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The Art of History, the History of Art: Visiting the Whistler House

James M Whistler Statue in Lowell MA

James McNeil Whistler denied he was from Lowell later in his life. Maybe he just didn’t like the snow.

We got an email recently from one of our favorite active Lowellians, Jack Moynihan, wondering: had we ever written about the Whistler House Museum? With the exception of an early post about a Parker Lecture, somehow no, we haven’t!

So, thanks to Jack, we paid a special visit to the Whistler House with our blogging goggles on. It was an especially good refresher for me, because I haven’t visited since I started working for the National Park, and visitors often want to know what you can see at the Whistler House. Short answer: art with a local connection. The collection focuses on art representational art, and it is strongest in the 1800s and early 1900s. Almost the entire collection has a Lowell or New England connection: the art could be by a local artist, or depicting local scenes and people, or collected by local people. Jack led us on a tour of the house, talking about the works and their history.

The Art

We believe art is both individual and communal: pieces speak differently to different people, but talking about art allows us to understand the artist, the subject, and each other better. In that spirit, we’re sharing both of our reactions, and would love to hear yours in the comments:

Aurora: My personal favorites are the pieces that connect to Lowell’s history. I’ve often enjoyed looking at the reproduction of this almost bucolic scene of Lowell in its early factory days at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum, so its fun to see the real thing. There are several paintings that interpret Lowell and the surrounding countryside.

“Lowell in 1825” by Benjamin Mather

“Lowell in 1825” by Benjamin Mather

Chris: An true-to-scale reproduction of Whistler’s most famous painting feels as if the “Francis Room” of the house, heavy and dark like the portraits of “important men” throughout the museum. However, Jack revealed that the original painting wasn’t so dark. In 1906, when Whistler’s cousin made the copy, the original had deteriorated. A small photo of the original next to the copy shows how the original had since been restored to its intended, brighter look. The copy remains an artifact showing how millions of people saw the painting and moved me to reflect on the ephemeral and perceptional nature of what we consider “great.”

“Apres James McNeil Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black” 1906, Oil on canvas, by Edith Fairfax Davenport

“Apres James McNeil Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black” 1906, Oil on canvas, by Edith Fairfax Davenport

For those hoping to catch a glimpse of famous artwork, the Whistler House can provide. The detail of Whistler’s expressive etchings on display on the second floor dazzled us, and John Singer Sargent’s sketch showed his process for the stunning Boston Public Library mural.

The History

There’s always some overlap between an art museum and a history museum, but at Whistler House the Venn Diagram is almost just a circle. Once again, different elements spoke to us differently:

Portrait of “James B. Francis” by R.M. Staigg

Portrait of “James B. Francis” by R.M. Staigg

Aurora: Of course the house is the birthplace of James McNeil Whistler, an innovative artist most popularly famous for painting a dour portrait of his mother. But art history is bound up tightly with our city’s history, because Whistler the artist was the son of Whistler the engineer, an important figure in his own right. A master engineer of his historical moment, George Washington Whistler designed railroads, canals, and aqueducts, and trains. That’s not the end of the history connection, either. The building actually was home to several generations of notable engineers, including inventor Paul Moody and “Chief of Police of the Water” James B. Francis.

Chris: It’s notable that the house has been the home of the Lowell Art Association since 1908. The permanent collection represents what the art association found interesting, what it was given, what it strove to collect over the years since its start in 1878. Walking through the halls of the museum is like walking through the historic tastes of art enthusiasts and experts of generations of Lowellians.

The building itself has been restored and maintained by the Art Association and is beautiful in its own right.

Making Art and History

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Dave Drinon in the Artist-in-Residence stuio

One especially neat thing the Whistler House does is feature an artist-in-residence. If you’ve spent any time at all in Lowell’s galleries, you’ve probably seen Dave Drinon’s work. He paints New England landscapes and cityscapes, and his work is often at the Brush Gallery, and he’s a Western Ave artist as well. I realized when I got home why his work looked so familiar: we have a magnet with one of his Lowell scenes on our fridge. He is helping organize a group of artists who will paint on the streets during the next Folk Festival.

Their changing exhibits are often worthwhile and interesting, and I especially recommend the current one. “Pursuing Justice Through Art: 2015″ is the second annual exhibition dealing with genocide, culminating in a symposium happening Saturday the 18th starting at 1pm. If you haven’t been to the Whistler House before (or lately) this would be an excellent time to visit.  The exhibit is moving and thought-provoking, with some works that are disturbing, others deeply sad, and some that suggest healing and peace. It reminded me of the expression that art should “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”.

The Whistler House is also a participating in Downtown’s “First Thursdays” initiative, a collaboration of museums and businesses for special events, discounts, and later hours designed to grow the downtown scene. Chris and I have enjoyed this series, and the Whistler has been an active participant, hosting lectures and music.

We imagine a number of our readers have never ventured to the Whistler House, but there really does seem to be something for everyone! A visitor from another blog put it well: “After all, where else could you see Whistler’s father?” It’s open Wednesday through Saturday, 11 am to 4 pm, on Worthen Street in Lowell.

The number of Lowell institutions we’ve never written a post about should in theory be getting shorter, but there always seem to be new things to write about, and our stack of “we should write a post about this” ideas just seems to get longer.  If we’ve never written about your favorite Lowell stuff and you’re wondering why, the answer is that probably nobody has given us a gentle shove in that direction yet. Let us know!

Images from “Pursuing Justice through Art: 2015″

The works are from both local and out-of-town artists.

