Will the Election Change Lowell’s Police Policy?

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Post Election Community Dialogue, the latest in a series of open events the police force has held to try to clarify their own values and policy, while taking input from citizens about what their experiences and concerns are. This one focused on the “Post Election Environment” in which, politics aside, I think we can all agree a lot of people are feeling afraid and that evidence shows that hate crimes seem to be spiking.

Dialogue about community police lowell ma

Captain Taylor at the dialogue. (Image courtesy Lowell PD’s Facebook)

Chief William Taylor, dressed in a suit and Christmas tie, started things off by introducing the officers in the room, as well as a representative from the FBI and State’s Attorney’s office. Then he read a prepared statement, clarifying the LPD’s policy on immigration status. In essence: regardless of your immigration status, the police want you to feel comfortable reporting a crime, calling emergency services, or asking for help. They say they don’t routinely run immigration checks in any of those cases. However, when they arrest someone, they do run a check, and it’s likely that problems would come up there.

The police in Lowell do collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when ICE reaches out to them, but they don’t routinely reach out to them to try to remove otherwise law-abiding members of the community. Other cities, including Lawrence, have passed a “Trust Act” which limits their collaboration with ICE. Efforts like this are one of the things people are describing when they talk about becoming a “Sanctuary City” which actively tries to protect people living there from federal government deportation.

Right out of the gate, the first question was about this possibility, and it came up several more times. The question was raised by a representative from the emerging group Solidarity Lowell. Chief Taylor had clearly anticipated this question, and he explained that, as far as he’s concerned, that’s a question for the City Council. He did go on to say that, though he had no strong opinion about it, he thought that the current system works well and didn’t really see further steps as necessary.

A representative from the International Institute asked for clarification about access to interpreters. If someone is being interviewed by the police, they do have the right to be interviewed in their own language. If someone calls in needing help from the police, it’s challenging in Lowell to cover all languages, but they have access to resources. Another representative, following up on that, suggested more translation at community meetings.

Additional questions along these lines clarified that they just hired their first Arabic speaking officer. They also try hard to do outreach to new groups, including building a good relationship with the Islamic Society of Greater Lowell. Working to make sure new Lowellians know their rights is a priority, as is avoiding discrimination and implicit bias at work in the actions of officers. The newly reformed Race Relations Council, a citizen advisory group made up of diverse community members is a step in the right direction that helps make sure that the Police force is hearing from everyone.

Next to come up is another issue on everybody’s mind: hate crimes. Captain Kelly said they haven’t really had any clear incidents reported to them. The rep from the International Institute said that she’s heard two reports of women having someone pull at their hijabs to try to remove them. For myself, I’ve heard about two separate incidents of Latino kids at school being taunted with the threat of being deported. The Attorney’s Office rep reminded people that these things can be judgement calls, but encouraged people not to hesitate to report them. It shouldn’t be up to the victim to try to figure out if something is a crime, the experts can do that. And if you hadn’t heard, in Massachusetts we have a newly created hotline to report harassment and intimidation.

Young CMAA Professionals

Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association Young Professionals after a community dialogue. (Image courtesy Sovanna Pouv/CMAA)

A kid from Teen Block suggested that police officers need to work harder to make community members feel comfortable. He mentioned that officers meeting with kids at Teen Block is a step in the right direction. One of the officers who’s been working with youth quite a bit, especially on Dance for Peace, talked about how fun and rewarding that has been. Another representative of Teen Block talked about trying to make kids feel more comfortable with officers, especially those stationed at schools. Captain Taylor agreed, and said that officers at schools are meant to help people feel safe. Captain Kelly talked about a time when that’s worked well, when a teenager texting with a friend wrapped up in a dangerous trafficking situation approached the school officer to share her concerns about her friend.

There was an intense discussion around the issue of scammers posing as police or other officials targeting the immigrant population. This can be confusing even for people familiar with the way things work in the US, but for people who may come from countries where a certain level of bribery and corruption is normal, it can be especially confusing. To clarify, no government official should ever ask you for money or your social security number over the phone. It’s always okay, if you get a call, to ask to call back the official office to make sure you’re talking to someone legitimate. Sometimes these scammers can also come to the door, so it’s okay to ask to see a badge and credentials. Chief Taylor said that our neighbors are the best protection we have, and that we should all try to keep an eye out for our elderly and recent immigrant neighbors. I think you’ll be hearing more about this issue from the department soon.

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Body camera similar to ones being tested in Boston (WBUR).

I asked about something I’ve been wondering about: whether they were still considering any measures to increase accountability, like body cameras or a civilian review board. The thoughtful response on body cameras was essentially “no, but we might pick this issue up again in the future”. Reasons cited included expense and legal concerns. In Massachusetts, the police aren’t allowed to record you without your permission, so this makes the cameras a logistical problem. Additionally, there are concerns that people won’t want to talk to the police if they fear being recorded. Chief Taylor did acknowledge that other cities, including Boston, are trying it, and that because of the increasing number of security cameras and cell phones, “that’s probably the way that things are going”.

