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.

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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

Leo Roy Garage, Image: Google maps

Downtown Overnight Parking Ban: A Bit of History, a Few Thoughts

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 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.

The City Council meeting next week looks as if it will be very interesting. There’s a motion to have the Education Partnerships Subcommittee and the Lowell School Committee discuss the process for a high school building project, which we plan to discuss soon. There’s a vote to accept Decatur Alley, which we discussed in our recent post about the Acre. Additionally, there’s a vote to formalize an agreement in which the City provides parking spots for WCAP and receives advertising in return and a report about the City’s investments relating to fossil fuels.

However, the most controversial item may be a motion by Councilor Belanger:

Request City Manager enforce current parking regulations according to ordinance and investigate the possibility of an overnight parking ban.

A Bit of Recent History

The issue of downtown parking was elevated around March 2014, when the Parking Department posted for two new positions that would end at 6:00 pm. It’s somewhat common knowledge that meters are almost never enforced after 4:00 pm or on Saturday, despite §266-93 of the City Code establishing enforcement hours as 8:00 am to 6:00 pm all days except Sunday. After the new positions were posted, Councilor Belanger added a parking discussion to the March 28 economic Developmenpment subcomittee, saying that he had been “inundated with businesses and residents in fear” that the meters would be enforced until 6:00.

James Troup, Lowell’s Director of Parking, stated that the new officers were only to enforce resident-only parking in neighborhoods, not downtown meters. However, Mr. Troup and Michael Geary, the Acting City Manager, took the opportunity to recommend “rebranding” the Parking Department and hiring a consultant to study downtown parking with money from the Parking Enterprise Fund (the revenues from garages and meters).[1] The study’s goal would be adjusting parking rates to encourage turnover of on-street parking near restaurants and encourage longer-term parkers such as residents and employees to use garages.

Although Councilors Belanger and Kennedy voiced concern that business would be harmed if parking meters were enforced until 6:00[2] and the owner of a downtown fitness center gathered signatures from over 50 businesses and 300 residents against increased enforcement[3], the Subcommittee unanimously supported using parking funds to complete a comprehensive parking study, possibly by adding to the existing consultant contract involving the two-way conversion.

However, the study was never completed. In a subcommittee meeting on April 29, Mr. Troup discussed scope and costs. He explained the consultant, Nelson/Nygaard, quoted a $36,000 price for a scope including a city-wide analysis of the ordinances, space information, rates, and stakeholder interviews. If the scope were limited to downtown, the city surveyed parking spots after-hours for 2-3 days in-house, and Nelson/Nygaard only reviewed the ordinance, analyzed the data, and made recommendations, the study would cost only $12,000.[4] The study could suggest whether to enforce extra hours, evaluate a tiered pricing scheme, estimate revenue and cost, or answer other questions. Mr. Troup asked the subcommittee to define the geographic boundaries of the study and frame the study questions.

Councilor Kennedy asked what the consultant could tell them that was worth $12,000, and the subcommittee seemed to share the opinion that the Parking Department could handle the issue in-house.[5] Councilor Belanger also continued to stress his opposition to enforcing after 4:00 pm. Additionally, many members of the public spoke, with suggestions to sell passcards to businesses to encourage employees to park in garages and to offer the first hour or half-hour free in garages. Others wrote councilors with suggestions.[6]

Mr. Troup suggested the analysis would be valuable because it would be independent, not taking the side of the Parking Department, businesses, or residents. He stated his belief that it would allow an expert in field to draw comparisons to comparable cities and provide actual usage statistics, dispelling arguments against metered parking. Despite this, the Subcommittee suggested they didn’t have the authority to authorize a consultant study and would continue the discussion in May.

However, the next time I saw the issue discussed was late September, when the City Manager outlined the issue as a priority during the Downtown Business Summit. Additionally, an article in the Globe prompted a vibrant discussion on Facebook about parking policy and garages with no vacancy during the day. Most notably, Jeff Speck, the Urban Planner who led Lowell’s Downtown Evolution plan, made parking a major topic in an address to the Lowell Plan Breakfast. Speck advocated for a market-based solution, making prime parking spots expensive to reduce demand and using the funds to improve the streetscape.

After this, on November 4, Councilor Belanger brought the issue to the Economic Development subcommittee again, saying his motion stemmed from Mr. Speck’s presentation and a lengthy meeting he had with Mr. Troup and Deputy Director of Planning Kevin Coughlin. He had begun to believe extending hours into the evening and on Saturdays would encourage turnover. Mr. Troup had spent the time studying other towns,[7] and found most cities enforced Monday through Saturday, many later in the evening than Lowell. Salem had a tiered structure, although most towns seem to undercharge for on-street parking and overcharge for garage parking. He suggested doing outreach to key stakeholders in all neighborhoods to customize solutions for each neighborhood, similar to how the City discussed the Father Morissette spaces with UMass Lowell. He also discussed a study the Parking staff undertook, noting a lower turnover rate during unenforced hours, with many cars parked in one spot for the entire weekend.