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Swap your Stuff, Build Community

I haven’t blogged much about the Merrimack Valley Time Exchange since we wrote our post about it last year, but in the meantime we’ve become members, both benefited from and offered our time to others, and I joined the Advisory Committee. Because I’m on the Advisory Committee, I get to help organize events like Saturday’s Community Swap, which is a really fun event. It’s a giant rummage sale, but without the sale part: everything’s free! You can bring stuff you’d like to get rid off, too, this is an excellent place to direct all of the no use to you but still useful stuff you’ve been spring cleaning out of your closet and basement.

This event is on Saturday from 12:30pm – 4:30pm at the Lowell Senior Center (on Broadway across from Market Basket). There’s a facebook page here and you can also contact Joy, the coordinator at 978-452-7523 x 815. Chris and I went to the fall version of this and it was really fun, we went home with books, kitchen stuff and a badly needed ironing board.

I love the Time Exchange, which is run by Coalition for a Better Acre. It’s a great way to meet your neighbors, and get help for exactly the kind of things you want your neighbors to help with. The main way we’ve used it so far is petsitting: it’s such a pleasure to leave our pets with someone and go on a vacation without fretting about how much it will cost, and they’ve gotten great care. I’ve scrubbed floors, helped hang pictures, reorginized kitchen cabinets. Chris has done spring cleaning and helped a community organization with their grant process. We both shoveled snow during this crazy winter.

Lots of people need help but are bad at asking for it. Nobody wants to feel like a charity case. The Time Exchange is a way for people to reach out and ask for help and offer to help, a structure to help community grow the way we’d all like it to be. When you join the Time Exchange, you post offers of things you’re willing to do, everything from basic skills to things you’ve learned to do with special training. When you need something, you post a request on the online board, or search the offers of others to see if there’s already a good fit. You earn hours by helping, you spend them when you get help. Important to the concept is the idea that everyone can do something, everyone has something to offer. An hour is always an hour, everyone’s time is worth the same.

I’d really encourage anyone whose thinking about getting involved to join, there’s no reason not to and you’d be surprised how handy it can be. I’d be happy to chat with anyone who wants to know a little more, or if you have tough questions you can contact Joy at 978-452-7523 x 815.

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Lord Overpass: A 150 Year History

Information packets uploaded by the Friday before Lowell City Council meetings include reports the city council requests, petitions for permits only the council can grant, and the minutes of the previous meeting. They can be found by visiting http://agenda-suite.com:8080/agenda/cityoflowell/Meeting.html and clicking on the book icon to the right of the appropriate meeting. The public has an opportunity before the meeting to request to speak in favor or against any motion a City Councilor makes, and City Councilors welcome emails about upcoming agenda items. This is one of a semi-regular series of posts about the information in those packets and upcoming City Council motions.

There’s a few interesting items the City Council will discuss today, including a bond order to repair the Lower Locks and Leo Roy parking garages; a report on the Lowell Police Department’s training expenses and revenue with news that they plan to incorporate Tasers and cultural competency trainings; a motion about keeping communication between UMass Lowell, a dorm developer, and the City open; and a vote endorsing the 2013-2018 Open Space and Recreation Plan.

There’s also a public petition to address the City Council regarding firearm licenses in Lowell. I have not researched the issue, but I learned the petitioner is the Director at Large of the Gun Owner’s Action League.

However, this post will focus on the sole item the Transportation Subcommittee is covering starting at 5:30 pm: “Discussion of Lord Overpass Improvements.” Discussion of transportation improvements seems timely, as a man died last weekend from injuries he sustained after being struck by a car elsewhere in Lowell. It’s also part of an ongoing conversation; Aurora and I described the “Lord Overpass Reconstruction Project” a few weeks ago. The project involves not only the overpass, but improvements to several intersections along Thorndike from the train station all the way to an extension of Jackson Street to meet Fletcher at Dutton. The improvements were called for and developed in public sessions related to the Hamilton Canal District.

We also talked about several issues we have heard brought up: as currently described, the project does not improve Dutton Street’s walkability; the project has no separated bicycle paths; the idea for a pedestrian bridge was scrapped; and in a larger sense, the project doesn’t touch upon the importance of the area as a crossroads of Lowell, where many attractions would be less than a five-minute walk away if pedestrian accommodations were in place. However, the conclusions Aurora and I reached were clear. There are no easy answers, and those answers are limited by available funding.

Today, Aurora and I thought it would be illuminating and fun to go over the history of the Overpass and the streets it connects.

1825 map with Thorndike and Dutton highlighted

1825 basemap from UML Digital Map Collection.

Between 1821 and 1825, the first large-scale mills were built in Lowell. Dutton Street was built along the new Merrimack Canal and Thorndike Street was built to connect this intersection with a west-east highway toward Chelmsford at what is now Gallagher Square, previously Davis Square. Even then, it served as an important connection between highways leading to other cities and the downtown. Its importance only grew as the Boston and Lowell railroad was constructed soon after, crossing the canals at the same point as Thorndike.

1936 atlas pages surrounding future Lord Overpass

This map was stitched together with pages from the 1936 Franklin Survey Company Atlas at UML Digital Map Collection.

By the mid-1930s, the railroad had been extended to Nashua and the roads looked largely like they would for the next hundred years. This image is from the 1936 atlas, the last atlas to be made before the Lowell Connector and Lord Overpass were built. Here’s some points of interest:

  • Thorndike, which had been designated Route 3, ran where the east ramp is now, lined with commercial buildings on its east side.
  • The area that is taken up by the Lord Overpass used to be a train station and the Hotel Merrimack.
  • North of Pawtucket Canal, Dutton Street curved westward and made a 5-way intersection with Western, Thorndike, and Fletcher.
  • Western Avenue used to continue over the railroad tracks to connect what is now Western Ave Studios with Thorndike Street.
  • Middlesex crossed the railroad tracks at-grade, but Chelmsford Street bridged over them as it does today.
  • Jackson Street never met Thorndike, but a smaller “West Jackson Street” did.
Image: richardhowe.com

Image: richardhowe.com, original source unknown. Downtown is to the left of the image, and what is now Gallagher Terminal is to the right. The leftmost north-south street is Middlesex, and the rightmost is Appleton/Chelmsford.

