A Tale of Two Cities: Salem and Lowell

Paul Marion’s excellent post series about Salem a few weeks ago struck a chord with me (Read it here, here, and here). Last fall, I worked in Salem as a tour guide during their busy season, and I’ve spent a lot of time pondering Salem and Lowell, two cities with a lot to offer but a big difference in tourism volume. I have a couple of thoughts about what Salem does well, and how Lowell might think about playing to its own strengths in similar ways.

Connected Narratives

One thing that I think Salem does really well is sell a series of stories, a clear and connected set of narratives. A trip to any place is an immersive experience, and people want a trip to offer specific feelings. Salem has done an excellent job of simultaneously packaging itself as a place to:

  • Have fun while exploring wacky spooky history (the sillier shopping, the Witch Museum and other funky touristy “museums”),
  • Connect to the Colonial American past (The House of the Seven Gables, the Salem Maritime Historic Site, and the lovely cemeteries and historic neighborhoods), and
  • Experience a sophisticated cultural destination (the formidable Peabody Essex Museum, and the more upscale shopping and dining).

Visiting Salem is an immersive experience. Here, the red line leads you to the Witch museum with a B&B next door. (Google Maps)

Salem is an immersive experience. Here, a red line leads you from Witch Village to the Witch Museum and nearby B&B.

These three separate but overlapping narratives bring in a critical mass of visitors and give them a clear sense of Salem as a destination. Lowell has strong narratives too! I think this is one of Lowell’s greatest strengths, and when I say that, keep in mind that I visited as a tourist before I ever considered living here. I think Lowell is really lucky in that many of its biggest draws from a tourism perspective fit into a series of stories or ideas.

  • The most obvious is the industrial history story associated with the National Park here.
  • Overlapping with that is the theme of textiles generally, with the National Park, the Textile Museum, and the Quilt Museum.
  • Another strong motif is immigration and different ethnic and cultural groups, again told in the Park, and with our many unique ethnic neighborhoods and restaurants.
  • Finally, there’s an overarching story here about revitalization, about historic preservation and a cultural turnaround.

Although these narratives exist, they are not quite as smoothly packaged yet as Salem’s. It wouldn’t be too hard to put together brochures or walking guides along these lines: “Lowell will have you in stitches for your day of textile fun” or “Eat your way across the Acre.”

Museums could anchor a Lowell Textile Tour.

Museums could anchor a Lowell Textile Tour (Bing Maps).


Outreach to Boston

The day we visited Boston, we found 2 pamphlets for Salem but none for Merrimack Valley.

The day we visited Boston, we found two pamphlets for Salem but none for Merrimack Valley.

Interacting with the folks on tours in Salem made it clear to me that it has figured out how to sell itself as a day trip from Boston. Salem gets tons of non-regional visitors, especially during the Halloween season. People I chatted with were often visiting Salem for the day as part of a longer trip to Boston. Lowell is just about the same distance from Boston as Salem (theoretically half an hour by car, 30-45 minutes by train), but I think we’re not reaching this market as well as we might be.

salem3One explanation for this? Salem has amazing tourism outreach. Check out this example from Faneuil Hall. Here’s one of the big card displays offering the visiting tourist a million options. See Salem? It’s there twice, in Salem’s nice glossy booklet and in House of the Seven Gables. Where’s Lowell? Nowhere. Now, sometimes I see the Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau booklet there, which is something, but that booklet is covering a huge area, and Lowell’s just part of it. I think the unprepared tourist, trying to decide what to do with their day, is unlikely to be led to Lowell.

Now why is Salem so much better at this? Some of it we can’t change. Lowell’s biggest draw is the National Park, and the National Park can’t spend money on advertising. Like literally, legally, they can’t. Salem’s National Park stuff is a smaller piece of the pie, proportionally. The mighty Peabody Essex, other historic sites, plus all those funky stores and touristy “museums” band together and spend a lot more money than Lowell can, at least right now. That doesn’t mean Lowell can’t apply its resources strategically, of course.

What can Lowell do?

Quilts on display at NEQM.

I think the biggest thing Lowell can do to try to copy the positive aspects of Salem is think about how to strengthen and play to the strong themes it has going. I get the impression Lowell does get “textile” theme tourists, for instance. How can we figure out how to make their day in Lowell a more immersive, memorable experience? I think a store that sold fabric or crafting supplies in the downtown might be a good fit there. Maybe we can figure out how to better wind in Lowell’s modern textile artists too. I notice that several of this years’ Parker Lectures are textile-themed, that’s probably a strong connection.

Mill Works, contemporary fiber art recently exhibited at ATHM.

Also key: more communication and collaboration between Lowell’s diverse forces, as suggested by the recent marketing meeting in June and the emergence of First Thursdays. If Lowell’s forces put their heads and their money together, they can present a stronger, more unified front.

On a smaller scale, there’s something everybody excited about Lowell can do to help it. Good internet reviews and buzz are a big part of how people make their travel decisions. This is an area where Salem is running laps around us: for example, the Peabody Essex Museum has 135 Yelp reviews. The American Textile History Museum has eight. Each of us can help Lowell by taking to our favorite social media and making sure that people know about what there is to do in Lowell. Consider taking a minute and dropping some positive Tripadvisor or Yelp reviews of restaurants, stores, and cultural destinations you like. Follow and Like the cultural organizations you enjoy, and Share their pictures and announcements with your friends. I’m not suggesting any level of phony boosterism. But these things do matter, and it requires such a teeny amount of effort to support the organizations in Lowell you want to see do well.

