my great-grandmother’s diary!


A journal is a very personal place for expressing random, rambling, and sometimes unsettled thoughts. It’s therapeutic – once you put it on paper, it makes you feel better. But I wouldn’t feel comfortable for people to look at my private thoughts.

She makes a great point. Privacy concerns extend to other types of documents, too. Would you want an old letter to an ex, written when you were 20 years old, preserved and shared with descendants? What about an angry letter, or a document detailing painful medical issues?

Famous authors sometimes request the executor to destroy private papers. Franz Kafka, Edward Albee, and others had specific instructions governing letters, manuscripts, and other documents.

Core genealogy documents for the next generation

Core genealogy documents for the next generation

We read an article a few days ago titled “How to Discover the Life-Affirming Comforts of ‘Death Cleaning’” Despite the morbid title, it’s a thoughtful discussion of cutting down clutter so your loved ones don’t have to later.

The article also got us talking about the types of papers and other documents we want to leave to our descendants … and those which should be trashed.

The company I founded is all about preserving and sharing core genealogy data, genealogy stories, and family photos on paper, which is the only proven long-term storage medium that’s relatively affordable and easy to use.

For instance, we have copies of a handwritten family tree and other notes written by great-grandmothers, cousins, aunts and uncles, some of which has survived close to 100 years. If they had computers in the 1930s, we doubt any of this would be available now, any more than we can easily read a floppy disk from the 1980s, a computer punch card from the 1960s, or a defunct online genealogy forum from twenty years ago.

But what about other types of information stored on paper that might be cluttering your basement right now? Consider the following:

  • Report cards
  • School assignments
  • Diplomas
  • Business records
  • Invitations
  • Holiday cards
  • Used notebooks
  • Bank statements
  • Tax returns
  • Property deeds

While there might be mild curiosity over these papers 100 or 200 years hence, such documents do not fall under the umbrella of “core genealogy.”

Unless there is something truly remarkable or special about an individual document in the list above, they should not be preserved or left for your loved ones to deal with. They are bulky. They are difficult to sort through. In some cases, these documents are redundant to information that will be readily available from other sources such as school yearbooks, business directories, or census returns.

Learning from a pop music experiment: My time with The KLF

KLF Pyramid Blaster

I posted over on my personal blog a recollection of my first media job 30 years ago, working for Lillie Yard Studio in London (See “An education with The KLF“). This later turned into a job with KLF Communications, the record label for Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s unusual pop music experiment, The KLF.

I’ve written about my time in London before (see “How dance music was made circa 1991“):

Working at Lillie Yard in 1991, I must have heard remixes of The KLF’s “Last Train to Trancentral,” “What Time is Love,” and “3 am Eternal” as well Nomad’s “I Want to Give You Devotion” several hundred times as the crew worked through the tracks and tried different beats, sounds, and speeds using the software.

The results The KLF was able to achieve were quite amazing. I was never a big dance music fan, but I respected what Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond were doing. I mean, what other pop act would have thought to meld 70s country music with the club sounds of London, and not only make it work, but turn it into a global pop sensation? Bringing country music legend Tammy Wynette into the studio with a rapper to do a club dance song (“Justified & Ancient”) seems absolutely bonkers but it worked.

Breaking music industry rules

I worked for Lillie Yard and The KLF for only a year, but I learned a lot about the media industry. It was a fantastic education in how to break the rules.

For instance, The KLF never made a pound touring or DJing. Their success and much of their impact was tied to European club playlists, the sales of singles, album sales, and media coverage.

This was rare then as it is now. Most bands need to perform, even dance-oriented acts (think Moby, DJs, hip hop artists, etc.).

But for a smaller number of top artists before the year 2000, record sales served as the sole source of income, and enabled them to do amazing stuff. Besides The KLF, XTC falls into this category. Andy Partridge apparently had terrible stage fright, hated touring, and basically stopped after the late 70s. During the 80s they recorded some truly groundbreaking albums on the strength of their songwriting and studio talents, and were able to survive on record sales based on a strong fan base and very limited radio airplay to promote record sales.