This is when Councilor Kennedy suggested banning overnight parking rather than enforcing on Saturday, citing Brookline and Nashua as having similar ordinances. His reasoning was that if long-term resident parking was the problem, this was the most targeted solution. Councilor Rourke mentioned that an overnight ban would make it easier to sweep streets and plow snow. Mr. Troup agreed that this was worth considering as “one piece of the puzzle.”

Other ideas briefly discussed included allowing advertising on garages and kiosks; putting premium pricing on Market, Middle, and Central street parking spaces; improving lighting in garages; and lower weekend garage rates. Mr. Troup discussed having enforcement officers act as customer service ambassadors, directing people to garages for a short period. However, the only idea besides the ban or increasing enforcement to receive a great deal of attention was suggested by two members of the public: enforcing a two-hour limit but not charging during weekends. The subcommittee seemed to agree that this should be considered.

Councilor Belanger stated that he would look into convening a hearing to discuss parking with business owners and residents with a goal of changing policy starting January 2015, as the subcommittee agreed that a sudden, unannounced change would be harmful to business and more time was necessary to evaluate the data.[8] However, I am unaware of outreach that occurred after that meeting, which brings us to the motion next Tuesday.

So, Should we Ban Overnight Parking?

I’m not a parking expert, although there are such people who work in the field. Although there are trends and best practices, every city is different, and prices need to be tweaked to meet city’s individual goals. This is why I supported the idea of a consultant assisting the Parking Department: they can analyze the numbers to come up with ideal prices and give direction on how to tweak the meter and garage costs up and down until about 15% of parking spaces on each block are available, the rule-of-thumb goal that lets people find quick, convenient spaces.

I also don’t want to repeat what many others have said. Corey Sciuto wrote a well-written letter detailing goals and suggestions in March, and I certainly can’t be more compelling that Jeff Speck. With those caveats, I thought I’d share some thoughts. Many of the examples I use are from the 2009 Planning Advisory Service report “Parking Solutions”.

First off, the amount of revenue collected during non-enforced hours admittedly surprised me. According to the Parking Department, not counting fines for tickets, the meters make about $450 a day during unenforced hours out of a citywide daily total of $2,250. 5% of the revenue is made after 8:00 pm, even though all the kiosks clearly state enforcement ends at 6:00.[9] However, Mr. Troup estimated from their May study that unpaid fares during unenforced hours still could add up to $250,000 annually.

Enforced hours, $659,000, 80% ; Unenforced hours until 8 pm, $122,850, 15% ; After 8 pm, $41,150, 5%

Councilor Kennedy stated the high amount already collected during unenforced hours was a primary reason he thought additional enforcement might not be necessary: besides the residents who park in one spot all day, it appears others are still feeding the meters at nearly the rate of enforced hours. If it’s only the residents who are the problem, overnight parking could be banned. If residents were forced to move their car at 2 or 4 am, they probably wouldn’t park on the street at all.

Although this would make it difficult for residents’ guests to park anywhere but garages, it is likely not a problem. Other cities, such as Brookline, sell guest passes to residents that allow their guests to stay in otherwise banned areas for one night. Nashua’s residents may request a one-night waiver from their overnight ban.

However, Donald Shoup, considered by planners to be the preeminent expert in parking policy, argues that effective pricing is a better control than time limits. A low price could be placed on overnight parkers, making a garage a better option for most, but still providing revenue that could go toward paying enforcement officers, improving the streetscape, or improving transit. This wouldn’t make plowing easier, but it would utilize spaces that would otherwise be wasted all night. It would also ensure there’s less incentive to drive home intoxicated, although it is unclear if parking policy makes much impact on that problem.

Are those advantages worth moving away from the simplicity of an overnight ban? Have bans been successful in other communities, and why are they only occasionally used? That’s something I would want to study more before making any quick decisions. Although a trial period may be a good middle-ground solution, what would be the cost of possibly-temporary signage?

Other Issues in Parking

Many suggested that uncharged two-hour enforcement would keep up turnover but portray a “customer friendly” atmosphere. Again, Shoup would probably argue for pricing instead. Having only a two-hour restriction is problematic because employees often simply move their car every two hours, which does not solve the problem of moving employees off the streets and into garages entirely. It also can’t be fine-tuned to maintain the 15% vacancy block-by-block. That 15% could mean the difference between someone stopping in to get a quick coffee at Brew’d vs. deciding to just drive to Dunkin’ Donuts.