I’ve visited both Lowell and Salem as a tourist, and now I’ve guided tourists in both as well. Both are fun, vivid places, with lots to see and do (and eat). Lowell is every bit as interesting as Salem as a destination, and I often chat with tourists in Lowell who’ve had a wonderful experience visiting the city and have really felt a connection to its stories. I don’t want everything that Salem has for Lowell: some of its spooky tourism crosses the line from cheesy to downright disrespectful. Chatting with Salem locals, it was clear that too much tourism can be a curse as well as a blessing, and that sometimes the city could be a weird place to actually live. But I’m confident that Lowell could handle a little more tourism without losing its strong sense of itself.

Let us know in the comments if you have thoughts on other good strategies Lowell could adopt from Salem or other potential tourism role-models.

 

First Thursdays: Art Battles and Big Pictures

Lowell’s First Thursdays is an exciting monthly event encouraging visitors downtown to explore shops and museums the first Thursday of each summer month. Born out of a brainstorming session held in April, the monthly event enjoys support from the Council Organization of Lowell (COOL), the City of Lowell, and Lowell National Historical Park. However, the event is at its heart grassroots, making it an interesting example of businesses and museums organizing an event without a formal, supporting organization.

Live Art Battle in Lowell on First Thursday artists painting

Artists went head-to-head in a contest that was decided by audience applause. More photos on their facebook page.

Last week was the third “First Thursday,” and from my discussions with folks at a few galleries, the most successful yet. One participating business manager told me that she was beginning to see brand-new clientele at last week’s event. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was the first not to be rained upon.

Aurora and I kicked off our Thursday experience by meeting a meetup.com group at the “Our City Live Art Battle,” where artists compete for a chance for $1,000 at the Downtown Arts Fest in Nashua. One artist from Lowell and one from Nashua furiously painted two very different works of art: although each started as abstract fields of color, one slowly morphed into an idyllic scene while the other became even more abstract: a shock of color violently smashing through the painting’s white border.

As we chatted with others from the meetup group, members from Nashua’s Positive Street Art started streetdancing. A few children joined in the dancing and painted at the kids’ art table. Meanwhile, others drifted in and out to catch a glimpse, many of which were passing-by and curious.

Dancers from Positive Street Art in Lowell MA Market Mills

The music and dancers activated the space, encouraging a few onlookers to join in!

After the Art Battle, the Meetup group visited two local galleries: Brush and Zeitgeist. The group was surprised by the secret Zeitgeist holds: a funky vintage clothing shop hidden away, appropriately named the Back Room. I heard some marvel at how varied the subjects and styles were in each gallery.

Three paintings at Brush Gallery Lowell MA

The Brush’s current exhibit is inspired by gardens (photo: Maria)

For those that don’t know, Zeitgesit stays fresh by keeping one side devoted to rotating shows from visiting artists, and maintaining the other side with the latest works from members of their collaborative. I also appreciate its large variety of affordable art, including prints, jewelry, 3″x3″ paintings, t-shirts, mugs, and the like. One can purchase quite a number of unique works for $10 or $20.

As the group explored, we saw artists from Western Avenue Studios/Loading Dock Gallery presenting a travelling art fashion show, wearing art clothing and carrying signs encouraging onlookers to “ask about what I’m wearing.” I hate to say, we didn’t ask, but we enjoyed looking! The meetup.com group finished the night at Athenian Corner, although by then, Aurora and I had to leave.

Building Toward a Big Picture

I noticed a great number of folks going through the galleries and walking down the cobblestone streets: a compliment to other downtown events, from painting at Tutto Bene or the outdoor music of Athenian Corner. This highlighted for me the way each month must build upon the last, as Aurora and I attended a previous First Thursday that did not seem to reach its potential, even taking the rain into account. For example, shops advertising promotions closed hours before the event’s 9 pm end time, and I heard the musicians at Whistler House had sparse audiences. However, August’s event was much livelier, everything was as advertised, and I imagine September’s will be even busier.

Mary Hart, who was instrumental in kicking off First Thursdays (link to Lowell Sun), was kind enough to give me some inside information about the event. She agreed, “We have had mixed success in attracting crowds, but we seem to be building.” I believe it is critical that every participating business and museum stay open the extra hours, keep the sale going, and keep participating. It was personally quite disappointing to find sales ended or businesses closed, and I imagine that others finding closed doors might not come back. I think the larger story, however, is that a handful of folks who enjoyed the early events despite the rain are helping to build buzz and each month brings more visitors.

This seems to serve as a good lesson for similarly recurring events, as it might be easy to be discouraged, especially when weather doesn’t cooperate. However, momentum may very well be building. Notably, I haven’t found this type of advice anywhere in downtown revitalization guides, and I believe it deserves further study.

What’s the Goal?

An interesting question is one posed by the National Trust’s Main Street Center:

Before you create any special event as a part of a campaign, ask yourself: What is the purpose of this event? Which of the largest market segments will the event attract?

