Hot Chocolate, Hot DTL

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City of Lights in front of the 1826 Store

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

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

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

Rosie’s Café

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Rosie Suprenant

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

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

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

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Brew’d Awakening Coffehaus

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

Baristas working at Brewd Awakening Coffehaus

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

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

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

Sweet Lydia’s

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

Customers at Sweet Lydias Candy Shop

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

Time Out Café

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

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

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

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

Cobblestones

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

UnchARTed

Lindsey Parker of UnchARTed Gallery in Lowell MA

Lindsey prepares the special Almond Joy Hot Cocoa

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

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

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

Coffee and Cotton

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

Young women serving hot chocolate at Mill No 5

The Coffee and Cotton crew serving up a keg of cocoa

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

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

Hypertext

Books at Hypertext with hot cocoa

Monkey Jungle Cocoa!

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

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

Hypertext Bookstore in Lowell MA

Gallery Z

Baristas at Gallery Z

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

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

Tables and chairs at Gallery Z in Lowell MA

1960s-inspired cafe space at Gallery Z

Local Business in Lowell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lowell Makes shop

Hot Cocoa

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

Emanuel Boutique in downtown Lowell MA

Emanuel Boutique dressed up for the holiday

Zen Foodist in downtown Lowell MA presenting hot dog

The Zen Foodist braves the weather for his signature hot dogs

Decoration at Persona Lowell MA

Holiday Rocket (?) at Persona Goods

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

Lady at UnchARTed clearly uninterested in hot cocoa

Lamps were fire extinguishers now they light up the place

Awesome upcycled lamps at Gallery Z

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Singing at the holiday marketplace on Merrimack

Gingerbread House

New meaning to “small” business owner!

Float in front of City Hall

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

Big crowd listening to Santa's wise wods

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

Post-Election Lowell

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

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

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

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

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

Lowell’s Vote

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

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

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

Organizing for Lowell

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

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

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

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

What’s Next?

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

Donalt Trump Protesters at Tsongas Center

Trump in Lowell: One Perspective

My fingers are still numb from standing outside the Tsongas Center tonight, and I can’t feel the keys under my fingers. They were exposed to the 15-degree-weather because I was photographing the attendees and protesters at the Donald Trump rally. I’m not going to talk about the politics, although Paul Marion has an interesting piece over at richardhowe.com. Instead, I’ll just describe the scene for those who weren’t there.

Trump Rally attendees in line

Attendees wait in line around Cox Circle to enter the Tsongas Center

The entry line to the arena stretched all the way around the corner to the post office, starting before 5:00 pm. We heard from a police officer that officials expected 9,000 for the venue of about 6,500 seats. A wide variety of people were in line—although not quite reflecting Lowell’s diversity, there were nevertheless young and old, men and women. Along the sidewalk to Cox circle, bundled-up gentlemen sold Trump scarves and buttons.

Many seemed interested only to see the spectacle—one even said to the protesters “I agree with most of you, I just am curious!” Others wore full Trump regalia, with “Make America Great Again” hats decked in rhinestones. Where did they come from? A member of the Lowell Live Feed Facebook group examined Roy Garage, and found a mix of bumper stickers and several plates from other states.

Free Speech Area sign

Free Speech Area sign at Tsongas Center

The police were extraordinarily friendly, directing traffic and wishing everyone a good evening, whether they were heading into the arena or into the “Free Speech Area,” which had been blocked off with police tape. The idea of limiting protesters to a cordoned-off area—away from the sidewalk, behind the Tsongas sign, and on frozen snowy ground—was debated both in the protest and on Facebook. However, all protesters I saw respected the police tape, as organizers started chants with megaphones and reporters took video from the sidewalk.

Like the attendees, protesters were a mix of locals and organizers from Boston and Cambridge. The protest was organized by the local group Community Advocates for Justice and Equality and the Cambridge-based Black Lives Matter and Boston-based ANSWER Coalition. Based on the faces I recognized and UMass Lowell accessories, most protesters were from Lowell—community members, activists, faculty, and students. Paul Marion counted 150 and growing toward 200 at 5:30 pm—by the time I came back with a camera at 6:30 pm, the group had shrunk to about 75, but they were an almost entirely new set of people who came in to relieve others who dropped out because of the cold.