By contrast, Old Pasadena, California, tried to tackle the problem by charging more for street parking, and although the plan was initially opposed by businesses, opposition eased when the city dedicated all revenues to improving the downtown streetscape. Aspen made a similar move, but allowed one “free” parking violation to all motorists in a city with many visitors who may not be familiar with downtown parking.

Notably, it’s problematic that we’re talking about parking in a vacuum. Donald Shoup estimates that demand can be reduced 10-30% by providing shuttles to remote parking, 10-30% by increasing pricing, 5-15% with information and marketing, and 5-15% by providing improved bicycle and pedestrian facilities, among other methods. Although comprehensive “perfect” should not be the enemy of improvement, I haven’t heard much concurrent discussion about other factors influencing parking.

However, it may be difficult to have these discussions due to a dearth of data. Mr. Troup’s efforts are commendable and helpful, but a public report of on and off-street use at different periods of the day could be very valuable in moving the public conversation forward. Although he’s given an excellent picture of revenues, I still am unclear on whether any particular block is 100% utilized during a Saturday, 95% on a weeknight, or so forth.

I’ve heard some complain that downtown parking garages fill during the day, and this problem does not seem to be discussed much. Once again, data could be used to determine if this is true and who is filling the garage. Promising solutions include providing discounts for vehicles for more than one occupant during the day to encourage carpooling, encouraging businesses that buy spots in the garages to offer incentives for employees to take transit or walk, and working with private residential lot owners to possibly share lots during the day.

The argument has at least thankfully shifted away from making all parking free. It’s a common argument that to compete against suburban malls with free parking, downtowns must also be free. From around the Lowell internet:

One major thing is missing in downtown Lowell that is crucial to businesses surviving….parking……and free parking. And many on street spaces were eliminated when the 2 way traffic began.

A scam in the worst way. I live downtown. I have to pay the meters every morning if my car is to remain there. I also have to move it every two hours to another meter.

The streets are public ways. I actually think that if parking is allowed at all it should be free.

Counter-arguments often appear:

“Free” parking? Not this zombie idea again… Lowell is a city, not a suburban shopping mall.

Most people who say they won’t pay $.50 or a dollar to park for an hour or so are either lying or too price sensitive to pay the premium of parking in a downtown anyhow.

I would be happy to see trolley service expanded or some kind of street car service that would make getting around the city easier for folks like us, who sometimes have leg problems that interferes with mobility, Parking nearby is important to us. If we knew there was a way to park one place but have availability of transport if needed to zip around we would go more often.

I tend to agree. If a downtown tries to compete on a suburban mall’s terms, it will lose. They have cheap, plentiful space for parking and many lanes of traffic. The downtown must play to its advantages: authenticity, a mix of uses tightly woven together, enough density to support transit, and public space that can be activated in creative ways. Adding enough space to offer free parking without quickly running out destroys many of those advantages but still will not make the downtown as convenient as a shopping mall. Those with mobility impairments need options as well.

That said, I think care must always be taken. Psychology plays an important role and people don’t like change. I think anyone arguing for pricing parking must take that into consideration as well. I believe this post only scratches the surface of parking in Lowell, and I hope to talk to a few folks and do a follow-up soon. Until then, please feel free to discuss your own experiences parking in Lowell!

Notes

[1] Mr. Geary mentioned the previous Director of Planning and Development, Adam Baacke, left a memo recommending using a consultant to complete a parking study and laying out the steps to complete it.

[2] Councilor Belanger suggested a belief that enforcement was targeted to generate revenue and Councilor Kennedy suggesting providing the first two hours of on-street parking free to support local businesses. Councilor Kennedy also suggested giving meter officers leeway in deciding whether to issue a ticket. Mr. Troup reported that the staff of three meter officers respond to police requests, but most often go along routes established long ago on a six-week cycle concentrating on downtown. However, he stated, “if I gave them that leeway, I think that there would be complete chaos on the streets,” but mentions that people may appeal tickets when there are mitigating circumstances.

[3] Karen Bell, owner of the Club Fitness Center, said business owners told her they were “fine with daytime enforcement. They’ve lost their lunch crowd anyway. But you hit them at 4:30, that’s when they start getting their reservations.” She argued that businesses aren’t fighting for parking because Lowell is not yet a destination city, but rather, they’re fighting their potential customers’ worries that they will be ticketed. However, she supported enforcement until 4:00 pm, citing Chantilly Place leaving downtown because a lack of parking and other businesses competing with courthouse users who stay in a parking spot all day. Dick Howe has a good rundown of that meeting, with the councilors’ arguments and rebuttals from commenters.