The folks from the meetup group were from many places: Lowell, the immediate suburbs, and even New Hampshire. Is this the target market the event attracts? Ms. Hart revealed that the group behind First Thursdays hoped to adopt monthly “open galleries” events that other cities (including Worcester and Boston) organize to entice downtown employees to linger after work and leverage convenient evening hours and proximity of museums and galleries, attracting outside visitors. Goals included:

  1. Attract more visitors to [the group's] sites
  2. Encourage longer visits including meals and purchases from downtown businesses
  3. Build a loyal following and establish as a regular event

With that in mind, I wonder where the “downtown employee” and “outside visitor” markets could be even better reached and what businesses critical to those markets might be being left out. I pondered this while watching the Art Battle, realizing the only thing that could have made the event better was if it were in an area with more foot traffic, perhaps catching folks that walk to and from the Leo Roy (Market Street) garage, capturing people going home from work who might not be tuned in to any Lowell media. They may ignore a banner, but they certainly won’t ignore a group watching artists speed-paint against one another!

This also builds buzz, as mentioned before: perhaps the passer-bys don’t stay that day, but they’ll make it to the next one: once again, using each event to build momentum on the next.

A Jump-Started Test Drive

Ms. Hart explained that this was a “test drive” of a monthly cultural night. After the first discussion with artists and gallery people, downtown museums and the National Park were invited to a meeting to discuss the possibility. Twelve groups were represented at that meeting. I understand the group chose Thursday to avoid conflicts with existing weekend events.

Ultimately, participants agreed to share work of creating themes, maps, and schedules and pay a nominal fee to cover printing costs. The group accomplished nearly all its advertising through social media, with each participant doing the work to market the event. The group chose venues specifically to minimize expense and the need for city permits. In addition, the organizer accomplished business outreach by visiting each door-to-door. Ultimately, the level of activity in such a short time is among the most exciting elements of the effort:

What we have achieved, and this is the best part, is to identify and gather a core of committed people willing to get something started without grant money, extensive proposals or endless meetings! -Mary Hart, Artist & Event Organizer

This means that not only does each event, even rainy events, build buzz, but they also provide a learning opportunity for the next event.

What’s Next?

Photo by Fresh Air Fridays

Photo by Fresh Air Fridays

Immediately next is Thursday, September 4. In Ms. Hart’s words, “an opportunity to gather and celebrate the richness and excitement of our institutions.” Information will be posted on COOL’s website as soon as it is available. The First Thursdays group will soon discuss and vote upon next steps after September; the event may continue in a different form over the winter or may be summer-only. Ms. Hart mentioned the regardless need to identify ways to advertise outside social media.

In addition, Fresh Air Fridays will continue through August: artist markets, the Lowell Farmers Market, and street performers all complementing the Lowell Summer Music Series.

For me, these events beg a question: is it better to cast a wide net or tailor an event to a specific group? I could imagine a complimentary monthly event designed to attract families with young children or University Students. If each week, a different event could play downtown’s strengths to a person with different interests? Even better! I truly believe Lowell has enough talented, creative folks to support it.

Kids' painting table at Art Battle.

Kids’ painting table at Art Battle.

Judging the finished pieces

Judging the finished pieces

Loading Dock Gallery Artists at Visitor Center

Loading Dock Gallery had a travelling fashion show: artists had a table at the National Park Visitor Center and walked in the outfits with signs “ask me about what I’m wearing.”

Sunset at Ayers Loft Gallery Lowell

A gorgeous sunset capped a perfect evening out

What I love and hate about commuting to Boston.

From December to June, I was working three days a week in Boston (at New England Aquarium, if you’re curious). Sunday, Monday, and Friday, I either walked or took the Downtown Shuttle from Downtown Lowell to Gallagher Terminal, and then I took the train to North Station.  Here’s a middle-ground free summary of the experience:

MBTA Commuter Rail at Gallagher Terminal

MBTA Commuter Rail

Love the train. I love trains, and I love this train. It wasn’t always perfectly sparkling, but the train was, at a very basic level, almost always clean, reliable, and on time.

 

 

 

Laptop on table in MBTA commuter rail car

The best spot is the top of the double decker cars – outlets and tables!

Hate the train’s unreliable Wi-Fi. I know that’s such a first-world problem, because it’s nice that they even have Wi-Fi. But its unpredictability can be pretty crazy-making. Some cars it works, some it doesn’t, it can be soooooo sloooooow, and it forces you to reconnect at least a couple of times over the course of the trip.

 

 

 

LRTA bus at Gallagher Terminal

LRTA Bus

Love the bus drivers. I found Lowell’s bus drivers to be friendly folk, and I never got the vibe you get from some of the world’s bus drivers that they wish they could drive the whole thing off a cliff. Sometimes they had music going, which might or might not be technically correct, but I personally love. Several times I saw them be really helpful and kind to the befuddled.

 

MBTA North Station

North Station fills up quickly

Hate no buses on Sunday. This was the bane of my commuting existence. No buses on Sunday. None. Thinking about it, I would give a Hate to commuting on Sunday on every level. Because the trains are infrequent, they’re always packed. Then, because of weekend events, the wait for the train at North Station and then the train ride itself are made a little too exciting with the presence of a million riled up Bruins fans, or Disney: Live! refugees all armed with light swords.

 

MBTA 10-Ride Pass

Count the number of punches!

Love poorly punched 10 ride passes for the train. I bought the 10 ride punch pass (in Boston, because there’s nowhere to do it in Lowell) and in my experience, there were a couple of the MBTA folks who had to punch your pass that did not care at all about that part of the job. Result, cards like this, where I got two or three free rides out of their carelessness.

 

 

 

Gallagher Terminal Interior

On a holiday, you may be in for a long wait at the terminal.

