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!

Learning Lowell Pub Crawl: Coming to a Downtown Near You!

Hi, everyone!

Chris and I decided we need to learn more about Lowell’s fine establishments, and what better way to do that than invite our readers on a pub crawl? This Friday, we will meet at Old Worthen and move steadily eastward, one bar an hour. Everyone is invited and welcome to join for all or part of the night to share stories and good times. We don’t know if we will have a small or large group, but either way, we know it will be fun!

Schedule

Friday, June 13

  • Old Worthen – 7:00 pm
  • Cobblestones  - 8:00 pm
  • Fuse Bistro – 9:00 pm
  • Old Court  - 10:00 pm
  • Ward 8 – 11:00 pm

“Lowell Looks Ahead” Part 2: Downtown and Business Friendliness

A couple of weeks ago, we reviewed the panelists of “Lowell Looks Ahead,” a talk show roundtable hosted by Teddy Panos of WCAP, and what the panel said about education’s role in economic development.[1] This week, we will cover the remaining themes. Notably, this post won’t cover the show verbatim, as panelists skipped back and forth between topics. Rather, panelists’ comments are arranged by topic with my own thoughts and fact-checking interspersed. I encourage anyone interested to listen to the remarks made in context here.

One important topic that won’t be covered is the Lowell High School. We’re planning a series of posts about this topic, and we will include the panel’s comments there.

Downtown Developments

Merrimack Street looking east, Lowell, Mass. (Courtesy of Library of Congress/Forgotten New England)

Bon Marche as it once was. (Courtesy of Library of Congress/Forgotten New England)

Perhaps the most controversial items the panel discussed were about Lowell’s downtown. Most of the panelists lived in Lowell when major department stores such as Bon Marche and Cherry & Webb were downtown. The panel agreed that the retail anchor model was unlikely to return. George Behrakis recalled a turning point when he was speaking to a friend as Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce:

He said to me, “Listen, shopping centers have taken over. If local communities are to be competitive, you need parking where your store is. The women are not going to walk from a parking lot to the store. The old days are gone where everybody walked downtown or took the bus downtown.” –George Behrakis

Jim Cook, of Lowell Plan, spoke during one segment of the show and agreed that a large department store “is not going to happen.” However, he noted that smaller start-ups funded by the Lowell Development Financial Corporation, such as the Back Page, are finding success and stability.

Chancellor Marty Meehan of UMass Lowell mentioned another important development:

We have a proposal from a potential developer that would build a hotel and also looking to build private housing as well. They’re in negotiations right now, talking to that developer, but nothing has materialized yet. –Chancellor Marty Meehan

Chancellor Meehan also noted that environmental cleanup needs may impede development. There haven’t been any announcements about the parcel since the show. The Chancellor also noted that, although state funding was not available to build an adjacent practice rink at the time of Tsongas Center’s construction, “Frankly, going division 1 in all sports… is going to mean that we need to get that practice rink that should have been built, really, in the beginning.”

Thorndike Furniture Outlet

Comfort Furniture Building (Courtesy richardhowe.com)

The show also included Sal Lupoli, who recently purchased the former Comfort Furniture building, a prime development site near Gallagher terminal. Mr. Lupoli explained that he negotiated for “well over” three years with the two owners, before finally reaching a deal. He now plans market-rate housing atop destination retail such as “a restaurant, a small upscale pub or small upscale environment whether they’re getting off train or bus.” He credited the state delegation for including funding in the Transportation Bond Bill for an overhead connection to the Gallagher terminal parking garage.

Regardless of anything else, I believe Mr. Lupoli’s successful negotiation is impressive. Jerry Caplan is the owner of Thorndike Mill Outlet and former co-owner of the building.

What we need to do is work with Jerry, because he’s local, and what we believe in as a company… is to “enhance, not disrupt.” –Sal Lupoli

Mr. Lupoli said that there was a “small timeframe” for Mr. Caplan to downsize, but he hopes to keep Mr. Caplan there “for a while.” He also says that development will move slowly, so that he can work closely with the City Council and planners to “maximize” the site.

Despite positive developments, the panel believes downtown vacancies are a problem. Mr. Panos said bluntly, “Our main drag is pretty barren.” Mr. Cook agreed vacancies are a concern, but argued that downtown’s vacancy rate was comparable to nearby malls’ vacancy rates, suggesting much of the turnover was related to personal reasons or larger trends and not downtown’s viability.

