City Council Motion Against Transgender Anti-Discrimination Act

A quick post on a time sensitive subject: Dick Howe’s weekly roundup shares the disheartening news that Councilors Elliott and Mercier have a joint motion requesting the City Council “vote to adopt a resolution to oppose the transgender bill adopted by the State Senate which allows access to women’s bathrooms and locker rooms.”

I imagine many readers of this blog are are already asking “How can I stop that?!” Easy. There are 3 important things you can do here: 1) Contact the city council and let them know where you stand. 2) Show up on Tuesday (register in advance to speak) 3) Spread the word. Here’s how:

1) Contact the City Council

This is easier than you might think. Follow this link and you’ll see a simple form to fill out. http://www.lowellma.gov/citycouncil/lists/ContactTheCityCouncil/NewForm.aspx?PageType=8&ListId={0a606722-04e6-4a9a-8031-3fe071aeb7f9}&RecipientName=&RootFolder=%27

You can even submit anonymously if you want, though your voice will be stronger with your address attached.  I did this just now and it took me 3 minutes. Here’s what I said “I am for the Transgender anti-discrimination act and urge the council not to pass a motion against it. This motion could hurt us economically, as we have seen it hurt North Carolina. More importantly, transgender people need to be protected by our laws, not attacked by them.”  See, easy!

If you have another way to contact them, like if you know them personally or have ever talked on the phone or over facebook, try that too!

2) Show up on Tuesday

This is the most powerful thing you can do, absolutely. This has changed the course of motions, as with the bike lanes on Father Morissette; and changed the way that decisions went, as with the visit from Hun Manet. The City Council, while they have their own opinions, are genuinely interested in being a voice for you and absolutely do not want to be on the wrong side of an unpopular issue.  If you want to speak, you usually have to register in advance (though I think sometimes on a popular issue they just open up the floor). To do that, you email or call the City Clerk’s office mgeary@lowellma.gov or 978-674-4161.

3) Spread the word

One disadvantage this issue has going in is that, as far as I know, there’s not an organized LGBTQ advocacy group in the city. This means this effort will have to be more grassroots, and we need as many people as possible to hear this information. Please share this post or Dick Howe’s with your friends over email, on facebook, on twitter, and in person. The reality is, most people will not have heard that this is happening. It is HARD for most folks to keep up with local news, even though they want to. Making noise and talking about what happens in the community is one of the most important things you do as a citizen.

UPDATE: There’s now also a facebook event here, which makes it super easy to share.

Why is this important?

Now, for those of you who are feeling out of the loop, I do want to talk about this issue in more detail. The bill currently making its way through the Statehouse (passed in the senate, on to the house) would allow a transgender woman to use the women’s bathroom and a transgender man to use the men’s bathroom. This issue has rocketed to the forefront of our national dialogue, and many people are still learning these terms and becoming familiar with what these laws mean.

A transwoman is someone who, when they were born, the doctor said “it’s a boy!” but as this person grew up, that seemed to not match how they felt inside. At some point, they made the physically and emotionally difficult decision to begin living as their real self, changing how they appear to match the way they felt. Some trans people get surgery, some don’t. This shouldn’t matter to you any more than it matters to you what anyone else’s private parts look like. Even outside of trans folks, there’s a lot more natural variation than you might imagine, and frankly, unless those private parts belong to you, it’s really none of your business.

Dick Howe has done a great job with why rejecting this motion is important from an economic perspective. I’ll quote him here:

“With the expansion of MA/Com, the arrival of Kronos and the Markley Group, and all of the exciting work being done at the UMass Lowell Innovation Center, Lowell is rapidly becoming a center of high tech. These businesses and others form a solid foundation in the innovation economy and will only attract similar companies and startups. Yet the people who run these companies, and the people who will be working at them, will not want to come to a community that takes a backwards, irrational view of transgender rights. That is why so many companies have cancelled plans to relocate to or expand in North Carolina which with its “research triangle” had been a leading high tech region.

“This motion urging defeat of the transgender rights bill also jeopardizes Lowell’s efforts to become a college town and to continue to grow as a home for artists. Both of those groups, college students and artists and all those drawn to them, want a community that is welcoming to everyone and that is open to change and new ideas. In fact, every economic development strategy pursued and being pursued by this city will be undercut by the passage of this motion.”