A civilian review board hasn’t been discussed much, but Taylor said that the review process we have for police incidents works. I asked a follow-up to clarify whether it’s legal to film the police, and Captain Taylor said, “absolutely”. In fact, they said they seldom arrest somebody these days without someone filming it.

Many people expressed concerns about the current political climate, and the refrain from the police was along the lines of, “nothing in Lowell is going to change on January 21st”. A pointed question from a person who felt less safe because so many police unions had endorsed Trump got a candid answer from Kelly: “I can understand why some officers sided with Trump, while I hope they didn’t agree with everything he said.” He explained that attacks on officers are way up, many of them feel less safe and their families are worried about us coming home at night. Additionally, he said that he’s seeing some evidence that officers hesitate to use some methods now, because they “don’t want to end up on TV.” He said he tells officers that that’s good, but that it’s still their job to come home safe at night.

15355736_10209981832835749_9141968903883996996_nThe packed house for this event makes clear that the community is concerned, but also that the community is actively committed to working together. Frankly, I’ve lived in communities where not only would the police never attempt to invite community input, if they did tensions were high enough nobody would be able to have a real conversation. In Lowell, there really is a genuine effort to be open to criticism and to hearing the fears in the community.

If you have a bad experience, especially if you feel your treatment is unfair, Captain Taylor is very clear that he wants to hear about it. You can come in to the LPD’s Headquarters at 50 Arcand Drive to file a complaint in person. Or you can call the LPD’s Professional Standards Division at 978-674-4507, or you can fill out this form and mail it in. If you have a broader concern or you’d like for officers to meet with your community group or attend an event, I’d consider reaching out to Sara Kuhn, who’s the Director of Community Relations and a very warm, easy to talk to person. She’s reachable by phone at 978-674-1906 or email at Skhun@lowellma.gov.

(Featured Image courtesy Lowell PD Facebook)

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Hearing about the Route 38 Hearing

To follow up on our previous posts, I attended last week’s public hearing on the Route 38 project near Kittredge Park. Its purpose, in MassDOT’s words:

As part of the design process for this project, we are conducting this public hearing to explain the proposed improvements, listen to your comments and answer any questions you may have. At the conclusion of the hearing, MassDOT will review all of your comments and, where feasible, incorporate them into the design of the project.

Wait, first, what exactly is MassDOT’s Public Process?

Under state and federal law, the state has to allow citizens to comment on projects. I’ve looked into this a bit to try to figure out how the process works, so I’ll spend a little time on that here.  MassDOT’s guiding documents do put an emphasis on public participation. Their 2014 Public Participation Plan lists their values related to participation: Dedication, Respect, Innovation, Diversity, and Honesty (accuracy, understandability, and accessibility).

A project’s public life begins when it’s first put on the “Transportation Improvement Plan” or “TIP” before design begins. The Nesmith Street project was put onto the TIP because of a Road Safety Audit conducted in 2010. The regional planning agency annually requests comment about the TIP at meetings around Greater Lowell, reaching out through traditional media and email lists. I’ve heard mostly only people very interested in the transportation system—transportation planners and public officials—comment on the TIP. In fact, even though the Route 38 project was on the TIP, one public meeting participant asked why he had only heard of the project recently, from the Sun article.

The “Public Hearing” was another step of that public process. When a project has completed its environmental process, right before MassDOT formally accepts the preliminary design that will be developed into the final design, it holds a formal meeting to allow citizens to get their comments on the record. The way they conduct this review is highly regulated, including notice requirements and accessibility. A list of everything they have to consider is here. This is the last time for formal public participation, unless the project gets delayed or they encounter unforeseen environmental complications. I learned a lot about their process by reading Chapter 2 of their guide.

What happens at a session like this? They show their plans, which are 25% complete. This part of the meeting is both very detailed and lacking some of the most relevant information. I often struggled to follow what was being discussed, to see what was being discussed on the slide, and to understand the values that were being promoted. Other participants expressed confusion, too. I appreciate that they were willing to share their plans online (which surely should be standard) because it allowed a little more time to digest.

Nesmith Street Plan

This is an image of their plan for Nesmith Street. Grey is road widening, brown is sidewalks, and yellow is new greenspace. The City engineers put together a great Route 38 project website with all their materials here.

What was MassDOT’s presentation about Nesmith?

After a brief introduction by MassDOT, their consultant from Bayside Engineering then spoke about the project, which includes five intersections. In addition to the ones I’ve written about on Learning Lowell before (Nesmith/Merrimack and Nesmith/Andover), they are putting in new signals at Nesmith/Stackpole so they can be coordinated with the other signals; and they are doing a realignment and signal improvements at the intersection of the Route 38 highway at Boylston/Fairmount and Douglas/Phoenix.

Almost all the participants were interested in the Nesmith Street work, and that’s where the engineers spent most of their presentation. The consultant engineer presented several alternatives they had considered, then showed the audience which alternative had already been chosen.

There were several things common to all alternatives:

  • The outside edges of the sidewalks would stay in the same place, meaning only the sidewalks and what’s between them would change.
  • The project would improve crosswalks at both intersections, including handicap ramps.
  • It would make the signals a pedestrian-only phase, meaning people have to press a button and wait for the light to go through its cycle, but then all the lights will be red to make people crossing the road safer.
  • Finally, the project would make two of the curves between Andover and Nesmith a little more “square.” This will make cars turning onto Nesmith go just a little more slowly.

