Coming Soon to a Neighborhood Near You: DIY Lowell Projects in Action

Chris and I are excited to update our blog readers on how our DIY Lowell project has been taking shape. DIY Lowell is our attempt to contribute something to the Lowell community, and it’s been a lot of hard work and a lot of fun.

For those out of the loop, the way DIY Lowell works is, we ask people to submit ideas for small scale projects in public space. Small scale means under $1,000 dollars and finishable this year. Then we put the ideas up for a vote, with the top three ideas getting discussed at our Community Ideas Summit. There, action groups from to take the ideas forward, deciding on parameters, raising money, and consulting with relevant organizations. With a little luck, at the end of the year we have fun things happening that weren’t there before.

Since we last wrote about this project, a ton has happened. We ended up getting more than 50 ideas submitted, both online and through tabling. We visited neighborhood groups and community festivals, spoke on a panel at the Community Psychology conference, we were on the radio and in the paper. We got ideas from kids, seniors, teens, park rangers, and community leaders. You can check out all the ideas here, there are some that seem like “why the heck hasn’t anybody done that yet?” and others that make you think :”I would never have come up with that in a million years but I love it”.

Next, we put the ideas up for a vote. To vote, folks had to commit to either coming to the summit or helping out with a project as it goes forward. Obviously, it’s only ticking a box, and we can’t hold anyone to that. But it’s our hope that that ask means that the projects that got picked were the ones people were actually willing to spend their precious time and energy on. The vote was surprisingly close, with lots of ideas battling it out for the number three spot up to the last minute. Every single idea got at least one vote.

Francey Slater speaks to the group.

Francey Slater kicks us off by reminding us of how much can be accomplished by people dedicated to growing their community.

Finally, it was time for our big summit, and I have to admit, this was the most nerve wracking part of it all. Would anybody actually show up? Would they come ready to think flexibly, and would they be able to come to a consensus about how to move forward? We’d invited everyone to a party: would anybody come?

Honestly? It was more successful than I had imagined. Being in the stunning St. Jean Baptiste space, surrounded by a mix of friends, local leaders, and folks we’ve never met before, the energy in the room was was electrifying. With help from kickoff speaker Francey Slater of Mill City Grows, facilitators Todd Fry, Geoff Foster (also our amazing closing speaker), Nancy Coan, and Mary Taurus, groups of strangers came together, talked about their ideas, and formed concrete plans of attack on how to move forward.

Coming out of the summit, groups have formed around the three winning ideas: Downtown History Trail, Planting Fruit Trees, and Bus Stop Libraries. At the summit, we also had a wild card group, which chose two of the runner up ideas to take forward: Lowell-themed Bike Racks and Stargazing on Christian Hill. Don’t those all sound great?

Expect to see these ideas taking form in the next 6 months. If any of them sound like something you want to be involved in, it’s not too late! Just let us know and we’ll direct you to your new team. These ideas will also need community and financial support, so watch this space or our facebook page for opportunities to lend a hand.

Photo credit: Gabby Davis

The Bus Stop Libraries Group gets to work.

Finally, a huge thank you to everyone that’s helped us along the way. Donations, meeting with us as we developed our concept, coming to advisory committee meetings, helping out at our fundraiser, so many people have helped make this idea the success that its been so far. It’s been invigorating, humbling, and empowering. We can’t wait to see what happens next!

Large group of people poses with banner, photographed from above.

What a great group! It was so much fun. Photo by Gabby Davis.

Map of Doors Open Lowell

Opening Lowell’s Doors

Once a year, Lowell shows what it calls it’s “other side.” Not its dark side or its far side, but its inside.

Anywhere with this banner is open to the public during this special weekend!

Anywhere with this banner is open to the public during this special weekend!

The event is Doors Open Lowell, a time when buildings across the City open their doors to visitors to view architecture and furnishings. It’s going on now!

It was kicked off with the Community Excellence Awards yesterday. Last year we posted about the Call to Nominations but missed the event. This year, we somehow missed the nomination but attended the event!

Paul Marion speaking at Community Excellence Awards

Paul Marion speaking at Community Excellence Awards

The Community Excellence awards honor organizations and individuals who make contributions to Lowell’s historic and cultural preservation and celebration. This year’s Preservation Award honored the Whistler House Museum of Art for their preservation efforts, most recently a restoration of their kitchen. They hope to continue to transform the museum into a multiuse space, truly a “house” museum. Upper-story apartments are rented out to artists.

In addition, Patricia Fontaine won an Cultural Award for her collaboration with Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust to develop a student program for Hawk Valley Farm and with UMass Lowell for a Story Corps Project and Lowell: A City of Refugees, a Community of Citizens project. She explained that she realized that many Cambodian students were losing their heritage, as their families did not want to talk about life in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge genocide, and the refugee camps. She started teaching Cambodian history and it evolved into a project in which students interviewed their parents. The interviews are now in the National Archives.

We overheard this was the best-attended ceremony in years. The room was packed!