Mr. Cook may not be far off: the 2012 overall retail vacancy rate was 7.9% in Boston’s northwest suburbs (including Greater Lowell), and Lowell’s downtown retail vacancy was 8.55% last December, but up-to-date reports are costly. Regardless, it is clear that the vacant, prominent storefronts trouble many in the city.

Are Lowell’s Demographics Problematic?

Median Income by Census Tract

Median Income by Census Tract (Source: City-data.com)

Many blame downtown’s difficulties on its surrounding demographics. Mr. Panos suggested that because of downtown’s large number of income-restricted housing units, there are not enough residents with “disposable income” to attract chain retail, restaurants, and boutique stores. The panel agreed. Mark O’Neil brought up a chicken-and-egg problem: amenities that would attract upper-income residents will not move in without upper-income residents. He said, “Trader Joe’s is not going to come downtown. A hardware store would not survive.”

Mr. Behrakis turns to “Griffin Report” and “Advertising Age” for real estate trends, and says:

You look at “what is the spending power of Lowell in downtown.” Because there isn’t any there, no one’s coming. –George Behrakis

I know of a saying in real estate: “Retail follows rooftops” (the commercial market lags the residential by up to a year.) Initial residential attraction could be related to a combination of affordability and interesting destinations. When enough of these residents move in, chains crunch the numbers and move in, in turn attracting more residents in a virtuous cycle.[2] However, each resident supports only a limited amount of retail, regardless of their income. A “rule of thumb” is that each household can support 15 to 20 square feet of walkable retail, and I plan to do an analysis based on this rule in a future post.

Mr. McCallum suggested an additional problem: as properties are turned into residences; those properties are taxed at the lower rate even though residents require more services. Research consistently shows that residences generally cost a city more than the taxes they generate, regardless of whether a split rate is used. This is a problem for every town.

Can Downtown Attract Out-of-Towners?

If converting storefronts to residences to “correct” the size of downtown is off the table, downtown must attract shoppers from out-of-town. Speaking on this, Mr. McCallum said, “If you build it, they will come.” He listed attractions and events that already attract residents, but Mr. O’Neil countered that he lives in Westford, and although his friends go to Lowell to attend a ballgame or restaurant, they “go right home” afterward.

This echoed a sentiment Mr. Behrakis made early in the program:

…you’ve got to change your philosophy, you’ve got to change your style of downtown. Whether it’s the Market Street or John Street garage, they’re not going to walk at night to go to a restaurant. It’s very difficult [even] for [Memorial] Auditorium, to park in the parking lot, for a woman to walk across the street. You have to go down at ten or eleven at night, and tell me if you’re going to walk alone. So, safety is a big factor for the downtown. Women going to a restaurant at night, they don’t want to go near a bar, walking home going to their car.

Although I think there are absolutely will walk if there are good destinations and proper amenities such as lights and good sidewalks, I did agree with Mr. Behrakis on another point: he advocated for more effort to attract businesses (and therefore lunch and after-work customers) to upper stories of downtown buildings. He said, “They will spend money. Housing won’t bring in money.”

Business Friendliness and Taxes

Following this, the question may be whether Lowell is a competitive location for businesses. When asked this, the panel immediately brought up Lowell’s tax rates. Robert Caruso, CEO of Lowell Five Bank, said that Lowell Five’s property taxes rose 66% in five years and “That is not an indication it is a business-friendly environment.” He said Lowell had one of the highest commercial rates in Massachusetts, sending a “bad message.” He said Haverhill had a more competitive rate.

Mr. McCallum and Mr. Behrakis agreed. They said that businesses look at the total cost of running that business, and taxes are naturally part of the cost. While Mr. McCallum compared Lowell’s taxes unfavorably to other parts of the United States such as North Carolina, Mr. Behrakis said that he owns properties in Lexington, Bedford, Haverhill, Cambridge, and Boston, and that Lowell ranks #1 in taxes. He says an “old community” like Lowell cannot compete on taxes.

Mr. Panos mentioned that most city officials he’s spoken with have said that businesses “don’t look” at the tax rate, but suspects the real reason the tax rate is not changed is because it is “political suicide” to suggest a residential tax increase. He argued that it is “shortsighted thinking,” but nobody is “getting through to the elected officials,” and they show a lack of understanding of what motivates businesspeople to open businesses.