The KLF were experts at building up mystique that went totally against the early 90s pop music publicity playbook. The pyramid blaster logo, shown above, looked like some sort of Illuminati fantasy. They used a 1968 Ford Galaxy police cruiser in many of their videos (kept in a London parking garage, IIRC), with the lights and paint intact but modifications to the seal and motto (using “To Serve and Protect” and the band’s Pyramid Blaster logo). You can see a picture of it on the back of some of their 45s (see and I know they drove it around London for the 3 A.M. Eternal video.

But sometimes The KLF got burned by experiments.

One day we received in the mail a cassette tape and a letter from a law firm representing a composer or publisher (I can’t remember which) of a famous Broadway soundtrack from the 1960s. The letter accused The KLF of infringement. The cassette contained one of the songs on the Broadway soundtrack, an instrumental section of which repeated a three note riff that sounded a lot like the same three-note sequence from one of the KLFs biggest hits. The rhythms and song structures were otherwise nothing alike.

It didn’t seem like an obvious example of copying, and it was quite possible it was a coincidence or some obscure influence on The KLF or their core musical collaborators, who would have been youths when the Broadway soundtrack was released.

“Are you going to fight this?” I asked Sallie Fellowes, the president of The KLF’s record label, KLF Communications.

Her answer: “No.”

From The KLF’s perspective, it wasn’t worth a long, expensive legal fight they might lose. I think a lot of it related to the problems it encountered with the “1987” album, which had been partly done to ridicule the record industry but really took a lot of energy to deal with when the legal troubles emerged.

Also, the label president didn’t say it, but potential bad press could have also been on her mind. At the time, The KLF had the British music press eating out of their hands, and a public legal fight could change the narrative of The KLF as being brilliant pop iconoclasts to something less favorable.

The KLF and the press

While the British music press loved The KLF, the mainstream media never quite got what they were about.

One thing that the media have a tough time dealing with is the fact that Bill and Jimmy are experimental artists who took over the pop charts … and then proceeded to do what experimental artists are wont to do in such a situation. They gave a huge middle finger to the industry, by barnstorming the 1992 Brit Awards (the big UK music industry award ceremony, akin to The Grammies). They played  a death metal version of one of their dance hits and fired blanks from an automatic weapon over the crowd. They also dumped a dead sheep outside one of the after-parties, which got a lot of tabloid coverage. Later, they deleted their entire back catalogue and then burnt a million quid on video.

What does the media remember The KLF for? More often than not, it’s the one-off act of Burning a Million Quid.

Their ground-breaking music, the books, the anti-establishment statements and art … it’s seldom taken seriously or given much respect these days. Sometimes Bill and Jimmy’s exhibitions will get some coverage, but I hate to see the same old background factoid trotted out. It’s as if reporters writing about John Lennon always referenced “The Beatles are bigger than Jesus” quote to define him.

I left London in April 1992 for Asia. I never had contact with Sallie or Bill or Jimmy again. I know Drummond and Cauty proceeded to do lots of other experimental stuff, ranging from writing some excellent books to artistic activities such as Cauty’s model village. I don’t know what happened to Sallie.



Extension School students and the “Extension Studies” controversy

crimson harvard extend 2021There’s a really good feature in The Crimson about Harvard Extension School students. The writers, Associate Magazine Editor Sophia S. Liang and Staff Writer Ashley R. Masci, did a lot of research, and also took the time to interview current students and faculty. Some relevant excerpts:

Plenty of instructors come from outside of academia, too, ranging from filmmakers to art theft investigators to pharmaceutical executives. Among the instructors who taught Extension School courses during the 2020-21 school year, only about a third held concurrent teaching positions at other Harvard schools. Of these, 40 percent were professors, while 60 percent were non-tenure-track lecturers or preceptors.

I expected these numbers to be lower than 1/3, as some of the professional degree programs have almost no access to Harvard instructors, such as the ALM Management degree (see The number of Harvard Extension degrees triple in 13 years. Why?). On the other hand, other programs have better Harvard faculty numbers, including the Extension School’s undergraduate ALB program, the liberal arts ALMs, and the powerhouse Harvard Extension Post-Bacc program for people interested in going to medical school.