[4] Plus a small amount of Parking Department staff overtime.

[5] Councilors Mercier and Milinazzo attended the meeting, although not part of the economic development subcommittee. Councilors Belanger and Mercier suggested that talking to business owners and residents should be the priority, and all reiterated the goal was to encourage turnover rather than growing revenue. Councilor Mercier stated, “I appreciate you’re going to have a professional look at it, but a professional isn’t the downtown businesses.” Councilor Milinazzo asked whether the minimum transaction for credit cards could be lower than 2.00, but Mr. Troup said that it was necessary to cover the transaction fee.

[6] Other public comment included a question about parking meters outside the immediate downtown and about Lowell Transitional Living Center volunteers receiving parking tickets.

[7] Mr. Troup utilized the New England Parking Council to talk to other parking directors and study initiatives from other towns.

[8] The minutes to that meeting are here.

[9] This is derived from Mr. Troup’s projected annual meter revenue of $164,000 during unenforced hours and $827,000 total divided by 365.

How Lowell Welcomes Refugees: The International Institute

This is the third in a series of posts about immigrants and refugees in Lowell. The first explored the economic impact of refugees, and the second was an interview with two Iraqi immigrants about their experiences and impressions of Lowell. We’ve learned that studies show that refugees are a long-term tax benefit for most communities, but they face special challenges when first arriving. For our third post, Aurora and I talked to Derek Mitchell at the International Institute of Lowell about their services and challenges. Although we know they help refugees, we think not many people actually know the broad range of ways they help—and why they’re always looking for volunteers!

Derek Mitchell

As we entered the International Institute of New England Lowell office,[1] Aurora and I marveled at the activity around every corner. This was a true mosaic of races, ages, backgrounds, and genders; a microcosm reflecting the brilliant diversity of Lowell. We were visiting the Institute to speak with Derek Mitchell, the site director for the International Institute of New England’s Lowell office. Readers may remember Derek Mitchell from his 2013 run for Lowell City Council, but he is busy every day coordinating IIL resettlement activities.

As we discussed in our first post, the United Nations Refugee Agency essentially defines refugees as those who have fled their country for fear of racial, religious, ethnic, or political persecution, or for fear of war or violence. The UN counted 10.4 million of these registered refugees in camps, shelters, and urban areas, not including 4.8 million living in camps in the middle east or the about 28.8 million who have been displaced, but have not crossed an international border.

Of the 10.4 million registered refugees, only about 1% are resettled annually, 0.5% in the United States. The US Bureau of Population, Migration, and Refugees has cooperative agreements with organizations like the International Institute, providing funding for basic resettlement services. Although over 50% of the Institute’s operational budget comes from this contract, the ESL program, youth program, and other programs are reliant on private funding. This is by design: the federal government wants to locate refugees only in welcoming communities, and organizations like International Institute must create that community buy-in to raise private capital and in-kind donations, such as furniture from the Wish project.

Mr. Mitchell greeted us warmly and gave us a tour of the office. In each room, he introduced us to staff such as Yusuf, who was once a refugee himself. Everyone is working with clients or at computers, framed by large windows opening into views of downtown Lowell. In one room, preschoolers danced around a twirling, brightly-colored parachute. Another room had a bank of computers for volunteers. Nothing was extravagant, but everything was both comfortable and professional. As we walked, Mr. Mitchell spoke quickly, as if there was so much to say in so little time.

Challenges for Refugees

He explained that the International Institute primarily works with refugees in their first two to three months in the United States. Currently, most are coming from Burma, the Congo, Iraq, Somalia and Bhutan, after spending time in camps overseas. Those from Iraq or its nearby countries often carry special challenges: professional-level skills with no US credentials or certification. Finally, some clients are asylum-seekers: they have found their way to the United States and applied through the federal government for asylum. Some of these were victims of sex trade.

Jit Magar, left, fills out a citizenship application with help from volunteer Jaime Serrato at the International Institute in Lowell.

An International Institute of Lowell volunteer helps an immigrant with citizenship application. (Image: Greater Boston Citizenship Initiative)

The Institute is alerted to a new refugee sometimes only a week before they arrive, then they jump into action to arrange and set up permanent housing. They help with other necessities for the client, such as applying for a social security card, setting up school for children, and connecting with other services. Perhaps just as or more importantly, the Institute must acclimate the client to life in the United States. We discussed some of the challenges with the International Institute staff. Some clients haven’t used money in years because of life in camps, most do not speak English, most likely have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the trauma they experienced in their former homes.