I actually have to partially disagree with the panel. Studies show that although business owners often cite taxes as a primary concern in surveys, links between tax incentives and job growth are ambiguous at best. Business’s behavior shows that infrastructure, cost and skill of local labor, local supply and demand, and even ease of navigating land use regulations are more important in their decision-making. Retailers will look for customers, tech companies will look for places that skilled workers want to move, and manufacturers will look for a combination of good transportation infrastructure and low labor costs.

I do believe Mr. McCallum is correct in that taxes are a consideration. However, the relative importance of taxes is different for each business type; rate is less important than overall tax bill; and tax stability is nearly as important. A developer wants confidence that when she creates a pro-forma for a property, her predictions on income and cost will both be close to correct. The taxes will then be factored into how much the developer will offer for the property. However, if there’s a worry that there will be a sudden jump in taxes, it’s much harder to determine an offer. This is not to underestimate how important efficient use of taxes is. A successful community cannot have a high tax without infrastructure, amenities, and services commensurate with that tax.

This is why Marc O’Neil’s observation requires some consideration. He predicts that there will be a tax increase in this fiscal year and believes that the rate should be more balanced between residences and businesses. He suggested that the business community needs to come together as a force to ask for lower business property taxes, and that it stops “people from coming in or expanding.” I would be very interested to know which businesses may have considered Lowell if it weren’t for taxes.

Is it Just an Attitude?

During Sal Lupoli’s segment, Mr. Panos asked, “Why did you choose Lawrence first?” Mr. Lupoli explained that he originally wanted to open a store on Merrimack, but it didn’t work out and he opened instead in Salem, New Hampshire (in 1990). In 2002, he sought to expand from his Salem facility into Massachusetts and examined Lowell, Lawrence, and Haverhill because of their large, talented labor pools. As to how he made a final choice, he said, “To tell you the truth, it was the City of Lawrence that refused to let me leave the office.”

He expanded:

Any entrepreneur, woman or man, that creates their business from scratch, they want to be welcome. Because as an entrepreneur, you have a lot of things you’re dealing with on a daily basis, and when it comes to the permitting process, or when it comes to building that public-private partnership, you want to be welcome… You want resources only the town offers or has has access to or has tacit knowledge of in order to be successful.

He said that the ideal city makes an entrepreneur say, “How can I fail,” because of people “rooting for” the company and offering resources. He said that it was the “little things that make all the difference, because that may be the tipping point.”

I will tell you today, and it’s because of 25 years of hard work, I go into communities that want me in that community. If I knock on somebody’s door and the Town Manager or the Mayor answers the door in some respect, and it’s lukewarm, or they start to tell me about all the hurdles, and they say “no because,” instead of “yes yes,” Then you know what I do? I politely shake their hands, wish them well, and I go on to the next community that wants to take my tax money, or take the opportunity to create some kind of business in that community. And there are plenty of communities in these 350 plus towns and cities that want jobs and want tax revenue.

In my experience, Mr. Lupoli’s position is common. It’s a fact that communities compete with one another. In many cases, this inspires communities to be efficient, creative, cooperative, and uncorrupt. Other times, it becomes a mere competition between states that to give the largest tax break. Regardless, Mr. Lupoli mentioned that the City of Lowell’s reception had been “nothing but positive,” mentioning that Lowell’s three representatives “have always embraced” him.

Partnerships

This speaks to an important theme revisited throughout the panel: partnerships between business and public entities. Teddy Panos asked the panel whether City Councilors approached each of them for advice. Mark O’Neil laughed that the “City Manager constantly comes to us.” Quite a few candidates reached to Mr. McCallum, and mentioned that it was a two-way street. Businesspeople also have the power to reach out to officials, and he always had a good relationship with them. He never had issues and would meet “not frequently, but once in a while.”

Mr. Caruso said he talked to only Corey Belanger, Rodney Elliot, John Leahy, and Rita Mercier in the previous election, and was asked about the location of Lowell High School and economic development. He credited them for making time, as Lowell has many competing issues, and it is sensible that a single business manager would not be a priority. Nevertheless, he believes there is not enough political outreach. He noted public/private partnership in Lowell has been a winning strategy for many years, and that the state delegation has continued to be cooperative with business.

I did find it notable that the three of the four City Councilors Mr. Caruso named have made many of the economic development-related motions in 2014, such as creating a downtown hotel initiative, downtown task force, or weighing in on the Lowell High School decision.