I want to say just a little more about this issue from a moral perspective. To some this can seem like a niche issue, because trans people are a relatively small percentage of the population. Because it hasn’t been a popular issue until relatively recently, others assume that it can’t really be a major issue. The truth is, we all should have been doing more to help this community for a long time. Trans people have long been in need of additional protection under the law, as a group that has experienced violence, discrimination, and suicide at much higher rates, even as compared to gay and lesbian people. 90% of trans people reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination on the job. – See more at: http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/headlines/beyond-stereotypes-poverty-in-the-lgbt-community/

Additionally, 64% of transgender people will experience sexual assault in their lifetime: http://abcnews.go.com/US/sexual-assault-domestic-violence-organizations-debunk-bathroom-predator/story?id=38604019

While it’s understandable that many people, especially women, worry about sexual assault, it’s hard to see how a law allowing people to use the bathroom they chose is a real danger. First of all, most trans people already use the bathroom of their choice. Think about it: many trans people “pass”, and using the bathroom of the sex they were assigned at birth would be a much more uncomfortable experience for everyone. Second, transgender people are much more likely to be a victim of violence than the other way around. Finally, the reality is that sexual violence knows no gender, and no orientation. Especially to children, a trusted adult is much more likely to be a source of danger than a stranger in a bathroom.

Laws that try to legislate trans folks out of bathrooms don’t want them in the opposite bathrooms either. They just want trans people to stop existing. That is not going to happen. We’re going to need a find a way to accept trans people as part of our community. Let’s get Lowell, and Massachusetts, on the right side of history.

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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.

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.

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.

Learning Lowell Anniversary Totally Terrific Top Ten Countdown

As Aurora pointed out in Learning Lowell’s anniversary post, it’s been a year since we’ve been blogging in Lowell! She talked about why she (and I) started blogging and the benefits we’ve gotten from it. I thought I would take a look back on some of our posts and a look forward on what we hope to do. I thought reflecting on our little corner of the internet would be very timely, as the Lowell Social Media Conference is coming up tomorrow, December 6.

Our blog is hosted on wordpress.com, a free (ad-supported) service with some great tools. One of those tools lets us see how many people are reading our blog and which posts get more clicks. We reached 2,000 views a month when we first started, but we’ve settled into about 1,000 views a month. This is way more than we ever thought: we figured our families might read an occasional post and that would be it! I thought it might be fun to review our top five posts, then talk about a few we wished had hit bigger.

Top Five Posts

5. An Engaged City Manager Recruitment Process

citymanagerposition-01-01Almost a year ago, the Lowell City Council began the process of selecting a new City Manager to replace departing Bernie Lynch. We reviewed guides made by groups such as the International City/County Managers Association, who recommended allowing 60 days for candidates to apply, and 30 days to interview candidates. During those 60 days, they recommended sending letters to qualified candidates identified knowledgeable sources inviting them to apply.

It’s interesting to compare this to the timetable the council ultimately used to solicit and screen candidates. They allowed a bit over a month for applications, and I believe they only advertised in a few publications and websites. The interviews focused quite a bit on the council’s hot topics: safety/security and economic development.

4. A Historic Preservation Story Unfolding: Bowers House, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust, and the City of Lowell

Updated Concept Perspective Drawing

Around the same time, another surprisingly controversial issue was unfolding: a proposed razing of the Jerathmell Bowers House. The issue prompted us to write a series of posts, culminating in the blog’s longest-named and fourth-most-popular post. We talked about how, in 2010, the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust worked unsuccessfully to find a new owner but brought a lot of attention to the oldest house in Lowell. Then, in 2013, Kazanjian Enterprises bought the property and proposed a commercial structure to replace the house. The City of Lowell and Kaznjian worked to find a solution that retained the house and the structure.

As far as I know, this final proposal is the one moving forward, although a tenant still has not been found for the Bowers House. We suggested a themed restaurant, although I would expect that the house could service as offices for a real estate or insurance agent as well. If anyone has updates, let me know!

3. Quite a Task: Downtown Lowell Task Forces

Lot to Like PostcardFebruary, 2014, Councilor Belanger motioned to request that the Mayor appoint a downtown economic development task force. This prompted me to do a review of all the different groups who are active in downtown planning and all the different plans created for downtown. I still hope one day to do a follow-up on each plan, as some of them are very interesting historically and others still have great suggestions we could advance.

In April, that task force was formed, including councilor Corey Belanger; Deb Belanger, Executive Director of Greater Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau; Danielle McFadden, President and CEO of the Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce; Jim Cook, the Executive Director of the Lowell Plan; and Adam Baacke, Director of Campus Planning at UMass Lowell. Additionally, the council formed a Downtown Redevelopment Subcommittee at the request of Councilor Kennedy, which includes himself, Councilor Leahy, and Councilor Milinazzo. I wasn’t able to find any meeting minutes for the Task Force or Subcommittee, so if anyone has any updates, let me know!

2. Mill No. 5: Local scene blooms where once there were power looms

Mill #5 sign is hungI feel a bit proud that we were among the first talking about Mill No. 5, which has gained a lot of traction since last March, when we wrote about the history of the building, which was built to take advantage of Steam Power, about Jim Lichoulas III’s flexible plans that change based on feedback, and about the way Amelia Tucker recruited vendors for the monthly “Little Bazaar” marketplaces.

