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Will the Election Change Lowell’s Police Policy?

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Post Election Community Dialogue, the latest in a series of open events the police force has held to try to clarify their own values and policy, while taking input from citizens about what their experiences and concerns are. This one focused on the “Post Election Environment” in which, politics aside, I think we can all agree a lot of people are feeling afraid and that evidence shows that hate crimes seem to be spiking.

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Captain Taylor at the dialogue. (Image courtesy Lowell PD’s Facebook)

Chief William Taylor, dressed in a suit and Christmas tie, started things off by introducing the officers in the room, as well as a representative from the FBI and State’s Attorney’s office. Then he read a prepared statement, clarifying the LPD’s policy on immigration status. In essence: regardless of your immigration status, the police want you to feel comfortable reporting a crime, calling emergency services, or asking for help. They say they don’t routinely run immigration checks in any of those cases. However, when they arrest someone, they do run a check, and it’s likely that problems would come up there.

The police in Lowell do collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when ICE reaches out to them, but they don’t routinely reach out to them to try to remove otherwise law-abiding members of the community. Other cities, including Lawrence, have passed a “Trust Act” which limits their collaboration with ICE. Efforts like this are one of the things people are describing when they talk about becoming a “Sanctuary City” which actively tries to protect people living there from federal government deportation.

Right out of the gate, the first question was about this possibility, and it came up several more times. The question was raised by a representative from the emerging group Solidarity Lowell. Chief Taylor had clearly anticipated this question, and he explained that, as far as he’s concerned, that’s a question for the City Council. He did go on to say that, though he had no strong opinion about it, he thought that the current system works well and didn’t really see further steps as necessary.

A representative from the International Institute asked for clarification about access to interpreters. If someone is being interviewed by the police, they do have the right to be interviewed in their own language. If someone calls in needing help from the police, it’s challenging in Lowell to cover all languages, but they have access to resources. Another representative, following up on that, suggested more translation at community meetings.

Additional questions along these lines clarified that they just hired their first Arabic speaking officer. They also try hard to do outreach to new groups, including building a good relationship with the Islamic Society of Greater Lowell. Working to make sure new Lowellians know their rights is a priority, as is avoiding discrimination and implicit bias at work in the actions of officers. The newly reformed Race Relations Council, a citizen advisory group made up of diverse community members is a step in the right direction that helps make sure that the Police force is hearing from everyone.

Next to come up is another issue on everybody’s mind: hate crimes. Captain Kelly said they haven’t really had any clear incidents reported to them. The rep from the International Institute said that she’s heard two reports of women having someone pull at their hijabs to try to remove them. For myself, I’ve heard about two separate incidents of Latino kids at school being taunted with the threat of being deported. The Attorney’s Office rep reminded people that these things can be judgement calls, but encouraged people not to hesitate to report them. It shouldn’t be up to the victim to try to figure out if something is a crime, the experts can do that. And if you hadn’t heard, in Massachusetts we have a newly created hotline to report harassment and intimidation.

Young CMAA Professionals

Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association Young Professionals after a community dialogue. (Image courtesy Sovanna Pouv/CMAA)

A kid from Teen Block suggested that police officers need to work harder to make community members feel comfortable. He mentioned that officers meeting with kids at Teen Block is a step in the right direction. One of the officers who’s been working with youth quite a bit, especially on Dance for Peace, talked about how fun and rewarding that has been. Another representative of Teen Block talked about trying to make kids feel more comfortable with officers, especially those stationed at schools. Captain Taylor agreed, and said that officers at schools are meant to help people feel safe. Captain Kelly talked about a time when that’s worked well, when a teenager texting with a friend wrapped up in a dangerous trafficking situation approached the school officer to share her concerns about her friend.

There was an intense discussion around the issue of scammers posing as police or other officials targeting the immigrant population. This can be confusing even for people familiar with the way things work in the US, but for people who may come from countries where a certain level of bribery and corruption is normal, it can be especially confusing. To clarify, no government official should ever ask you for money or your social security number over the phone. It’s always okay, if you get a call, to ask to call back the official office to make sure you’re talking to someone legitimate. Sometimes these scammers can also come to the door, so it’s okay to ask to see a badge and credentials. Chief Taylor said that our neighbors are the best protection we have, and that we should all try to keep an eye out for our elderly and recent immigrant neighbors. I think you’ll be hearing more about this issue from the department soon.

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Body camera similar to ones being tested in Boston (WBUR).

I asked about something I’ve been wondering about: whether they were still considering any measures to increase accountability, like body cameras or a civilian review board. The thoughtful response on body cameras was essentially “no, but we might pick this issue up again in the future”. Reasons cited included expense and legal concerns. In Massachusetts, the police aren’t allowed to record you without your permission, so this makes the cameras a logistical problem. Additionally, there are concerns that people won’t want to talk to the police if they fear being recorded. Chief Taylor did acknowledge that other cities, including Boston, are trying it, and that because of the increasing number of security cameras and cell phones, “that’s probably the way that things are going”.

A civilian review board hasn’t been discussed much, but Taylor said that the review process we have for police incidents works. I asked a follow-up to clarify whether it’s legal to film the police, and Captain Taylor said, “absolutely”. In fact, they said they seldom arrest somebody these days without someone filming it.

Many people expressed concerns about the current political climate, and the refrain from the police was along the lines of, “nothing in Lowell is going to change on January 21st”. A pointed question from a person who felt less safe because so many police unions had endorsed Trump got a candid answer from Kelly: “I can understand why some officers sided with Trump, while I hope they didn’t agree with everything he said.” He explained that attacks on officers are way up, many of them feel less safe and their families are worried about us coming home at night. Additionally, he said that he’s seeing some evidence that officers hesitate to use some methods now, because they “don’t want to end up on TV.” He said he tells officers that that’s good, but that it’s still their job to come home safe at night.

15355736_10209981832835749_9141968903883996996_nThe packed house for this event makes clear that the community is concerned, but also that the community is actively committed to working together. Frankly, I’ve lived in communities where not only would the police never attempt to invite community input, if they did tensions were high enough nobody would be able to have a real conversation. In Lowell, there really is a genuine effort to be open to criticism and to hearing the fears in the community.

If you have a bad experience, especially if you feel your treatment is unfair, Captain Taylor is very clear that he wants to hear about it. You can come in to the LPD’s Headquarters at 50 Arcand Drive to file a complaint in person. Or you can call the LPD’s Professional Standards Division at 978-674-4507, or you can fill out this form and mail it in. If you have a broader concern or you’d like for officers to meet with your community group or attend an event, I’d consider reaching out to Sara Kuhn, who’s the Director of Community Relations and a very warm, easy to talk to person. She’s reachable by phone at 978-674-1906 or email at Skhun@lowellma.gov.

(Featured Image courtesy Lowell PD Facebook)

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Hot Chocolate, Hot DTL

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City of Lights in front of the 1826 Store

It’s been three years since we last wrote about Lowell’s annual post-Thanksgiving Parade, City of Lights. The highlight (in our humble opinion) of City of Lights is the annual hot chocolate competition. Businesses across downtown offer tiny cups of cocoa for 25 cents each, all for a shot at the coveted hot chocolate competition award. We chose Café Pastiche’s Brazilian cocoa, which sadly didn’t place… and Café Pastiche was closed a year later.