This photo from the 1930s[1] shows how steep the section of Thorndike between Middlesex and Appleton/Chelmsford was, one of the issues mitigated by the Lord Overpass. At the time, the Appleton/Chelmsford/Thondike intersection was called “Crotty Circle,” with a monument to World War I soldier George Crotty added to the center in 1937.

South Common

South Common Image: Steve Conant, via richardhowe.com. What is now Gallagher Terminal is across Thorndike from the South Common.

This photo was taken a little later, after many of the buildings along Thorndike, including the Hotel Merrimack, were demolished.

In the 1950s, a strategy of modernizing Lowell was adopted. Early in the 1960s, the Lord Overpass was constructed to accommodate traffic loads that were projected into the 1980s, a sister project of the larger I-495 and Lowell Connector project. The ultimate goal of city planners was to connect the Lowell Connector to Father Morissette Boulevard in a great loop around downtown, surround downtown with parking, and create a pedestrian mall in the center. Other initiatives razed old industrial or residential buildings to provide developable, accessible lots to attract electronics and plastics manufacturing.[2]

The neighborhood between Chelmsford Street and the railroad was demolished for that reason, and most of that site today is occupied by MACOM, an electronics manufacturer.

1979 aerial

1979 image: Lowell National Historic Park, via Massachusetts Digital Commonwealth. Downtown is to the left of image, and Gallagher Terminal is in upper-right corner.

This 1979 image shows the overpass mostly as it is today, with one difference: the Sampson Connector had not yet been built. Planned in the 1970s and built in the 80s, the Sampson Connector fused together Thorndike and Dutton to ease traffic going toward downtown, making what was a practically five-way intersection into a “T” where the majority of traffic would not need to stop and turn. I am told the Sampson Connector project also removed Dutton Street’s parking lanes to create a four-lane thoroughfare. I also believe this project terminated Western Avenue at the railroad tracks, creating a lot that would become Dunkin’ Donuts.

For better or for worse, all of these projects were to ease automobile traffic and promote economic development that required automobile access. A lot could be—and has been—written about what these projects achieved and where they fell short. I feel that they tried to compete with suburbs on their terms and had only mixed success promoting development because there’s always more space for roads and cheap land in suburbs than in the city. In addition, making it easier to drive into the center of Lowell also made it easier to drive right through Lowell, facilitating suburban auto-oriented development. It’s easy to forget, however, that it might have felt as if these projects were more successful when Wang Laboratories was in town.

I’m not sure how the history of the roads and infrastructure projects could help us think about the Lord Overpass today. Missing in this examination are the traffic counts and stated goals for each of the projects. Additionally, an analysis may include the economic and property tax impact of losing prime parcels compared to improved economic performance elsewhere. Regardless, it does show that major infrastructure projects are “sticky.” Roads remained the same way for a hundred years, and we still drive on projects designed sixty years ago. Smaller projects such as road diets, one-way conversions, and bike lanes are easier to reverse if they don’t work out, but large projects stay with us a very long time.

Notes

[1] The photo is undated, but must be from before 1937, because it contains the monument, but from after the early 1930s when trolley lines were removed from Middlesex and Appleton Streets.

[2] I haven’t read Mehmed Ali’s University of Connecticut Dissertation yet, but I found several sources that cite it when recreating the urban renewal timeline.

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Diving Deeper into DPD’s January Downtown Report

A few weeks ago, I explored the a Downtown Vacancy Report prepared for Lowell’s City Council by the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and compared it to a similar report issued one year ago. The council discussed the report at their next meeting, praising its comprehensiveness while lamenting that some landlords are less aggressive at marketing their property than others.

The report is the first in a series of planned reports every six months, which will give a richer picture of trends than a single snapshot in time. It was a response to a motion by Councilors Leahy and Kennedy, who suggested a report in the wake of announcements of La Boniche and Giovanni’s Trends’s closure. Councilor Kennedy said, “I think it’s important that the City Council and the administration monitor just what’s going on downtown.”[1]

However, it raised questions for me: Why was the amount of commercial space shrinking? Are rents comparable to other cities? What are the factors that are influencing businesses to close? I reached out to the City’s Economic Development Officer, and she was incredibly generous with her time to discuss these and other issues related to the Downtown.

What’s the source for the information?

The Lowell Sun recently reported that the report was a result of “a recent study commissioned by the city”, but city staff actually continuously update the City’s commercial property database.

For the total number of square feet of commercial and residential space, the DPD uses the assessor’s database—the same database that powers the City’s public map app.

Sample Site Finder Report.

Example page from Site Finder Report. Lowell produces reports tailored to businesses’ needs.

DPD uses a variety of sources to track the tenants of each property. For most of the larger properties, they can find information with their subscription to CoStar, a company that communicates with real estate brokers and property owners across the US daily to provide up-to-date information to real estate professionals and urban planners. Smaller properties are more difficult to track. For those, the city keeps in constant contact with the property owners or the real estate brokers who work with those owners.

The City feeds all of this information into a database application called SiteFinder. That way, they can give reports of many available spaces to individuals looking to start or expand businesses. Some cities, such as Somerville, make this information available online. However, DPD would rather individuals contact the City for the information, so that they can begin a personalized conversation and better determine the needs of the individual business and offer appropriate assistance programs.