Another interesting finding I was not aware of:

The College’s Undergraduate Council went so far as to analyze the entire Extension School course catalog and concluded that the classes were extremely similar, in content and quality, to those offered at the College.

No other information was given. And:

The faculty handbook for HES instructors calls the school’s easy accessibility “a wrinkle,” reading: “Open enrollment and reasonable tuitions have long been cornerstones, but they mean that we ask you to provide a Harvard education without the initial screening provided by a Harvard admissions office. Quality control is in your hands.”

Nevertheless, Harvard faculty generally love teaching the Extension School. I knew this from personal experience – one of my professors, the late Phillip Kuhn, was very passionate about extending his classes on modern Chinese history to Extension students at night. Here’s what some others had to say in the Crimson feature:

Regardless of their background, instructors report feeling deeply fulfilled by their work at the Extension School. Across the board, those interviewed for this piece found that the remarkable diversity of students in their classrooms translated to clear benefits: a more collaborative atmosphere, broader perspectives on course content, greater intrinsic motivation for learning. Those who teach at Harvard’s other schools also maintain that the quality of education offered at the Extension School is virtually identical (sometimes literally — John T. Hamilton, a professor of German and Comparative Literature, livestreams his College lectures and supplements them with Zoom office hours for Extension School students).

Or, as Puchner puts it, “Some of the best Harvard College students are as good as my Extension students.”

The feature delves into some uncomfortable issues around Harvard Extension School programs that I have written about previously, such as the misleading and demeaning “Extension Studies” designation that causes real problems for some graduates. The Crimson talked to one such student:

Stull has been told that she would need to redo some of her HES classes at a different institution in order to qualify for the Navy psychology Ph.D. program she is hoping to enter after earning her master’s. Although it may be the course content that misaligns with the Navy program’s requirements, Stull feels that her degree’s contrived name works against her.

“My diploma doesn’t necessarily reflect their expectations of what a psych student should have,” Stull says. “The Harvard name helps me seem like I’m capable and prestigious enough to be a good asset to that particular school, but my accreditation, when it comes to the courses I’ve already taken, is questioned — the integrity of it is questioned.”

Another Navy officer and Extension School graduate had similar questions about the “Extension Studies” designation:

Going into the Extension School, Johnson was unaware that he would walk out with a “Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies” degree. Though the strange name has raised a few questions from employers thus far, it hasn’t posed a major barrier, he said. Still, Johnson acknowledges that his established career in the military put him in a unique position, and he could easily imagine a situation where the name would matter much more.

“I took no courses ‘in extension studies,’” he says. “It’s very odd to have a degree in something you never took a course in. I don’t know who in the IT world, who in the medical world, who in the nonprofit sector is going to look at that without a raised eyebrow, to say, ‘Exactly what does this mean?’”

The reporters did not get much from Dean Coleman about the Extension Studies issue:

In an emailed statement, Dean of the Division of Continuing Education Nancy Coleman wrote that she and other administrators have engaged in conversations with students and alumni about the issue. She denied the characterization of this topic as a “controversy,” maintaining that the DCE is not “necessarily in disagreement” about the proposed degree name change.

I disagree. Coleman and some Harvard officers at the Extension School have done everything in their power to bury this issue, going so far to prevent a student activist (the founder of the Extension Studies Removal Initiative, quoted in the article) from running for student government by rigging HESA elections. Per an April article in The Crimson, Jura Wins Extension School Student Government Election, Commits to Transparency After Election Rules Dispute, and the statements made by HESA and Extension School officers:

The outgoing HESA director of communications, told The Crimson last week that the Extension School’s Dean of Students Office was responsible for the changes, though Division of Continuing Education spokesperson Harry J. Pierre has repeatedly denied the DSO was involved. … Downey Jr. said the Dean of Students Office was responsible for the changes and referred to statements made by [DSO staffer] Addison during a virtual “Meet the Board” event posted on HESA’s Facebook page on April 14. ‘HESA does not oversee any of the elections,’ Addison said during the event. ‘They [HESA] don’t make any decisions with regards to elections.’”