Since then, the Luna Theater and Coffee and Cotton have both opened, along with a number of smaller shops. Mill No. 5 has some exciting programming going on during December, including a Farm Market each Sunday, 10-2:30; Holiday Shopping Pop-Up shops every weekend; a 12/13 OtherWhere Market featuring fantasy and sci-fi goods; and the second annual Totally Bazaar tomorrow, 12/6, at noon!

1. Bicycle Lanes, Data-driven Decisions, and Community Visions

Truck in bicycle lane in Lowell, MassachusettsThe most popular post was something we had to write very quickly, as it was in response to a City Council motion we had learned only days before: removing the bicycle lanes on Father Morissette Boulevard. We showed some pictures of the lanes, looked at the goals as articulated in several city plans, and examined the design of the lanes in relation to National Association of City Transit Official (NACTO)’s comprehensive Urban Bikeway Guide. Our conclusion was that two lanes should be enough for the small amount of vehicular traffic on Father Morissette, that the bike lanes conformed to recommended design but could be improved (with more money), and that we constantly need to show our support for the plans we made together.

Councilor Mercier suggested she worded the motion in such a provocative way as to determine if there was support for the bicycle lanes and encourage cyclists to come to the meeting. The council passed an amended motion to “call for the city manager to review the configuration of the bike lanes and traffic lanes on Father Morissette Boulevard, and report back on ways to make the road safer for vehicles and cyclists.” The City’s former transportation engineer, Eric Eby, invited the community to a public meeting to discuss options, and I have heard the City finally settled on painting “Bicycles Only” in the lanes. There was discussion of forming a public Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee as well, but that has unfortunately not occurred, even as several pedestrians have been struck, with one fatality, in recent months. I hope to make a follow-up post on bicycle and pedestrian issues in Lowell in the coming weeks.

My Personal Top Five

I also wanted to highlight posts that I thought were especially important or interesting, but never got as many views as the more popular posts. I suppose this is my personal top five:

5. Lowell’s Buried Past: The Cemetery and Beyond

Dick Howe in front of Bonney Memorial

This was a short post that Aurora and I put together, but we felt that there was so much to say about Dick Howe’s cemetery tour beyond that it’s simply fun. We wanted to suggest that all of Lowell can be like the very-popular cemetery tours. It can surprise, educate, and make us reflect on ourselves in ways other cities simply can’t. I hoped to start a conversation on how we can bring that side of Lowell forward with the same strategy Mr. Howe uses, and I still hope that conversation starts.

4. The Buzz about UMass Lowell Fuzz

Community members and police officers speak at Coffee and a Cop event in Lowell MAWe didn’t see too many community members at the Coffee with a Cop event in October, but everyone there seemed to really have a great time. It felt as if it advanced the goal of creating community between police and residents, and we learned quite a bit behind the philosophy of the UMass Lowell Police. We were surprised that some officers were attracted to UML so that they could interact with people beyond the usual roles of “criminal” and “victim” and that officers feel that things have improved only in the last few years. We hoped to share some of those benefits with our post.

3. A Tale of Two Cities: Salem and Lowell

salem3Aurora made an amazing comparison of Lowell and Salem, which attracts thousands upon thousands of tourists. She noted that Lowell had similar advantages to Salem, including roughly the same distance from Boston and a walkable core, but didn’t capitalize them in quite the same way. As the city talks about marketing, I think the suggestions in this post are a great way to think about how to package Lowell as an immersive day experience for visitors and residents alike.

2. First Thursdays: Art Battles and Big Pictures

Live Art Battle in Lowell on First Thursday artists painting

Our post about Lowell’s First Thursdays wasn’t just a description of our experience at the fun summer event, it was also about how a single, key person was instrumental in bringing a great event to Lowell; about how a series of events might have to build over time; and about what goals we’re trying to meet and what audiences we’re trying to attract when we talk about “downtown revitalization.” I have thought about this post quite a bit when thinking about the own Lowell projects I’m helping organize.

1. What can Lowellians do about homelessness? LTLC Interview Part 2

ltlcI did an extensive interview with the former director of the Lowell Transitional Living Center, David McCloskey. Part 2 of that post and a follow-up about Living Waters didn’t receive the large number of views captured by Part 1. Mr. McCloskey discussed the difference between passive and aggressive panhandling, the discussions he had with former clients about panhandling, and his experience with Lowell’s cooperation with the center. Perhaps even more importantly, we discussed the problem with Massachusetts’s housing costs and how people can volunteer to help or even take political action. If I could ask everyone to read just one post, it might be this one.

What’s Ahead?