The other competitors that year were Rosie’s Café, Brew’d Awakening Coffehaus, Sweet Lydia’s, and Time Out Café. Coincidentally, those four businesses all competed this year, along with veteran Cobblestones and newcomers Hypertext Bookstore, Coffee and Cotton, Gallery Z, and UnchARTed.

That same year, the Lowell Small Business Center did a huge push for Small Business Saturday, and we talked about other cities’ small business campaigns. In that spirit, we want to talk about each of the businesses that competed, and even reached out to them to get their thoughts on the festival, Lowell’s business scene, and what people can do to support small businesses.

Rosie’s Café

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Rosie Suprenant

Rosie’s has been holding down the JAM District since before the City started calling it the JAM district. Rosemarie Surprenant launched her café twenty years ago on 10 Hurd Street, between what is now Element Care and UTEC. Her supplier was Peak Coffee, a Billerica business launched in 2006 by Peter Kagunye, a Kenyan immigrant. Back then, it was Batian Peak Coffee, named after the highest mountain in Kenya. When Mr. Kagunye decided to move on in 2012, Rosie’s bought Peak Coffee, and began roasting coffee and distributing tea themselves. In 2014, she moved to her current location next between Jackson and Middlesex, near Mill No. 5 and Garcia Brogan’s.

So what about the hot chocolate? She’s been doing the contest for six years, and this year she made an amazing, subtle caramel hot cocoa. I say amazing, because Rosie’s was our last stop, Aurora and I had a gallon of chocolate each at that point, and we still loved Rosie’s. Rosie loves the festival, too. She reported that business was good, and we aren’t surprised—her coffee is great and a bag of fresh-ground coffee makes a great (fair-trade) gift.

I like seeing the families, happy and stopping by with their baggies of quarters. -Rosie Suprenant

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Brew’d Awakening Coffehaus

If Rosie’s is the anchor of the JAM district, Brew’d Awakening is the anchor of Market Street. I’d hazard a guess that Andy Jacobson has won the hot chocolate contest more times than any other business, and has been competing since the contest started eight years ago. This year, it was a French Toast hot chocolate with a tiny piece of French toast in every cup. The special extras always put their cocoa over the top.

Baristas working at Brewd Awakening Coffehaus

Brew’d Awakening crew doing what they do best, with Andy Jacobson (right)

Andy opened Brew’d Awakening in 2005, leaving the world of finance to create a unique gathering place and choosing Lowell’s downtown to reflect that uniqueness. I admit, I end up at Brew’d just to listen to the music, Freeverse Open Mic Night every first and third Tuesdays, see friendly faces, and get another mark down toward a free coffee. (Seven coffees, and then you can get any type of coffee for free!) Andy says that there have been a lot of recent changes for the good in DTL, including going from one to two-way, MCC and UMass Lowell’s growth, and a lot of new residents. City of Lights brings a spike of new customers as well—as long as the weather is good.

I have seen a lot of changes for the good. The fact that MCC and UML has more of a profile downtown has helped. Plus, the growing residents and two way traffic. So overall I have seen increases from the previous year. -Andy Jacobson

Sweet Lydia’s

If Brew’d isn’t the hot chocolate champion, then Sweet Lydia’s is. “Sweet” Lydia Blanchard ran a Kickstarter campaign to help open up her downtown shop in 2012 after three years of candy catering out of an incubator kitchen and years before that making candy as a hobby. I’m pretty sure she’s entered the hot chocolate competition with a different recipe and a signature marshmallow each time. This year, she had a dark chocolate, which is my favorite kind of chocolate.

Customers at Sweet Lydias Candy Shop

Sweet Lydia’s is another Lowell success story, as she’s branched from the shop with a stall at the new Boston Public Market. The newest, coolest project was a pop-up shop last spring in Newton.

Time Out Café

Customers at Time Out Cafe in Lowell MATime Out Café is perhaps the least well-known out of this list to some, but a new Lowell institution to others, especially our Hispanic population. I know I stop here for Empanadas often. The small storefront at 72 Merrimack Street has a wide variety of Dominican, Afro-Puerto Rican, Spanish, and American fare, along with breakfast, great coffee, and (at least during the competition) really great Hot Chocolate. Their Mexican-style cocoa with cinnamon was a clear frontrunner in my mind. They’ve been doing this since we moved here—for three years!

Time Out Cafe in Lowell MATime Out opened in 2010, and Yvette Anil has seen her business grow over the last six years:

We are family business, is not easy, is a lot of work, but every year is better than the last one, and we hope still for many years more. -Yvette Anil

Check out a great review of the restaurant on Life as a Maven.

Cobblestones

We admit it. We didn’t make it to Cobblestones in time. We didn’t try their hot chocolate, but I’m sure it was as delicious as their Truffle Fries. That’s right—you can get amazing fries flavored with truffle oil at Cobblestones, along with all sorts of other fine dishes. The restaurant opened in 1994 in the Yorick Club building, which was built as a home for mill managers in the 1850s but spent most of its life as a young gentleman’s club. The restaurant retains its upper-class Victorian charm, and each year submits an equally classy cocoa selection. The owners, who also operate Moonstones, generously contribute to a number of Lowell causes and the restaurant is highly-regarded in the Merrimack Valley.

UnchARTed

Lindsey Parker of UnchARTed Gallery in Lowell MA

Lindsey prepares the special Almond Joy Hot Cocoa

Depending on your perspective, UnchARTed is either brand new or a Lowell institution. Mike Dailey and Lindsey Parker have been running gallery/studio space under the name for more than 5 years, but the impressive Market Street location—and the bar and pizza—have been a great new addition to the downtown this year. If you have not tried their pizza, sold by the slice or whole, you are missing out on one of the best things to happen to downtown this year. The music and their striking gallery shows are matched only by their awesome community spirit: Mike and Lindsey are happy to work with folks running a fundraiser or putting on a Skill Share (not that we haven’t done both!)

This year for the cocoa challenge they had vegan almond joy cocoa, which is a good peek at their playful and progressive spirit. They said they doubled their dinner business the night of City of Lights. We asked what folks can do to help downtown business, and Lindsey said:

Spread the word ya heard?! If you love us, shout it from the rooftops! Also, defend Lowell when you are talking to someone from “outside” who is spewing garbage about it. Lowell is a cool place to be and on the up and up and not in a pretentious way either. -Lindsey Parker

Coffee and Cotton

Mill No. 5 is a constantly evolving source of Lowell cool and excitement. We last wrote about Mill No. 5 about two-and-a-half years ago, and it’s added a yoga studio, a market, a toy store, a vintage bookstore, the “Hi-Hat” stage near the elevator, and most famously, the Luna Theater in the meantime. Coffee and Cotton opened there in September, 2014, and it might have the most youthful crowd of any of the coffee shops, a haven for college students.