The Lowell Plan: Is its Next Step a Shared Marketing Campaign?

Lowell Plan LogoMr. Caruso previously sat on the board of the Lowell Plan, and said that this was one vehicle that “at least used” to serve as a vehicle for public/private cooperation. Mr. Cook, its director, said that losing someone with “the stature of Paul Tsongas” changed the Lowell Plan’s role. He said that it now operates behind the scenes and provides a “sort of round-table” where business community and elected officials can talk about the community.

Many initiatives have come out of this dialogue, such the American City Corporation 80s downtown study, partnerships with UMass Lowell and Middlesex Community College, the “There’s a Lot to Like About Lowell” marketing program, the 10-year plan for downtown, and more recently, the “Downtown Evolution” plan by Jeff Speck Associates. Mr. Cook agreed that the city needs to begin a “solid marketing program” for 2014, and believes Lowell Plan can push that initiative forward.

I’ve recently learned that the Lowell Plan is being used as a model for both Lawrence and Salem. Not only does it facilitate dialogue, it plays unsung roles as well: as a private agency, it can start programs and make deals without the red tape of the federal or state governments. It can also hold private meetings, where businesspeople and city officials can be frank without worrying about political repercussions. However, this “lack of transparency” is often what many citizens critique. To me, this is a difficult balance to achieve. Backroom deals invite corruption, but too much control makes it difficult for the government to move quickly, think beyond the election cycle, or take perhaps-proven actions that nevertheless don’t fit within cookie-cutter enabling laws.

Chamber of Commerce: Focusing on the Positive

Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce LogoDanielle McFadden, President and CEO of the Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce, spoke on their role in economic development:

The partnerships that are happening right now are really great. We can all continue to work together. We can keep the conversations going. –Danielle McFadden

Although Ms. McFadden acknowledged the problem of vacant storefronts, she focused on the positive. She shared that Little Delights is working on coordinating businesses for a shared mailing. The owners of El Potro said that their reception in Lowell was better than Somerville, and they were amazed that they were invited to a City Council meeting and that the mayor attended their opening.

When asked whether the Chamber of Commerce received pushback from businesses in the outer neighborhoods and the outer suburbs because of the amount of focus on Lowell’s downtown, Ms. McFadden reported there was no pushback. She believed that they agreed that “Naturally you will gravitate toward downtown.  A vibrant downtown creates a destination.”

Why Should We Have a New Partnership?

One of the suggestions that came out of the panel was for a new committee that might assist businesses and the City working together.

Good government creates good communities. We have a good government. We have a city council, a plan E. I think they should put together, as I mentioned before, I think the Mayor needs to put together a committee to look into all this and work with the Lowell Plan, the Chamber of Commerce, but also the business community. –George Behrakis

He suggested strategizing and “bringing in consultants.” We mentioned this idea in “Quite a Task: Downtown Lowell Task Forces,” but since then, I’ve heard Mayor Elliot has been working on forming the committee. I hope he releases more information soon, as I was unable to tell from the panel why they felt existing venues did not serve their needs.

Partnerships between Businesses and Residents: Do they Understand One Another?

Toward the end of the show, Mr. Panos mentioned that many asked him to include a resident perspective, but he mentioned that WCAP features citizen perspectives “every day.” However, the producers looked to businesspeople for the panel because, “If you’re looking to create medicine, you go to a pharmacist or doctor… if you’re looking to create jobs… you’re going to go to the folks who employ people.”

He thought that residents did not understand the business perspective, such as in the debate between residential and commercial tax rates or even in the national attitude about income inequality. He asked the panel how to bridge that divide. Mr. McCallum suggested:

Put them to work in good-paying jobs. That’s what we need to do. People will understand that. They can relate to it, obviously. You’ve got to take this from conversation to reality. And the reality is that people need a livelihood. –Elkin McCallum

Mr. McCallum believed that regardless of anything else, the economy changed and people just want to return to well-paying jobs. He praised philanthropists for bridging the divide, and believed there was mutual respect, but not understanding. However, Mr. Caruso suggested it was because of national tone:

I believe part of our divide today is because of our politicians… They’re talking about income injustice and inequality, that’s going to be a big thing you will hear about… What we need is unity, and we have to stop the name calling. –Robert Caruso

He believed Senator Elizabeth Warren, criticizing big business, is causing part of the divide. Mr. Behrakis agreed that partisan politics is creating disunity, compared to his experience decades ago.