Writing this post, it makes me think of all the posts I still hope to write. We just released the first in a series about refugees, and more will be coming soon. Another series is also in the works: discussing Lowell High School’s location and the dilemma of moving or keeping it in-place. As I mentioned before, I hope to discuss traffic and transportation in Lowell: where the traffic is, how it can (or can’t) be addressed, and what is planned for Lowell. We also would like to talk about friends and family we’ve hosted and their impressions of Lowell.

We also go to a number of events and restaurants, and have a lot of photos and stories. We wonder how people like reading about them: should each event or restaurant be a very short post, should there be some sort of Lowell guide that we update each time we go out, or is there another good way to share our stories and photos? Please let us know in the comments! We try to respond to all requests as quickly as we can.

Map from Sustainable Lowell 2025

Bicycle Lanes, Data-driven Decisions, and Community Visions

Mayor Elliott and Councilor Mercier have placed the following motion on the agenda for Tuesday’s City Council meeting:

M. Elliott/C. Mercier – Req. City Council vote to revert Fr. Morrisette Blvd. back to a four-lane traffic through-way and remove bike lanes.

For a description and lovely photos of the bicycle lanes in question, installed last August, see Marianne Gries’s Art is the Handmaid blog. A Lowell Sun story[1] provides comments from the councilors as to their reasons:

Truck in bicycle lane in Lowell, Massachusetts

A vehicle driving over the bicycle lane. This should only occur if the truck were turning.

Mayor Elliott said, “We have enough traffic congestion problems, we don’t need to create any more,” and opined they were a safety hazard for motorists.

Councilor Mercier said, “Everywhere I go, people are so upset about it,” and suggested right-turning drivers may crash into a car improperly driving in a bicycle lane. She regrets prior support of the lane reduction.

For me, one quote of Mayor Eliot’s stood out more than any others, “The intent should be to move vehicles in and out of the city.” Moving vehicles “in and out” is only one of many goals of a good transportation system. Not only are cities across the US embracing these other goals, but they are also getting positive results. Lowell has described its goals in community plans, and data-driven decisions may be able to assist in achieving that vision.

What are our Goals?

Goals of a transportation system include the safety of all users of the system, economic vitality, promoting quality and health of life, and increasing access to destinations. The system must be economically and ecologically sustainable. It should also be just: providing for those who cannot drive. I’ve adapted these goals from the US Department of Transportation’s strategic plan.

We do not need to look to US DOT for goals, however. Lowell has set its own goals in local planning processes. In Sustainable Lowell 2025, the first goal listed under “mobility and transportation” is to promote bike and pedestrian mobility, and the first action under that goal is:

Develop, implement and identify funding to maintain a citywide Bicycle Plan that continues to build upon the existing network of bike lanes, sharrows (shared use lanes), storage racks, and signage.

This builds upon years of public outreach. To take two examples, student focus groups that were part of the 2010 UMass Lowell Downtown Initiative Report suggested safer options for bicyclists including bike lanes linking campuses and downtown; and in 2009 Hamilton Canal District neighborhood outreach, all the downtown neighborhoods asked for bike improvements, with the Acre specifically suggesting “clearly-marked bike lanes.” In a 2012 Sun article, former City Manager Lynch said, “More than two-thirds of residents surveyed identified bicycle infrastructure as a key opportunity for improving the city’s transportation network.”

What about Cars?

Even if Lowell’s only goal was moving vehicles in and out of the city, Father Morissette’s importance in this is negligible. Partly because it was originally envisioned as part of an extended Lowell Connector, it was built wider than necessary: 65’. However, it is only one of several east-west routes connecting downtown to highways. Its importance is as a piece of a redundant network, not as a major thoroughfare. Father Morissette’s role is evidenced by its relatively low average daily traffic: In 2011, approximately 9,000 cars per day near Aiken Street. For comparison, Dutton Street near Lord Overpass was approximately 32,000 average daily in 2007.

Because of its low traffic, Father Morissette provided an excellent opportunity to provide additional parking to the Wannalancit Mills and Tremont Yard developments and a bicycle lane that could connect UMass Lowell’s north campus with downtown. In a February 26, 2013, City Council meeting, Adam Baacke provided data that Father Morissette was only 50-75% utilized with four lanes, and the it would be at only 80% capacity with two fewer lanes.[2]

Map from Sustainable Lowell 2025 Plan

A 2012 map by the City’s planning department shows key concern areas at river crossings, near Lowell Connector, and a few key N-S routes.