Young women serving hot chocolate at Mill No 5

The Coffee and Cotton crew serving up a keg of cocoa

For their very first cocoa contest this year, they offered matte cocoa with meringue, and that’s the kind of unique specials they often feature. In addition to coffee, they serve gourmet grilled cheese, breakfast sandwiches, Kombucha tea, and a variety of other drinks and danishes. Strangely enough, they do not serve cotton. We asked about how we can support them, and they had an interesting answer:

Besides shopping/eating locally, a great way to support local businesses is to provide valuable feedback to the owner/general manager. Our guests are our most valuable resource when it comes to making decisions about what direction we’d like to take our business. -Addie, manager

Hypertext

Books at Hypertext with hot cocoa

Monkey Jungle Cocoa!

We’ve had a special place in our hearts for Hypertext ever since they moved in and we got to help them decorate their window for last year’s City of Lights with DIY Lowell. They missed City of Lights, but opened just in time for 2016 Winterfest. Sam and Sheila, the sisters that run it, are extremely fun and added a much-needed missing element to the downtown. Their jungle cocoa came with a tiny plastic monkey! Because the recipe had bananas.

The sisters opened the bookstore/café combining their passions of coffee and fiction—and their desire to get away from a 9-to-5 job with a commute to Boston. Although they’ve reported that running an independent business is truly demanding, they’ve made it their own with poetry readings, book clubs, and even a funky (literally) underground movie showing during Halloween.

Hypertext Bookstore in Lowell MA

Gallery Z

Baristas at Gallery Z

Putting the finishing touches on Bailey’s Hot Cocoa at Gallery Z

The only reason Gallery Z should be last in any list is alphabetically. The former Zeitgeist Gallery, under new ownership, has downtown’s newest café in the back. Zeitgeist’s owners “felt they had taken it as far as they could,” according to new owner Patty DiStefano in a Howl interview, and she wanted to take it to a new step with performances and a cozy, quiet 1960s-style coffehouse. We hadn’t made it there yet, so the cocoa contest managed to introduce even us seasoned downtown residents to something new. They offered a Bailey’s inspired cocoa that was very tasty indeed; we’ll have to go back again soon and check out their other options.

Tables and chairs at Gallery Z in Lowell MA

1960s-inspired cafe space at Gallery Z

Local Business in Lowell

As always, the holiday season is an amazing time to support local business, but we asked each of the cocoa competitors what Lowell boosters can do besides shop locally.

Spreading the word online and in person came up from every single person who answered—downtown Lowell’s still fighting a bad reputation. It’s hard to believe, since the only Lowell we know has been clean, low on crime, and filled with innovative businesses. Yet the business owners said a negative perception is still there.

An interesting point was brought up that local businesses have to pay credit card fees, so save the credit card for Target and use cash at local businesses when possible. Don’t be afraid to use a card if you have it, though—every business we visited accepted both cash and cards.

Each also reported that business had only been getting better year-over-year, and that festivals like City of Lights didn’t just boost business that day, but exposed new customers they had never met to their cafés. As we talk about what we can do to keep Lowell an active place seven days a week, let’s not lose track of showing our best side whenever we throw a party.

Finally, one thing that was especially notable—many of the business owners talked about their high school crowds in their emails or in newspaper interviews, from kids getting mystery-flavor coffee at Rosie’s to Brew’d Awakening talking about their teen crowd just being themselves. It’s notable that Lowell’s young people make such an impact on the downtown in a lot of great ways.

A follow-up post may explore the best way to spur economic development with festivals—perhaps just in time for Winterfest. Until then, leave a message about your favorite hot chocolate or local eatery!

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Lowell Makes shop

Hot Cocoa

You can even take Sweet Lydia’s Hot Chocolate home!

Emanuel Boutique in downtown Lowell MA

Emanuel Boutique dressed up for the holiday

Zen Foodist in downtown Lowell MA presenting hot dog

The Zen Foodist braves the weather for his signature hot dogs

Decoration at Persona Lowell MA

Holiday Rocket (?) at Persona Goods

Angela Ales and Roneld Lores in their duo exhibit " A Cuban and a Colombian walk into a Bar"

Lady at UnchARTed clearly uninterested in hot cocoa

Lamps were fire extinguishers now they light up the place

Awesome upcycled lamps at Gallery Z

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Singing at the holiday marketplace on Merrimack

Gingerbread House

New meaning to “small” business owner!

Float in front of City Hall

MCC’s float shows off Lowell’s diversity, while Old City Hall shows off its history

Big crowd listening to Santa's wise wods

City officials reported the crowd was one of the best of recent years

Post-Election Lowell

Aurora and I haven’t written here in a while, partly because we were engrossed in the election as much of the nation was. In fact, one of the last essays we added was a report about a Trump rally several months ago. Now that there’s time to reflect, I wanted to talk about Lowell, the election, and what’s next.

Photo of group at HypertextLast night, Aurora and I attended a LGBTQ+ Mixer at Hypertext Bookstore. The event was hosted by Lowell’s  LGBTQ+ Action Group and supported by Bishop’s Legacy Restaurant and Hypertext. That night, more than 45 people filled the bookstore and had coffee, talked about their feelings and reactions to the election, and their plans for the future. It was an electric vibe, filled with young people just out of (or still in) high school, a couple who just moved to Lowell, more than a few activists, and some familiar faces.

It was a bright spot in what for many has been an increasingly tense-feeling time. Last Monday, Attorney General Maury Healey’s office launched a hotline to report harassment and intimidation of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women, LGBTQ individuals and immigrants. She reported an increase in reports of such incidents to her office since election day.

Some incidents have risen to prominence. Earlier this year, in May, two brothers beat a homeless man because he was Latino. More recently, three 15-year old girls allegedly punched and beat a woman on the Red Line for being an immigrant after mocking her accent. This issue doesn’t appear only in Boston. Just a few days ago, a Natick man reported receiving threatening letters filled with racial slurs. This would follow national trends: the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the Anti-Defamation League all reported a spike in reports of harassment and vandalism since the election.

There is a great debate that is being held in coffee shops, living rooms, and social media about how and if these incidents are related to the election. Many argue that anyone who voted for Donald Trump, because he used racially-charged and sexist language, are either bigots or, at best, bigot-enablers. Others argue that there are many reasons to have preferred Mr. Trump’s outsider status or policy positions over Secretary Clinton’s. Still others believe that both major-party candidates were not worth voting for, leading to a fairly high “other” vote. Some of those topics might be the subject of future posts. I imagine little of that matters for people who have overcome harassment, discrimination, or isolation, and worry that the heated rhetoric signals a trend toward a return to that abuse or an indication that it never was that far away.

Lowell’s Vote

What is clear is that Lowell—and especially greater Lowell—had a sizable number of people vote for both major-party candidates. According to the unofficial tally (which doesn’t count provisional ballots, overseas absentee, and some other exceptions), 36,641 people voted in the general election in Lowell out of about 85,000 old enough to vote. That’s about 43%, less than Massachusetts’ estimated 61% or the US’s 53%, but Lowell’s high proportion of noncitizens may account for some of that lower turnout.

Of those 36,641, 23,186 voted for Clinton and 10,495 voted for Trump, a 63%/29% split, with the remaining 8% for a third-party candidate, a write-in, or blank. This was very close to Massachusetts’ overall 61%/34% split.

votesinlowellNotably, more people in Lowell voted for Democrat Niki Tsongas (76%) in her race against Ann Wofford than for Democrat Hillary Clinton. I’m not sure what this means, other than that people weren’t voting straight-ticket and weren’t voting solely on policy. All the towns next to Lowell except for Chelmsford voted in favor of Mr. Trump, making the “Greater Lowell” breakdown about 51% Clinton, 41% Trump, and 8% other.