These changes were supported by the participants at the meeting. The differences between the alternatives? Whether they make Nesmith wider or not.

This leads to the big question: do the trees have to go? Does the road have to get wider? According to them, absolutely yes. The details for why are easily obscured by technical details, but I’ll do my best. They considered 4 options that save the trees and one that widened the road. The differences between the 4 options were which ways the lanes would go.

Five very simple diagrams of the options shown at MassDOT presentation

This is a simplified drawing I did to try to understand the different options, showing the direction traffic would go in each direction, with Andover Street being at the bottom and Merrimack being at the top. The numbers over each drawing are how wide the road would be, including lanes and shoulders. Option 4 is just keeping it the way it is, and option 5 has a left-turn lane that starts in the middle going in either direction.

Nesmith Street

The plan would remove the trees between road and sidewalk on both sides, resulting in 12 trees total removed.

Option 3 is the widened road. It would keep the 5’ sidewalk on the Kittredge Park side, but that sidewalk would have signs and electric poles added to it. The sidewalk would be on top of a retaining wall that would be almost 4’ at its tallest, but an average closer to 2’. The retaining wall would be stone masonry and have a decorative railing. The sidewalk on the other side would be narrowed to 5’, requiring removal of three additional trees. This is in the plans, but they did not mention this out loud, and I didn’t understand it until I was able to look at the plans online. I wonder how many people in the room did.

Modeling Traffic

The engineer did an analysis of each option, giving a letter grade that represents how long people would have to wait during morning and evening rush hour at each intersection. They also showed how long their model thinks cars would back up before each light turns green during rush hour.

Their model, which is set in the year 2024 and assumes that traffic will increase for the next ten years, showed that all the options would cause traffic to back up from Merrimack past Andover or vice-versa, but that the 4-lane option would cause the least amount (in evening rush hour, the traffic would back up from Merrimack to just past Andover). However, I’m still not sure how they figured that out, and just how bad traffic would be under options 1 or 2. It would be nice to understand better what they presented, because it’s so hard to know whether they’re hearing our values as they build their models.

Option 3 PM Queue Analysis Nesmith Street

This is an example of the “queue analysis” they showed us. The red and yellow lines represent how far they think cars will back up during a red light. All the analyses are on the city’s website.

Those models are worth talking about a little bit. They’re based on ever growing traffic numbers, which if they continue, would result in losing any gains over time as the number of cars on the road continues to grow with Boston’s sprawl. This goes to MassDOT’s overall focus: their concerns are at the state level. To them this is a state highway, not a neighborhood road.

Categorizing Roads

When they opened up for comments, someone asked why the neighborhood should have to bear the brunt of all this traffic. The answer was, in essence, because that’s the way it is.

State legislation in the 1990s mandated a process to classify roads—this is called “Functional Classification”. MassDOT worked with regional agencies to define every Massachusetts road into one of three nationally-understood categories: Arterials, Collectors, and Local Roadways. Nesmith Street was classified as an Arterial. According to MassDOT, “These roadways provide the highest level of mobility at the greatest vehicular speeds for the longest uninterrupted distances. Generally, these roadways provide connections between Massachusetts cities, metropolitan regions, and bordering states…”

The categories are further sub-divided based on whether they’re urban or rural, and whether they’re limited-access, major, or minor. The category of a road changes what design it gets. For example, the MassDOT Design Guide states that designers should try to put a minimum of 4’ shoulders in urban arterials and 11’ lanes in urban arterials. Local roads can be narrower. Whenever designers go beyond minimums or maximums, they have to get permission from a “Design Exception Committee” and the Federal Highway Administration if they’re getting federal funding.

It’s a deliberately difficult process to get roads recategorized. A town that wants to change the category of a road has to prove that land use and traffic patterns have changed, and the road is no longer used for travel between cities. It’s a reinforcing cycle: cars use a certain road to get between cities, and that road gets categorized as an arterial, and then local and state engineers design it to be easier to use as an arterial, then more cars use it to get between cities.

When asked about this, the MassDOT engineeres replied that there are only so many paths over the river into New Hampshire. Any path is going to be full of traffic. The neighborhood just has to accept it. Our local engineers did mention that because traffic is bad on Nesmith, cars are going on other local roads like East Merrimack. The engineers’ goal is to minimize the amount of traffic on roads that aren’t arterials.

Map with cut-throughs around Nesmith

A drawing I did showing some ways cars avoid Nesmith, cutting through other neighborhood roads

It’s really important to note that the engineer said they would not consider lanes narrower than 11’ and even called 11’ lanes “nice and tight”. According to the MassDOT design guide, lanes between 11’ and 12’ should be used for speeds above 45 MPH, traffic above 2,000 vehicles per day, or trucks and busses more than 30 per hour. Traffic on Nesmith is above 30,000 vehicles per day.