Hate the holiday schedules. Generally speaking, any holiday causes the bus to go to a Saturday schedule or none at all, and since a Saturday schedule meant no bus until after I had to leave and before I got back to Lowell, they had the same result for me. Holiday schedules for the train mean limited service, but at least I could make it there and back. Also, every person on a holiday train is grumpy about having to be there.
 

 

West Medford from the train

West Medford from the train

Love the view from the train. I have not gotten over how just plain pretty New England can be, and the views of countryside, picturesque town squares, and the Boston skyline always put me in a good mood.

 

 

 

LRTA Paper Schedule

The rare and elusive paper schedule

Hate how hard it is to find a paper bus schedule. I cannot understand this one at all, but for some reason, paper bus schedules are very thin on the ground. When I spotted an actually stocked pile of them on the bus one morning, the driver pointed out how lucky I was. That simply should not be—not when lots of people still don’t have access to the internet, not when Lowell wants to make life easy for tourists.

 

 

View from Lowell Line

Boston Skyline

Love the view to Boston getting into North Station. From the train, you can spot Bunker Hill, the Prudential Building, and the Museum of Science, and get a great view of the Charles.

 

 

I spent a lot of time staring at this sign while waiting for a bus.

I spent a lot of time staring at this sign while waiting for a bus.

Hate the way the bus and train schedule don’t even try to get along. The train I routinely took back got me to Gallagher one minute after the Downtown Shuttle left. I would see the bus leave from the train platform. A real bummer at the end of a long day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Corner of Market & Central

Corner of Market & Central

Love walking through downtown Lowell. It’s a beautiful city, and since I had to leave pretty early, I often got to catch quiet streets with the sun just coming up.

 

 

 

 

Lord Overpass, Lowell

Lord Overpass

Hate walking over the Lord Overpass. Haaaaaate. It’s a remarkably unpleasant, pedestrian-unfriendly part of the walk, which is really unfortunate for anyone that wants to day-trip from Boston. The overpass’s pedestrian paths often take you out of your way, and more than once I somehow followed one that was a straight-up dead-end, forcing me to jaywalk or turn all the way around.

 

 

Dutton Street, Lowell

It’s still a very popular walking route, despite narrow sidewalks

If there were any single piece of Lowell I could snap my fingers and redesign, the Lord Overpass would be it. Dutton Street is almost as bad, with narrow sidewalks that put you right next to very fast-moving, dense traffic. This part of the walk doesn’t feel safe, especially as it gets dark.

On a good day, I found the commute from Lowell to be straightforward, relaxing, and pretty. On a bad day it was frustrating and felt like it didn’t really care what I wanted. Overall time from leaving my apartment to getting to the Aquarium: about two hours. Commuting by foot and public transport wasn’t always the ideal experience, but it got me where I needed to go reliably, and it says something that I never considered driving to Boston, even on the worst day.

IMG_20140710_180131

Branch Street Fire Thoughts: Am I a Rubbernecker?

Most readers by now know about the fire that claimed the lives of four adults and three children in the Lower Highlands, a very dense, primarily Southeast Asian-American neighborhood. It was the deadliest Massachusetts fire in twenty years. The fire occurred at 77 Branch Street, a three-story, circa-1890 structure according to the assessor’s database. Almost sixty people lived in the building.

CMAA Branch Street Fire Incense/Candlelight Vigil

The candlelight vigil drew Lowellians from both inside and outside the neighborhood.

It’s difficult to write about tragedy without feeling as if you’re taking advantage of the victims. I didn’t know anyone who lives in the building; in fact, I barely know anyone who lives in that neighborhood. Who am I to talk about the event?

It was that feeling that made it a difficult decision to attend the candle/incense vigil quickly organized by the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association (CMAA). Ultimately, we did. As we walked through the tangle of buildings, we noted that we don’t visit the neighborhood enough, and I continued to wonder if I was showing solidarity or merely invading and rubbernecking.

When we arrived, a mixture of people in suits and streetclothes talked solemnly in several languages, all looking at the burnt shell of the building. Many of the 200 attending held sweet-smelling incense; others held small candles. The fire had peeled away the vinyl siding to reveal detailed, decorative woodwork underneath. However, the structure has been totaled, scheduled for demolition on Tuesday. I can only imagine it will leave a scar for some time.

The snippets of conversation I overheard overwhelmingly consisted of greetings and life updates, the stuff of normal small talk between folks who don’t see each other as often as they would like. We did see a few folks we knew, and we made similar small talk with them. This is why I ultimately felt it was good to come: we were, at least for now, a part of the community. Even if we didn’t know anyone affected by the fire, we knew people who knew people. It’s impossible not to.

News crews at candelight vigil for Branch Street fire

I’ve never seen so many news crews in Lowell in one place.

We heard the monks pray for the victims, but comments from the Mayor were drowned out by news helicopters and the murmur of the crowd. In fact, it was astounding to see so many news crews. Even my parents in Illinois received news about the fire. These moments sometimes make me reflect: so many people are struggling and dying every day, but only a sudden catastrophe attracts our attention. It’s why it’s difficult not to feel like a rubbernecker. It’s why, as long as I live here, I’ll keep trying to be part of the community through good times and bad, and why I encourage others to do the same.