Volunteers: Two-Way, Reciprocal Benefits

We then met with Dahvy, IIL’s youth and volunteer coordinator. Dahvy also helped run the Southeast Asian Water Festival. As children sang “Eensy Weensy Spider” from another room, she explained that the Institute is constantly looking for volunteers that can be on-call to help prior to and during a family’s arrival. Volunteers not only help with setting up with an apartment, but also help clients understand the insider knowledge Lowellians take for granted: How to use crosswalks, how to get around on the bus, and where to access resources such as the library or City Hall. Even skilled refugees may need local knowledge. A trained engineer may have never written a check; a skilled doctor may not know how to address envelopes for the US Postal Service.

However, everyone stressed that it wasn’t just about teaching clients. It was about creating community. In the first weeks, clients can meet so many more people than just staff if they interact with volunteers. Volunteers often seek community themselves, and find it with IIL clients. In addition, Mr. Mitchell explained the importance of “cultural exchange:”

We recognize that the volunteer thing is not just a supplement to our service model, but it’s a wonderful relationship builder with our clients, and there’s more people out on the street that understand who our clients are, and can advocate for them, and raise awareness. -Derek Mitchell

The numbers reflect volunteers’ importance: there’s between two and three volunteers for every one staff member. Mr. Mitchell said that this “is great, but presents some real challenges as well.” Recognizing the importance of volunteers, the Institute has tried to create a volunteer program that isn’t “one size fits all.” This means there’s a great diversity of volunteers: for example, twenty-year olds who do many tasks, mid-career women who have only one free hour a week, and retired people with a lot of time but limits to what they can or want to do.

“We Want to do More”

The Institute’s ultimate goal is for clients to become self-sufficient. This is how the Bureau of Population, Migration, and Refugees measures success. Mr. Mitchell believes that staying busy is the best way to process change and that if a client is unable to work, it gives him or her too much time to “think about things.”

However, the singular measure of “on or off benefits” as success makes him uncomfortable. He wishes the organization could be available for years after resettlement, as figuring out utility bills, insurance, and even building community are long-term tasks that are complex but vital for success. The clients agree, as Mr. Mitchell related:

We want to do more. We want to do a lot more, and I think our clients need more, and want us to do more. I think they get frustrated with us that we don’t do more…

In fact, one area where Mr. Mitchell especially wishes more could be done is in the area of mental health. He says that there are so many logistics and moving parts, it’s nearly impossible to get to “How are you feeling?” and “What do you need as a family to feel secure?” Mr. Mitchell recounted one story in which a client reported seeing someone two blocks from his house jumped and hearing gunshots. Even if the violence isn’t targeted at the clients—and it largely hasn’t been—it can be a trigger for PTSD or make a family feel unsafe.

These challenges are compounded by what Mr. Mitchell identified as a critical difference between refugees and immigrants: immigrants choose to be in the US. He spent some time in Central America, and he saw first-hand that those who left to find work in Honduras or America were entrepreneurial, risk-takers, and industrious. Those who stayed were older or had family commitments. However, refugees have no such self-selection and come with only “the clothes on their back.”

The Resilience Shows Through: Amazing Successes

Burmese children and adults playing tug-of-war

2012 Back to School party organized by Burmese SayDaNar Community Center. Image: Room 50, Jen Myers

Regardless, Mr. Mitchell has observed amazing success. Around 100 people have been successfully placed at Southwick in Haverhill, doing highly-skilled stitching for high-end clothing. The company has created job training programs for the refugees. Others are employed in medical technology or other high-skill fields. However, others opt for service jobs. An individual from Iraq took a job at Hoeffner’s because it was stable, despite being wildly overqualified. Many work at Lowe’s.

Mr. Mitchell explained that they endeavor to partner with a variety of employers, because it is difficult to predict what will be the right fit for a new refugee. They are always looking to expand their partnerships, as many employers do not understand that a new refugee has work certification and may even have specialized skills, but will not have references or a work history and may have language difficulties.

Mr. Mitchell credited the refugees for their own success, noting that whatever difficulties they face in the United States, it pales in comparison to the suffering they have fled:

Whether it kicks in at week six or month six, their resilience shows through. -Derek Mitchell

Their success has not stopped at employment. In only a few short years, many refugees have built community structures. For example, recently, a Bhutanese elder passed away. The entire community came together to cooperatively fund their funeral. However, not every community has come together as strongly, and this is where Mr. Mitchell sees opportunity: “These communities need conflict resolution, space to meet, leadership structure support, help each other. I’d love to do that work to support them create structure.” Currently, this is something the organization does informally.

Part of the need for community building—both within the refugee groups and between them—lies in another difference between immigrants and refugees. While immigrants often have friends or family in their new communities, refugees only rarely do. This is problematic, because social networks are a primary way people get jobs—most jobs are in fact never posted. This ties back into the importance of volunteers. Through them, newcomers meet a far greater circle of potential allies and get plugged into new social networks.