However, not everyone agrees that 11’ lanes are ideal in urban settings, even with high traffic volumes. The National Association of City Transportation Officials’ guide recommends 10’ lanes in all but special circumstances, and Chapter 5 of the MassDOT guide itself mentions that 10’ lanes can be used in areas of limited right-of-way to provide greater separation between vehicles and pedestrians.

What did the neighborhood have to say?

There were about 30-40 residents in attendance, and perhaps a dozen spoke. MassDOT let city officials speak first, and city engineers read a letter from the City Manager supporting the project during the time. The meeting went late, after 9:00 pm, and many residents left before they had a chance to speak. However, the library was kind enough to stay open that everyone who waited could have their say.

There were concerns big and small. Nobody commented that they thought making the road wider was a good idea. Many liked the idea of better timed lights and pedestrian crossings, as well as clearer lane markings. Lots of people were disappointed in the potential loss of the trees, and many were worried about traffic speeding up and getting noisier. Nobody was excited about a long and disruptive traffic project. Some had more specific concerns, such as the design of the retaining wall or the accommodation of bicycles.

One participant asked whether MassDOT or the City was thinking about the entire road system holistically and the problem of there being not enough routes for cars travelling through (not to) Lowell, and the city engineers said that it was a problem faced by all communities, not just Lowell, and that, “We’re working on it.” Jane Calvin argued that the health of trees, or that the wrong type of trees were planted, should never be an argument to remove a tree planting strip, as that can be fixed without removing the strip. She also pointed to a City ordinance that said that the City would need to replace each tree they cut down with an equivalent tree or trees elsewhere. The Sun wrote up a great story about it, talking about both sides’ positions.

Does the fact that a dozen residents voiced concerns matter? Probably not. I have to be honest with this post: it’s very likely that there’s very little that can be done about this situation. While MassDOT is fulfilling its legal obligation to show us their plans, they have very little motivation to change them at this point. When people voiced concerns, they generally defended their existing design. For example, they showed a picture of the least healthy tree in the area when talking about the trees, and they said they believed the retaining wall would serve a similar traffic calming function.

They’ve spent a lot of time on this getting it the way they think it should be, and hearing residents say “we think it will be less safe” isn’t going to change an expert’s mind. They’re committed professionals, of course they believe in what they’re presenting. It would take a massive pushback, universal and noisy, and including our state representatives to alter the course of things now.

Should we try? I think so. This isn’t the engineers’ and planners’ fault. They work with the information they have, and with the parameters they’ve been given. Chris works with the city folks that helped in this process, and they’re good people, working every day to build a better Lowell for everyone. They were eager to offer to explain the process to residents with detailed questions, and they even offered to meet with residents to do a walk-through of the area in question. It’s not helpful to frame city or state folks as villains. They’re convinced based on their research that this is the best course of action for the greatest number.

If we’re going to build a Lowell where trees and pedestrians matter as much as cars, they’re going to have to hear from us as a community that these things matter to us, and they’re going to have to hear it a lot. They hear a lot of complaints from drivers! We will probably lose some of these debates along the way, unfortunately. But sea change is possible, even if it takes longer than we want it to.

How to Comment

The last day to send comments to MassDOT is 10 days from the hearing date, so that means any comments must be postmarked by this Wednesday! If you want to sign the petition to save the trees, click on this link and do it by Tuesday before 3:00 pm, when it will be mailed to MassDOT. Here’s the full info:

Written statements and other exhibits in place of, or in addition to, oral statements made at the Public Hearing regarding the proposed undertaking are to be submitted to Patricia A. Leavenworth, P.E., Chief Engineer, MassDOT, 10 Park Plaza, Boston, MA 02116, Attention: Roadway Project Management, Project File No. 606189. Such submissions will also be accepted at the hearing. Mailed statements and exhibits intended for inclusion in the public hearing transcript must be postmarked within ten (10) business days of this Public Hearing. Project inquiries may be emailed to dot.feedback.highway@state.ma.us.

It’s Important to Speak Up to MassDOT!

13669032_786648154280_5741532979711256583_nSome of you may remember some concerns about a MassDOT proposal to widen Nesmith Street, which I wrote about back in May. Though the plan comes from a well-intentioned place, hoping to make traffic flow faster and more safely, evidence suggests that widening the road would make the road less safe for pedestrians and drivers alike. There may be fewer fender-benders, but the accidents that would happen would be high-speed and dangerous.

A group of concerned citizens, myself included, has gotten together to get the word out about the issue. We’re having an informal gathering at the park on Saturday, including picnic snacks, a little music by local musician Jon Kohen, a history talk by local luminary Dick Howe, and food truck Spiceventure will stop by. Should be a fun way to get together and have some fun with our neighbors. If you’re interested, join the Facebook event and spread the word!

We’ve already heard from lots of folks passionate about this issue. Sometimes for different reasons!

“…this neighborhood is low-income. There is a disgraceful pattern of destroying beautiful environments in low-income areas. This is no coincidence. The lack of environmental justice is devastating.”

“…As a resident of the area I am familiar with the traffic problem there and widening the road would create more of a bottleneck going towards bridge street. Taking land away from the historic park will eliminate green space that the residents of the area and the city of Lowell including myself enjoy regularly.”