I don’t have anything to add to the conversation about the cause of the fire or local media’s reaction. Dick Howe has an interesting perspective in his week in review: the fire was bookended by reports of gunshots and a fatal stabbing, and the conversation about violence continues. So although we should discuss building codes and sprinklers, it’s important to remember that “…the prescription for reducing violence and crime isn’t all that different from what’s needed to prevent a recurrence of Thursday’s tragic fire.”

Woman with donation box at CMAA vigil Branch Street Fire

A donation box was passed around at the vigil. There are many ways to help, including donation at the Wish Foundation or volunteering (see leftinlowell.com)

Both crime and improving the housing stock, Mr. Howe argues, require reducing poverty through connecting families to a growing economy. An especially heartwrenching write-up by the Boston Globe highlights Mr. Howe’s point: Torn Sak, who lost his life along with three of his children, reportedly did not have a job because he “could not read well.”

If you’d like to help and don’t know how, Lynne L. has a good rundown of what’s needed and how to donate at leftinlowell.com. For out-of-towners, the easiest way to donate online is through a GoFundMe page set up by the CMAA.

New Urbanism, from Buffalo to Lowell

A few weeks ago, I attended the 22nd annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism. New Urbanism is a movement within urban planning that supports tools to promote walkable, mixed-use communities rather than communities with segregated housing, employment, and shopping.

Main Street Buffalo

Despite its reputation, Buffalo has many vibrant, walkable districts.

This year’s conference was held in Buffalo, NY, but the movement is international in scope. Many Lowellians will be familiar with one of the movement’s proponents, Jeff Speck, the planner who developed Lowell’s 2010 “Downtown Evolution” plan. However, he is only one of many planners and architects from around the world advocating New Urbanism.

Much of what was discussed made me reflect upon Lowell: What seems right and what opportunities might still exist? I’ll share my thoughts here, but these explanations only scratch the surface. If any reader is intrigued by any of the ideas mentioned here, please drop a comment, and I’ll expand in a future post. I also welcome corrections or additions.

What is New Urbanism?

This was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a topic of discussion at the conference. I originally understood New Urbanism as a movement about physical form: sidewalks, building types, densities, landscape, road widths, and similar. In fact, the movement is a very large tent. There were those more interested in programming and making sidewalks alive. There were those that designed new developments in a “traditional” fashion, others that wrote codes that would guide development (or at least not get in the way) toward that direction, and still others that worked to change the public realm in existing development. The keynote speakers spoke of grand demographic changes, letting a younger generation guide urban development, and the definition of resilience.

There were common threads. One was that all communities, rural to urban, can be built to accommodate both cars and pedestrians. One was about the power of cities is to mix different types of people and different activities to create something greater than the sum of its parts. One is that cities must do much more to address natural ecology and global warming.

Despite its diversity, New Urbanism’s core principles remain about the built environment’s effect upon society. This often brings it criticism, such as art critic Colin Dabkowski’s complaint that New Urbanism ignores racial segregation and pervasive poverty in favor of focusing on “making prosperous neighborhoods more prosperous” and hoping the benefits trickle-down. Having attended many sessions and talked to many people, I don’t think that complaint is on the mark, but there also is a kernel of truth that it doesn’t—and can’t—incorporate everything. Chris Hawley, Buffalo city planner, summarized: “New urbanism—necessary, but insufficient.”

Jeff Speck and Lowell at CNU

 

Jeff Speck at CNU22 with Lowell slide in background.

Mr. Speck used Lowell as an example.

Mr. Dabkowski’s complaint was principally leveled at Jeff Speck. He spoke at several plenary (attended by all conference participants) sessions. Mr. Speck argues that cities must become more walkable to attract and retain young people, become ecologically sustainable, promote healthy lifestyles, and let people spend their money and time for things other than transportation.

lwrhighlands


drumhill
A planner may prioritize pedestrian crossings in the Lower Highlands (upper  picture) rather than Drum Hill (lower picture) just because theres a better chance of encouraging people to walk.

Parking is a key piece of this, and he mentioned Donald Shoup’s High Cost of Free Parking. Shoup argues that cities have forced businesses (through minimum parking regulations) to subsidize drivers at the expense of pedestrians. However, even if the city doesn’t require parking, banks that finance developments might, assuming anyone who would rent a two-bedroom apartment would also drive two cars. In the presentations, Mr. Speck praised Lowell specifically for giving developers flexibility by dedicating spaces in parking garages usually empty at night for mill redevelopments. This allowed the developers to present proof there would be enough parking to banks.

It was another concept that drew the criticism, however. Mr. Speck argued for “urban triage.” It is difficult to summarize briefly, so I’ll do it some injustice by describing it as the following: when choices must be made, cities should focus on improving those areas that have walkability potential. This could be seen as favoring already-nice neighborhoods, as critics worry. In reality, however, practicing urban triage might mean fixing the sidewalk along Bridge Street in Lower Centralville before adding street trees to Belvidere, because Bridge Street could become a walkable link between downtown and Centralville shops, while Belvidere will probably stay autocentric.

An interesting rebuttal by Mr. Speck, including a short argument for favoring downtowns before other neighborhoods (another hot topic in Lowell) is here.

Tactical Urbanism

One of the most exciting conversations at the conference was about “tactical urbanism” and “lean urbanism.” The idea is that activists or planners can make short-term, sometimes temporary projects that actually change the urban form long-term. This includes anything from making a parking spot into a mini-park, putting pop-up stores and displays in empty storefronts, and guerilla gardening (often illegally planting flowers or vegetables on public or vacant land).