What Path Lowell?

Quincy Market

Rouse’s first and most famous festival marketplace (Courtesy wikimedia)

Ultimately, the key question for Lowell’s downtown is how to attract shoppers and businesses. Mr. Behrakis believes the city should have followed a 1970s-era plan:

When Paul Tsongas was in town, he brought the group together, people that did Fanuiel Hall and Copley Place [American City Corporation, a subsidiary of Rouse Company]… I still have the plans, because I was on that committee. I don’t think too much was done to revitalize. –George Behrakis

Rouse Company was famous for designing and promoting shopping centers in the 1950s, planned communities in the 1960s, and festival marketplace conversions such as Fanueil Hall in the 1970s. James Rouse also advocated for large-scale urban renewal projects. I have never seen their Lowell plan, but from the description, it included changes to make downtown more of a destination shopping area than a traditional downtown.

Several other plans (detailed briefly here) have been drafted subsequently. Speaking about these, Mr. Panos said:

Every couple of years, we do one of these “how to fix the downtown things” but we haven’t been able to really settle on one thing. Is the Jeff Speck plan the way to go, or is the city and the downtown still seeking for an identity? –Teddy Panos

At another point in the show, Mr. Caruso said to Mr. Panos, “You and I, we laugh a lot. The only thing that came out of Jeff Speck so far is the bicycle lanes.” He also said:

Some of the ideas that the people who… have a history here in Lowell, I think add more [than] having somebody come in from the outside and tell you “this is what you really need.” –Robert Caruso

The panel agreed that plans are made without resident input or thought to previous plans. However, to me, each effort has built upon the last, incorporating local input, goals, and ideas. Incomplete action items from older plans are often included, as they can only be executed when conditions are right—for example, a trolley expansion or a development next to Tsongas Center. However, given that an agency rarely wants to advertise “what it has left to do,” perhaps implementation could be more systematically tracked and advertised.

A Highway Downtown?

Map of proposed Lowell Connector Extension

Lowell Connector to downtown, as proposed in 1956 (coreysciuto.blogspot.com)

The panel did suggest some ideas, and Mr. Behrakis suggested a controversial one:

I know I’m going to bring up a controversy, but I think the bigger mistake Lowell made, many many years ago, and I was a young man, I was proponent, but I got shot down. The [Lowell] Connector should have been going all the way into downtown Lowell, and not stopped at Gorham street, which is a disaster area. That Connector could have been the vitalization of downtown Lowell.

But you know with politics, with people saying “the community, you know, the neighborhood’s going to be…” Hey, listen! You’ve got to make the moves. You don’t make the moves, you gotta be positive.” The Connector is like a dead-end street, and you’ve got people coming into Lowell and saying, “Where do I go now?”

Mr. Behrakis reasoned that people have trouble finding the Tsongas Center, and Mr. Panos mentioned Thorndike Street must serve in that capacity. This position was common fifty years ago, as property owners believed poor access and congestion was causing downtowns to fail, and opening downtowns up would lead to lucrative redevelopment projects.

Unfortunately, urban cores never can have the ease of access of a suburban office park or shopping center. Highways ultimately destroyed the urban core amenities that are now attracting young people back into those cores. As a 2012 report describes, communities are actually finding success in removing, not expanding, their highways, such as Portland, Milwaukee, Toronto, and most famously, San Francisco.

Looking to Other Cities

However, the group suggested other solutions that are smaller-scale in scope. Bob Caruso mentioned that Newburyport was a “ghost town” in the 1950s and 1960s, and recommended studying cities such as that and Portsmouth, NH, and replicating their methods. Both cities used a historic preservation approach to their downtowns.

Mr. Behrakis cited Quincy’s redevelopment project as a model of success. Mr. Behrakis mentioned it was a $500 million project, but in actuality, the public-private project now totals $1.6 billion and has recently hit troubled waters as redevelopment did not move forward after demolition. The project reportedly has left part of its downtown empty for five years.