To prepare a Downtown Vacancy Report, they just need to double-check their records are up-to-date, use the information they already have, and write notes on key properties.

Why did the total commercial Square Feet shrink?

Interior of Counting House Lofts Apartment, Lowell

Interior of Counting House Lofts Apartments (Image: Counting House Lofts)

One of the most striking differences between this and last year’s report was that commercial square footage dropped by about 800,000 square feet. The City reported that the bulk of the change was conversion from commercial space to residential, such as:

  • Countinghouse Lofts, converted about 100,000 square feet to residential
  • The former Adden Building, adjacent to Counting House Lofts, converted 85,000 Square feet into 70 mixed-income residential (80% market rate)
  • 226-228 Central Street, being converted into condo-style apartments
  • 24-26 Merrimack Street (above Dunkin Donuts), converting 60,931 square feet into 47-market-rate residential units
  • A portion of Boott Mills West, converted into 77 market-rate residential units by WinnDevelopment

What about rents?

Vacancy is only part of the picture, and average rents are another important part. The City shared CoStar reports about downtown Lowell and surrounding communities.

Per Square Foot average Annual Rent (2014, 4th Quarter)

Retail Class C Office*
Downtown Lowell $12-$15 $11-$12
Greater Boston Average $16.14 $17.31
Southern New Hampshire $12.34 $16.39
Worcester $15.88
Rt. 3 North $15.92

*Real estate professionals categorize office space into three classes. Class C is the lowest, which may be in run-down buildings, in less-desirable areas, and/or need renovation for modern use.

Average rents must be taken with a grain of salt: many smaller properties offer negotiable rents, and some rents include utilities or common space, while others don’t. With those caveats in mind, Downtown Lowell’s retail rent range appears comparable to the area, slightly lower than the Greater Boston average but in-line with Southern New Hampshire. However, downtown offices appear to command low rents, and this may be one clear reason why commercial-to-residential conversions happen more quickly than new office development. For example, new Boott Mills apartments can provide nearly $24.00 PSF of revenue annually.[2]

Low rents might tell a story of a struggling downtown, with property owners only making enough to pay taxes. However, high rents and high vacancy may represent landlords overvaluing their properties.[3] That doesn’t appear to be the case with downtown as a whole, but it might be true for certain properties, with some landlords seeking rents that are comparable to Class A or B space even though they don’t have basic amenities such as internet access.

What does DPD currently do to help businesses?

The original motion requesting the report wasn’t just about vacancy. Councilor Leahy said, “I’m surprised we don’t get some semi-annual reports or annual reports [from DPD] to keep the Council informed on what they’re working on, where we’re going, what the direction is.”

I was made aware of a few of the active programs to promote business:

One of the marquee programs still available is the Downtown Venture Fund. This program was started in 2001 as a partnership between the City of Lowell, the Lowell Development and Finance Corporation, and several banks to provide low-interest loans to individuals that want to start restaurant or retail establishments in the core of downtown Lowell. Over 300 businesses have taken advantage of the fund in the last twelve years, including Blue Taleh and Old Court. I’m sure there are a lot of stories about the loans being critical pieces of dreams made true—a Boston Business Journal article explained, “To a person, the [interviewed] entrepreneurs said they could not have gotten their businesses off the ground without the Venture Fund…”

The Merrimack Valley Small Business Center provides microloans, workshops, and mentorship programs to small businesses in Lowell, Lawrence, and other towns. They also run a community kitchen and the outdoor summer Farmer’s Market. They have helped many small businesses in the downtown area.

The Sign and Façade Program grew out of the City Manager’s Neighborhood Impact Initiative, which ran from 2009-2013 under City Manager Bernie Lynch. The former program concentrated on a different neighborhood each year, targeting sidewalk, security, façade, and other improvements in a coordinated way. The funding pool is now being used partially for a grant of up to $2,000 for any eligible business throughout the City to improve its appearance, including paint, lighting, awnings, or signage.

These, along with communication with brokers, landowners, and prospective tenants, are largely the same programs that were around during the last downtown improvement report.

What else could be done?

Pop-Up Stores

Pop-up store in Holyoke, 2013.

Pop-up store in Holyoke, 2013. Image: Spaces of Possibility

Pop-ups are stores that might be only open for a weekend or a season, filling a vacant storefront temporarily, either as an expansion of an existing business or a whole new business. Some pop-ups are successful, and evolve into year-long businesses, while others fill a specific niche at a specific time. Either way, they create a sense of liveliness and draw an audience that helps neighboring, permanent businesses.

I have been told that many landlords require a two-to-three year lease, wanting to lock-in stability rather than deal with the increased workload and uncertainty of shorter terms. This is common, as short-term leases are relatively new: an article about Washington DC might as well be written about Lowell, even with the City interested in promoting the concept. What may be needed is a legal framework and model lease to make it easier for reluctant landlords.

Window Displays

Downtown display for First Thursday im

Downtown display for First Thursday (Image: Mary Hart)

DPD is working closely with COOL to make it possible for more artists to display public art or other installations in vacant stores. However, they’ve been encountering difficulty when property owners cite insurance and liability concerns. During the City of Lights parade, artwork was displayed in some windows, and one of the pieces disappeared, either stolen or accidentally thrown away. These incidents create even more doubt that an arrangement is possible without clear legal terms.

Notably, we can also build on many success stories. For example, a local artist and a property owner worked together to showcase a colorful display about Lowell’s First Thursdays 2015.