Organizing for Lowell

In this moment where it feels like political frictions are high, there are a number of groups organizing a number of events with an eye toward lending support to those who may be most vulnerable. This includes a peaceful Solidarity Rally against hate and discrimination 3:00 pm tomorrow at City Hall, which will include speakers from Lowell’s diverse population and a 4:30 pm workshop at Mill No. 5 to discuss what civic and political actions participants want to take together.

15107405_1277147152349666_735794546867948049_nOn Monday night at 5:30 pm at the Senior Center, CBA is hosting a “Community U-Nite”, a post-election gathering that will include food, conversation, and resources to make sure that everyone still knows they are welcome in Lowell’s community. Their goal is to highlight that although the nation—and Lowell—may be divided politically, Lowell is still one, inclusive community.

Later, in December, Pollard Memorial Library is hosting an “American Perspectives” non-partisan, civil and constructive community conversation on the 2016 Election. Local educators, community organizers, and citizens will discuss together how to reaffirm commonalities and move forward as one community of Americans.

Finally, many are wearing safety pins on their jackets or clothes. This started in the United Kingdom after the Brexit vote, when immigrants were increasing targets of hate crimes. The safety pin symbolized that immigrants were “safe” with the person wearing the pin, and that people wearing them will try to actively intervene when they see someone being harassed. It’s been adopted in the wake of the American election to symbolize safety for immigrants, refugees, people of color, LGBTQ, women, Muslims, and any other groups who are feeling threatened. Some critics of the pin call them a lazy crutch that gets in the way of real activism or believe they widen the gap between political parties. Supporters argue that they are a first step into activism by many who otherwise do not know how or are not as free to protest in other ways; a reminder like a string tied around a finger; and a constant signal that they’re willing to help. I’m not arguing one way or the other, but wanted to mention this symbol I’m seeing more and more around Lowell.

What’s Next?

The recent events have made Aurora and I want to turn back to Learning Lowell, to talk about the impacts we think different policies will have on the city, the arts and culture from all around the world that make Lowell unique and amazing, and the history that can teach us so much about the present day. As always, we want to know what you’re feeling either on Facebook or in the comments section here.

The plan would remove the trees between road and sidewalk on both sides, resulting in 12 trees total removed.

Hearing about the Route 38 Hearing

To follow up on our previous posts, I attended last week’s public hearing on the Route 38 project near Kittredge Park. Its purpose, in MassDOT’s words:

As part of the design process for this project, we are conducting this public hearing to explain the proposed improvements, listen to your comments and answer any questions you may have. At the conclusion of the hearing, MassDOT will review all of your comments and, where feasible, incorporate them into the design of the project.

Wait, first, what exactly is MassDOT’s Public Process?

Under state and federal law, the state has to allow citizens to comment on projects. I’ve looked into this a bit to try to figure out how the process works, so I’ll spend a little time on that here.  MassDOT’s guiding documents do put an emphasis on public participation. Their 2014 Public Participation Plan lists their values related to participation: Dedication, Respect, Innovation, Diversity, and Honesty (accuracy, understandability, and accessibility).

A project’s public life begins when it’s first put on the “Transportation Improvement Plan” or “TIP” before design begins. The Nesmith Street project was put onto the TIP because of a Road Safety Audit conducted in 2010. The regional planning agency annually requests comment about the TIP at meetings around Greater Lowell, reaching out through traditional media and email lists. I’ve heard mostly only people very interested in the transportation system—transportation planners and public officials—comment on the TIP. In fact, even though the Route 38 project was on the TIP, one public meeting participant asked why he had only heard of the project recently, from the Sun article.

The “Public Hearing” was another step of that public process. When a project has completed its environmental process, right before MassDOT formally accepts the preliminary design that will be developed into the final design, it holds a formal meeting to allow citizens to get their comments on the record. The way they conduct this review is highly regulated, including notice requirements and accessibility. A list of everything they have to consider is here. This is the last time for formal public participation, unless the project gets delayed or they encounter unforeseen environmental complications. I learned a lot about their process by reading Chapter 2 of their guide.

What happens at a session like this? They show their plans, which are 25% complete. This part of the meeting is both very detailed and lacking some of the most relevant information. I often struggled to follow what was being discussed, to see what was being discussed on the slide, and to understand the values that were being promoted. Other participants expressed confusion, too. I appreciate that they were willing to share their plans online (which surely should be standard) because it allowed a little more time to digest.

Nesmith Street Plan

This is an image of their plan for Nesmith Street. Grey is road widening, brown is sidewalks, and yellow is new greenspace. The City engineers put together a great Route 38 project website with all their materials here.

What was MassDOT’s presentation about Nesmith?

After a brief introduction by MassDOT, their consultant from Bayside Engineering then spoke about the project, which includes five intersections. In addition to the ones I’ve written about on Learning Lowell before (Nesmith/Merrimack and Nesmith/Andover), they are putting in new signals at Nesmith/Stackpole so they can be coordinated with the other signals; and they are doing a realignment and signal improvements at the intersection of the Route 38 highway at Boylston/Fairmount and Douglas/Phoenix.

Almost all the participants were interested in the Nesmith Street work, and that’s where the engineers spent most of their presentation. The consultant engineer presented several alternatives they had considered, then showed the audience which alternative had already been chosen.

There were several things common to all alternatives:

  • The outside edges of the sidewalks would stay in the same place, meaning only the sidewalks and what’s between them would change.
  • The project would improve crosswalks at both intersections, including handicap ramps.
  • It would make the signals a pedestrian-only phase, meaning people have to press a button and wait for the light to go through its cycle, but then all the lights will be red to make people crossing the road safer.
  • Finally, the project would make two of the curves between Andover and Nesmith a little more “square.” This will make cars turning onto Nesmith go just a little more slowly.

These changes were supported by the participants at the meeting. The differences between the alternatives? Whether they make Nesmith wider or not.

This leads to the big question: do the trees have to go? Does the road have to get wider? According to them, absolutely yes. The details for why are easily obscured by technical details, but I’ll do my best. They considered 4 options that save the trees and one that widened the road. The differences between the 4 options were which ways the lanes would go.

Five very simple diagrams of the options shown at MassDOT presentation

This is a simplified drawing I did to try to understand the different options, showing the direction traffic would go in each direction, with Andover Street being at the bottom and Merrimack being at the top. The numbers over each drawing are how wide the road would be, including lanes and shoulders. Option 4 is just keeping it the way it is, and option 5 has a left-turn lane that starts in the middle going in either direction.

Nesmith Street

The plan would remove the trees between road and sidewalk on both sides, resulting in 12 trees total removed.

Option 3 is the widened road. It would keep the 5’ sidewalk on the Kittredge Park side, but that sidewalk would have signs and electric poles added to it. The sidewalk would be on top of a retaining wall that would be almost 4’ at its tallest, but an average closer to 2’. The retaining wall would be stone masonry and have a decorative railing. The sidewalk on the other side would be narrowed to 5’, requiring removal of three additional trees. This is in the plans, but they did not mention this out loud, and I didn’t understand it until I was able to look at the plans online. I wonder how many people in the room did.