“Proposed plan is completely at odds with the Complete Streets program that Lowell has signed onto.”

If the community doesn’t speak up, they think we don’t care! So what can you do?

1. Show up for the MassDOT Meeting!

This will be at the library on Thursday July 28th at 7pm. This is absolutely the best way to make your voice heard and be a part of the conversation. Information about the meeting is here.

2. Call or email your state representative.

This is a state project, so our state legislature needs to know that we want a plan that works for everyone! Lowellians have Eileen Donoghue as their State Senator, and either David Nangle, Rady Mom, or Tom Golden as their State Representative. Here is their contact information:

Senator Eileen Donoghue Eileen.Donoghue@masenate.gov 617-722-1630
Representative Rady Mom Rady.Mom@mahouse.gov 617-722-2460
Representative David M. Nangle David.Nangle@mahouse.gov 617-722-2575
Representative Thomas A. Golden, Jr. Thomas.Golden@mahouse.gov 617-722-2263

3. Sign our petition

Sign the petition by clicking here. This will be sent to MassDOT and possibly also shared with other decision-makers in the community, like the City Council. Do it and make some noise on social media: Tweet, Facebook, Snapchat, and otherwise spread the word to loop in your friends and neighbors.

Why is this important?

The group discussed together why and how they thought the project should be changed. We agree with one Facebook ally who said: “It’s not about the trees, is not about the noise, it’s not about the money… It’s about making smart decisions that truly make a difference and make our roads safer.”

The major focus of the project includes widening Nesmith Street between Andover Street and East Merrimack Street from two 18’ lanes with exclusive left turn lanes at either end to four 11’ through lanes. This would require removing the existing 10’ buffer between sidewalk and park and all the trees on it. We believe the project is important, but it must be changed in these ways:

Save the Trees
At least six mature Maple trees in Kittredge Park and an additional two near East Merrimack cannot be removed. Trees slow traffic and reduce crashes by 5 to 20%, reduce asthma health impacts, and increase neighboring home value by $15-20,000, among many other effects. These trees only provide this level of benefit when planted between a sidewalk and the street.

Respect the History
Kittredge Park is the centerpiece of the Washington Square historic district, listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1831, the neighborhood was created, and Nesmith Street was a 60’ tree-lined boulevard with deeds requiring residents to plant more trees. This wasn’t just a street, but a “special place” that attracted many of Lowell’s elite. The park gained more special history when Paul Tsongas “adopted” it as one of his favorite parks, volunteering in it throughout his life. In the final weeks of his life, he requested a photo of Kittredge Park be brought to the hospital. MassDOT needs to respect it as much as he did.

Don’t Make Lanes Too Wide—It Will Make Them Dangerous
Although the intersection is dangerous now, that usually results in fender-benders and other minor accidents. Although there may be fewer accidents when cars may drive faster down the street, accidents will be much more dangerous when they do happen. This is especially true when it isn’t rush hour—the wide lanes have been proven to encourage speeding.

Don’t Make it Less Walkable
A major project at the Lord Overpass is being planned to make it more pleasant to walk along and easier to cross. The Bridge Street/VFW project simplified the intersection, helping pedestrians and cars alike. This project makes things actively worse for pedestrians. They’ll have more street width to cross and will no longer be protected by trees as they walk along Nesmith. At a moment when we’re trying to encourage people to walk from Belvidere to downtown, it’s the exact wrong approach.

Maintain Environmental Justice
Importantly, the Lower Belvidere neighborhood qualifies as an “environmental justice” neighborhood as defined by the Massachusetts Environmental Justice Policy. These families, who have small or no yards and dense housing, rely on the park and playground for outdoor activity. Widening Nesmith Street will make the park less enjoyable and harder to get to for this population, a very unjust outcome.

Overall Congestion won’t be reduced: A System-wide Approach is Needed
Although planners claim that widening Nesmith Street will remove a bottleneck, the street will remain at one lane in either direction capacity south of Andover. The bridges will also remain bottleneck areas. We have seen no evidence or analysis that easing traffic on the street won’t just push bottlenecks to elsewhere in the City. What we need is a thorough analysis of traffic in Lowell and an understanding of how much is to and from Lowell and how much is through Lowell before we can understand how we can divert auto traffic and encourage other modes to better fight congestion.

Some have suggested investigating a new bridge, others a three-lane approach. One argued that Route 133 (Andover Street) was improved by bringing it down to three lanes, but is still dangerously fast, so it seems a step backward to make Route 38 (Nesmith Street) four lanes. Making a highway-style road through a lower-income neighborhood next to a beloved park should not be the first resort to solve our traffic problem.