Architectural Lighting

Notes from September Business Summit

  • More lighting, brighter lights
  • Surveillance cameras around downtown
  • Cleanliness
    • Windows cleaned on a daily basis
    • Planters (consistent)
  • Public bathrooms (Is there one in John Street garage? Why not in Market Street garage?)
  • Panhandlers/element
  • Valet parking for business (Dudley’s)
  • Lack of retail
  • Survey residents for their shopping habits
  • Meals tax
  • Permitting
  • Real Estate taxes
  • Investment by property owners
  • BID
  • Shop Lowell campaign
  • Future Downtown Business Summit
  • Street cleaning during early morning
  • Off-street parking
  • Better removal of snow during snow parking bans
  • No parking in John Street garage
  • Loading zones at the corner of Central/Merrimack Street
  • Old Court corner

A primary concern raised by some of the dozens who attended the September Downtown Business Summit (see sidebar) was the need for more lighting downtown. I was told that the City hoped to add brighter bulbs for the Victorian lamps downtown, but other interesting ideas have been raised.

The DPD may look for funding to help property owners install architectural lights that would brighten downtown and show off downtown’s greatest physical asset: its architecture. Additionally, there may be ways to encourage downtown businesses to leave storefront lights on during the night to showcase their window displays. This may involve education or finding funding for low-cost LEDs to reduce electricity bills.

Upgrading Office Space

Finally, another issue of concern is that property owners’ options for securing low-interest loans, grants, or other assistance for renovations are limited. Businesses looking to grow or expand can often obtain state financing from sources such as MassDevelopment, and developers creating housing can find funding from historic and low income tax credits.

However, property owners wishing to renovate offices with elevators, improved wiring and heating, internet connections, or other work without a tenant lined up have no such options. It’s a catch-22, as a tenant could secure financing, but few tenants are interested in considering old buildings without renovations. It may be another reason we see more apartment conversions than office development.

DPD is continuously looking for ways to help property owners finance renovations to attract new office tenants. However, it’s clear that speculative renovation carries its own risks. Trinity Financial renovated 110 Canal Street for $14 million, finishing in spring 2013, but it still took until spring of 2014 to officially secure UMass Lowell’s Innovation Hub and M2D2 Expansion as a tenant for two of the four floors, and UMass Lowell won’t finish the interior improvements and move in until at least summer 2015. Still, it’s unclear if UMass Lowell would have selected that site for expansion without those initial improvements made two years ago.

Is Downtown in a Good Place?

The critical question remains: is downtown on the right track? When the City Council discussed the January Vacancy Report, they seemed to be optimistic. Councilor Belanger said, “We have a fantastic planning and development dept. We will be getting another update in six months and believe it will further improve… Downtown is going in the right direction; there is no doubt in my mind.”

Their discussion focused largely on “problem” landlords. Councilor Kennedy said, “I know it’s difficult, because we don’t own that property, so it’s not like we can do anything we want. It’s really up to the landlords to determine just how aggressive they’ll be renting out their property, but I imagine everybody would like to be at full occupancy if they could,” and others echoed his sentiments.

City Manager Murphy agreed. He relayed a story of the City lining up a tenant for a large storefront downtown, but the property owner declined, planning on selling the building and believing that the property would be more valuable empty than with a tenant.

Councilor Kennedy suggested engaging a retail expert or commercial broker to provide suggestions, and the City Manager said that the City would provide a report on the efficacy of doing such.

It is still unclear why downtown seems to have been hit particularly hard in the last year, with several long-term tenants closing shop. The Sun reported that Giovanni’s Trends owner said that the two-way traffic conversion was a factor, but Councilor Belanger expressed surprise at this in the City Council meeting; he said that conversations he had with business owners about the change had been largely positive.

An often-cited reason for optimism is the expansion of UMass Lowell and transformation of Lowell into a college town. The latest UMass Lowell alumni magazine described an event in which the Chancellor of UMass Lowell and the City Manager reached out to a crowd of 100 students on how to Lowell could better serve students. The article explored the question of what a “college town” is and what benefits colleges could bring. The article ended with a quote from Paul Marion: “It’s not going to happen on its own. And it will take time. But the right starting steps are being taken.”

Indeed, it does appear that new businesses are moving in to serve a college crowd. Bishop’s Legacy Restaurant is serving food in a more to-go than sit-down setting, and Jimmy John’s, a national sandwich chain famous for their campus locations, is moving in the Giovanni’s Trends space.

Coming soon, we will write about two other exciting initiatives, the development of a Downtown Business Improvement District and Downtown Business Association. Additionally, the City Manager is planning a follow-up summit with property owners in the near future. In the meantime, please let us know whether you have any other questions about DPD or downtown!

Notes

[1] Councilor Kennedy mentioned that Giovanni’s Trends mentioned a negative impact of the two-way conversion and wanted to survey business owners to better understand what impacts they experienced. Councilor Leahy also mentioned derelict storefronts, including those on Fletcher Street near the senior center.

[2] Residential and commercial property can’t be compared directly. For example, residents don’t pay for common space like laundry rooms, while offices pay for common space like lobbies. Residents don’t pay for repairs, while offices might. An empty store costs less to build than an empty apartment. Finally, offices are almost always have more time between tenants than apartments. Therefore, property owners use more extensive analysis when considering converting commercial into residential units.

[3] In a very large market, it’s possible to determine whether rents are appropriate by comparing them to the amount buildings sell for, but in a small market with only a few sales like downtown, it’s harder to make these estimates.

U Lunch at UTEC

There are lots of delicious lunch destinations in downtown Lowell, and it’s our civic duty to occasionally forgo the squished pbj at the desk and treat ourselves to a lunch out. Whenever we put our money where our mouth is (get it?) and go out to eat we do our part to support a vibrant, bustling Lowell. But in terms of benefit to Lowell for your sandwich buck? It’s going to be pretty hard to beat Cafe UTEC.