We overheard this was the best-attended ceremony in years. The room was packed!

Roger Brunelle also got a Cultural Award for his work with Lowell Celebrates Kerouac. One of our first posts on Learning Lowell was about one of Mr. Brunelle’s tours, and we loved it. For his part, Mr. Brunelle said something on the order of, “I don’t deserve this award, because I was having so much fun. But thanks anyway!”

Finally, perhaps the most exciting award was the Student Excellence award. Perhaps two dozen Lowell High students went on stage along with advisors to accept the award for a collaborative project between the International Institute of Lowell and the First Parish Church of Groton that let multicultural students share dance, food, art, and stories. The students spoke eloquently about how each generation strives to make things better for the next, and that they would carry on that heritage.

The main event started Friday night, with many downtown locations opening their doors. We were able to visit quite a number of places!

Gaslight building, interior

Gas Light building, interior

Architect Jay Mason explained how the current home of Gallagher and Cavanaugh started as the Gas Light Company’s offices, then became a bank, then went through many other uses including the Revolving Museum before an extensive renovation into its current form. One participant recalled going to the Revolving Museum, while another remembered the gas tanks in Lowell.

Lowell Masonic Temple, interior

Lowell Masonic Temple, interior

We were able to visit the largest of the lodge rooms in the Lowell Masonic Temple. After a light show that utilizes equipment from the 1930s to simulate a setting and rising sun, we were treated to a Q&A about the not-quite-as-secret-anymore society. It’s amazing to hear that more than a thousand Masons use the lodge, although not all of them come to every meeting.

Bowling trophy

Lowell Masonic Temple, interior

Even the first floor of the Masonic Temple is a treat, with a number of nooks and crannies with modern and vintage mixed and matched.

A real highlight of the evening was Chuck Parrott’s tour of the Merrimack and Hamilton Canalways. He was a font of knowledge, and not one question stumped him, as he answered questions ranging from where the granite in the canal walls came from (probably quarries near Lowell like in Chelmsford and Westford) to how the National Park preserved the massive gates that can close off canals to drain them (the first three wooden beams were replaced, the rest were original to the nineteenth century) to what will be built in the Hamilton Canal District (apartments with some commercial buildings mostly to the scale of the Saco-Lowell Machine shops and Appleton Mills that once stood on the spots) to why some of the Appleton Mill’s walls look so drab (they replaced crumbled mill walls, and they did not want the new construction to overshadow the remaining mill architecture).

Chuck Parrott leading tour of Canalways

Chuck Parrott leading tour of Canalways

Chuck’s tour was so informative and engaging, I hope he won’t mind if I steal a few tidbits for my trains and trolleys tour in September, part of Lowell Walks. For example, do you know that the only canal wall the National Park System owns is the Dutton Street side of Merrimack Canal, because the Boston and Maine Railroad bought it to reinforce it to support nearby trains, then NPS bought the railway for the trolleys?

Chuck Parrott leading Lowell tour

The tour went well on into the evening

We just made it in time to see the interior of two condos: Trio and the Birke building. Although we didn’t take any snapshots of the interior of the apartments, they were amazing. Each was beautiful in its own way, and we enjoyed chatting with the hosts quite a bit. We did manage to take a photo of the Trio condo’s roof patio. We briefly considered kicking the owner out of his home and living there ourselves, but figured we would be caught! Besides, he was a charming host.

Lowell, MA at night

A nice end to the evening

Doors Open Lowell continues for one more day. See http://www.doorsopenlowell.org/ for more information!

In addition, the Mill City Skill Share is occurring at locations throughout downtown and the Acre, and Made in Lowell Marketplace is happening at Mill No. 5. You can’t deny that a lot happens in Lowell!

Doing DIY Lowell

You may have noticed that we haven’t posted too many articles lately. Part of the reason is that we’re involved in few community initiatives, including “DIY Lowell.” Now that the DIY Lowell website is up and running, we wanted to share our story.

D.I.Y. LowellDIY Lowell is an initiative to try to capture all the ideas for projects and events people have and help them make those ideas a reality. For example, someone may have an idea for a temporary art exhibit, share it on Facebook, and then forget about it. We want to help connect that person with an artist, with someone who knows how to get the permits, and with some funding.

We’re doing this by inviting everyone to share ideas on a forum and in dropboxes around town until June 15. On June 20 until the end of June, the ideas will be up for a vote by anyone who registers for a summit. Our goal is to narrow down the ideas to a small handful that summit attendees would be interested in working on. We have a few guidelines: ideas can’t be expected to cost more than $1,000, they should be completed by the end of the year, they have to relate to space open to the public, and they can’t be illegal.

On July 9, the summit will gather DIY Lowell participants and organizational partners to create action plans for the ideas. A number of very talented folks have volunteered to lead breakout groups about each winning idea, and many organizations have pledged to attend the summit to offer their suggestions on how to kick the ideas off. Citizen working groups formed at the summit will move the ideas forward.