Recommended Reading

Safety Audit:
https://www.massdot.state.ma.us/Portals/8/docs/traffic/SafetyAudit/District4/Lowell-Route38-Accessible_RSA.pdf

Sun Story:
http://www.lowellsun.com/opinion/ci_29814437/clearing-route-38s-clogged-arteries

Project Page:
https://hwy.massdot.state.ma.us/ProjectInfo/Main.asp?ACTION=ViewProject&PROJECT_NO=606189

Notice:
http://www.lowellma.gov/dpw/engineering/Documents/Public%20Hearing%20Notice%20RT38.pdf

160717 - savetrees

Route 38, with trees in strip

The Happiness Cost of Widening Nesmith Street?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading Charles Montgomery’s Happy City, the book chosen for Pollard Memorial Library’s next “Lowell Reads” event. I’m really looking forward to talking about it as a community: it’s a book that goes in depth about if, how, and why urban neighborhoods make us happy.  I bring it up because I read the chapter about greenspace right about the same time I heard of a proposed State project on Nesmith Street.

The intersection of Nesmith Street and Andover Street in the Belvidere neighborhood is a busy spot, and it’s one of the more dangerous intersections in the City of Lowell.  It had 29 crashes in 2014–more crashes than any other intersection that year, with police crediting those trying to “cut in at the last minute,” according to the Lowell Sun. It was the 7th on a list of “High Crash Locations” in the region based on 2010-2012 data, with 19 injuries during that time, according to the Northern Middlesex Council of Government’s 2016 Regional Transportation Plan. This is likely why the state has targeted it for improvement. Nesmith Street is Route 38, meaning it is under the State’s jurisdiction, as many of our biggest traffic problem zones are. I’ve spent a fair amount of time at the intersection myself, both on foot and by car, because this used to be part of my commute.

What does this have to do with greenspace? Because the proposed improvements include 11-foot lanes and “may require removing a row of trees between the road and a sidewalk next to Kittredge Park”, according to the Sun. These trees are on the state property on a steep incline between the road and sidewalk. Let’s talk about what those changes might mean.

How did we get here?

Black and white picture of 1981 Kittredge Park

The intersection in 1981, when Washington Square was listed as a historic district.

Let’s start with a look at the history of that section of Route 38. Belvidere Village grew around what is now East Merrimack Street near the Concord River crossing in the early 1800s. Nesmith Street connected Belvidere Village and Tewksbury to the south. In 1831, Lowellian brothers John and Thomas Nesmith purchased an estate and subdivided it, placing a formal park called “Washington Square” at the center of their new neighborhood. Nesmith Street was laid out as a 60’ boulevard with 10’ sidewalks. Deeds required new residents to plant trees along the street for “shade and ornamental purposes.” The area was slowly settled by prominent Lowell residents, and became one of the most fashionable neighborhoods in Lowell. The horse-drawn trolley connected it to the mills in the Civil War-era, and the electrified trolley ran down Nesmith Street to Tewksbury, opening up the rest of the area to development. The entire neighborhood is now listed in the National Register of Historical Places as Washington Square Historic District.

Washington Square Park had an interesting history, itself! It was used as a cow pasture for a while, and then a Lowell merchant leased it for a garden and saloon. Only in 1860 did the Nesmith Brothers sell it to the City and it officially became a park. The granite curbing the City installed remains to this day. In the 1920-30s, the park was renamed “Kittredge Park” in honor of Paul Edward Kittredge, a US serviceman who died by mortar fire in 1918. Sometime after the 1970s, a sliver of the southwest corner of the park appears to have been sliced off to widen the intersection with Andover Street.[1]

1953 state taking layout

The layout map from the 1950s. Hunts Falls Bridge is on the right, Nesmith Street on the left, with the new highway through the middle. Find more historic state plans at MassDOT’s website.

The nature of the area changed drastically in the early 1950s. The State took a great deal of land north of the river to make the Veterans of Foreign Wars highway, which included a rotary and a bridge to more directly connect Routes 38, 110, 133, and 113. Most importantly, it took about a dozen properties to extend Nesmith Street from East Merrimack to the new Hunts Fall Bridge with a four-lane divided highway. Probably because of the acute angles this created with intersections at Stackpole and Merrimack, channelized right turns were added.

This may create the problem today. Using Google Maps, it looks like each of those 1950s lanes are 12’. They all feed into that 1820s boulevard that devoted 20’ of its 60’ right-of-way to sidewalks and strips of trees. With curbs and shoulders, that seems to leave only 36 to 38’ for traffic, which is striped as two 18’ lanes but, notably, usually used as four 9’ lanes.

When I first moved to Lowell I worked in Salem, and I used to go through this intersection to head east out of town. I vividly remember how confused I was by this road, which is marked as 2 lanes but most treat as four. There are more than a few roads like this in the city, and as a driver unfamiliar with the area, there’s nothing worse than being honked at, tailgated, or encountering an unexpected car in your blindspot as you try to figure out whether you’ve misunderstood the road markings, the other car is just breaking the law, or this unfortunate middle ground where everyone familiar with the road just knows how it works and that they won’t face any penalty for treating the road according to common understanding.  If I had to guess, I would speculate that this confusion plays a role in the number of accidents that happen on this stretch.

It could also just be sheer volume: a lot of cars go down those narrow lanes. Counts seem to be around 30,000 daily. This is more than the VFW Highway or Westford Street near Drum Hill—the only other surface road that has that level of traffic in Lowell is Thorndike around the Lowell Connector and the Lord Overpass. Those cars cross Andover Street, which carries around 20,000 cars daily. The way I understand it, many of those are cars going from Centralville, Dracut, and New Hampshire to jobs closer to Boston.