Lowell doesn’t have a monopoly on refugee resettlement. Although the refugee program remains a primarily humanitarian effort, there are economic benefits as well, and cities across the nation work to accept these newcomers. Mr. Mitchell explained why Lowell remains a resettlement community: for the same reason immigrants continue to come. Not only does the region continue to perform relatively well economically, but Lowell also has a history of accepting different cultures, and people “feel comfortable walking around seeing a level of diversity,” in Mr. Mitchell’s words. The International Institute tries to foster this:

We’re trying to play our part of building this ecosystem in hopes that other people will come back and say, “Yeah, we want to help out, we recognize the value of these individuals in our community and want to be involved in being a very positive resettlement.” Because those first couple months and those first couple years are pivotally important in setting somebody up on a track of success and integration vs. isolation and reliance and benefits and multigenerational poverty.

What’s Next: Raising Awareness, Building Partnerships

We asked if Lowell could improve, and Mr. Mitchell took a moment to think before responding. Social service providers always need more translators. If there’s only ten families speaking a certain language, a social service provider has a hard time justifying finding a translator for them. In addition, landlords could better understand the challenges refugees face: although they usually are stable tenants, they have no credit histories or current employment.

He also said the International Institute had only “scraped the surface” in terms of partnerships. They work closely with the school district and Lowell Community Health Center, and moved into the same building as Community Teamwork, Inc to more closely collaborate with them—although they are still working on an integrated handoff process. They also successfully partnered with the Greater Boston Citizenship Initiative to assist refugees and others apply for citizenship—something Mr. Mitchell was excited to talk about.

Exhibit at Mill Girls and Immigrants Exhibit

A new exhibit at Lowell National Historical Park’s Mogan Cultural Center, features the previously untold stories of youth who came to Lowell as teenage refugees. Image: NPS

In addition, the International Institute is cooperating with Lowell National Historical Park. They’re updating the Tsongas Industrial History Center to include information about recent refugee and immigrant groups, and the Park is looking for ways to engage newcomers and to let them know they’re part of a tradition starting with the Irish and continuing today.

However, Mr. Mitchell is always conscious of messaging. For every citizen—whether it be in Lowell or elsewhere—that makes a connection between his or her heritage and the story of a newcomer, there may be another that doesn’t understand the value of newcomers. Mr. Mitchell was familiar with the story we summarized in our first post: one politician in Manchester used the resettlement agency there as a wedge issue, using immigration statistics to attack refugees. If refugees become a similar national wedge issue, the resettlement program may prove to be fragile. Despite its importance, its low profile earns it relatively few champions.

Regardless, challenges keep coming, keeping the Institute very busy. Just as the number of refugees from Burma and Bhutan decline as the camps are cleared, the International Institute is preparing for an influx of Congolese to be resettled in Lowell. This group will present different language, religion, food, and living arrangement needs. Mr. Mitchell also solemnly told us the group’s trauma will be “direct and severe” rather than indirect:

We’ve been told to expect that 100% of women/girls will have been raped or sexually mutilated. Not like, “A high percent.” Like, “Expect every single one of them.”

The International Institute is offering trainings to the schools, social service providers, and others on what to expect with this new population, explaining what trauma means and what it looks like. It doesn’t mean that there’s going to be a terrible burden placed on the community, just that service providers need to be aware and alert. I personally believe each group has come with its own form of trauma, and each group has overcome that trauma to become a vibrant part of Lowell.

We discussed a number of other issues, notably the largest group of refugees in Lowell: Southeast Asians. However, those issues may be tackled in a future post. In addition, the International Institute accepts donations of money and goods. Mr. Mitchell said that pots and pans are especially hard to come by.

For more information, visit http://iine.us/donate/

Notes

[1] This interview took place before the International Institute moved to its new location on Warren Street.

The 2015 Downtown Vacancy Report

By Friday of each week, the City of Lowell uploads the agenda and packet of information for the following Tuesday’s City Council meeting. The packets make interesting reading—they include reports that the city council requests, petitions for permits only the council can grant, and the minutes of the previous meeting. They can be found going here: http://agenda-suite.com:8080/agenda/cityoflowell/Meeting.html and clicking on the book icon to the right of the appropriate meeting.

Why do I mention this? 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. I thought I might make a semi-regular post about items I find interesting in each week’s packet, partly to encourage me to keep up with city politics and send a message to the Council when I feel so moved.

This week’s votes seem fairly routine: A vote to accept a donation to the library, a vote to approve a sign for a new restaurant, and a vote to instruct the City Manager to “inquire as to whether LTC can broadcast Lowell Historic Board meetings.” However, there are two interesting reports about downtown in the packet: a report about concerns the Lowell Commission on Disability brought up in a November meeting, and a report about downtown vacancies. I hope to write about the Disability Commission in a future post, but would like to focus on the downtown vacancies today.