I’m sure most people know what UTEC is, but if this is the first thing you’re hearing about it, basically, UTEC is exactly the kind of organization you hope your community has. They reach out to youth in the community, specifically targeting kids who are heading in directions that bring chaos and violence. They provide dedicated, accepting, nonjudgemental community and guidance that helps get them on the path to be productive and empowered citizens.

"UTEC offers all youth a clean slate"

“UTEC offers all youth a clean slate”

UTEC does this in many different ways, and with many different tools, but one of the biggies is their workforce development training, where they essentially have the youth work in-house, learning both job skills and the consistent habits that an employer will expect. UTEC builds furniture, does maintenance work, caters events, and now, they run a restaurant.

Cafe UTEC's bright and cheery space.

Cafe UTEC’s bright and cheery space.

Cafe UTEC would be a great place to go when you’re having a glum Monday- it has great energy. The kids that work there have a lot of warmth and enthusiasm, and there’s a steady hum of youthful chatter and bustling activity.  UTEC’s culture is all about positivity, just being there puts me in a better mood. It’s a breath of fresh air in a world (and occasionally a city) that can be pretty grouchy.

The food is equally fresh and energizing. Cafe fare with lots of nice lighter options, and seasonally, veggies from the community gardens of Mill City Grows. Everything I’ve had there has been flavorful and thoughtfully put together but not pretentious. Excellent vegetarian and healthy choices that don’t break the budget: $5 salads, $7 soup and sandwich combos.

I’m working my way through the menu, and I’ve been happy with everything I’ve ordered so far. I’d especially recommend the eggplant panini, the grilled cheese and soup combo, and the cinnamon-spiced hot chocolate. I’m also happy to report there’s a tofu bahn mi. Chris and I have been so far been thwarted in our love of Vietnamese sandwiches here in Lowell, for whatever reason places don’t offer the tofu option that seems to be common elsewhere.

Tasty trio: Eggplant panini, bahn mi,  grilled cheese with soup.

Tasty trio: Eggplant panini, bahn mi, grilled cheese with soup.

All of that deliciousness is made and served by youth learning specific workforce skills and lifelong workplace habits in a supportive, caring environment. Lots of kids from difficult backgrounds want to make their lives better and build a real future. But without the skills, and with so many things working against them, it’s easier said then done. If things go wrong and you’re late to work at Dunkin’ Donuts, you get fired. If you’re late to work at UTEC, they work with you to figure out what’s getting in your way, logistically or even emotionally. That extra support is the help youth need to make real, positive changes in their lives. Eating at Cafe UTEC is a great way to support those youth and these programs, and any profits the Cafe makes will go right back into the program.

Cafe UTEC is located downtown at 41 Warren St, right across the street from the Umass Lowell Inn and Conference Center. They’re open for lunch Monday-Thursday, with occasional special dinner events. You can check their facebook here for specials and deals (on Wednesday you got a free drink if you wore something Patriots themed). If you don’t already follow UTEC’s main facebook page you totally should, I find it to be a real bright spot in my facebook feed. Finally, they have a new blog over at the Sun to add to your blogroll. UTEC’s always busy, so there’s always something new to hear about. I look forward to whatever they do next!

Diagram of all the attractions within 1/5 mile of Lord Overpass

Lord Overpass: Crossroads of Lowell?

Map with Sampson Connector, Lord Overpass

The Lord Overpass, named for Mayor Raymond Lord, was constructed in the 1960s. The Sampson Connector, named for Mayor Ellen A. Sampson, changed an intersection between Thorndike and Dutton into an uninterrupted curve in the 1980s.

A couple months ago, the State announced a commitment of fifteen million dollars for a reconstruction of the Lord Overpass. The Transportation Subcommittee planned to discuss the project last Tuesday, but their meeting was cancelled due to snow, and I do not see it rescheduled yet. However, it is an exciting conversation that seems to be gaining a lot of steam: if we’re going to have a major project, what should the final result look like? This is the first part of a multipart series exploring the entire Dutton Street corridor: history, issues, and true difficulty of finding solutions.

Please note that I’m going to link to plans, and because things are constantly changing, some pieces are relevant and others are out-of-date. For example, the Hamilton Canal District plan shows an old proposal for the Lowell Trolley Expansion, which has since been modified. Still, it’s very instructive to see these old ideas and how they have changed—and if anyone is curious why they changed, leave a comment, and I’ll try to find out!

What’s the Project?

The “Lord Overpass Reconstruction Project”, as it is officially called by MassDOT, is a project with quite a bit of history. As I understand it, its primary objective is to mitigate traffic that will be generated by the Hamilton Canal District. As currently envisioned, it will:

  • Extend Jackson Street to meet at an intersection with Fletcher and Dutton Streets
  • Provide a sidewalk along the eastern edge of the Northbound ramp between the new intersection and Middlesex
  • Change the number of through and turning lanes at key intersections
  • Replace some structurally-deficient bridges and retime some signals
Diagram drawn from MassDOT Project Description and renderings by C. Hayes.

Diagram by C. Hayes using MassDOT Project Description and recent concept drawings. Click for PDF.

To understand why the project currently looks the way it does, it might be good to walk through some history.

Starting at the JAM Plan

Although I’m sure folks began discussing problems with the Lord Overpass before it was even built, a review of the current discussion might begin with the Jackson-Appleton-Middlesex Urban Renewal Plan (JAM Plan). Urban Renewal is a set of actions generally considered “last resort” for sections of cities that face consistent disinvestment by the private sector, and cities must prepare follow strict State guidelines to prepare an Urban Renewal Plan before they use eminent domain to take key properties and sell them to developers.