So, the trees should go?

Kittredge Park, Lowell, MA purple flowers, monument, structure

Kittredge Park in 2013 from Life from the Roots blog

At first blush, it might seem like it makes sense to sacrifice that planting strip, historic as it may be, to make it safer for those thousands of commuters. But I wonder whether it will make the road either safer or more pleasant. In Happy City, Mr. Montgomery argues cities that have faster traffic aren’t actually “happier” according to surveys. Instead, he discusses studies showing that greenspaces, trees, and nature bring mental and physical health benefits. The benefits are there even if people have just glimpses of nature, but are stronger when people can interact with the greenspace. He argues that his own research showed that small amounts of greenery everywhere was more important than occasional trips to the park.

I know trees make a big difference in my own sense of how inviting and pleasant a street and walkway are, but I wanted this to be a little bit less anecdotal, so I asked professor Google about it, and I came up with this report, “22 Benefits of Urban Street Trees.” Trees slow traffic and reduce crashes by 5 to 20%, reduce asthma health impacts, and increase neighboring home value by $15-20,000, among many other effects.  It suggests that a single tree could create $90,000 of direct benefits.

I think it’s especially important for this area to keep its trees, even near a tree-filled park. The trees separate the road from sidewalk, making it feel safer and more pleasant. This street is an important pedestrian connection between Belvidere and downtown, and you see lots of students and families walking. We should be focused on making it more walkable, to encourage those living in the western reaches of the neighborhood to walk and explore downtown and keep the park inviting for those who live in Lower Belvidere.

Route 38, with trees in strip

Route 38 today, courtesy of Google Maps. Note planting strip, trees, and sidewalk on right.

So what is the solution?

Back to the intersection. The State sees there are a lot of accidents, and there is a lot of congestion, and wants to fix that. I suspect that clarifying the markings alone would help, but it’s hard to see how wider lanes, which we know encourage cars to go faster, wouldn’t just make the minor crashes into more serious ones. Do we really need 11’ lanes, or can we make the existing 9’ lanes safer?  Maybe 9’ is just too narrow, but National Association of City Transportation Official (NACTO)’s Urban Street Design Guide calls for 10’ lanes, so maybe that could be a compromise.

On the other hand, maybe we could reroute some of the overall traffic away from that stretch of Nesmith? An interesting chapter from Victoria Transport Policy Institute’s “Traffic Demand Management Encyclopedia” suggests that even a 1% decrease of cars on a congested highway could reduce delay related to congestion by 10-30%.

nesmithdetail

Nesmith Street in 1879, when times were simpler. What is now Kittredge Park is labeled “Park Square” between Lower Belvidere much as it exists now and large estates that have yet to be subdivided. Thanks for the maps, Center for Lowell History!

But I have to confess, I do feel a little hopeless about any effort to eliminate Lowell’s gridlock, as State Senator Donoghue suggested was this project’s focus. It seems to me like at certain times of day, we just have too many people trying to get from the North to Boston or the reverse, passing over a limited number of bridges over the river. I was listening to a podcast this week that talked about traffic problems, and it quoted a study about the paradox that tends to happen when you add lanes to a busy road: once you make it less congested, more people drive, and it only gets busier again. Do we really think there’s any capacity we could add that could overcome the number of cars going the same direction we experience at rush hour?

While traffic safety is important, making roads smoother for cars often comes at a cost. In this case, with trees on the line, the cost is clearer than usual. Because so few of Lowell’s streets have trees or planting strips separating sidewalk from traffic, it seems short-sighted to sacrifice one of the few in such a critical area without exhausting every other alternative first.  I have to ask: why would we put so much effort into making the Lord Overpass safer and more pleasant for everyone only to go in the opposite direction on another important hub?

Notes

[1] Thanks to The Massachusetts Cultural Resource System, Center for Lowell History Digital Atlas Collection, Lowell Historic Board Belvidere Historic District Brochure, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust Belvidere Village History, and Wikipedia for historic facts.

A Place for Art in Lowell

Chris and I attended an interesting meeting last week hosted by Lowell National Historical Park and the Cultural Organization of Lowell. They welcomed Javier Torres, the Director of National Grantmaking for ArtPlace, to discuss his organization, the National Creative Placemaking Fund, and what they might be able to do for Lowell.

Someone pointing at art shanty robot.

One example grantee built “Art Shantys” on a frozen lake that had been losing water to draw visitors during winter and attention to the dwindling lake.

ArtPlace is a ten-year program collaboratively funded by a number of private foundations and financial institutions and guided with assistance from a number of federal agencies. As Mr. Torres described it, their goal isn’t just to fund arts and culture projects, but rather to fundamentally shift American policymakers’ strategies to include arts and culture as a core sector of community planning. What does that mean? It means ArtPlace is trying to get local, state, and federal institutions to think of arts and culture as just as important to solving community problems as transportation, housing, public safety, and other core civic sectors.