Although laws put in place during the funding of Lowell National Historical Park restricts demolition in Lowell’s downtown, the panel took a surprisingly cavalier tone toward historic preservation. Not only did Mr. Panos make jokes about the efforts put into preserving the Bowers House, Mr. Behrakis also spoke disapprovingly about Lowell’s preservation focus:

You aren’t going to tell me a building from 1920 is a historical building. A historical building is Europe 1,000 years ago, 250 years ago. –George Behrakis

In addition to Quincy, Mr. Behrakis cited the convenience of Nashua, New Hampshire’s, behind-business parking. Mr. McCallum also praised Nashua. Although Nashua does has an attractive and successful downtown, Nashua’s own planners suggest this is due to “grassroots organizing and one small intervention after another” to undo damages of large-scale, postwar urban renewal projects. Their downtown plan states that although Main Street is thriving, it is cut off from the rest of downtown.

Smaller Scale Solutions

Small efforts may be more feasible for many reasons. Mr. Caruso suggested replicating the valet parking featured in Boston’s North End. Visitors may pull up to restaurant front doors, and valets park their car in a safe location elsewhere. Mr. Caruso suggested that the valets work mostly for tips, and that Lowell Five parking lots may be used for secure after-hours parking.

Mr. Cook suggested that some businesses should consider stronger marketing toward the new market-rate apartments and condominiums downtown, extending their hours to be convenient to these residents. Some on the panel took exception to this, believing that business owners closed at 5:00 pm because they saw no business after that. In actuality, I’ve seen that some restaurants, such as Centro, are actually reducing lunch hours.

Does Lowell need a Visionary Leader?

Although it was not the last topic discussed, it may be a good topic to end on: How could Lowell move these ideas forward? The panel had diverging opinions. Mr. Panos suggesting that nobody since Paul Tsongas had the “gravitas” to “pull everyone together.” Later during the same section of the show, he said Sustainable Lowell 2025 was “Kind of a state of the union address but didn’t have a lot of specifics.”

Mr.  Behrakis believed Chancellor Meehan or others were capable and could advance economic development projects including beautification, demolition, and expanding parking.

Mr. O’Neil believes the media could—and should—play an advocacy role in the Lowell High School decision:

I think the media can help play a role of advancing things, and hopefully presenting all options, both sides. But, taking a stance, and the Sun—love it or hate it—has always been one of those institutions that took a stand and played a key role and help make things happen in concert with the business community and the residents. –Mark O’Neil

Although he said he wasn’t sure about a single individual, but rather many leaders from government, the school committee, business community, and residents should cooperate. He said the newspaper “would be happy to take a lead role in helping to advance it.”

This is something I have thought about a great deal, both in Lowell and elsewhere. I’ve read solid arguments that cities succeed partly because of strong leaders, and big, somewhat risky ideas sometimes pay off in great ways. However, it seems that the cities that have best recovered from deindustrialization do hundreds of tiny things right every day. They capitalize on their unique resources and history; market these resources successfully to businesses; and create strong links both between businesses and between public and private sectors. For example, Pittsburgh found success by consistently and fairly capitalizing on development to enhance transportation and recreation while maintaining key partnerships with universities. This was sustained over the terms of multiple mayors.

This is why I remain skeptical of “mega-projects.” Although Richard Florida, famous for terming “creative class,” is somewhat controversial, he has researched hundreds of cities, finding that mega-projects have not helped cities recover: “As with so many things in life, the small stuff really can make a difference to the people living in cities.” Researcher George Harbor statistically analyzed cities that formerly relied on manufacturing, and found workforce development, low cost of business, and network facilitation may be key policies. These policies don’t need a single, visionary leader, but rather an army of qualified individuals each doing their part.

There’s a Lot to Like about Lowell

In any case, the panelists were optimistic about Lowell’s future.

There’s a new discussion, here in Lowell, I think that’s the most important part of it. –Bob Caruso

Mr. O’Neil agreed that the business community was optimistic. Mr. McCallum agreed, recalling the Lowell High School hall of fame that included Mr. Behrakis and himself, Donna McCallum, Paul Tsongas, and Jack Kerouac. He cited everything from e-commerce to big box retail.

There’s a lot to like about Lowell. What I have always been a part of and felt good about was its spirit. –Elkin McCallum

I respect how strongly these businesspeople feel about Lowell and agree that there is a positive spirit in Lowell. As always, I look forward to anyone’s comments and corrections!

Notes

[1] A belated special thanks to Dick Howe Jr, author of “Local Legends of Lowell,” for fact-checking the biographies.

[2] A whole post could be made about whether the costs of this cycle—resident/business displacement and homogenization—outweigh the benefits, but that is a separate topic.