Somerville pop-up plaza from Chris Orchard, Somerville Patch

These interventions are low-cost experiments that show what “could” be to investors or the public. In Somerville, planners closed off a small public parking lot, invited food trucks, and created a “pop-up plaza” to run an open house. People learned the value of the additional public space and the location intercepted people who would never attend a meeting in a city hall or library. The planners weren’t even sure they secured all the appropriate permits—doing so may have delayed or drove up the cost of the event.

Another example came from Memphis, where planners worked with entrepreneurs to create pop-up events for an abandoned brewery slated for demolition. The planners helped the entrepreneurs secure the needed permits from various departments while the entrepreneurs cut a deal with the building’s owner, cleaned up the space, and planned food truck and other events. “Tennessee Brewery Untapped” resulted in renewed interest from developers to buy and renovate the space to use the first floor for a brew pub or other use.

A project during CNU chalked a plaza into extra space in a five-points intersection. image

A project during CNU chalked a plaza into extra space in a five-points intersection. (Image: Buffalorising)

A panel including Dan Bartman, a senior planner from Somerville and Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns, among others argued that planners need room to experiment and fail. One panelist argued that if you try four risky things, and three fail and one succeeds, you’re rewarded in the business world but punished in the public planning world. He argued, “If you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying hard enough.” This makes sense: if you spend $1,000 each on four projects, and one succeeds and brings in $10,000 in new tax revenue, it’s perverse to say the other three were “wasted” money—so long as the projects are small.

Perhaps Lowell could embrace this principle more. Many small ideas are shot down quickly because of difficulties securing the right approvals, but maybe someone on the inside could pull the right strings. Murals could be painted. The city could work up a model one-month lease agreement that landlords could use to temporarily occupy their storefronts. Best of all, these kind of urban interventions could be applied anywhere—not just downtown.

The SmartCode

Much of the conference revolved around form-based codes. These are codes that focus on the relationship between building facades to the street and the scale of buildings to street blocks. The “SmartCode” is a model form-based code that can be adapted by communities to replace their traditional zoning.

It is centered around the idea that the form of cities change as they move from rural to suburban to the urban core, and divides this gradient into six “transect zones,” numbered so that urban planners from different cities can use the same language. Each of these transect zones are divided into sub-zones which get their own regulations: urban areas should have plenty of windows and doors to make an interesting walk, traditional areas should have porches or stoops, and so forth. At the conference, I heard a rule of thumb that any fifteen minute walk in an urban area should have three of these subzones, so that anyone living in a single family area can walk to a neighborhood center.

Transects

This type of form-based code may seem overly draconic to some, but its authors stress that it is meant to be flexible. It isn’t meant to dictate architectural styles any more than traditional zoning. Rather, it dictates how those styles must interact with the street. In return, it provides more flexibility in how those buildings are used.

This is a subtle distinction from traditional zoning, which controls form as well, but with more abstract measures. Lowell’s zoning code is something of a mix, which is common for modern zoning codes. It divides the City into suburban, traditional neighborhood, and urban districts which appears to roughly be T3, T4, and T5 transect zones. The more urban districts have few “traditional” regulations such as density restrictions and setbacks, and all districts have at least one subzone in which a mix of uses is allowed.

I attended a technical session on how to calibrate the model SmartCode to existing cities’ context. The larger messages of the session included the value of a “synaptic survey:” measuring exactly what makes a good neighborhood in your community such as porches, setbacks, and awnings. This type of survey might be a great community-building tool, as planners and community members walk streets together to consider their neighborhoods on a micro-level.

Resistance to Historic Districts

Something I noticed repeatedly is a general distaste of CNU members for historic districts and standards. I don’t wish to overstate the case, but some seem to feel historic districts’ strict standards run counter to the architectural flexibility form-based codes seek to foster. I believe some may think historic standards may restrict positive improvements in walkability or diversity of building use and housing type.

Jeff Speck’s Downtown Evolution plan mentions preservation and the complex association it has with New Urbanist principles. For example, the plan states:

In any such transformation of a historic building or landscape, a delicate balance must be forged between communicating an understanding of a site’s original design and adapting that design to serve modern needs, or even transforming it into something more compelling.

The plan cites such changes as creating the walkway through the center of Market Mills to the courtyard and parking lot as an adaptation that enhances the urban form while respecting a preservation ethic.

Transit and New Urbanism

Lowell Trolley

Can the Lowell Trolley–even without an expansion–be a tool for urbanism?

I got in from Boston right in time to take the bus from the airport to the convention center. Upstate New York’s busses tend to be a lesson about their level of racial segregation, and Buffalo is no exception. What surprised me, however, was the reaction when I mentioned I took the bus: “Oh, really?! How did that turn out?”

I later learned that almost everyone rented a car from the airport and then parked it for most of the conference downtown. Even among planners, there’s a persistent perception that busses are too complicated or unreliable for outsiders, despite Buffalo having no particularly bad transit reputation. My ride went smoothly and took about thirty-five minutes (as opposed to fifteen by car).

Transit is relevant to New Urbanism: several principles in CNU’s charter deal with transit, stating that a framework of systems should maximize access and mobility, and that appropriate densities should form around transit stops so that transit can create a viable alternative to auto-dependence. The one session I attended about transit had something of a celebratory tone, as North American transit use is on the rise, and funding for system improvements is at least slightly easier to come by than in previous decades.