They’re doing this in four major ways:

  • Community Development Initiative, which I’d describe as a one-time set of six pilot programs
  • Field Building, which includes building connections between planners to learn from one another
  • Research, which includes documenting strategies and creating measurable metrics of success

and what is sure to be of most interest to Lowellians:

  • Grantmaking, through what they call the “National Creative Placemaking Fund.”

The program could be a great benefit to Lowell. It provides up to $500,000 (although it looks like the most common amount granted is $250,000) with seemingly few strings attached. Even more interesting is that half a million dollars is earmarked for Massachusetts this year, giving Lowell a leg up against communities in other states. However, the grant is still very competitive. They fund about 25-30 projects a year, but receive upwards of 1,000 applications.

National Creative Placemaking Fund projects

An eligible project must fit a few criteria. It has to affect a specific geographic community, the place in placemaking. Rather than, “Helping low-income people throughout Massachusetts,” it must “Help everyone in Lowell,” or “the Acre” or “the 500 block of Merrimack Street.”

It also has to clearly define a planning and development challenge or opportunity. Several of the questions asked during the session focused on what this exactly meant. They try to break it down with a matrix, which looks kinda scary but is actually a neat idea:

Matrix with Ag/Food, Economic Development, Education/Youth, Environment/Energy, Health, Housing, Immigration, Public Safety, Transportation, Workforce

The challenge or opportunity must align with one or more of the categories along the y-axis. He gave the example of economic development – the challenge of keeping businesses open during a construction project, and transportation – the challenge of getting a group of indigenous people without cars to a nearby train station. There are more projects on their website, including economic development – challenge of isolated rural communities not mixing; environmental/education – opportunity of a nearby hummingbird center to provide eco-tourism and education; and economic development – the challenge of having community residents benefit from gentrification and demographic change.

The application is also graded on the compelling way arts and culture is deployed to address the challenge and opportunity, and a clear measure of success.

One thing Mr. Torres stressed was that they were looking for unique projects, meaning it helps if proposed projects are different from grants they’ve given in the past (including all the examples here!) In fact, he said that the priorities for this year were Environment/Energy, Health, and Public Safety.

The grants are open to any individual or group: government or private, nonprofit or commercial, single person or huge institution. However, they’re targeting civic/social/faith, commercial, and philanthropic individuals and groups in this round. If an individual is doing the project for a profit, they qualify as commercial. If they’re doing it for a church, they would be civic/social/faith. If they’re donating their time, they might qualify as nonprofit. If they’re donating their time and materials, they might qualify as philanthropic.

What’s the Process?

Most of the questions at the session involved the specific process needed to apply for a grant. It seems simple:

Before February 16: The first step is to create an account at this site. Registering doesn’t cost anything, is simple, and doesn’t obligate you to apply (you do need to provide an EIN or SS#).

Before March 2: The next step is to send in an application. Each individual or organization can only submit one application. The application asks about the amount requested, the total budget, and 900 character answers for each of the four criteria. It also asks for other information about the geographic location of the project and when you think the money will be completely spent (they give you three years).

They also ask for a three-minute video in which you tell them more about the project. Mr. Torres stressed that they don’t want anything fancy; they just want to “get to know you.”

After May 31: ArtPlace will score the applications based on the clarity and compellingness of the four answers, with tiebreaker bonus points for priority projects. At that point, they will contact top applicants for a second phase, where they begin to dig into what partners applicants will have (they have to have partners), how exactly the funds will be spent, whether the impacted community has been engaged, if the project requires more resources to sustain, and other in-depth questions.

What sort of projects does Lowell need?

I’ve heard a number of ideas already being discussed. The best thing is that Mr. Torres explained that multiple projects from Lowell don’t necessarily compete against one another. Rather, they would each compete on their own merits. Although I doubt they would choose more than one project from Lowell in a year, I do imagine that it only helps Lowell’s chances to submit several different creative projects.

Lit up graveyard

Providence recently secured a grant to help them light up and make programming changes to a community center and cemetery suffering from disinvestment.

The audience included a wide range of folks, from youth service providers such as Girls, Inc and Boys and Girls Club; artists and gallery owners from Arts League of Lowell, Brush Gallery, UnChARTed, Western Avenue Studios, and more; community agencies such as Community Teamwork, Inc. and Coalition for a Better Acre; activists from Lowell Bike Coalition; downtown business owners; cultural organizations such as Angkor Dance Troupe, COOL, and Lowell Heritage Partnership; and uncountable others—probably over 100 in the audience.

I’m really interested to hear what folks come up with, almost outside of what actually ends up applying or winning. A prompt like this can encourage folks to think creatively and reach out for collaboration in new and surprising directions.  My understanding is that the key will be to really clearly articulate a non-arts-related challenge and an arts-related response. I’ve already heard suggestions of challenges to tackle including homelessness and panhandling, empty buildings, and low amounts of transit use; and opportunities including the canals and unutilized hydropower stations. And I think both Chris and I have employers considering  applying as well. But I hope we hear lots of different ideas, from lots of different folks. Because they’re looking for submissions outside governments and nonprofits, it would be great to get the business community, churches, and fraternal organizations more involved.

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

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

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

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

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

Francey Slater speaks to the group.

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Gabby Davis

The Bus Stop Libraries Group gets to work.

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

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

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