When multiple people – including Harvard DCE employees – are saying the same thing, backed up by a video clip and a detailed explanation from the DSO dean defending the new HESA election policies, I am strongly inclined to believe that evidence, rather than the official spin put out by the Extension School. In my opinion, gleaned from many years of observing the DCE administration over multiple administrations, the current dean and some HES staff would rather that the name issue simply go away.

Regardless, this shouldn’t detract from The Crimson’s interviews with Extension School students and graduates sharing their stories. It really makes us seem more human than the Harvard Extension School stereotypes that used to be the focus of Crimson coverage.

Fuller vs. Sangiolo: Campaign donations and the development question in Newton’s mayoral election (updated)

The mayoral election in my hometown is coming up November 2, and in the final weeks of the campaign incumbent Newton Mayor and Chestnut Hill resident Ruthanne Fuller is using the tools at her disposal to gain an edge over her opponent, former Newton City Councilor and Auburndale resident Amy Mah Sangiolo. [Update: Fuller won and her success at getting big donations from outside of Newton undoubtedly helped].

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the flood of newsletters from Mayor Fuller’s office, which were accompanied by a flurry of positive social media announcements and Facebook friend requests from Newton’s Public Buildings Division. The online communications onslaught was ostensibly part of a “listening” exercise, but to me looked more like a stealth PR campaign launched in the wake of Sangiolo filing her papers to run for mayor in June. This week, I wanted to explore another effective tool in the Newton mayoral election: Money.

In late August, I pulled 2021 data from the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance for the three declared candidates for Newton mayor. One of them, Al Cecchinelli, lost in the September preliminary race, and had only a handful of contributions. By August 23, Sangiolo had two months of active campaign fundraising and 196 donations – not bad, considering Mayor Fuller (246 donations in 2021, plus additional donations in 2020) had a huge head start. Here’s how 2021 donations looked for both on August 23, segmented by donation size and total value:

Ruthanne Fuller mayoral race donors


Sangiolo donations

Here’s the breakdown by number of donations:

Sangiolo count


Fuller count

The pattern was clear: By late August, Fuller was getting the biggest donors (73 giving $1,000 or more vs just 12 for Sangiolo) and doing far better overall in terms of overall contributions ($111,097 for Fuller vs $39,123 for Sangiolo) and total counts (246 for Fuller vs 196 for Sangiolo).

But Sangiolo was doing far better with smaller contributions. Even though her campaign had started much later, she had 121 contributions in the $1-$100 range, 30% more than Fuller’s 93 contributions in the same category.

Campaign donations from outside Newton

Almost all of Sangiolo’s campaign donors resided in Newton. Only one of her twelve $1,000 donors was from outside Newton.

By comparison, of the 73 $1000+ contributions to Fuller’s campaign by August 23, 31 Fuller donors (43%) were not from Newton, with about 1/2 that number (15 donors) listing out-of-state addresses. If all of Fuller’s non-Newton campaign donations in the OCPF list are tallied, including smaller donations from elsewhere in Massachusetts and beyond, they are greater than what Sangiolo received for the entire period ($40,125 vs $39,123).

(Notes about the data: 2021 data includes donations recorded between January 1 and August 23, even if the contributions were marked as 2020 donations. In addition, there was a $2800 amount on Fuller’s list from Nationbuilder in Los Angeles in July which was listed as a “non contribution” in the OCPF data. Nationbuilder appears to be associated with a software application for processing donations).

Regardless, we’ve already begun to see the impact of Fuller’s fundraising success. Our household has received three flyers from the Fuller campaign since late August, but only one brochure from Sangiolo. Mailings and other paid publicity can have a huge impact on elections, as we saw with the Northland referendum, which was decided in favor of Northland Development Corporation after the developer dumped more than $300,000 into the campaign (see “As sole donor of the “Yes” campaign, Northland’s deep pockets try to steamroll Newton’s democracy“).

Explaining the Fuller/Sangiolo fundraising divide

Back to the mayoral election in Newton. Why are the patterns of donations so different?

