Quite a Task: Downtown Lowell Task Forces

City Councilor Belanger is making a motion this Tuesday, 2/11:

C. Belanger – Req. City Council request Mayor appoint a downtown economic development task force.

This is one of many recent items that have focused on downtown’s economic development. The City Council requested a report on downtown vacancy and requested a summit to collect information from existing business owners several weeks ago, and more recently, Councilor Belanger has requested progress reports on the Hamilton Canal District and the Rialto Building. [1] Chris Hazel, a Lowell resident, brought up interesting points in a public forum: [2]

…there are a lot of entities already around concerning economic development and adding another seems like it might be a great way to (even if unintentionally) gum up the works and actually impede progress. I *might* like a task force. I just wonder what one is and how it works and how it will interact with the other entities already going doing work in this area.

What is downtown?

The first question to tackle is downtown Lowell’s definition! The Downtown Neighborhood is quite small, bounded by the Concord River, Merrimack River, Merrimack Canal, and Appleton Street. However, the “downtown historic district” stretches all the way to the Gallagher Terminal train station, along the canals, and includes parts of the Acre. This larger district is the subject of the panhandling ordinance. To add to the confusion, important downtown attractions such as Memorial Auditorium and the Concord River Greenway are in Lowell Belvidere. Each downtown plan has appeared to use a different definition of downtown.

Map of downtown Lowell

All pink is Downtown Historic District, while dark pink is downtown neighborhood. Reddish are districts within walking distance that have first-floor retail/restaurant.

What is a Task Force?

A Task Force is not specifically defined in Massachusetts or Lowell legislature, but Washington State Municipal Research and Services Center provides a common definition: “A body appointed by council to study or work on a particular subject or problem. A task force will cease to exist upon completion of its charge as given by the council.” Typically, a task force is composed of a panel of experts and delivers a report full of recommendations that the City Council may adopt. Therefore, it typically differs from a Board or Subcommittee in scope and duration. However, I imagine that the City Council and the Mayor has significant latitude in determining the task force’s makeup and charge.

I’ve learned that these type of committees can be valuable sources of expertise and volunteer power if formed correctly. However, to be effective, they usually need help from city staff. In fact, appropriate staff may sit on a task force. This means they may drain staff time, especially if the force is redundant with other committees or agencies. In addition, political or institutional challenges may prevent the task force’s recommendations from being followed. The effective task forces I’ve seen know they have a Council and City Manager [3] ready to commit money or staff time to follow their recommendations.

What groups are active in downtown planning?

Mr. Hazel suggested, “It seems more likely that we’ve kicked and are kicking this issue around enough from many directions already and a task force could very well contribute to confusion rather than progress.” Many worry that a Task Force will complicate existing groups’ efforts. In addition to the City’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD), I can think of:

Lowell Center City Committee Logo Lowell Center City Committee: The CCC has history stretching back to 1972. Then-City Manager James Sullivan created a committee that included representatives from public and private agencies across Lowell to oversee New England Regional Commission grant funding. The CCC directed the funding to projects including downtown beautification (the brick sidewalks, trees, and benches) and planning that eventually lead to the Lowell National Historical Park. CCC became a private entity when it used the last of the funds to invest in Lowell Development and Financial Corporation.

After funding disappeared, CCC began inviting expert speakers and holding semiannual forums to discuss topics such as downtown vandalism, housing, and the Cultural Plan. In the 1990s, the committee sponsored a series of workshops and forums that resulted in Vision for Lowell in the Year 2000, “a report outlining actions to be taken to deal with traffic, parking, retail development, beautification and quality of life issues.” The CCC seems to have been active throughout the 2000s as well, assisting with recent downtown studies and visioning, but I do not know their current status.

Lowell Plan LogoLowell Plan: Senator Paul Tsongas, Congressman James Shannon, and City Manager B. Joseph Tully created Lowell Plan, Inc. in 1979, a year after the Lowell National Historical Park. It has a board of directors that include officials from many of the largest businesses and nonprofits in Lowell. Its ex-officio (non-voting) members include officials from the UMass Lowell, Middlesex Community College, Lowell National Historical Park, Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce, and the City of Lowell.