This follows Federal Highway Administration research showing that a reduction of lanes for streets with under 20,000 average daily traffic does not create an increase in congestion. This is because cities usually provide a left-turn lane, letting cars waiting for a turn “get out of the way” of straight traffic. Father Morissette’s median makes providing these lanes at intersections difficult without reconstruction. Instead, right turn lanes have been provided. This increases the safety for bicycles (cars aren’t making the turn into them) but doesn’t significantly ease congestion – and may be one reason cars illegally use the bicycle lanes to pass left-turners. However, it appears much more likely that a lack of through-capacity does not cause Lowell’s congestion problems. Rather, intersections near Lowell’s bridges cause backups, especially along the VFW highway.

To summarize, given its low traffic counts, any congestion on Father Morissette is created not by its number of lanes, but by intersection problems elsewhere in the grid. In fact, keeping the number of lanes to two may reduce difficult merging when Father Morissette turns into the two-lane Pawtucket Street. If this issue stays active, I hope to talk to the City to learn more about its traffic patterns and plans for mitigation.

Road Diets

There are other benefits to a reduction in Father Morissette lanes beyond extra space for parking and bike lanes. Planners call a reduction of lanes to calm traffic a “Road Diet.” The Lowell experience seems to mirror what the research has borne out:

  • Speeding has been reduced. Many pedestrians and bicyclists have noted that prior to the lane reduction, Father Morissette was more like a divided highway than an urban street, and motorists treated it as such, breaking the speed limit.
  • Crossing is now easier and safer. Two lane streets are shown to have fewer pedestrian crashes than three-lane, both because it’s a quicker cross and because there is no threat of a moving vehicle passing a vehicle that had stopped for a pedestrian.[3]
  • Walking along the street is more comfortable. A bicycle lane and parking provides a “buffer” between moving traffic and the sidewalk. Although pedestrians may choose other routes than Father Morissette, many choose the street for public safety reasons: it’s well-lit with plenty of “eyes on the street.” A calm street serves those pedestrians.

Given these extra benefits, the discussion shouldn’t only involve bicycle and automotive safety, but also pedestrian safety and comfort.

Confusion, Education, and Enforcement

Car parked in buffer area of bicycle lane, Lowell, Massachusetts

A car parked over the buffer on Father Morissette. Some argue lane design is at fault, others may argue for consistent enforcement.

This week’s motion follows last week’s motion requesting a report on bicycle lane laws and fines. The Police Superintendent’s response states that the “recently installed bicycle lanes… have been a source of confusion for the motoring public and a source of frustration for the bicyclists that use them.” It explains that cars can only enter the bicycle lane at intersections (where the solid white line becomes dashed) or when entering/exiting a parking space.[4]

Solid lines almost always indicate a car is not supposed to cross, regardless of whether they are for bike lanes or for other purposes (for example, on highways in construction zones with no passing, the dashed white line becomes solid). This is important design language all motorists should understand. The confusion indicates a greater need for education and enforcement of traffic laws. I might speculate that the poor condition of the lane markings on Lowell’s older streets feeds general confusion about traffic laws.

Children at 2013 Lowell Bike Safety Rodeo

2013 Lowell Bike Safety Rodeo, courtesy Lowell General Hospital. Open Street Ciclovias could complement this event.

However, others have noted that bicyclists also do not follow traffic laws. A discussion on Lowell Live Feed included ideas that bicycle education and promotion could be a part of creating a bicycle-friendly Lowell. Lowell already has an annual back-to-school “bike safety rodeo,” and MassBike offers classes and workshops on urban bicycling that seem to take place in the Boston metro.[5] Some suggested bringing back Tour de Lowell, a bicycle race for adults and children that took place in the 1990s.[6]

I love the idea of “Open Streets” events, in which one street is closed to vehicular traffic and “opened” to pedestrians, bicycles, and other non-motorized transportation. This type of event has become popular in cities around the world, including cities as large as Chicago and as small (or smaller than) Fargo, North Dakota. A less-traveled lane may be closed to bring attention to the businesses along that street, and safety and educational events may be organized around it. Typical sponsors include health organizations, cycle clubs, and business groups. Perhaps Massbike could offer technical assistance.

Of course, Police officers also play a role in pedestrian and bicycle education and enforcement, and I hope to talk to the Lowell Police Department about their policies soon.

Poor Design of the Bicycle Lanes?

Some have complained that the bicycle lanes were designed poorly: they shouldn’t be in a place that makes bicyclists vulnerable to being hit by open car doors, they should be painted green, they shouldn’t be so wide, and many other criticisms.

In this case, I looked at National Association of City Transit Official (NACTO)’s comprehensive Urban Bikeway Guide, recently adopted by Massachusetts as their bikeway design standard manual. Father Morissette has a 4’ bike lane with an approximately 2’ buffer on both sides marked by double white lines. NACTO standards for a buffered bike lane, include a minimum of 18” buffers, double white lines, treatments at intersections, and a minimum of 5’ (including buffers) to avoid doors from parked cars. It advises wider lanes when possible. The lanes fit within the NACTO standards.