Downtown Vacancies: Is it Getting Better or Worse?

A little more than a year ago, the former City Manager presented a report about downtown retail vacancies. We discussed that report, the high school location, and what an ideal downtown use mix might look like in “Downtown Lowell, Downtown High School.”

A month ago, Councilors Kennedy and Leahy made a motion for a new report, which is in this week’s packet. Here’s a quick table of the two years, side-by-side:

Commercial Space in Downtown District

Dec 2013 Jan 2015*
Total Square Feet, Ground Floor 828,726 805,699
Total Square Feet, Upper-Story 1,876,762 1,070,984
Vacancy, Ground Floor 8.6% 70,831 10.3% 82,987
Vacancy, Upper-Story Unknown Unknown 19.6% 209,913

*Total values derived from vacancy percent for 2015

The first thing I noticed is the drop in total commercial space. I’m not sure if this represents a smaller study area or a shrinking amount of commercial space (due to conversion to residential or demolition). Even with that shrinking of space, the amount of ground-floor vacancy has increased. I urge readers not to make too much of this: these are two snapshots in time, and a change of 20,000 square feet could represent only two or three storefronts. If a 10,000 square foot business closes or opens, it affects the vacancy rate by more than a percent.

A quarterly series of these reports to spot trends over time may be more valuable. In fact, the councilors suggested periodic reports. However, as I mentioned in last year’s post, while ground-floor vacancies can often be spotted with a simple drive-by survey, keeping track of upper-story vacancies is often a more laborious process involving keeping in touch with downtown landlords.

Downtown Lowell Ground-Floor Occupancy, Jan 2015, City of Lowell DPD, from City Council Packet

Map of downtown properties, Lowell City DPD

Are these good or bad numbers?

Downtown retail vacancy rates below 20% are considered appropriate and the national average (including both downtowns and shopping centers) is 10%. A stretch goal might be reducing vacancies to 6.5%: This is considered a “tight” market and is close to rates in Burlington, VT or Cambridge. This would mean filling 30,000 square feet. Another goal, having restaurants, shops, or other businesses and organizations that bring “eyes to the street,” creating a healthier downtown, could make up a post of its own.

A healthy upper-story vacancy rate is also difficult to define. The 19.6% downtown upper-story vacancy rate is worse than Greater Lowell’s office vacancy rate as a whole, which was 13.8% in early 2014. However, the numbers aren’t comparable. Historic building office spaces being more difficult to fill because of small floorplates, lack of dedicated parking, and old infrastructure. In addition, many spaces in downtown require significant renovation. With that in mind, for comparison, Reis reports that the national US office vacancy rate was 16.7% in the last quarter of 2014. Both Worcester’s and Springfield’s vacancy rates were lower, at 18% and 13% respectively, but this was for their whole metro area, suburbs included.

What about individual properties?

The most interesting piece of both the 2013 and the current reports is the map and table of prominent vacant properties. I’ve made a table with an edited version of what each report mentioned about vacant properties.

Name 2013 2015
151 Merrimack Street – UML Bookstore A group of private and institutional partners is… exploring the possibility of retail incubator… Future home of Lowell’s School Department Family Resource Center.
107 Merrimack Street – Chantilly Place The property owner has had many inquiries but several have been for service-oriented businesses, which may not be the highest and best use of this prime retail location. The property owner has had many inquiries but several have been for service-oriented businesses, which may not be the highest and best use of this prime retail location.
61 Merrimack Street – Union National Bank The building was condemned by the Fire Department and Development Services due to work being done without permits. Space currently being rehabilitated for restaurant use.
2 Merrimack Street – Sun Tower Building Currently occupied by the contractors undertaking work on the building. Not listed in 2015, but was only recently vacated by contractors.
104 Merrimack Street – Mill City Tobacco The property owner is in discussion with a potential tenant. Not listed in 2015, as the tenant – Mill City Tobacco – moved in.
110 Merrimack Street – Ask Clothing A sporting apparel/upscale sneaker shop in considering going into this place. Not listed in 2015, as the tenant – AWOL – moved in.
201 Market Street – King Star Café The property owner is addressing residual issues with the previous tenant… DPD has been working with the property owner and has sent this listing to several inquiries…
43 Market Street – Moe’s Trading Post General feedback is that “the sale price is too high and not realistic considering the building’s poor condition.” The new owner is currently cleaning the building and doing interior renovation. The owner plans on operating a restaurant on the ground floor…
30 Central Street – Sal’s Pizza DPD has communicated with the property owner to identify resuse options and offered assistance. This space is available for lease.
166-174 Central Street – Bank Building The building was recently purchased and is being rehabbed by the new owner. He is considering a mix of uses… The building is currently being rehabilitated as an adult daycare facility.
295 Central Street – United Restaurant Equipment The owner of the building… has received several inquiries but he’s been very selective since the building will need substantial rehab. Currently available for lease/sale.
313 Central Street This building is for sale… Not listed in 2015, but I see it listed for sale for $120,000.
125 Church Street – Battambang Market The property owner and their broker are working aggressively to identify suitable tenants, with a particular preference for a grocery user. Not listed in 2015, as the V Mart International Market moved in.