A goal of Lowell Plan is to “Provide a forum through which the business community, institutional interests and public officials can discuss issues affecting our city and identify opportunities for collaborative action to stimulate Lowell’s continued economic growth.” According to Cityscapes and Capital: The Politics of Urban Development (1995), Lowell Plan’s non-public meetings allow candid discussion between officials and “eliminate red tape.” In practice, it has provided a vehicle for the City and other public and private entities to cooperatively fund studies of the downtown, among other activities. [4]

Cultural Organization of Lowell (COOL) LogoCultural Organization of Lowell: Formed in 2001, COOL’s board of directors is formed of representatives from neighborhood groups, galleries, nonprofits, and businesses. They have focused on enhancing festivals, creating cultural events, and marketing for Lowell, and are assisting with public art selection for Point Park. In addition, they manage the pop-up galleries that have occasionally provided temporary exhibition sites in vacant storefronts. [5]

Lowell Downtown Neighborhood Association and the Jackson, Appleton, Middlesex Business & Residents Association: Although these are both neighborhood groups, the downtown focuses on residents while JAMBRA has strong voices from both residents and businesses. Regardless, both organizations serve as a conduit of information to and from the city government. They also serve as a forum for residents to discuss topics of interest. Each neighborhood group sends a representative to a “City Wide Neighborhood Council” which recommends citywide actions to the City of Lowell. Neighborhood groups are informal and unofficial, but as I understand it, they do have the ear of the City. The Downtown Neighborhood Association is in a period of transition.

Transform Mill City: This is a new series of meetings started by a UMass Lowell student to bring together anyone and everyone interested in transforming Lowell’s image through initiatives and marketing. Their second meeting is this Wednesday with an agenda to create “action teams” and a directory of organizations and groups in Lowell.

Downtown Lowell Business Association LogoDowntown Lowell Business Association: Although downtown had a business association that provided shared marketing for a number of years, I am unable to find any information about this business association online after 2007, when they participated in Lowell’s downtown visioning summit. There is, however, a subcommittee of downtown businesses in the Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce.

There are many other organizations, including Lowell National Historical Park, Lowell Heritage Foundations, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust, the Small Business Center, and Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, Middlesex Community College, and UMass Lowell, all of which that have contributed to planning and revitalization efforts. However, coordinating downtown planning may be out of these agencies’ missions.

What are some existing plans?

There have been many plans for the downtown area. Of course, downtown planning happened before 2000, but I’m focusing on everything in the last 15 years. In addition, Hamilton Canal District planning is an entire additional piece of downtown revitalization not covered here. I hope one day to take a detailed look at which plan recommendations have been followed, but for now, here are highlights:

Map of Development Concepts

Development concepts from 2001 plan in white. These were echoed and expanded in Downtown Evolution, some of which are in the Hamilton Canal District master plan.

2001: Downtown Master Plan: In the 1990s, Boott Mills and Canal Place’s renovations were not yet finished, and other vacancies were “caused by building owners unwilling to invest in their buildings or actively seeking to fill their space.” [6] In Spring 2000, the City Council’s Downtown Subcommittee directed the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) to create a master plan for downtown. The City Council hosted public meetings while the City Manager appointed a 30-member Community Advisory Committee. Surveys and focus groups were also used. The Plan included goals of use of existing cultural heritage, pedestrian safety,  housing (especially for artists), riverfront amenities, positive marketing, organizational coordination of marketing and maintenance, and attractive retail mix.

It had recommendations for infrastructure improvement, building code reform, parking management, and housing development. A significant difference between this plan and later plans was that it recommended retaining the one-way grid and signalizing Market and Shattuck. The recommendation that struck me the most was for three full-time downtown revitalization staff members, a 19-member executive board of organization leaders to give input to that staff, and volunteer subcommittees. Essentially, this would provide a way for existing organizations to cooperate and share staff, funded either through City general funds, cultural organization funds, or a Business Improvement District.

2003: Urban Land Institute Study: Lowell Plan, Inc, and the City of Lowell sought grant funding and their own resources to invite a panel of experts to provide recommendations for specific downtown areas: Davidson Street parking lot (behind the Concord Greenway), Riverfront parcels near Tsongas Center, the Jackson-Appleton-Middlesex Area, and Central Plaza on Church Street. In its introduction, the report complements past efforts and states:

Lowell is at a crossroads and in need of consensus about its future direction. The panel sensed that the city, having completed its first phase of revitalization, is ready to move into the second phase but is unsure where to marshal its resources and which direction to head. This confusion and lack of consensus is dangerous for Lowell’s continuing revitalization.