Modeling Traffic

The engineer did an analysis of each option, giving a letter grade that represents how long people would have to wait during morning and evening rush hour at each intersection. They also showed how long their model thinks cars would back up before each light turns green during rush hour.

Their model, which is set in the year 2024 and assumes that traffic will increase for the next ten years, showed that all the options would cause traffic to back up from Merrimack past Andover or vice-versa, but that the 4-lane option would cause the least amount (in evening rush hour, the traffic would back up from Merrimack to just past Andover). However, I’m still not sure how they figured that out, and just how bad traffic would be under options 1 or 2. It would be nice to understand better what they presented, because it’s so hard to know whether they’re hearing our values as they build their models.

Option 3 PM Queue Analysis Nesmith Street

This is an example of the “queue analysis” they showed us. The red and yellow lines represent how far they think cars will back up during a red light. All the analyses are on the city’s website.

Those models are worth talking about a little bit. They’re based on ever growing traffic numbers, which if they continue, would result in losing any gains over time as the number of cars on the road continues to grow with Boston’s sprawl. This goes to MassDOT’s overall focus: their concerns are at the state level. To them this is a state highway, not a neighborhood road.

Categorizing Roads

When they opened up for comments, someone asked why the neighborhood should have to bear the brunt of all this traffic. The answer was, in essence, because that’s the way it is.

State legislation in the 1990s mandated a process to classify roads—this is called “Functional Classification”. MassDOT worked with regional agencies to define every Massachusetts road into one of three nationally-understood categories: Arterials, Collectors, and Local Roadways. Nesmith Street was classified as an Arterial. According to MassDOT, “These roadways provide the highest level of mobility at the greatest vehicular speeds for the longest uninterrupted distances. Generally, these roadways provide connections between Massachusetts cities, metropolitan regions, and bordering states…”

The categories are further sub-divided based on whether they’re urban or rural, and whether they’re limited-access, major, or minor. The category of a road changes what design it gets. For example, the MassDOT Design Guide states that designers should try to put a minimum of 4’ shoulders in urban arterials and 11’ lanes in urban arterials. Local roads can be narrower. Whenever designers go beyond minimums or maximums, they have to get permission from a “Design Exception Committee” and the Federal Highway Administration if they’re getting federal funding.

It’s a deliberately difficult process to get roads recategorized. A town that wants to change the category of a road has to prove that land use and traffic patterns have changed, and the road is no longer used for travel between cities. It’s a reinforcing cycle: cars use a certain road to get between cities, and that road gets categorized as an arterial, and then local and state engineers design it to be easier to use as an arterial, then more cars use it to get between cities.

When asked about this, the MassDOT engineeres replied that there are only so many paths over the river into New Hampshire. Any path is going to be full of traffic. The neighborhood just has to accept it. Our local engineers did mention that because traffic is bad on Nesmith, cars are going on other local roads like East Merrimack. The engineers’ goal is to minimize the amount of traffic on roads that aren’t arterials.

Map with cut-throughs around Nesmith

A drawing I did showing some ways cars avoid Nesmith, cutting through other neighborhood roads

It’s really important to note that the engineer said they would not consider lanes narrower than 11’ and even called 11’ lanes “nice and tight”. According to the MassDOT design guide, lanes between 11’ and 12’ should be used for speeds above 45 MPH, traffic above 2,000 vehicles per day, or trucks and busses more than 30 per hour. Traffic on Nesmith is above 30,000 vehicles per day.

However, not everyone agrees that 11’ lanes are ideal in urban settings, even with high traffic volumes. The National Association of City Transportation Officials’ guide recommends 10’ lanes in all but special circumstances, and Chapter 5 of the MassDOT guide itself mentions that 10’ lanes can be used in areas of limited right-of-way to provide greater separation between vehicles and pedestrians.

What did the neighborhood have to say?

There were about 30-40 residents in attendance, and perhaps a dozen spoke. MassDOT let city officials speak first, and city engineers read a letter from the City Manager supporting the project during the time. The meeting went late, after 9:00 pm, and many residents left before they had a chance to speak. However, the library was kind enough to stay open that everyone who waited could have their say.

There were concerns big and small. Nobody commented that they thought making the road wider was a good idea. Many liked the idea of better timed lights and pedestrian crossings, as well as clearer lane markings. Lots of people were disappointed in the potential loss of the trees, and many were worried about traffic speeding up and getting noisier. Nobody was excited about a long and disruptive traffic project. Some had more specific concerns, such as the design of the retaining wall or the accommodation of bicycles.

One participant asked whether MassDOT or the City was thinking about the entire road system holistically and the problem of there being not enough routes for cars travelling through (not to) Lowell, and the city engineers said that it was a problem faced by all communities, not just Lowell, and that, “We’re working on it.” Jane Calvin argued that the health of trees, or that the wrong type of trees were planted, should never be an argument to remove a tree planting strip, as that can be fixed without removing the strip. She also pointed to a City ordinance that said that the City would need to replace each tree they cut down with an equivalent tree or trees elsewhere. The Sun wrote up a great story about it, talking about both sides’ positions.

Does the fact that a dozen residents voiced concerns matter? Probably not. I have to be honest with this post: it’s very likely that there’s very little that can be done about this situation. While MassDOT is fulfilling its legal obligation to show us their plans, they have very little motivation to change them at this point. When people voiced concerns, they generally defended their existing design. For example, they showed a picture of the least healthy tree in the area when talking about the trees, and they said they believed the retaining wall would serve a similar traffic calming function.

They’ve spent a lot of time on this getting it the way they think it should be, and hearing residents say “we think it will be less safe” isn’t going to change an expert’s mind. They’re committed professionals, of course they believe in what they’re presenting. It would take a massive pushback, universal and noisy, and including our state representatives to alter the course of things now.

Should we try? I think so. This isn’t the engineers’ and planners’ fault. They work with the information they have, and with the parameters they’ve been given. Chris works with the city folks that helped in this process, and they’re good people, working every day to build a better Lowell for everyone. They were eager to offer to explain the process to residents with detailed questions, and they even offered to meet with residents to do a walk-through of the area in question. It’s not helpful to frame city or state folks as villains. They’re convinced based on their research that this is the best course of action for the greatest number.

If we’re going to build a Lowell where trees and pedestrians matter as much as cars, they’re going to have to hear from us as a community that these things matter to us, and they’re going to have to hear it a lot. They hear a lot of complaints from drivers! We will probably lose some of these debates along the way, unfortunately. But sea change is possible, even if it takes longer than we want it to.

How to Comment

The last day to send comments to MassDOT is 10 days from the hearing date, so that means any comments must be postmarked by this Wednesday! If you want to sign the petition to save the trees, click on this link and do it by Tuesday before 3:00 pm, when it will be mailed to MassDOT. Here’s the full info:

Written statements and other exhibits in place of, or in addition to, oral statements made at the Public Hearing regarding the proposed undertaking are to be submitted to Patricia A. Leavenworth, P.E., Chief Engineer, MassDOT, 10 Park Plaza, Boston, MA 02116, Attention: Roadway Project Management, Project File No. 606189. Such submissions will also be accepted at the hearing. Mailed statements and exhibits intended for inclusion in the public hearing transcript must be postmarked within ten (10) business days of this Public Hearing. Project inquiries may be emailed to dot.feedback.highway@state.ma.us.

