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Greeters add friendly welcome to forbidding City Hall

Eugenia Soiles, who got lost on her first visit to City Hall, gave directions to Martha Erickson in the lobby of Boston’s most forbidding building.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Greeter Eugenia Soiles, who got lost on her first visit to City Hall, gave directions to Martha Erickson in the lobby of Boston’s most forbidding building.

Welcome to City Hall! We’re glad you’ve come to fight a parking ticket! Pay taxes! Obtain a death certificate! Get married! Or find a public restroom!

Mayor Martin J. Walsh has stationed greeters — think Walmart or the Apple Store — at the entrance to Boston’s most forbidding building. Look for the bright red fleece vests embroidered with the mayor’s name.

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The greeters are college students who help, with a smile. They start with the basics: Constituents may have just walked in from City Hall Plaza, but they are not on the first floor.

“We’re here to say, ‘You’re on the third floor,’ ” said greeter Elizabeth Torres, a 22-year-old from Orlando, cheerfully explaining the odd layout of a structure built into a hill. “That’s a good starting point to be able to give people a little more perspective on where they actually are.”

Go down to the second floor to pay excise taxes. Take the elevators up for nuptials. Get a dog license on eight. Journey to the disability commission way up on nine.

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Building permits? Immigration? Housing Court? Wrong government building, but a greeter can show you how to get there.

Standing in the dank lobby this week, Walsh said he wanted to “lighten up City Hall,” a bunker-like concrete building where traditional greeters have been security guards asking patrons to empty their pockets. It can set an unwelcoming tone for visitors.

“They come in through a metal detector. There’s not much friendliness here,” Walsh said. “The first thing that people should be greeted with is a hello. This is the public’s building. Taxpayers pay for the building . . . the first point of entry should be positive.”

Take Torres, who developed her greeting know-how as a hotel concierge at Universal Studios in her Florida hometown. She is one of eight Northeastern University co-op students on six-month internships at City Hall. The group — paid by Northeastern — is assigned to the city’s 24-hour hotline answering calls about graffiti, potholes, and dirty streets.

Elizabeth Torres and other college students are working as greeters at City Hall.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Elizabeth Torres and other college students are working as greeters at City Hall.

On April 11, the city launched the greeter initiative and shifted interns from the phone lines to the front lines of municipal government. They take turns in the lobby from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, helping citizens find their way.

“I have a huge interest in municipal government,” Torres said. “I wanted to get to know the nuts and bolts.”

During the lunch hour this week, people clutching excise bills and orange parking tickets spun through the lobby’s revolving door, queued at the metal detectors, and streamed toward Torres.

She smiled and answered a rapid succession of questions: Business registration? Parking stickers? Moving permits?

“Sometimes, this place can be a little intimidating. It’s not the cheeriest type of facade,” said Steve DiMarino, a 55-year-old from West Roxbury who came to City Hall to visit the credit union and chatted with Torres.

And what did he think of the greeters? “It’s a good thing,” he said.

The Walsh administration agrees. Greeters help soften the feel of City Hall, a circa 1969 building constructed in the always-welcoming Brutalist style of architecture.

In fact, senior citizens may soon join the college interns through a volunteer program coordinated by the Elderly Commission, said Justin Holmes, the city’s interim chief information officer, who helped launch the initiative.

Each greeter is armed with an iPad mini loaded with municipal material — a list of city departments, a floor plan, a map showing other nearby government buildings, such as the Registry of Motor Vehicles and Suffolk Superior Court.

The students received customer service training and took detailed tours of City Hall. They made practice runs to the first-floor restrooms and took note of landmarks so they could provide directions to people in a hurry.

After three weeks of greeter goodwill, officials have learned that City Hall needs better signs to help people find what they are looking for, Holmes said. The top reasons to visit the seat of city government are parking tickets, birth certificates, tax payments, business registrations, and public bathrooms.

During last year’s race for mayor, Walsh’s rival, John R. Connolly, vowed to “make our city services work like the Apple Store.” It was a pitch to make government more consumer friendly and to improve efficiency.

“John had a great idea when he talked about that on the campaign trail,” Walsh said this week. “It should be easier to get around City Hall. He was absolutely, 100 percent correct.”

That task now is in the hands of Eugenia Soiles, a 22-year-old from Arlington, Va. When she started, Soiles didn’t know Boston had a neighborhood named Back Bay, and she got lost inside City Hall when she arrived for her job interview.

But now, Soiles can navigate City Hall with the skill of a South Boston native who has been on the city payroll since the Flynn administration. As an example, Soiles described an irate woman who got a ticket on a block where the street cleaning signs had blown down.

“I told her how to appeal it, so she was pretty happy,” Soiles said.

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.
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