Bicycle lanes in Lowell, Massachusetts.

The westbound bicycle lane shifts to the median to avoid the Pawtucket Street intersection. NACTO’s standards handle this scenario, too. Nevertheless, the shift may create confusion, especially with construction in the area.

There are additional optional treatments, such as green paint at each intersection (or along the entire path), diagonal strips in the buffer, or bollards separating the car traffic from bike lane. Some cities have even used the parked cars as a buffer from traffic. Any of these treatments might reduce confusion over whether the bicycle lanes are for cars.

Bike lane pavement marking with head worn off, Lowell, Massachusetts

The head has worn off of this Father Morissette bicyclist already.

However, each of these has an associated capital and maintenance cost. This cost must be considered against the cost of maintaining all the other lane markings in the City. In addition, the City has long-term plan to reconstruct Father Morissette, possibly with a trolley median, as outlined in the Jeff Speck Downtown Evolution plan. The parking kiosks can be reused on the new street if this happens, but expensive paint and curbing might not be.

What Now?

If you have an opinion, contact the City Council before the meeting! Planner Jeff Speck mentioned the following in an interview with Streetsblog:[7]

…The biggest mistake cities make is to allow themselves to effectively be designed by their director of public works. The director of public works, he or she is making decisions every single day about the width of streets, the presence of parking, the question of bike lanes. And he’s doing it in response to the complaints he’s hearing. But if you satisfy those complaints you wreck the city.

A typical public works director doesn’t think about “What kind of city do we want to be?” They think about what people complain about, and it’s almost always traffic and parking.

The one thing we’ve learned without any doubt, is the more room you give the car the more room they will take and that will wreck cities. Optimizing any of these practical considerations — sewers, parking, vehicle capacity — almost always makes a city less walkable.

This is why it may be helpful for residents to let councilors know that they have a positive vision for the City. Click here to Contact the City Council. I suggest writing, and then registering to speak and attending the Tuesday meeting if you are able. Writing beforehand gives councilors time to think about your comments before their vote.

Residents who support the plans Lowellians made together in visioning sessions must show that support. This is because complaints never go away: I have heard complaints about parking and panhandling in some amazing, vibrant, successful downtowns. These downtowns were successful because they listened and responded to the complaints, but also never stopped working toward the positive vision.

If we, as a community, determine there is a traffic or (non-immediate) safety problem, instead of a quick reaction, a re-examination of bicycle plans might be in order. Boston has an excellent public plan indicating primary bike routes and appropriate treatment for each. We may decide that the City should implement a different design the next time Father Morissette is resurfaced or we may decide to add more paint to the road. Regardless, we would use good data and best practices, and we would objectively measure the results against our collective vision.

Map from Sustainable Lowell 2025

Lowell is building a bicycle network, but many bicyclists still feel unsafe.

Notes

[1] As noted by Marianne Gries, the article stole an image from the Art is the Handmaid blog.

[2] Thanks to Jack at Left in Lowell for posting a short summary of the meeting along with his critiques: Motion To Delay! Oh Frabjous Day! Callooh! Callay!’

[3] It’s interesting to note that the major finding from that study is that crosswalks without other treatment have little impact on pedestrian crashes for a variety of reasons.

[4] The memo from Superintendent Taylor suggests the width of the current roadway, and therefore the width of the buffers between the bike lane and the driving lane, motorists may believe that there is a bicycle lane within a driving lane. It’s possible motorists are confusing the lane with “sharrows,” which are bicycle icons painted on roads on which bicycles are likely to be travelling. Sharrows don’t actually indicate a changed traffic pattern, as Massachusetts state law allows a bicycle to use the entire lane of a roadway when it is required for safety. The sharrow is only there to remind motorists of this fact.

[5] Thanks to Lowell Live Feed Forum commenter Marianne Gries.

[6] Thanks to Lowell Live Feed Forum commenter Marie Storm Sheehan.

[7] Thanks to Left in Lowell commenter Brian for reminding me of the relevance of this interview to today’s issue.

Mill No. 5: Local scene blooms where once there were power looms

Visitors at Mill #5

The mill’s 4th floor is transformed into an event-filled virtual indoor streetscape, with storefronts, lounge spaces, and a small theater.

February 11, Councilor Mercier requested a report for the current status and future plans for the building known as Mill No. 5 in response to a neighbor’s concerns. [1]

However, perhaps to their surprise, Councilor Mercier and Belanger “discovered the best well-kept secret that could be incubating in an old mill building,” when touring Mill No. 5. It’s a “secret” of which many of us have been aware for some time. Before it opened last year, a Boston Globe article called it, “at heart an office building for small businesses and technology start-ups… renovated with a kind of fun-house brio to attract the eclectic, off-beat, and hip.” [2]

I’m not sure if Aurora and I are eclectic, off-beat, or hip, but we’ve started attending every “A Little Bazaar Presents,” the monthly arts/crafts/more marketplaces at Mill No. 5. At March’s marketplace, “Pulp and Press,” Aurora and I bought a gift for friends and couldn’t resist buying a few “gifts” of our own. We purchased a clock and coaster set adorned with recycled maps and moon charts from Cadence Innovative Designs. To show off our finds, we decided to let you in on the Mill No. 5 “secret.”

