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In Back Bay Boston beware of earthquakes and low water table

Posted by John T. Reed on

There is a big scary article in today’s Wall Street Journal, and it never mentions what I thought was the biggest risk in Boston housing.
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We lived in Boston for three years while my wife and I attended and graduated from Harvard Business School. One of everyone’s favorite neighborhoods there is called the Back Bay.
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When I graduated from Harvard, I moved to San Francisco. I read six books on earthquakes and selected the three different places we lived in CA based on those books.
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When you read American books on earthquakes, you read not only about San Francisco, but about all the other places at risk. One of them is the Back Bay in Boston.
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The worst place to live or work in earthquake country is on old, man-made fill. Back Bay is called Bay because that is what it used to be. In the 1800s, home builders dumped dirt in the Bay until the could fit a row house on it. The ground was squishy, so they drove wood pilings through the squish until it stopped on something harder. Then they put foundation stones on top of the pilings and built brick row houses on them.
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In an earthquake, crappy old fill like that suffers what is called liquefaction. That means the dirt that was dumped where the Bay used to be turns to jello.
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But today’s scary article did not even mention earthquake. It is about the pilings rotting.
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Wood pilings generally do not rot as long as they are submerged. But for a great many reasons like the Big Dig traffic tunnel, the water table in the Back Bay area has fallen so far that the tops of the wood pilings are no long submerged. They crumble when exposed to air.
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I costs $3 million per town house to fix. And that seems to assume the water table will not fall further. And that fix as far as I can tell does not address earthquake issues.
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One way to measure earthquake damage is how much brickwork like chimneys are thrown down. The Back Bay houses are almost all brick. When we go there now for reunions, we usually stay in a Back Bay Building known as the Harvard Club of Boston.
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I am not sure how the pilings will react to an earthquake. An earthquake is like pulling the tablecloth out from under dishes on a table. Seems like the piling are upright because the fill dirt is packed snugly against them. When the dirt turns to jello and the jello is violently shaking, seems like the weight of a four-story brick building on top of stones that are on top of 200 year old logs surrounded by shaking jello is not a god thing.
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If I lived in the Boston area I would never have considered working or living in the Back Bay for a second. John Kerry lives there with his wife Theresa Heinz, an heir to the Heinz ketchup fortune. They are multimillion-dollar townhouses. I would live on the high ground and not because of global warming, but if that happened, it would not be my problem either.
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In 2017, we got our middle son to buy a condo in Jersey City (the location of Ellis Island and one of the best views of Manhattan). As part of that me insisted h buy on the high ground. And he did. Jersey City flooded during Hurricane Sandy, but not his neighborhood which is called, importantly, Jersey City Heights. I was more concerned about earthquakes, which also occur in NY-NJ, but in the course of talking to the agent about the high ground, we learned about Sandy.
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Real estate is a great investment, especially your principal residence. Yet millions make mistakes like buying on crap fill. We have a high rise apartment building called the Millennium Tower in San Francisco. It is tilting. It was built on fill, but in modern times but even so, they screwed up the combination of the foundation, which does not reach bedrock, and the structure which is made of heavy concrete instead of the almost universal lighter steel. A lot of the elite of SF live there, including pro athletes.
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So buy real estate, but make sure of the location and structure, especially when buying century-old buildings.

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