It’s Important to Speak Up to MassDOT!

13669032_786648154280_5741532979711256583_nSome of you may remember some concerns about a MassDOT proposal to widen Nesmith Street, which I wrote about back in May. Though the plan comes from a well-intentioned place, hoping to make traffic flow faster and more safely, evidence suggests that widening the road would make the road less safe for pedestrians and drivers alike. There may be fewer fender-benders, but the accidents that would happen would be high-speed and dangerous.

A group of concerned citizens, myself included, has gotten together to get the word out about the issue. We’re having an informal gathering at the park on Saturday, including picnic snacks, a little music by local musician Jon Kohen, a history talk by local luminary Dick Howe, and food truck Spiceventure will stop by. Should be a fun way to get together and have some fun with our neighbors. If you’re interested, join the Facebook event and spread the word!

We’ve already heard from lots of folks passionate about this issue. Sometimes for different reasons!

“…this neighborhood is low-income. There is a disgraceful pattern of destroying beautiful environments in low-income areas. This is no coincidence. The lack of environmental justice is devastating.”

“…As a resident of the area I am familiar with the traffic problem there and widening the road would create more of a bottleneck going towards bridge street. Taking land away from the historic park will eliminate green space that the residents of the area and the city of Lowell including myself enjoy regularly.”

“Proposed plan is completely at odds with the Complete Streets program that Lowell has signed onto.”

If the community doesn’t speak up, they think we don’t care! So what can you do?

1. Show up for the MassDOT Meeting!

This will be at the library on Thursday July 28th at 7pm. This is absolutely the best way to make your voice heard and be a part of the conversation. Information about the meeting is here.

2. Call or email your state representative.

This is a state project, so our state legislature needs to know that we want a plan that works for everyone! Lowellians have Eileen Donoghue as their State Senator, and either David Nangle, Rady Mom, or Tom Golden as their State Representative. Here is their contact information:

Senator Eileen Donoghue Eileen.Donoghue@masenate.gov 617-722-1630
Representative Rady Mom Rady.Mom@mahouse.gov 617-722-2460
Representative David M. Nangle David.Nangle@mahouse.gov 617-722-2575
Representative Thomas A. Golden, Jr. Thomas.Golden@mahouse.gov 617-722-2263

3. Sign our petition

Sign the petition by clicking here. This will be sent to MassDOT and possibly also shared with other decision-makers in the community, like the City Council. Do it and make some noise on social media: Tweet, Facebook, Snapchat, and otherwise spread the word to loop in your friends and neighbors.

Why is this important?

The group discussed together why and how they thought the project should be changed. We agree with one Facebook ally who said: “It’s not about the trees, is not about the noise, it’s not about the money… It’s about making smart decisions that truly make a difference and make our roads safer.”

The major focus of the project includes widening Nesmith Street between Andover Street and East Merrimack Street from two 18’ lanes with exclusive left turn lanes at either end to four 11’ through lanes. This would require removing the existing 10’ buffer between sidewalk and park and all the trees on it. We believe the project is important, but it must be changed in these ways:

Save the Trees
At least six mature Maple trees in Kittredge Park and an additional two near East Merrimack cannot be removed. Trees slow traffic and reduce crashes by 5 to 20%, reduce asthma health impacts, and increase neighboring home value by $15-20,000, among many other effects. These trees only provide this level of benefit when planted between a sidewalk and the street.

Respect the History
Kittredge Park is the centerpiece of the Washington Square historic district, listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1831, the neighborhood was created, and Nesmith Street was a 60’ tree-lined boulevard with deeds requiring residents to plant more trees. This wasn’t just a street, but a “special place” that attracted many of Lowell’s elite. The park gained more special history when Paul Tsongas “adopted” it as one of his favorite parks, volunteering in it throughout his life. In the final weeks of his life, he requested a photo of Kittredge Park be brought to the hospital. MassDOT needs to respect it as much as he did.

Don’t Make Lanes Too Wide—It Will Make Them Dangerous
Although the intersection is dangerous now, that usually results in fender-benders and other minor accidents. Although there may be fewer accidents when cars may drive faster down the street, accidents will be much more dangerous when they do happen. This is especially true when it isn’t rush hour—the wide lanes have been proven to encourage speeding.

Don’t Make it Less Walkable
A major project at the Lord Overpass is being planned to make it more pleasant to walk along and easier to cross. The Bridge Street/VFW project simplified the intersection, helping pedestrians and cars alike. This project makes things actively worse for pedestrians. They’ll have more street width to cross and will no longer be protected by trees as they walk along Nesmith. At a moment when we’re trying to encourage people to walk from Belvidere to downtown, it’s the exact wrong approach.

Maintain Environmental Justice
Importantly, the Lower Belvidere neighborhood qualifies as an “environmental justice” neighborhood as defined by the Massachusetts Environmental Justice Policy. These families, who have small or no yards and dense housing, rely on the park and playground for outdoor activity. Widening Nesmith Street will make the park less enjoyable and harder to get to for this population, a very unjust outcome.

Overall Congestion won’t be reduced: A System-wide Approach is Needed
Although planners claim that widening Nesmith Street will remove a bottleneck, the street will remain at one lane in either direction capacity south of Andover. The bridges will also remain bottleneck areas. We have seen no evidence or analysis that easing traffic on the street won’t just push bottlenecks to elsewhere in the City. What we need is a thorough analysis of traffic in Lowell and an understanding of how much is to and from Lowell and how much is through Lowell before we can understand how we can divert auto traffic and encourage other modes to better fight congestion.

Some have suggested investigating a new bridge, others a three-lane approach. One argued that Route 133 (Andover Street) was improved by bringing it down to three lanes, but is still dangerously fast, so it seems a step backward to make Route 38 (Nesmith Street) four lanes. Making a highway-style road through a lower-income neighborhood next to a beloved park should not be the first resort to solve our traffic problem.

Recommended Reading

Safety Audit:
https://www.massdot.state.ma.us/Portals/8/docs/traffic/SafetyAudit/District4/Lowell-Route38-Accessible_RSA.pdf

Sun Story:
http://www.lowellsun.com/opinion/ci_29814437/clearing-route-38s-clogged-arteries

Project Page:
https://hwy.massdot.state.ma.us/ProjectInfo/Main.asp?ACTION=ViewProject&PROJECT_NO=606189

Notice:
http://www.lowellma.gov/dpw/engineering/Documents/Public%20Hearing%20Notice%20RT38.pdf

160717 - savetrees

City Council Motion Against Transgender Anti-Discrimination Act

A quick post on a time sensitive subject: Dick Howe’s weekly roundup shares the disheartening news that Councilors Elliott and Mercier have a joint motion requesting the City Council “vote to adopt a resolution to oppose the transgender bill adopted by the State Senate which allows access to women’s bathrooms and locker rooms.”