There’s an indescribable energy in Mill No. 5, as if one could turn a corner and find anything. Friends bump into friends while DJs or live bands play anything from the newest alternative hit to smooth jazz. Permanent shops such as Vinyl Destination complement marketplace vendors or other events, and there’s always a niche to steal away to enjoy your cup of coffee and watch the people. It’s a clubhouse and a mall without the worst bits of either.

1896 Lowell Atlas detail, L.J. Richards & Co.

1924 Atlas of Lowell detail, Richards Map Company
1977 Lowell Sanborn Insurance Map
1896, 1924, and 1977 maps. Note expansions between 1896 and 1924 and demolition of many nearby buildings by 1977. (Cool atlases and more at Center for Lowell History digital map collection)

Mill No. 5 has history. It was originally part of the Appleton Manufacturing Company. Once called the “New Mill” to distinguish it from the original 1828 mills, it was built in 1873 and expanded in 1918. It is actually the oldest surviving Appleton Mill building, as the rest of the complex was demolished and reconstructed in the early 1900s.

The mill was built for a new technology: steam power. New inventions in the 1840s greatly improved steam engine’s reliability, allowing mills to be built away from the canals.[3] Although the mill’s boilerhouse was demolished in recent years, the turbine house is still viewable from Middlesex Street. I’m told it still contains the entire original steam turbines, like something from an H.R. Giger illustration.

Appleton moved production south in 1927, but leased its buildings to the Suffolk Knitting Company and other tenants. The properties changed hands several times,[4] and in 1975, Jim Lichoulas Sr. purchased the complex.[5] By then, Suffolk Knitting had gone out of business,[6] and it was difficult to find industrial tenants.[7] However, new types of tenants moved in. Over the years, Kronos Corporation, Lowell Community Charter Public School, TransMag Inc, and even, briefly the Revolving Museum.[8] However, the fourth and fifth floors of Mill No. 5 largely remained vacant. Many properties in Lowell had difficulty redeveloping prior to mid-2000s changes in the zoning which had previously prevented residences being built in many formerly-industrial sites.[9]

An old, neglected mill building is little by little transforming into an eclectic, state of the art, awe-inspiring establishment. -Councilor Rita Mercier

The current chapter of Mill No. 5’s story begins with Constantine Valhouli and Jim Lichoulas III.[10] They were kind enough to answer a few questions about the development. They describe Mill No. 5 as a dream project more than a decade old, and they had collected architectural salvage to create the indoor streetscape for nearly that long. They wanted to provide aspects they felt were missing in Greater Boston to bring dining, shopping, entertainment, and office space under one roof, allowing people to go from work to a yoga class or movie merely by crossing a hall. In addition, the space offers short-term leases for businesses just starting out.

Mill #5 sign is hung

Walk down a crooked alley. Look both ways—make sure you haven’t been followed. Then enter and be amazed!

We’re having a lot of fun taking the time to make sure that it feels right. Also, doing it this way allows us to adapt the design based on feedback, rather than sticking to a more rigid plan of development. -Jim Lichoulas III

The process has seemed slow and meticulous at times, and that is by design. They’ve opened in phases, allowing feedback to shape both physical and event development. Some of the key attractions are planned to open summer 2014, including a farm-to-table café, yoga studio, and movie theater. A small number of neighbors have complained of this uncertainty, but by and large, neighbors have been supportive and included in the process. It’s been a balancing act for the developers, who want to maintain a “sense of discovery” while being open and inclusive. Perhaps Councilor Belanger’s council meeting suggestion that “There was a bit of mystique about the building,” was appropriate.

There seem to be so many places that over-hype themselves and market themselves to the nth degree. There’s no sense of discovery with that, no feeling of adventure or mystery. Some folks have described coming to the mill for the first time as finding this unexpected oasis at the edge of downtown Lowell. -Constantine Valhouli

The physical space is only half the story, and the developers hope to fill it with “shopping, food festivals, farmer’s markets, film festivals, author lectures, theater, dance, poetry, and shows.” “A Little Bazaar Presents” is a perfect fit for the eclectic space. Amelia Tucker, artist/community organizer, wanted to create a market event for some time, and partnering with Mill No. 5 gave her an opportunity to “push the creative boundaries around ‘craft fairs.'” She and her husband plan events months in advance, secure vendors, organize live performances, and has even invited food trucks to the events.