The report analyzed market conditions and provided recommendations. It echoed sentiments of creating a “downtown association,” recruiting businesses including seasonal retailers to capture festival excitement other times of the year, and improving wayfinding signage.

2007: On the Cultural Road: Strategies for the Creative Economy: This study by Mt. Auburn Associates focused on cultural programming. It recommended consolidating, coordinating, and streamlining various cultural and festival organizations; regional performing art marketing; renovating Smith Baker into a Lowell Cultural Center; improved marketing; and creating a Lowell Creative Business Partnership to provide incubator space, capital, and technical assistance to entrepreneurs. Like the earlier reports, it also suggested gateway improvement under consultation from “each ethnic community” and funded by corporations and foundations.

Lot to Like Postcard2007: Downtown Summits: City Manager Lynch and the DPD held three summits focused on neighborhood revitalization in 2007, culminating in a plan for improved signage, review of traffic circulation, improve infrastructure, improve parking management with dynamic signs and new meters, and beautify the streetscape with planters and furniture. The Ciy implemented many of these improvements, as far as I can tell. Once again, there was a recommendation to recruit chain retailers, which appears consistently difficult. However, the Sun reports the visioning sessions were positive: “I’m very optimistic that a lot of what was said today will come to fruition,” said George Villaras of the Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union… “I think a lot of people walked out of that room feeling a lot better.”

2007 Map of Existing/Proposed Streetlamps

2007 Map of Existing/Proposed Streetlamps

Map and photos of visioning sessions

Example of visioning mapping session from Back Central neighborhood.

2009: City-Building Vision for the HCD and Neighborhoods: A State grant supported City-Building public workshops lead by consultant Goody Clancy in each Hamilton Canal District-adjacent neighborhood about how to capitalize on HCD development. Pedestrian connections to HCD and Gallagher Terminal, multicultural programming, and preventing resident displacement were at the top of the list in every neighborhood. A second set of sessions focused on mapping out specific areas for improvement. A final workshop allowed residents to evaluate Goody Clancy’s recommendations. It, in fact, has recommendations for continued visioning and civic engagement such as quarterly neighborhood sessions and “Develop[ing an] easily accessible and readable how-to manual for residents as a ‘City-Making Handbook: A Guide to Services and to Making Things Happen in Lowell’.”

2010: UMass Lowell Downtown Initiative Report: A Project Team from Lowell Plan [7] and UMass Lowell interviewed 33 downtown business owners, surveyed 619 UML Faculty and Staff, and 1,661 students to create a snapshot of UML’s impact on downtown and recommendations to strengthen that impact. Among these recommendations was better marketing of student discounts, marketing of festivals and events, parent nights, venues for under-21 evening entertainment, broadening work-study opportunities, and improving both real and perceived public safety (“Making the downtown brighter and livelier”). It also recommended future focus groups and continued surveys that would include Lowell High School and Middlesex Community College.

Image from Downtown Evolution Plan2010: Downtown Evolution: Jeff Speck is well-known in planning circles for advocating and planning walkable cities. The Lowell Plan, in partnership with City, UML, MCC, and the National Park, engaged Mr. Speck’s firm to create a plan for downtown Lowell. He lived here for nine months and undertook a many interviews and steering committee meetings, ultimately coming up with recommendations for targeted development, circulation improvements, narrowing streets in favor of sidewalks and transit, and streetscape improvements. This plan was never formally accepted by City Council, but many of the recommendations came from within the City and are now in the official Master Plan, Sustainable Lowell 2025. The highest-profile action taken by the City to date may be the downtown two-way conversion. Corey Sciuto shared his opinions here and George DeLuca worries about transparency here.

2012: Sustainable Lowell 2025: DPD formed the City’s master plan update with input from all city departments and an outreach program that reached over 1,000 residents with surveys, visioning sessions, online tools, and other methods. The plan included many recommendations from the previous plans, far too many to list here. Notably, it called for implementing both Downtown Evolution and the City-Building Vision specifically.

Where does a Task Force fit in?