Name recognition has certainly played a part. As mayor, Fuller is known across the city, whereas Sangiolo’s name recognition is more concentrated in north Newton, including her home village of Auburndale. Personal and professional networks play a role as well.

But another way of looking at the Newton’s mayoral race: Donors are aligning with the candidates who represent their values. Wealthy donors gravitate to Mayor Fuller. Donors of more modest means gravitate to Sangiolo.

For instance, in the OCPF report, I am one of the 121 small donors in the $1-$100 contributions to Sangiolo.


She aligns with my values.

For instance: I agree with Sangiolo’s campaign regarding zoning and development in Newton:

I have quite a bit of experience with zoning and development in Newton, having served on the Newton City Council for 20 years — including 18 years on the Zoning and Planning Committee and 2 years on the Land Use Committee. I believe that our City’s current work on zoning needs a fresh focus to better reflect what residents want.

First, I do not support the elimination of single-family zoning. I believe we need a diversity of zoning districts throughout our city to meet the needs of all who want to call Newton home.

Eliminating single-family zoning without adding strict dimensional controls will not make Newton affordable. We can see by the existing multi-family zones throughout the City that developers are tearing down modest-sized homes by-right and replacing them with out-of-scale units selling for over $1 million each. This does not improve affordability.

I’ve written about this very issue for years on this blog. Teardowns of modest middle-class homes and apartments to make way for McMansions, million-dollar condos, and luxury apartments is a chronic problem in Newton, especially in the north-side villages. Very few politicians are willing to truly stand up to developers. Sangiolo, when she was councilor, actually did try to introduce a teardown moratorium in 2014 but was rebuffed by other councilors and then Mayor Setti Warren:

“I’m trying to jumpstart something; make something happen. Development is a real issue. I just want to get something done.”

By contrast, Mayor Fuller (and before that, Ward 7 Alderman Fuller) has been a reliable supporter of zoning reform to encourage high-density “market rate” housing as well as giant luxury developments like Trio in Newtonville, Riverside in Auburndale, Northland in Newton Upper Falls, and 28 Austin Street in Newtonville. These projects are multimillion-dollar ATMs for the developers who build them, with the mayor and allied Newton city councilors – many of them from distant southside wards – ensuring that developers’ demands are met.

Case in point: the 99-year lease granted to the 28 Austin Street developers Dinosaur Capital for just $1,050,000. (Update: Meryl Kessler, the spouse of the developer behind 28 Austin Street, is running for a Ward 3 councilor-at-large seat, currently occupied by Andrea Kelley and Pam Wright. Kessler’s platform includes “revitalizing Newton’s village centers”) Or, Mark Development being allowed to repeatedly rip up signed agreements by claiming they’re not making enough money – with the acquiescence of Mayor Fuller, who said in the October 14 mayoral debate that she doesn’t want to “push a developer away” so projects “become uneconomic.”

In other words, no attempt is made to verify developer claims about profitability. With the precedent set by Riverside, developers know all they need to do is claim poverty to get Fuller and many southside Newton city councilors in Wards 6, 7 and 8 to agree to their demands for even more luxury units.

Mayor Fuller’s listening problems

Sangiolo has also taken issue with the mayor on schools, noting that Fuller “fails to elicit input” from stakeholders when it comes to Newton’s schools:

Sangiolo transparency

This is yet another example of the mayor’s “listening” problems. In some cases she and her administration merely pretend to listen to residents. In others, they don’t even bother.

And not just about schools. It’s about development. Roads. Public buildings. How many times have we seen Fuller’s administration plow forward with some project, then backpedal after outcry from residents and groups who were ignored or never even consulted?

This especially seems to happen on the north side of town. There was the aborted 2019 plan to place NewCAL in Albemarle, rescinded after sustained pushback. In 2020, the city unilaterally eliminated hundreds of parking spaces along Washington Street to make way for bike lanes. The many small businesses along the route came to work one morning to discover parking spots for employees and customers were no longer there. They were flabbergasted, to put it mildly. The response from the city was classic – we don’t need to listen!