A Little Bazaar came to be when I began planning my first event, Totally Bazaar. “A Little Bazaar presents Totally Bazaar”- I liked it, it made me laugh, and it stuck. -Amelia Tucker

Everyone I corresponded with recognizes the mill can have impacts outside its walls, and—all kidding about “uncovering secrets” aside—this is what the City Council recognized in their February meeting. Ms. Tucker reported that A Little Bazaar has had visitors ranging from college singles to families to seniors from Greater Lowell, Boston, and as far as Providence, RI and Western Massachusetts. She encourages these visitors to “make a day of it” and visit other nearby attractions. When I asked about Mill No. 5’s neighborhood context, Mr. Lichoulas spoke of the mill’s role in connecting the neighborhood with the downtown and credited the “efforts of the JAMBRA, and of Karen Bell’s leadership in particular” to address issues and increase the neighborhood’s desirability.[11]

We’re at the edge of downtown, and some people have told us that we’re playing a role in anchoring and connecting this part of the neighborhood to the stretches of downtown that have historically had much more attention.

It’s also clear that this is just the beginning. Ms. Tucker has said she is considering outdoor markets with warmer weather and happily accepts theme suggestions for future events (Email lilbazaar@gmail.com)! In response to a question about whether Mill No. 5 is seeking additional events, Mr. Valhouli said, “Oh, hell yes.” They encourage folks with ideas both large and small to contact them. (Email hello@millno5.com)!

We would like to have a full calendar of events at the mill. Something every day. We’d love people to be able to come to the mill after work, and be able to say to themselves, I haven’t even checked the website but I know that there must be something awesome going on there. -Jim Lichoulas III

More info at https://www.facebook.com/millno5 and http://alittlebazaarpresents.blogspot.com

Upcoming Mill No. 5 Events

  • Saturday, March 15: Goodies and Games. An afternoon of fun hosted by chocolatier The Dessert Yurt. Noon-8pm. Victorian Lounge.
  • Saturday, March 29: Super Robots and Giant Monsters.  A toy and art show hosted by Collection DX, Onell Design, and Incubot. 11am-7pm.  Hallway, Amaryllis Café, Victorian Lounge.  Collectiondx.com/srgm.
  • Saturday, April 5: Digs: a home and garden marketplace. One of our ongoing First Saturday marketplaces hosted by Amelia Tucker and A Little Bazaar.  Noon-7pm.  Hallway, Café, Victorian Lounge.
  • Saturday, April 12: Chords for Cancer fundraiser.  Theater.  4pm-9pm.
  • Saturday, April 19: Thread & Groove Record Show. Hosted by Vinyl Destination and A Little Bazaar.

Mill #5's iconic winding staircase

Mill No. 5’s iconic winding staircase (Courtesy Mill No. 5 facebook)

Two visitors examine vendor table inside a "storefront" at Love Buzz

Inside one of the “storefronts” at Love Buzz

Greeting Cards from http://www.trifectaeditions.com/

Unique greeting cards for less than the price of a Hallmark from http://www.trifectaeditions.com/

Map Clock and Coasters

Clock and Coasters from Cadence Innovative Designs @ Pulp & Press

Visitors shop in the hallway of Mill #5 during "Pulp and Press"

Visitors shop in the hallway of Mill No. 5 during “Pulp and Press”

Cartoons on theater screen during Mill #5's "Pulp and Press"

I think Aurora and I could be convinced to go to classic cartoon screenings at least once a week.

[1] For Dick Howe’s report on the City Council meeting from which I quote, click here.

[2] Boston Globe, 4/8/2013.

[3] All this information and more are found in the 1979 Lowell Cultural Resources Inventory, digitally archived courtesy of UMass Lowell. The historical report is here, the individual report on the boilerhouse is here, and the report on Mill No. 5’s extension is here. I was unable to find a report on the original 1873 building.

[4] Lowell Sun, 9/30/1944.

[5] Lowell Sun, 6/4/1975.

[6] I learned a bit about what happened to the Appleton Mills after Appleton left from an oral history transcript from the “After the Last Generation” project (Leni Joyce, informant; Mehmed Ali and Gray Fitzsimons, interviewer).

[7] Lowell Sun, 8/8/1977.

[8] The Revolving Museum folded in 2010. Lowell Sun, 6/15/10.

[9] As I say in many posts, this is short-changing the subject. I really could write a whole story on the 2003 Master Plan and subsequent zoning revisions.

[10] Although his family’s business owned the property for decades, Mr. Lichoulas III became the head of the company’s Lowell efforts only in the late 2000s.

[11] Mr. Lichoulas is a member of JAMBRA’s board of directors.