Donalt Trump Protesters at Tsongas Center

Protesters at Rally

Two organizers with medical crosses on their jackets handed out hand warmers and cough drops, and told protesters that Subway was open with bathrooms and a warm space. Many took the advice and ducked into local establishments to warm up before braving the cold again.

Organizers also handed out signs that read “Lowell welcomes refugees,” “Lowell is an immigrant community,” and “Trump is not welcome.” Others had hand-made signs: “Lowell: No Room for Hate,” “Dump Trump” and many, many others. The protesters chanted, “How do you spell racism? T-R-U-M-P,” “Trump is a cancer, the people are the answer,” “Say no to racist fear, refugees are welcome here,” along with classic “This is what democracy looks like!” They also sang “Black Lives Matter,” to show solidarity with those Trump attacks in his rhetoric by adding “Muslim Lives Matter” and “Mexican” and “Women’s Rights.”

Counter-protest

Counter-protest

Things were largely respectful and peaceful between both groups. However, it was shocking to see a couple of folks who shouted “White Power” and “Death to Muslims” at the group—frightening, as there were many Muslim and non white people in the crowd. We also heard a strange counter-chant from a rally-goer: “If refugees look like me, they should come here legally.” (We have a series of posts about refugees here). However, only one counter-protester appeared to stick around with an “All Lives Matter” sign.

Drummer at protest

A drummer kept the beat for the chants

Our night ended with listening to one non white protester describe how she was turned away because of what she looked like and assumed a trouble-maker. Reportedly, several folks interrupted throughout the rally inside the arena with protest. Those wanting to hear more should check out the above-linked Facebook forum or the Lowell Sun, whose reporters supposedly were not allowed to leave until well after the event was over! It may be because of the crowd I follow, but almost everyone I heard describe it on social media called it one of the most bizarre nights they’d experienced in Lowell.

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More than 150 protesters filled the area at one point, with a stream coming to relieve those who had to leave because of cold.

Why I’m Part of Lowell Votes

Last Thursday, Lowell Votes held a “Spaghettin’ Out the Vote” Spaghetti Dinner fundraiser. Seventy or eighty Lowellians came for spaghetti, salad, and dessert and to talk about voting in Lowell. For those who aren’t in the know, Lowell Votes is a non-partisan, grassroots coalition of activists and nonprofits that are seeking to increase the number of people who vote in Lowell. I had the pleasure of speaking before State Representative Rady Mom, the first Cambodian-American to be elected to a state-level office in the United States.

A couple people asked for me to post my remarks. This is a version slightly edited for readability.

People at Dom Polski

Mingling before the dinner (Isaac Chanin)


Hi,

Thank you all for coming. I’m Chris Hayes, a steering committee member and downtown resident. We want to thank Centralville Neighborhood Action Group for co-sponsoring this event and the Dom Polski Club for hosting. We also want to thank our community partners, Coalition for a Better Acre, Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell, and UTEC, for all their support. Finally, I want to thank maybe the most important folks—those who brought the food! Suppa’s pizza donated pizzas  and Steering committee members Felicia Sullivan and Alyssa Faulkner and field coordinator Mary Tauras cooked this amazing meal. Unfortunately, Alyssa couldn’t be here tonight because of a death in the family and our thoughts go out to them. But we want to thank you all!

I wanted to kick off this event by speaking about how I became involved in this group. Aurora Erickson and I had just moved to Lowell about two years ago, right as a local election was heating up. We tried to get informed, but it was tough, even for two people who were used to politics, had access to the internet, and had a lot of time (because frankly we didn’t have much of a social life). We could tell a lot of people were working very hard, putting on candidate forums, making websites, and the City Election office was making sure everyone was registered and knew their polling place. But it seemed like even more needed to be done.

Gerry Nutter, audience

Gerry Nutter introducing Lowell Votes on behalf of CNAG. (Photo by Dick Howe Jr)

So last year, during the state election, we sat at a table outside in front of our mill apartment and registered people. We had no idea what we were doing; we just knew that we needed to make sure everyone filled out the “are you a citizen” question that everyone seems to miss. But we still did pretty well, and registered a couple dozen people. However, I remember one person in particular: a Spanish-speaking man who spoke briefly with us. He spoke a bit of English, and it was nice, but he turned us down and sat near us to wait for his ride. His ride came, they talked in Spanish for a moment, and then, she came up to us and asked for a registration form. She told us he thought he needed to pay money to register to vote.