Comparing 2013 with 2015 shows a lot of progress, so where are the new vacancies coming from? The newly vacated properties are 40 Church Street, Delicias Bakery/La Pastiche, La Boniche, Mambo Grill, Welles Emporium, Giovanni’s Trends, Babylon Restaurant, TableTop Arena, Pure Fro Yo, Ray Robinson’s, Downtown Dancewear, RiHa Computer, and Cravings.

Some of these were real losses to Aurora and I. One of our favorite downtown restaurants was Babylon, we loved La Pastiche, and we sadly never had a chance to visit Ray Robinson’s. Each of these new vacancies has a story: some closed due to death or retirement, others due to low sales, others due to staff problems. A survey of the reason for each would be an interesting study.

Of these, La Boniche, Mambo Grill, Giovanni’s Trends, and TableTop Arena have prospective Tenants. Notably, Bishop’s Legacy Restaurant is confirmed to move into the La Boniche building. Also of note is that the owner of the former Lowell Sun Press Room – the large building on Prescott Street – is working with a prospective micro-brewery tenant, which could be an interesting use for a very large space. The upstairs floors would potentially become market-rate residences.

Former Lowell Sun building

Former Lowell Sun printing building, future microbrewery and apartments?

What about the upper stories?

The 2015 report has a property-by-property summary of upper stories as well. There are many interesting developments listed: United Teen Equality Center (UTEC) is looking to renovate 27 Prescott Street, which it recently purchased. The owner of 100 Merrimack Street renovated their property to include shared-amenity small office suites to attract entrepreneurs. As mentioned before, the owner of the Sun Printing building on Prescott is working with DPD to convert its upper stories to market-rate apartments.

Conversion to apartments is often more profitable than office buildings. Because of a trend of businesses using less space while people live in larger spaces, the demand for apartments in central business districts is usually high. However, a healthy downtown needs both offices and apartments: too many apartments, and there is no lunch crowd and few people walking on the streets during the day. This may be compounded by long commutes professionals may take to other cities, meaning they aren’t home until well into the evening. On the flip side, a non-vacant apartment is almost always better than a vacant office.

What does the Department of Planning and Development do?

Inherent in asking for a report is the question of how the city can improve its vacancy rates. The 2013 report included a good list of activities the City’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) undertakes. This includes (paraphrased):

  • Maintaining an inventory of vacancies to market to prospective tenants
  • Communicate with property owners and brokers and offer to help outreach to prospective tenants, including visiting other city centers and cold-calling desired businesses such as an independent bookstore
  • Work with people interested in starting a business to help them develop their business idea, including working with the Merrimack Valley Small Business Center
  • Work with several organizations to offer financing and microloans
  • Offer ways to improve vacant storefronts, from window displays to pop-up stores

The DPD also offer a Best Retail Practices program to offer businesses with techniques and grant assistance, a Community Marketing Grant program for collaborative marketing, and does additional marketing for the downtown and its businesses through social media and other methods. City staff also attend neighborhood meetings and supports privately led initiatives. The report concluded with future activities, following up on council recommendations. These included a best retail practices type program for web presence, conducting a survey of Lowell businesses in early 2014, and providing “Welcome to Lowell” packets to parties registering with the City Clerk’s Office.

I hope to reach out to the City to find out which of these programs it continued and what other activities the DPD is considering, and I encourage anyone to comment if they have ideas of their own! The 2015 report states that the DPD will conduct a survey of businesses to evaluate the impact of the two-way traffic change, which will certainly have interesting results and may make a great topic for a future post.

In addition to following up with the City on how they completed their study, what types of programs they’re planning for 2015, and how they feel about downtown Lowell, I hope to learn about a critical question not addressed in the reports: the asking rent in downtown properties and how it compares to other cities. This could add a layer to understanding the dynamics of Lowell’s downtown and why some prominent storefronts seem stubbornly empty. Please let us know in the comments if you think we should research anything else!

Update: I had a great conversation with a staffperson at the City of Lowell about the above questions.