“City officials said the project was always meant to be temporary, and thus doesn’t need to go through the stakeholder process.”

As for development, Mayor Fuller is good at putting on a show of sympathetically “listening” to Newton residents, but then going along with the plan she, the planning department, city consultants and well-connected developers wanted in the first place.

I participated in the “Hello Washington Street” exercise that the Fuller administration’s planning department and consultants put together to elicit residents’ input. It was clearly an act of political theater, with the city creating a plan that seems almost tailor-made for Mark Development:

According to the draft, the maximum height by right for all of these designations will be 5 stories. If developers successfully apply for special permits at any of those sites (a requirement to maximize the value of their investments) they will be able to place gigantic buildings between 6 and 10 stories tall.

This represents thousands of new units of housing (most of it market rate/luxury), and millions of new square feet of office and lab space. That’s not what residents asked for, but that’s what we’ll be getting if city councilors approve the plans for Washington Street. Similar zoning designations will likely be applied in other neighborhoods all over the city — a handout to developers worth billions of dollars, and a nightmare of traffic, massive infrastructure and school costs, and lost quality of life for the residents of Newton for decades to come.

The trend, on Washington Street from West Newton to Newton Corner, Riverside in Auburndale, Northland in Newton Upper Falls, and elsewhere, is clear:

Affordable vs luxury housing in Newton Massachusetts

It’s not just big developments, either. In the mayoral debate, Sangiolo challenged Fuller’s claim that she wants to eliminate single-family zoning in the city (Fuller: “No one is suggesting that we eliminate single family zoning in the city. I don’t know anyone who is supporting that, period.”) Sangiolo responded:

“Eliminating single family zoning is not off the table. I believe it was tabled until after the election, until next year. The other issue I have to push back with you, is you keep using the phrase ‘special and unique neighborhoods’ that we seem to want to protect. Everyone thinks their neighborhoods are special and unique and trying to figure out whose neighborhoods can have more density is not an easy task. There are already multifamily zones that we have throughout the city. And what we are seeing now are the teardowns and replacement of moderately sized homes to luxury units and that’s not making the city affordable. That’s what drives the biggest distrust in the city about eliminating single family zones and doing that trickle down housing theory.”

Sangiolo is right. And if these trends continue, Newton will become unrecognizable within a decade or two. From a collection of unique villages, the city will be transformed to a developer-controlled syndicate of high-density luxury apartment enclaves separated by acres of condo conversions and McMansions. Family-owned businesses will give way to chain stores, lab space, and high-end amenities.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at what happened to the Orr Block businesses in Newtonville, including institutions like Newtonville Camera, sent packing after Mark Development got what it demanded on Washington Street with an assist from the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce. Then there’s Russo’s just over the border in Watertown, destined to become expensive laboratories. This process will accelerate if things continue as they are in Newton City Hall and the Newton City Council.

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When hundreds of Newton families were displaced by the Mass Pike

I’ve been reading a fantastic book on the history of the Massachusetts Turnpike: Building the Mass Pike by Yanni K. Tsipis. Growing up in Newton, this road has been a part of my life since an early age. It was the main road into Boston and west to New York. Walking to and from Newton North High School I would cross over the Lowell Ave. bridge. One summer, I even worked in the Star Market suspended over the Turnpike.

But Tsipis notes the dark side of the Turnpike’s history: From Auburndale to Newton Corner, hundreds of families and small businesses were uprooted by construction, many of whom were bullied by staff and contractors on the way out:

Families whose properties stood in the way of the new highway received only 30 days’ notice to vacate before the Turnpike Authority took title. The extension’s construction displaced some 550 families in Newton. … One irate neighbor cited their ‘terror, nastiness, and insults.’

Nowadays, this type of abuse is not possible when it comes to new construction. That said, one thing has remained pretty much the same: developers always seem to get what they want, no matter what residents say. And once again, it is residents in the north side of the city who feel the brunt of the plans of rich developers like Robert Korff (Mark Development) and their allies in Newton City Hall and the City Council, especially the southside wards (5, 6 and 7).