Buffalo has one light rail line[1]. Although its often been called “a train to nowhere,” it had the third-highest per-mile ridership after Boston’s Green Line and San Francisco’s Muni Metro until recent construction stretched headways from twelve to twenty minutes. The line was originally going to extend to the main campus of its University, but lack of funding ended it at the University’s satellite campus. It has never been able to secure funding to extend, although now the agency is examining alternatives to connect it to the main campus. Regardless, this highlights the risk of a disappointing “Phase I” creating a challenge for future transit phases.

Leaving Buffalo

This is just a smattering of the thoughts from Buffalo. Other interesting tidbits include the correlation between small block sizes and safety, efforts to replace highways with multimodal boulevards, the precinct-by-precinct planning process Toronto undertook, ways to design facilities that can be used by all people of all ages and abilities, the baby booms in urban areas as “millennials” start families, and much more. I’m sure these thoughts will crop up in future posts about Lowell.

Look Peatónito up on the internet. Youll be

Look Peatónito up on the internet. You’ll be glad you did.

One thing this post doesn’t convey is how fun the event was. We did a pub crawl with fifty attendees, toured titanic grain silos that are now being used as event/party space, and met a guy who dresses as a luchador and literally pushes cars out of crosswalks in Mexico.

Here’s a parting thought: A Toronto Sun reporter consistently made fun of bicycle lanes and talked about how bicyclists got in the way of cars. She was invited by planners to go on a ride-along during one event, and her next story was “Sun reporter gets an understanding of cyclists”. The chief planner of Toronto, in recounting this story, said, “We must transform our conversations if we are to transform our cities.” This seems especially relevant.

Note

[1] Light rail is a partially-or-wholly aboveground passenger train usually separated from traffic in its own right-of-way.

Five Pubs of Downtown Lowell

We aim to present all sides of Lowell in “Learning Lowell,” and we realized we had sadly been neglecting its nightlife. To remedy this, we invited anyone interested for a “Learning Lowell Pub Crawl,” an exploration of five establishments throughout downtown. We chose our destinations by word of mouth and our own curiosity, and made a plan to visit one each hour. We were happy to have a few folks join us! Here now we recreate our thoughts and reactions upon experiencing each pub.

The Worthen House

Aurora at Old Worthen House

The Old Worthen is old but comfortable, perhaps like a favorite shoe.

Fans at Old Worthen

Oldest belt-driven fans in Massachusetts.

Kirk Boott Woodcut Reproduction

We’ll go to Worthen House whenever we want to see this Kirk Boott woodcut (Image: Gutenberg Project)

Aurora: I am super-psyched to be in this bar; I’ve been wanting to come here since moving to Lowell. Poe, Kerouac, super old. This is what I was picturing when I moved to New England. And the atmosphere lives up to my expectations! Tin ceilings, wood paneling, woodcut reprints on the walls. What a cool place.

Chris:  …and the first thing that happens is that someone asks if we’re tourists. At least we can say we live downtown. Do you think that gives us any street cred?

Aurora: No, I do not. That dude did not think we were cool at all. But he was  just being helpful, letting us know they’ll turn on the historic belt-driven fans if we ask. He tells us tourists often come in just to see the fans. And when he told him what we’re doing, he suggested Friends Restaurant across the street.

Chris: Between that and Reservations, we’ll need to do a “Part II” someday. Anyway, what to drink?

Our Orders
Aurora:  I figured first stop, keep it simple. PBR.

Chris: Everyone’s excited about Yuengling coming to MA. Why not join in the excitement?

Best Part
Aurora: The best thing is absolutely the atmosphere. I feel like this place hasn’t changed in 100 years. In a good way.

Chris: This looks like great bar food. Cheese sticks, sweet potato fries, and fried pickles!

Worst Part
Aurora: But, wow, visiting here made me feel like the tourist I was.

Chris: Nah, I could come here for a late night snack and drink. But I don’t know if I’d find anyone to talk about beat poetry here. That’s what Jack Kerouac did all the time, right?

Cobblestones

Entryway into Cobblestones

But then we were directed to the “lounge.”

Doorway at Cobblestones

Is this someone’s house?

Cobblestones Lounge

The Cobblestones Lounge was hopping!

Order of Truffle Fries at Cobblestones

The majesty that is truffle fries.

Chris: Wow, what a switch! Did we wander into a New England aristocrat’s house?

Aurora: This definitely seems like a place that serves lobster. Oh man, truffle fries? What? We are ordering these.

Chris: The lounge is already packed and its only 8 pm. How are other pub crawlers going to find us? We should have made a sign!

Aurora: And just as we start to worry about this: two total strangers approach and introduce themselves. They’d moved to Lowell a few months ago and found our blog. I am not sure what’s crazier: having a blog that is read by people we have not met or having a conversation in which we’re not the Lowell newbies.

Our Orders
Chris: Three ciders to choose from. Who knew Harpoon had a cider?

Aurora: Of course, I have to order the Truffle Fries. Oh my gosh, they are amazing. I will come back just for these. I also order a delicious (but not as memorable) cider.

Best Part
Chris: Best thing? This definitely feels like the fanciest place downtown, and with so many appetizers I’d love to try.

Aurora: This is definitely delicious… and slightly indulgent.

Worst Part
Chris: Right. But, you know, for a place called Cobblestones, there’s only a handful of them outside on the patio.

Aurora: It’s probably too fancy for my blood, at least on the regular. Oh, wow, how can it be time to go already?! Onto Fuse!

