Last week, the host of Merrimack Valley Radio talked with City Manager Bernie Lynch about the High School and condition of downtown. Tomorrow night (12/17), the City Council will discuss a report from the Department of Planning and Development on the downtown vacancy rate and programs to attract and retain small businesses. Meanwhile, the school committee continues discussing its capital plan which will involve the fate of the Lowell High School.
Lowell Downtown in Perspective
A common question is how Lowell’s downtown is doing compared to other downtowns. National retail vacancy rates are estimated at around 10 percent, but this includes vacancies in malls and shopping centers. I checked out a number of sister cities, but finding downtown retail vacancy rates are often difficult. Many cities track their office vacancy rather than retail. Nevertheless:
- A 2007 report for Worcester stated that vacancy rates for “general retail buildings (the type most likely to be found in downtown settings) [were] 19% in the Worcester region.” This of course was six years ago, but a Boston Globe story implies things have not improved.
- A similar report stated that in 2007 in downtown New Bedford, “Retail space is particularly underutilized, with a 38% vacancy rate.”
- I couldn’t find rates for Nashua, Springfield, or Lawrence. However, Nashua’s economic development director recently said, “I would have to say that the vacancy rate [downtown] is lower than its ever been since I’ve been here, at least, in the last four years,” but cited competition against Pheasant Lane Mall as a problem for downtown.
Although the two figures I found were old, they represent rates before the recession, so it might be reasonable to assume that figures are comparable to today, now that retail has rebounded. The City Manager’s report stated that Lowell’s downtown district (which includes parts of Back Central and the Acre) has a retail vacancy of 8.55%. This includes a large vacant storefront in the Church Street Plaza. If a tenant moved into that one storefront the vacancy would drop to 4.8%.
Another question to address is whether there’s a higher-than-average turnover rate downtown. The WCAP host said, “Some of these properties are now on their third or fourth tenant, third or fourth different type of business in the last ten to fifteen years, which tells me there just isn’t enough business in downtown to sustain something long-term.” However, the City should expect this: nation-wide, 66% of retail establishments opened between 2006 and 2010 closed by 2011, according to the Business Dynamics Statistics of the Census Bureau.
Live, Work, and Play: What’s the right mix?
I would like to highlight that I do believe the economic development of downtown Lowell requires continued effort, despite relatively solid figures. Although the former Chantilly Place and Barnes and Noble storefronts make up a small percentage of overall retail, they are highly visible. The City Manager’s report discusses these properties, in addition to others, specifically: Former B&N has had inquiries including a group of “private and institutional partners” interested in using it as retail incubator space, while Chantilly Place has also had inquiries, but “several” from service (rather than retail/restaurant) based businesses.
It is important to note that office vacancies are also important to track, as occupied upper-story offices contain people with disposable income who eat lunch and shop downtown. As far as I know, the City of Lowell does not track its upper-story office vacancy rates, but instead concentrates on its première employment centers such as Crosspoint Towers, Wannalancit Mills, and the Freudenberg Building. For its downtown core, I believe Lowell is instead concentrating on housing. Not only does the City Manager’s comments imply a housing-based strategy, but there is a corresponding action in the Master Plan:
Continue to promote the conversion of historic mill buildings and vacant upper stories of commercial buildings in the downtown area to residential units, artist live/work spaces, and other uses as deemed appropriate.
This follows a nationwide trend to convert upper-story office space to housing, especially because offices demand “Class A” space: modern, large floorplates, and parking (think Crosspoint or office parks in Chelmsford/Westford). Concurrently, there has been a reduction in required space per employee and in number of necessary employees as technology boosts productivity. Meanwhile, household sizes continue to shrink, so demand for housing grows. I do worry about this trend, as many believe vibrant cities require a critical mass of employers, housing, and shopping all within easy walking distance of one another.
Small businesses (consulting agencies, law firms, nonprofits) seem to often be good fits for otherwise awkward upper-story office space. For an example, in Covington, KY, across the river from another postindustrial metro, Cincinnati, the economic development corporation has launched a program to renovate “historic buildings into creative office space for smaller businesses.”
Lowell High School and the Downtown
This question of mixed downtown use is at the heart of the Lowell High School (LHS) discussion. For those who don’t know, the School Committee is engaging in a 10-year strategic planning process that involves all schools, including LHS. Committee member Kristin Ross-Sitcawich has recent documents here. In response to the report, the committee unanimously passed the following motions:
- Recommend that the full committee support OMR Architects continuing with the development of the Draft Master Plan utilizing the cost/value Option 1H pertaining to the elementary and middle school programs. Option 1H includes additions and renovations to three (3) middle schools (Daley, Robinson and Wang) and one (1) Pre-K through Grade 8 school (Rogers,) as well as the addition of one (1) new Pre-K through Grade 8 school in the City.
- Recommend that the full committee support OMR Architects continuing with the development of the Draft Master Plan utilizing the cost/value Option 1E pertaining to the high school. Option 1E maintains one (1) 3,900 student high school and encompasses a complete renovation and addition to the existing facilities in the current downtown location.
Ms. Ross-Sitcawich let me know that the next step is to get feedback from City Council, then from the community at large. She said:
In my mind nothing is set in stone until economic impact studies are done and the residents of Lowell have a say in how we educate our children and how we spend their money.
Some argue that removing LHS from the downtown will ease traffic problems, add valuable real estate to the downtown market, and offer a better learning environment for high schoolers. Others argue that maintaining LHS downtown helps the vitality and economy of downtown, provides avenues for LHS/UML/MCC collaboration, and would be cheaper (OMR architects estimated a renovation/expansion would cost $245.4m and a new school would cost $290m). A new school may also face potential opposition from neighbors and have problematic traffic impacts to the neighborhood in which it would be built.
I would like to add some points to the discussion:
- I hope everyone involved remembers that the largest economic impact a school has is its educational quality.
- That said, a school’s location probably has little to do with how well it serves its students. Lawrence moved its school from downtown to a 42-acre location in 2007, yet Lawrence Public Schools was still placed under state receivership in 2011.  Many of the best schools in the nation are in urban locations.
- In addition, I actually attended a high school that was in the process of being renovated. It didn’t seem to impact student performance.
- Finally, I’d like to see UML and MCC weigh in on the discussion. Perhaps they can highlight new ways LHS can coordinate with them, and whether LHS’s location impacts that coordination.
I don’t disagree that it’s valuable to ask whether LHS could be used more effectively as housing/retail/office. My uninformed opinion is that there’s enough other première economic development targets that adding another would not be helpful, but some may disagree. Conversely, there’s a question about whether there would be a negative economic impact as more employees are removed from downtown. I’ve heard some anecdotal stories that restaurants experienced impacts when school administrative offices and Sun staff left downtown, but it would be an interesting question to ask in the upcoming survey. However, I think the secret to reviving downtown isn’t in moving or keeping the LHS, but instead ensuring LHS is a world-class high school.
1. (Update) I don’t mean to imply moving Lawrence High School resulted in the school system going into receivership. I don’t know enough about the Lawrence story to say if the move had a positive or neutral impact upon the system. Instead, I mean to use Lawrence to illustrate the complexities of what makes a school system successful and that a suburban-style school isn’t automatically better than an urban-style school. Of course, if moving the school has economic development potential, the extra revenue and general health of the city will also influence quality of education, but that potential would have to be greater than the extra cost of moving the school and transporting students. From what I can tell, the School Committee has been considering these complexities in the capital planning process, but I’ve only recently started following the story closely. I welcome comments about Lawrence or Lowell’s school system or downtown in general!↩