I imagine many readers of this blog are are already asking “How can I stop that?!” Easy. There are 3 important things you can do here: 1) Contact the city council and let them know where you stand. 2) Show up on Tuesday (register in advance to speak) 3) Spread the word. Here’s how:

1) Contact the City Council

This is easier than you might think. Follow this link and you’ll see a simple form to fill out. http://www.lowellma.gov/citycouncil/lists/ContactTheCityCouncil/NewForm.aspx?PageType=8&ListId={0a606722-04e6-4a9a-8031-3fe071aeb7f9}&RecipientName=&RootFolder=%27

You can even submit anonymously if you want, though your voice will be stronger with your address attached.  I did this just now and it took me 3 minutes. Here’s what I said “I am for the Transgender anti-discrimination act and urge the council not to pass a motion against it. This motion could hurt us economically, as we have seen it hurt North Carolina. More importantly, transgender people need to be protected by our laws, not attacked by them.”  See, easy!

If you have another way to contact them, like if you know them personally or have ever talked on the phone or over facebook, try that too!

2) Show up on Tuesday

This is the most powerful thing you can do, absolutely. This has changed the course of motions, as with the bike lanes on Father Morissette; and changed the way that decisions went, as with the visit from Hun Manet. The City Council, while they have their own opinions, are genuinely interested in being a voice for you and absolutely do not want to be on the wrong side of an unpopular issue.  If you want to speak, you usually have to register in advance (though I think sometimes on a popular issue they just open up the floor). To do that, you email or call the City Clerk’s office mgeary@lowellma.gov or 978-674-4161.

3) Spread the word

One disadvantage this issue has going in is that, as far as I know, there’s not an organized LGBTQ advocacy group in the city. This means this effort will have to be more grassroots, and we need as many people as possible to hear this information. Please share this post or Dick Howe’s with your friends over email, on facebook, on twitter, and in person. The reality is, most people will not have heard that this is happening. It is HARD for most folks to keep up with local news, even though they want to. Making noise and talking about what happens in the community is one of the most important things you do as a citizen.

UPDATE: There’s now also a facebook event here, which makes it super easy to share.

Why is this important?

Now, for those of you who are feeling out of the loop, I do want to talk about this issue in more detail. The bill currently making its way through the Statehouse (passed in the senate, on to the house) would allow a transgender woman to use the women’s bathroom and a transgender man to use the men’s bathroom. This issue has rocketed to the forefront of our national dialogue, and many people are still learning these terms and becoming familiar with what these laws mean.

A transwoman is someone who, when they were born, the doctor said “it’s a boy!” but as this person grew up, that seemed to not match how they felt inside. At some point, they made the physically and emotionally difficult decision to begin living as their real self, changing how they appear to match the way they felt. Some trans people get surgery, some don’t. This shouldn’t matter to you any more than it matters to you what anyone else’s private parts look like. Even outside of trans folks, there’s a lot more natural variation than you might imagine, and frankly, unless those private parts belong to you, it’s really none of your business.

Dick Howe has done a great job with why rejecting this motion is important from an economic perspective. I’ll quote him here:

“With the expansion of MA/Com, the arrival of Kronos and the Markley Group, and all of the exciting work being done at the UMass Lowell Innovation Center, Lowell is rapidly becoming a center of high tech. These businesses and others form a solid foundation in the innovation economy and will only attract similar companies and startups. Yet the people who run these companies, and the people who will be working at them, will not want to come to a community that takes a backwards, irrational view of transgender rights. That is why so many companies have cancelled plans to relocate to or expand in North Carolina which with its “research triangle” had been a leading high tech region.

“This motion urging defeat of the transgender rights bill also jeopardizes Lowell’s efforts to become a college town and to continue to grow as a home for artists. Both of those groups, college students and artists and all those drawn to them, want a community that is welcoming to everyone and that is open to change and new ideas. In fact, every economic development strategy pursued and being pursued by this city will be undercut by the passage of this motion.”

I want to say just a little more about this issue from a moral perspective. To some this can seem like a niche issue, because trans people are a relatively small percentage of the population. Because it hasn’t been a popular issue until relatively recently, others assume that it can’t really be a major issue. The truth is, we all should have been doing more to help this community for a long time. Trans people have long been in need of additional protection under the law, as a group that has experienced violence, discrimination, and suicide at much higher rates, even as compared to gay and lesbian people. 90% of trans people reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination on the job. – See more at: http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/headlines/beyond-stereotypes-poverty-in-the-lgbt-community/

Additionally, 64% of transgender people will experience sexual assault in their lifetime: http://abcnews.go.com/US/sexual-assault-domestic-violence-organizations-debunk-bathroom-predator/story?id=38604019

While it’s understandable that many people, especially women, worry about sexual assault, it’s hard to see how a law allowing people to use the bathroom they chose is a real danger. First of all, most trans people already use the bathroom of their choice. Think about it: many trans people “pass”, and using the bathroom of the sex they were assigned at birth would be a much more uncomfortable experience for everyone. Second, transgender people are much more likely to be a victim of violence than the other way around. Finally, the reality is that sexual violence knows no gender, and no orientation. Especially to children, a trusted adult is much more likely to be a source of danger than a stranger in a bathroom.

Laws that try to legislate trans folks out of bathrooms don’t want them in the opposite bathrooms either. They just want trans people to stop existing. That is not going to happen. We’re going to need a find a way to accept trans people as part of our community. Let’s get Lowell, and Massachusetts, on the right side of history.

Route 38, with trees in strip

The Happiness Cost of Widening Nesmith Street?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading Charles Montgomery’s Happy City, the book chosen for Pollard Memorial Library’s next “Lowell Reads” event. I’m really looking forward to talking about it as a community: it’s a book that goes in depth about if, how, and why urban neighborhoods make us happy.  I bring it up because I read the chapter about greenspace right about the same time I heard of a proposed State project on Nesmith Street.

The intersection of Nesmith Street and Andover Street in the Belvidere neighborhood is a busy spot, and it’s one of the more dangerous intersections in the City of Lowell.  It had 29 crashes in 2014–more crashes than any other intersection that year, with police crediting those trying to “cut in at the last minute,” according to the Lowell Sun. It was the 7th on a list of “High Crash Locations” in the region based on 2010-2012 data, with 19 injuries during that time, according to the Northern Middlesex Council of Government’s 2016 Regional Transportation Plan. This is likely why the state has targeted it for improvement. Nesmith Street is Route 38, meaning it is under the State’s jurisdiction, as many of our biggest traffic problem zones are. I’ve spent a fair amount of time at the intersection myself, both on foot and by car, because this used to be part of my commute.

What does this have to do with greenspace? Because the proposed improvements include 11-foot lanes and “may require removing a row of trees between the road and a sidewalk next to Kittredge Park”, according to the Sun. These trees are on the state property on a steep incline between the road and sidewalk. Let’s talk about what those changes might mean.

How did we get here?

Black and white picture of 1981 Kittredge Park

The intersection in 1981, when Washington Square was listed as a historic district.