Fuse Bistro

Fuse Bistro

Fuse has a low-key atmosphere and a diverse crowd.

Table filled with drinks

We started to get creative with our drink orders.

Fuse Bistro is in a renovated firehouse with lovely outdoor seating (when it isn't raining)

Fuse Bistro is in a renovated firehouse with lovely outdoor seating (when it isn’t raining) Photo: Yelp

Aurora: Finally, one I’ve been to before. Familiar ground at last. And… they’re totally stuffed with people. One of the lessons for me tonight is that there are a ton of people doing the Friday night thing downtown, something you don’t see as much on the weekdays.

Chris: Some folks are nice enough to donate half their table and chairs to our cause. There are a lot of unique dishes—their website says it bridges “traditional tavern fare and fine dining,” which I can only assume is what is being fused. And the crowd here is so diverse.

Our Orders
Aurora: Our waitress recommends the Root Beer Float, which has marshmallow vodka in it. It seemed so innocent, and then my tongue went numb.

Chris: With Root Beer Floats and Oatmeal Cookie Maritinis, I feel boring with a seasonal Blackberry Sangria.

Best Part
Chris: Our server is rad, but that’s always been my experience here.

Aurora: I love silly cocktails. Reason enough to love Fuse.

Worst Part
Aurora: The bad part is that I can’t always afford silly cocktails. But even worse, we’re behind schedule!

Old Court

Old Court Tavern

Old Court is filled with kids on Friday nights! We should have heeded this website’s description: “That pub is always packed and a lot of fun.”

Old Court Tavern

Irish-inspired murals and pictures decorate the walls. (Image: Tripadvisor)

Old Court Tavern

A photo from Old Court’s website showing the amazing woodwork in the tavern.

Aurora: You know, I love that Old Court has this low-key, nice, mellow vibe.

Chris: I agree, I’ve always thought of Old Court as an after-work pint place.

Aurora: And I’ll just open the door, and… OH MY GOSH! Who are these people? Young kids? Students?

Chris: And are those guys in matching T-Shirts? Did we run into another pub crawl? That’s what we should have done! Learning Lowell T-Shirts! Then nobody would think we were tourists.

Aurora: Next time! This is really fun!

Our Orders
Chris: Well, we’ve done beers, ciders, and fancy cocktails. I think this atmosphere calls for hard liquor, served simply.

Aurora: After very gradually fighting our way to the front, I get a gin and tonic. It’s loud enough that the bartender holds up fingers to tell me how much it is.

Chris: I’ll get a Jack on the rocks, although in an Irish bar, maybe I should have gotten a Jameson’s!

Best Part
Aurora: Hmm. We got a little off schedule, so our time here is limited. Too busy for me tonight.

Chris: I still love the murals on the walls of this place. Someone put a lot of care into this.

Worst Part
Aurora: We should definitely come before 10:00 pm next time. I’m ready to head in a more hipsterly direction: On to Ward 8!

Ward 8

Chris: Why are we stopping? It looks like a party!

Aurora: The bouncer says that it’s at capacity. “The Howl something-or-other.

Chris: Those howlers! What should we do now?

Aurora: A few folks have been advocating for Cappy’s Copper Kettle. It’s right across the street, and all I know is that it’s next to WCAP radio station. Let’s try it.

Cappy’s Copper Kettle

Cappy's Copper Kettle Dance Floor

My camera’s lens got stuck and couldn’t focus on the furious dancing

Table full of drinks at Cappy's Copper Kettle

We were treated to a mix of country and magical 80s pop tunes.

Cappys Copper Kettle during Kerouac Festival

This image was taken during the Kerouac festival (this was supposedly another haunt of Kerouac), but captures the dance floor better than my fuzzy camera. (Image: Lowell FYSH)

Aurora: This place is enormous! I would have had no idea that this was so big.

Chris: And pretty amazing. A dance floor, wood paneling and neon bar signs everywhere, and a live DJ. Everyone here is having a ball: dancing, drinking, and chatting.

Our Orders
Aurora: I think I’ll end the night like I started it: with a PBR.

Chris: That sounds perfect. But I’d also like to order a dance with you.

Aurora: Aww, haha.

Best Part
Aurora: The music selection in here is amazing. Michael Jackson, Runaround Sue, Lionel Richie.

Chris: It is, indeed, a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll. And I appreciate that nobody’s afraid to dance. What a great way to end the night.

Worst Part
Aurora: Yeah, but the worst part is that it’s time for the night to end.

Chris: Don’t worry, we can always do a sequel to visit all the places we missed.

Hi, all!

I wanted to post an update so nobody is confused: We’re starting our Learning Lowell Pub Crawl at Old Worthen and heading east to end at Ward 8. The updated schedule is here.

I thought I’d use this space to also tease a few stories we’re working on. If any readers have interest in the following subjects and want to share information, let us know!

  • Congress for New Urbanism: Buffalo’s Lessons for Lowell
  • Winter Event Retrospective: From Winterfest to Bernie Lynch’s Going-Away Party
  • A Family Member Visits Lowell – Going from Newcomer to Host
  • Reflections on a City Manager Process
  • Lowell High School Dilemma: A Multipart Series
  • International Institute and Lowell’s Refugee Population
  • UTEC in Film

We’re also writing up a couple of restaurant reviews as well! So stay tuned, we’ve got a lot in the pipeline!