What about after the summit? Well, most exciting, we’ve identified some funding, and we are moving forward with some other fundraising ideas soon. In addition, we’ll keep track of all the projects and offer a helping hand when necessary, connecting those citizen working groups with the help they need.

Why are we doing all this? It’s not just to put a few projects into action, but also to identify the common barriers our working groups face. We’re interested in bringing more voices into the community conversation and encouraging folks who might not have time for a huge commitment to take on a small piece of a small project.

The DIY Lowell Story

The genesis of DIY Lowell was actually in Buffalo, during the Congress for New Urbanism Annual Meeting. One of the most exciting conversations at the conference was about “tactical urbanism” and “lean urbanism.” The idea is that activists or planners can make short-term, sometimes temporary projects that actually change the urban form long-term. This includes anything from making a parking spot into a mini-park, putting pop-up stores and displays in empty storefronts, and guerilla gardening.

This inspired Aurora and I to come up with a few ideas of our own for Lowell. We thought some chalking or painting of the concrete jersey barriers across from our apartment would spruce up Bridge Street. We talked about a trail that would lead from the National Park Visitor Center to the Boott Cotton Mills Museum just like a small version of the Boston Freedom Trail. However, the more we talked, the more we realized that there could be something bigger than just a project or two.

People talking at Mill no 5 during Transform Mill City

Transform Mill City drew a variety of folks to Mill No. 5 before Coffee and Cotton was in business

We were really impressed with the number of Lowell folks who came and participated in the “Transform Mill City” initiative. This series of meetings hosted by a student from UMass Lowell allowed more than forty participants to each meeting to share ideas on giant sticky notes on walls or tables with questions such as “What events would you like to see in Lowell that aren’t here already?” Some popular ideas were a “Firewater” display on the canals and a series of art events or markets.

This wasn’t the only idea-generating initiative in Lowell. The City spearheaded Neighborland a couple of years ago, and it collected ideas via an online website and stickers on an empty downtown storefront. Ideas included an independent theater, free downtown wifi, an expanded Farmer’s Market, and even bocce courts.

What if, however, we combined the two ideas? In school, I ran an organization that accepted project proposals and offered technical support to villages and towns too small to have their own planning departments. There’s a lot of expertise in Lowell already, and we could connect that expertise to these great ideas that sometimes seem to fizzle away. It could be democratic, where the most popular ideas are the ones that get the most attention.

That’s when we started meeting with a lot of people. It’s amazing how many people you can meet with when you’re trying to talk to every group that could be interested in the effort. I started with Yovani Baez, the City of Lowell Neighborhood Planner. She suggested meeting with a few more people, and those folks suggested others, and it soon snowballed. I had to make an excel spreadsheet with the people I met, the people they suggested to talk to, and the ideas on how we could execute our plan.

All in all, Aurora or I emailed or talked to nearly 70 people in the City before we finalized our pitch, including people from the City of Lowell, E for All, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust, Coalition for a Better Acre, Made in Lowell, COOL, Greater Lowell Community Foundation, Lowell Makes, all the neighborhood groups, a few churches, and a lot of other organizations and groups. During that time, we even took a tactical urbanism tour of the Acre with ACTION.

Each interview helped us form our idea. Just to think of a small handful of examples: Marianne Gries told us to make sure our website was smartphone-compatible for those without computers; Souvanna Pouv suggested doing interviews on LTC shows to market the idea; Geoff Foster reminded us to use examples in every neighborhood in Lowell; Sean Thibodeau recommending throwing an event on a weekday, not a weekend.

DIY Lowell mock-up webpage

diylowellwebsite

We created a mock-up to get feedback from our advisory committee, and with help from the community, we made it into a real webpage

Do-it-Ourselves Lowell

Although we kicked off DIY Lowell, we could never have done any of it alone.

I have to credit Aurora with coming up with the name “Do-it-Yourself Lowell,” or DIY Lowell for short. Her idea was that the organization was all about people feeling like they could take ownership of their city through these small, achievable projects. These ideas aren’t that hard or expensive to put into practice, but most people don’t have the tools, time, or contacts to make their ideas a reality on their own. We hope DIY Lowell will really let people do-it-themselves together.

A lot of others offered invaluable help as well. We’re finding volunteers through the Merrimack Valley Time Exchange, CBA is providing assistance with fund management, a local blog is hosting our website, and we may even be able to hold the DIY Lowell summit in a really cool community space for free. We’re amazingly indebted to our Steering Committee who helped us through decisions such as when to do fundraising, what guidelines to put in place for projects, and how to set up our website.

With all this time invested, you may be wondering why we personally are doing all this work. In a word, it’s fun. We’ve met so many people and we’re hoping to add to what we see happening in Lowell already: a sense of excitement and possibility. It’s a lot better than watching reruns.

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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: A true-to-scale reproduction of Whistler’s most famous painting in the “Francis Room” of the house feels 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.

1979 aerial

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.

snowmerrimack

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.