The 2000 Urban Renewal Plan for the JAM district (an area roughly bounded by the South Common, Gorham Street, Dutton/Thorndike, and the Pawtucket Canal) was developed because nearly a third of the buildings in the area were in need of major repair, 43 buildings had been torn down and not replaced, 29 were being or had been foreclosed by the city for delinquent taxes, and the “mixed land use, obsolete street patterns, dangerous traffic intersections, and streets that are inadequate… for modern traffic volumes” would make future redevelopment unlikely.

Page from JAM Plan detailing traffic improvements

From the 2000 Jackson-Appleton-Middlesex Urban Renewal Plan. Click to go to PDF.

In addition to setting out plans to acquire parcels for what is now the Early Parking Garage, Appleton Mills apartments, the future Lowell Judicial Center, and a handful of other key parcels on Middlesex Street, the plan recommended:

  • Extending Revere and Elliot Streets[1] to make stronger north-south connections through the neighborhood
  • Widening of South and Middlesex Streets, making them two-way.
  • Building a pedestrian bridge over Thorndike Street near the Hamilton Canal.

Although the JAM Plan has many, many actions I’m not mentioning, one issue it raises is directly relevant to the current project: “The Samson Connector, Lord Overpass and other traffic improvements to the convergence of Thorndike and Dutton Streets have substantially restricted traffic patterns on Jackson Street.” The plan didn’t actually address that problem.

The Hamilton Canal District

People at Lowell Memorial Auditorium at Vision Session for Hamilton Canal District

Image from second Vision Session hosted by the City at Lowell Memorial Stadium. the group of over 85 individuals preferred the concept that included the Jackson Street extension. Source: HCD District Master Plan

The JAM Plan was changed quite a bit when Joan Fabrics moved out of town, and the City realized that future industrial use of the northern section of the neighborhood was probably infeasible. The City asked developers to submit their proposals for a master-planned mixed use district. Trinity Financial was selected in 2003, and completed an extensive public outreach process that included five major public meetings and many smaller meetings. The JAM Plan was amended to include Trinity’s Hamilton Canal District master plan.

The plan created a special “form-based code” for the district that would allow private developers to buy parcels and construct buildings that met their needs while following guidelines that would create a unified urban feel to the district. It also laid out parcels that would become open space. Most importantly to this post, it analyzed and projected traffic impacts, and it laid out improvements to be made.

The executive summary states:

The traffic impacts of the full build out of the HCD have been carefully examined, discussed in numerous public working group meetings, and proposed solutions have been fully embraced by the community. The mitigation measures are numerous and detailed in this Master Plan, but the two most significant traffic interventions include the extension of Jackson Street east to Fletcher Street across Dutton Street and the reconfiguration of the Lord Overpass so that it will be able to handle the predicted traffic increases much better than it currently handles the existing traffic. – HCD Master Plan

The plan documents how the idea of extending Jackson Street was discussed and preferred in the visioning sessions. The developer liked it because it would increase visibility and access of their project from Dutton/Thorndike, and others liked that it would connect the project with the Acre in a direct way.

Features included:

  • A connection with the NPS Canalway Bridge
  • Crosswalks across Dutton/Thorndike
  • A sidewalk on the east edge of the ramp that would provide continuous pedestrian accommodation along both sides of Dutton/Thorndike
  • Connections between the Western Canalwalk and the Pawtucket Canalwalk

However, the changes recommended for the Lord Overpass were more subtle. The plan laid out other offsite improvements, and the City has moved forward on many: for example, the two-way conversion of Middlesex, repaving and some changes to Appleton, and sidewalk improvements along the South Common and near Marko’s Mediterranean Grill.

Of course, planners also laid out new streets inside the District. Most relevant to the discussion, a new pedestrian/trolley bridge would provide an alternative pedestrian connection from the South Common area through the district to where the NPS Parking Lots are now.

From Hamilton Canal District Master Plan, 2007.

From Hamilton Canal District Master Plan, 2007. Click for larger JPG.

A City-Building Vision

Map and photos of visioning sessions

Example of visioning mapping session from Back Central neighborhood.

Finally, there’s a little-discussed but really cool document that was written in 2009: A City-Building Vision for the Hamilton Canal District and the Neighborhoods. This contains recommendations developed by extensive sessions between neighborhood residents and city planners across the central neighborhoods. There are a few relevant recommendations in here, too:

  • Explore opportunities for a safe rear entrance to Gallagher terminal from the Lower Highlands
  • Create a stronger “Gateway” to Cambodiatown near the Lord Overpass on Middlesex Street
  • Consider an “Arts Walk” connecting downtown and the JAM District
  • Apply funds from the Traffic Calming Program at key intersections between Downtown and JAM

Putting it Together: The Current Plan

Richard Howe took a photo of the most recent design plan, which has changed slightly from the recommendations in the HCD Master Plan.

20141014_114457

Photo taken by Richard Howe in at October 2014 event with most recent concept plan (Click for larger version).


Diagrams in 2007 Hamilton Canal District Master Plan (Click for PDFs).
 

As it stands, there are very minor differences between the two concepts, which include:

  • In the new concept, there are four lanes in the western leg of the overpass instead of three.
  • In the new concept, the traffic island where Fletcher meets Dutton/Thorndike is kept. The old concept removed it for an extra westbound lane.
  • In the new concept, there’s no highway-style “free” turn from Dutton to Fletcher.

What are the Issues?