We knew we needed help. After the elections, we decided to get together with anyone we knew that did this sort of work. We had coffee and cake and talked about what resources are out there… then we decided to meet again. And those friends brought friends, who brought people they knew, and then we all invited a lot of people we didn’t know but knew did good work, and we ended up having nearly fifty people in a room talking about increasing the number of people who vote in Lowell and providing education to everyone about what the City does and who the candidates are.

We all agreed, to do it right, we needed to be nonpartisan, non-issue, and non-candidate. Even though I’m sure I disagreed deeply on many issues with many people in that room, I knew we at least agreed that we wanted more people to vote, whether they’re from the Acre, Centralville, Belvidere, the Upper Highlands, or anywhere in-between.

Lowell map of 2013 voters

2013 Voters as percentage of voting age population per ward/precinct

Because the numbers are staggering: More than 80,000 people are old enough to vote in Lowell, but less than 60,000 are registered. A little more than half of those, 33,000 voted in the 2012 presidential election. But that dropped in the 2013 local election – only 11,500 voted. That’s not much more than one in eight people old enough to vote going out and doing so.

Why is that a problem? To answer that, we started reading studies. People who vote actually report feeling more in control of their lives and healthier as a result. Kids who went to juvenile, didn’t go back to jail as often if they started voting. Communities that formed strong ties through civic engagement and voting were quicker to recover from the recession. But even more importantly, I think we cannot be a healthy society if only one in eight people vote. The hard-working women and men in our City Council and School Committee make decisions for all of us, and I don’t feel right if my neighbor doesn’t have a say in that.

Some may ask “Isn’t it her choice not to vote?” There are a hundred reasons why she might not feel empowered. She’s too busy with two jobs and two kids to go to a candidate forum. He speaks another language, and isn’t in a social group that talks about voting much. Her family doesn’t vote, and she’s never been asked by anyone to even think about it. He can’t get a ride and doesn’t know about absentee ballots. She moves around a lot, so candidates never find her to ask for her vote when they’re campaigning.

Chris Hayes in front of audience

Me delivering remarks (Photo by Isaac Chanin)

In addition, we hear about voting constantly when a new president is going to be elected, but a local election may pass us by without us ever noticing it if we aren’t on Facebook, or listen to the local radio, or read the local paper, or talk to the right people. And so it might be a choice not to vote, but for a lot of people, the deck is stacked against that choice.

So Lowell Votes is tabling at local events, at the Farm Market, at National Night Out, and at neighborhood festivals. We’re putting up a website, asking people what issues are important to them, then sending out a survey to the candidates. We’re letting people know about the services the Election Office offers and that neighborhood groups offer. We’re organizing canvassing days where volunteers go door-to-door in all the neighborhoods and ask that question: Would you vote in the upcoming election?

We know studies show that asking someone is the most effective way to get them to vote. And that’s why I think what we’re doing is important. We’re going to the new residents who don’t have a friend in Lowell yet; we’re going to the man who speaks only a little English and doesn’t know voting is free; we’re going to the woman who doesn’t even know we have a local paper but cares about whether we make a choice to fix a street, fix a school, plant a tree, or lower taxes. And we’re saying to them: your voice matters to us – we want to hear it.

Rady Mom in front of Audience

State Rep. Rady Mom delivering remarks (Isaac Chanin)

I’m not speaking for all of Lowell Votes tonight, because I know each one of us comes with a different concern in our heart. Some of us are most concerned about making civic education more accessible, others may be most concerned about the language barriers, others might hope future generations are inspired to run for City Council or US Representative or even President. However, we’re a coalition that agrees that we need to help more people to vote in Lowell, with a special emphasis on those who face barriers; and that the best way to do that is through a lot of hard work and one-on-one conversations.

We know we won’t reach our goals overnight, or even in this election. This is why we’re hoping to stay in for the long haul, to get people talking, inspire them to start doing research on their own, listen to the radio or read the paper, and talk with their friends about how we can continue shaping our community together. Thank you so much for coming tonight and helping us do that. I’d like to introduce our new field coordinator Mary Tauras now, to talk more about our canvassing efforts and how you can be involved.

Following photos by Isaac Chanin:

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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.

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.

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.

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