This is an open question that I hope the community engages in. Until Tuesday, we do not know if Councilor Belanger hopes for a Task Force to carry out existing plans or address shortcomings in those plans. A committee made up of representatives from existing organizations with a dedicated staff member could begin several initiatives or could coordinate agencies already moving forward. Regardless of its intent, I wonder if the city should form such a Task Force when the city’s administration is in transition. We always welcome your comments below or in the Facebook thread!

Notes

[1] In addition, the anti-panhandling ordinance is ostensibly to support downtown businesses (along with promoting public safety). After describing discussions with “several people” very afraid of panhandlers, Councilor Belanger said: “Downtown Lowell is where our visitors and tourists come. We need to make it a good experience for them as best we can.”

[2] His full remarks are quite interesting, and if you’re not part of the Lowell Live Feed Forum facebook group, follow this link, click on “join group” and join in on the discussion!

[3] I use the term “City Manager” interchangeably here with Town Manager and Mayor.

[4] Lowell Plan is active in a number of ways, too many to list here. Additionally, political newcomers should know that Lowell Plan is very much part of the political landscape of Lowell, with both supporters and detractors.

[5] Much like Lowell Plan, COOL does too much to list in this post.

[6] According to the plan’s existing conditions report.

[7] A previous version of this post incorrectly reported the Downtown Initiative project team included folks from the city. Actually, some city employees sat on the external advisory group but were not part of the team.

4 thoughts on “Quite a Task: Downtown Lowell Task Forces

  1. Too many different tasks forces on economic development minus persistent follow through. As this post indicates, the subject has been studied and studied and studied to death……! Constant city council needling about this or that project indicates a lack of understanding as to just how difficult the last four or five years have been in getting any projects to completion. That so much has been accomplished in the Hamilton Canal area and around the university is astonishing. If anything what’s been missing in all of this is a serious focus on job creation. Studying traffic patterns and where parking meters ought to be while poking at the university to pay taxes is simply posturing by many members of the Council. The city and region’s economic success and the prospects for employment creation must not be a political football! One more study will just be one more study to add to the pile. The focus needs to be on job creation.

    • I don’t want to give the impression I didn’t find any follow-through on the plans. I’ve seen at least a few items that have been implemented, and probably many more that I do not know about. You might know more about what has and hasn’t been done. You might also have insight on whether a smaller-scale study (what’s been done and is working, what’s been done and isn’t working, and what’s not yet been done) would be useful or redundant. I believe DPD does annual updates for City Council already, but I am not sure they are framed in quite this manner.

      I might also say that job creation is outside the bounds of many of these efforts, but not neglected by the city. There’s some UMass Lowell incubator efforts, Merrimack Valley Sandbox, the type of work that Theresa Park does, and these are all job creation or human capital development. Again, though, I’m sure you’re more familiar with the gaps, and appreciate the information!

      Things like parking meters and traffic patterns do effect employers’ location decisions because they effect quality of life for potential workers. I think you’re right, though, that this isn’t about creating jobs, it’s about stealing them from other cities. I may argue, though, that the quality of life benefits are in themselves important. That said, I also recognize politics can easily get in the way of a strategic plan.

      • The city has it backwards in regards to parking. It only costs 75 cents to park on-street for 45 minutes at a meter. It costs a whopping $2.00 to park for 45 minutes in one of the garages. It’s then a dollar per hour at all garages and on-street meters. The hourly rates should NEVER be the same.
        These rates incentivize drivers/visitors/workers to park at meters instead of parking in the garages. These rates are big reason why we have heavy traffic downtown. We need to reverse the rates to incentivize people to park in the garages.
        Some cities even offer free parking in garages for the first hour to entice more shoppers/visitors to go downtown instead of the malls.
        Meter maid patrols should also be extended to 9pm so bar, restaurant, and gym customers have a better chance of finding a spot on the street.
        If we get the rates right it will pay for itself and the city will benefit from less traffic, more commercial tax revenue, and more jobs for Prof Forrant.
        This isn’t rocket science. Hopefully someone on the city council is reading this.

  2. Motion passed tonight with almost no discussion. Check that. There was no discussion – Belanger just offered extended comments on his own motion. Unfortunately all of my questions went pretty unanswered. No telling how this will unfold now.

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