I believe people think we are at a crossroads, no pun intended. Discussions in bars and online have crystallized into a Facebook group with vibrant discussion, posts about history, and many maps. In the group, former Mayor Patrick Murphy suggested that, among other things:

The availability of funding is not alone a good enough reason to go forward with a project with only a perfunctory public process, particularly if it does not further the community’s vision of a more walkable, bikeable, vibrant place. – Patrick Murphy

The Lord Overpass is a concept I’ve been battling with since I first came to Lowell, charged with finding ways to make it easier to get from Gallagher Terminal to Lowell National Historical Park. Here are some issues I’ve heard over the months:

Dutton Street

I’ve heard folks express concern that the plan does little to address unpleasant walking conditions along the west side of Dutton that Aurora talked about in her commuting to Boston post. Some think more crossings are needed between Broadway and the Pawtucket Canal, others want bike lanes and wider sidewalks. In short, the current project is focused south of the canal, even though work needs to be done north of it. That said, would extending the project be losing control of the scope and expenses, like a mini-Big Dig? This is an interesting topic that will be covered in the next post in this series.

Few Separated Pedestrian Paths

I’ve heard a few people ask whether connecting using a pedestrian path to connect Jackson with Dutton/Thorndike, instead of extending the entire street cars and all, would be better for pedestrians. Generally speaking, sidewalks along roads get more use than separated pedestrian paths for a variety of reasons, including visibility and directness. For example, more people use the relatively meager sidewalk along Prescott than the parallel canalside pathway behind Back Page. In addition, more intersections make cars go slower, another boon to pedestrians. Finally, transferring some traffic from Middlesex to Jackson would make Middlesex somewhat safer and bring benefits to businesses along Jackson.

These trade-offs seem to be worth the extra confusion of an additional intersection, so long as the street and intersection are designed in a pedestrian-friendly way. This is why “extending the street grid” is a commonly-used tool in the city planner’s toolbox to make cities more walkable.

No Pedestrian Bridge over Dutton/Thorndike

Pedestrian Bridge over Storrow

Pedestrian Bridges such as the one over Boston’s Storrow Drive are the exception, because few areas have as high a pedestrian level as the Esplanade next to as impassable a street as Storrow. Image: Google Maps.

Others wonder why the plan for a pedestrian bridge over Dutton/Thorndike was scrapped. My guess is that it’s notoriously difficult to get people to use pedestrian bridges over roadways. The Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center says:

Studies have shown that many pedestrians will not use [a pedestrian] overpass or underpass if they can cross at street level in about the same amount of time. Overpasses work best when the topography allows for a structure without ramps, such as an overpass over a sunken highway.

Few want to climb the stairs or ramp rather than just waiting for traffic and crossing at-grade, and the bridge itself might feel lonely and unsafe. It makes it all the more important to make very safe crossings at grade.

No Bicycle Lanes

Bicycle boxes allow bikes to wait in front of cars so they're more visible, allowing left turns and preventing getting hooked by cars making right turns. Research on whether they work is mixed. Image: Treehugger

Bicycle boxes allow bikes to wait in front of cars so they’re more visible, allowing left turns and preventing “right hooks” by turning cars. See Treehugger for related research.

Some have suggested that bicycle lanes, bicycle boxes, and other infrastructure should be included in the plan. This is an interesting suggestion, one to which I think the City would be very receptive. However, the long term challenge is that the existing off-road pathways are only wide enough for pedestrians, and there’s little room for bicycle lanes without sacrificing vehicle lanes on many of the streets the Lord Overpass connects. Bicycle infrastructure might get a cyclist through the Lord Overpass, but then they would have to mix with traffic after they get through.

The Bigger Question: Crossroads of Lowell

Finally, many note that the area really is a crossroads of Lowell. Dick Howe’s excellent post illustrates why: Gallagher Terminal, the American Textile History Museum, entrances to Cambodiatown and the Hamilton Canal District, Western Avenue Studios, Mill No. 5, the South Common, and Swamp Locks canal boat dock are all within a 1/5 mile radius from one another, but separated by railroad tracks, canals, and Dutton/Thorndike. This project adds some extra roads, but doesn’t do anything to establish this as a “place” that truly serves pedestrians as well as cars. A place that is not only safe, but also pleasant, exciting, comfortable, and attractive.

It’s hard to imagine what could be done for $15 million that could move us in that direction. It would have to show a clear, safe, and interesting path over the railroad tracks to Western Avenue Studios. It would have to have a wide sidewalk lined with interesting views or shops along Dutton/Thorndike. It would need a great gateway to Cambodiatown over an otherwise-boring Middlesex Street bridge. It would have to be easy to get across Dutton to the Textile Museum no matter which direction a pedestrian walks.

Diagram of all the attractions within 1/5 mile of Lord Overpass

It’s a huge question, and I’ll explore some ideas others have floated and some examples from other towns in the next post.

Notes

[1] The plan for Elliot Street was changed, as the Early Garage was built in the way of any potential extension to Jackson Street. I am unsure of the status of the plan for extending Revere Street or King Street at this time.

Change to Comment System

Hi, all,

With some great new interest in commenting on posts, we’ve changed the moderation levels on our posts, and now your comments will appear instantly without moderation. We’d like to share our philosophy on comments:

We encourage folks to comment in whatever place—Facebook or the blog—they feel most comfortable. Facebook might inspire more quickfire conversation, while the blog “archives” the comments for future readers, something we find helpful when doing research. We’ll do our best to respond to both.

We will delete any blog comments we perceive to be attacking a person or group rather than an idea. It’s okay to say, “Betty Boop is wrong that building a theme park in downtown will lure millennials to local restaurants,” but not okay to say, “Betty Boop shows herself to be an idiot again, because building a theme park won’t help downtown.” We believe wholeheartedly in free speech, but we want to keep this particular place on the internet constructive, not destructive. So far, the comments have been totally positive, so we aren’t worried that we will ever have to moderate anything, but we wanted to give a head’s up.

Thanks!
-Aurora and Chris of Learning Lowell