Let’s start with a look at the history of that section of Route 38. Belvidere Village grew around what is now East Merrimack Street near the Concord River crossing in the early 1800s. Nesmith Street connected Belvidere Village and Tewksbury to the south. In 1831, Lowellian brothers John and Thomas Nesmith purchased an estate and subdivided it, placing a formal park called “Washington Square” at the center of their new neighborhood. Nesmith Street was laid out as a 60’ boulevard with 10’ sidewalks. Deeds required new residents to plant trees along the street for “shade and ornamental purposes.” The area was slowly settled by prominent Lowell residents, and became one of the most fashionable neighborhoods in Lowell. The horse-drawn trolley connected it to the mills in the Civil War-era, and the electrified trolley ran down Nesmith Street to Tewksbury, opening up the rest of the area to development. The entire neighborhood is now listed in the National Register of Historical Places as Washington Square Historic District.

Washington Square Park had an interesting history, itself! It was used as a cow pasture for a while, and then a Lowell merchant leased it for a garden and saloon. Only in 1860 did the Nesmith Brothers sell it to the City and it officially became a park. The granite curbing the City installed remains to this day. In the 1920-30s, the park was renamed “Kittredge Park” in honor of Paul Edward Kittredge, a US serviceman who died by mortar fire in 1918. Sometime after the 1970s, a sliver of the southwest corner of the park appears to have been sliced off to widen the intersection with Andover Street.[1]

1953 state taking layout

The layout map from the 1950s. Hunts Falls Bridge is on the right, Nesmith Street on the left, with the new highway through the middle. Find more historic state plans at MassDOT’s website.

The nature of the area changed drastically in the early 1950s. The State took a great deal of land north of the river to make the Veterans of Foreign Wars highway, which included a rotary and a bridge to more directly connect Routes 38, 110, 133, and 113. Most importantly, it took about a dozen properties to extend Nesmith Street from East Merrimack to the new Hunts Fall Bridge with a four-lane divided highway. Probably because of the acute angles this created with intersections at Stackpole and Merrimack, channelized right turns were added.

This may create the problem today. Using Google Maps, it looks like each of those 1950s lanes are 12’. They all feed into that 1820s boulevard that devoted 20’ of its 60’ right-of-way to sidewalks and strips of trees. With curbs and shoulders, that seems to leave only 36 to 38’ for traffic, which is striped as two 18’ lanes but, notably, usually used as four 9’ lanes.

When I first moved to Lowell I worked in Salem, and I used to go through this intersection to head east out of town. I vividly remember how confused I was by this road, which is marked as 2 lanes but most treat as four. There are more than a few roads like this in the city, and as a driver unfamiliar with the area, there’s nothing worse than being honked at, tailgated, or encountering an unexpected car in your blindspot as you try to figure out whether you’ve misunderstood the road markings, the other car is just breaking the law, or this unfortunate middle ground where everyone familiar with the road just knows how it works and that they won’t face any penalty for treating the road according to common understanding.  If I had to guess, I would speculate that this confusion plays a role in the number of accidents that happen on this stretch.

It could also just be sheer volume: a lot of cars go down those narrow lanes. Counts seem to be around 30,000 daily. This is more than the VFW Highway or Westford Street near Drum Hill—the only other surface road that has that level of traffic in Lowell is Thorndike around the Lowell Connector and the Lord Overpass. Those cars cross Andover Street, which carries around 20,000 cars daily. The way I understand it, many of those are cars going from Centralville, Dracut, and New Hampshire to jobs closer to Boston.

So, the trees should go?

Kittredge Park, Lowell, MA purple flowers, monument, structure

Kittredge Park in 2013 from Life from the Roots blog

At first blush, it might seem like it makes sense to sacrifice that planting strip, historic as it may be, to make it safer for those thousands of commuters. But I wonder whether it will make the road either safer or more pleasant. In Happy City, Mr. Montgomery argues cities that have faster traffic aren’t actually “happier” according to surveys. Instead, he discusses studies showing that greenspaces, trees, and nature bring mental and physical health benefits. The benefits are there even if people have just glimpses of nature, but are stronger when people can interact with the greenspace. He argues that his own research showed that small amounts of greenery everywhere was more important than occasional trips to the park.

I know trees make a big difference in my own sense of how inviting and pleasant a street and walkway are, but I wanted this to be a little bit less anecdotal, so I asked professor Google about it, and I came up with this report, “22 Benefits of Urban Street Trees.” Trees slow traffic and reduce crashes by 5 to 20%, reduce asthma health impacts, and increase neighboring home value by $15-20,000, among many other effects.  It suggests that a single tree could create $90,000 of direct benefits.

I think it’s especially important for this area to keep its trees, even near a tree-filled park. The trees separate the road from sidewalk, making it feel safer and more pleasant. This street is an important pedestrian connection between Belvidere and downtown, and you see lots of students and families walking. We should be focused on making it more walkable, to encourage those living in the western reaches of the neighborhood to walk and explore downtown and keep the park inviting for those who live in Lower Belvidere.

Route 38, with trees in strip

Route 38 today, courtesy of Google Maps. Note planting strip, trees, and sidewalk on right.

So what is the solution?

Back to the intersection. The State sees there are a lot of accidents, and there is a lot of congestion, and wants to fix that. I suspect that clarifying the markings alone would help, but it’s hard to see how wider lanes, which we know encourage cars to go faster, wouldn’t just make the minor crashes into more serious ones. Do we really need 11’ lanes, or can we make the existing 9’ lanes safer?  Maybe 9’ is just too narrow, but National Association of City Transportation Official (NACTO)’s Urban Street Design Guide calls for 10’ lanes, so maybe that could be a compromise.

On the other hand, maybe we could reroute some of the overall traffic away from that stretch of Nesmith? An interesting chapter from Victoria Transport Policy Institute’s “Traffic Demand Management Encyclopedia” suggests that even a 1% decrease of cars on a congested highway could reduce delay related to congestion by 10-30%.

nesmithdetail

Nesmith Street in 1879, when times were simpler. What is now Kittredge Park is labeled “Park Square” between Lower Belvidere much as it exists now and large estates that have yet to be subdivided. Thanks for the maps, Center for Lowell History!

But I have to confess, I do feel a little hopeless about any effort to eliminate Lowell’s gridlock, as State Senator Donoghue suggested was this project’s focus. It seems to me like at certain times of day, we just have too many people trying to get from the North to Boston or the reverse, passing over a limited number of bridges over the river. I was listening to a podcast this week that talked about traffic problems, and it quoted a study about the paradox that tends to happen when you add lanes to a busy road: once you make it less congested, more people drive, and it only gets busier again. Do we really think there’s any capacity we could add that could overcome the number of cars going the same direction we experience at rush hour?

While traffic safety is important, making roads smoother for cars often comes at a cost. In this case, with trees on the line, the cost is clearer than usual. Because so few of Lowell’s streets have trees or planting strips separating sidewalk from traffic, it seems short-sighted to sacrifice one of the few in such a critical area without exhausting every other alternative first.  I have to ask: why would we put so much effort into making the Lord Overpass safer and more pleasant for everyone only to go in the opposite direction on another important hub?

Notes

[1] Thanks to The Massachusetts Cultural Resource System, Center for Lowell History Digital Atlas Collection, Lowell Historic Board Belvidere Historic District Brochure, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust Belvidere Village History, and Wikipedia for historic facts.