Hot Chocolate, Hot DTL

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City of Lights in front of the 1826 Store

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

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

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

Rosie’s Café

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Rosie Suprenant

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

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

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

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Brew’d Awakening Coffehaus

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

Baristas working at Brewd Awakening Coffehaus

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

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

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

Sweet Lydia’s

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

Customers at Sweet Lydias Candy Shop

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

Time Out Café

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

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

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

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

Cobblestones

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

UnchARTed

Lindsey Parker of UnchARTed Gallery in Lowell MA

Lindsey prepares the special Almond Joy Hot Cocoa

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

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

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

Coffee and Cotton

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

Young women serving hot chocolate at Mill No 5

The Coffee and Cotton crew serving up a keg of cocoa

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

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

Hypertext

Books at Hypertext with hot cocoa

Monkey Jungle Cocoa!

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

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

Hypertext Bookstore in Lowell MA

Gallery Z

Baristas at Gallery Z

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

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

Tables and chairs at Gallery Z in Lowell MA

1960s-inspired cafe space at Gallery Z

Local Business in Lowell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lowell Makes shop

Hot Cocoa

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

Emanuel Boutique in downtown Lowell MA

Emanuel Boutique dressed up for the holiday

Zen Foodist in downtown Lowell MA presenting hot dog

The Zen Foodist braves the weather for his signature hot dogs

Decoration at Persona Lowell MA

Holiday Rocket (?) at Persona Goods

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

Lady at UnchARTed clearly uninterested in hot cocoa

Lamps were fire extinguishers now they light up the place

Awesome upcycled lamps at Gallery Z

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Singing at the holiday marketplace on Merrimack

Gingerbread House

New meaning to “small” business owner!

Float in front of City Hall

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

Big crowd listening to Santa's wise wods

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

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Map of Doors Open Lowell

Opening Lowell’s Doors

Once a year, Lowell shows what it calls it’s “other side.” Not its dark side or its far side, but its inside.

Anywhere with this banner is open to the public during this special weekend!

Anywhere with this banner is open to the public during this special weekend!

The event is Doors Open Lowell, a time when buildings across the City open their doors to visitors to view architecture and furnishings. It’s going on now!

It was kicked off with the Community Excellence Awards yesterday. Last year we posted about the Call to Nominations but missed the event. This year, we somehow missed the nomination but attended the event!

Paul Marion speaking at Community Excellence Awards

Paul Marion speaking at Community Excellence Awards

The Community Excellence awards honor organizations and individuals who make contributions to Lowell’s historic and cultural preservation and celebration. This year’s Preservation Award honored the Whistler House Museum of Art for their preservation efforts, most recently a restoration of their kitchen. They hope to continue to transform the museum into a multiuse space, truly a “house” museum. Upper-story apartments are rented out to artists.

In addition, Patricia Fontaine won an Cultural Award for her collaboration with Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust to develop a student program for Hawk Valley Farm and with UMass Lowell for a Story Corps Project and Lowell: A City of Refugees, a Community of Citizens project. She explained that she realized that many Cambodian students were losing their heritage, as their families did not want to talk about life in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge genocide, and the refugee camps. She started teaching Cambodian history and it evolved into a project in which students interviewed their parents. The interviews are now in the National Archives.

We overheard this was the best-attended ceremony in years. The room was packed!

We overheard this was the best-attended ceremony in years. The room was packed!

Roger Brunelle also got a Cultural Award for his work with Lowell Celebrates Kerouac. One of our first posts on Learning Lowell was about one of Mr. Brunelle’s tours, and we loved it. For his part, Mr. Brunelle said something on the order of, “I don’t deserve this award, because I was having so much fun. But thanks anyway!”

Finally, perhaps the most exciting award was the Student Excellence award. Perhaps two dozen Lowell High students went on stage along with advisors to accept the award for a collaborative project between the International Institute of Lowell and the First Parish Church of Groton that let multicultural students share dance, food, art, and stories. The students spoke eloquently about how each generation strives to make things better for the next, and that they would carry on that heritage.

The main event started Friday night, with many downtown locations opening their doors. We were able to visit quite a number of places!

Gaslight building, interior

Gas Light building, interior

Architect Jay Mason explained how the current home of Gallagher and Cavanaugh started as the Gas Light Company’s offices, then became a bank, then went through many other uses including the Revolving Museum before an extensive renovation into its current form. One participant recalled going to the Revolving Museum, while another remembered the gas tanks in Lowell.

Lowell Masonic Temple, interior

Lowell Masonic Temple, interior

We were able to visit the largest of the lodge rooms in the Lowell Masonic Temple. After a light show that utilizes equipment from the 1930s to simulate a setting and rising sun, we were treated to a Q&A about the not-quite-as-secret-anymore society. It’s amazing to hear that more than a thousand Masons use the lodge, although not all of them come to every meeting.

Bowling trophy

Lowell Masonic Temple, interior

Even the first floor of the Masonic Temple is a treat, with a number of nooks and crannies with modern and vintage mixed and matched.

A real highlight of the evening was Chuck Parrott’s tour of the Merrimack and Hamilton Canalways. He was a font of knowledge, and not one question stumped him, as he answered questions ranging from where the granite in the canal walls came from (probably quarries near Lowell like in Chelmsford and Westford) to how the National Park preserved the massive gates that can close off canals to drain them (the first three wooden beams were replaced, the rest were original to the nineteenth century) to what will be built in the Hamilton Canal District (apartments with some commercial buildings mostly to the scale of the Saco-Lowell Machine shops and Appleton Mills that once stood on the spots) to why some of the Appleton Mill’s walls look so drab (they replaced crumbled mill walls, and they did not want the new construction to overshadow the remaining mill architecture).

Chuck Parrott leading tour of Canalways

Chuck Parrott leading tour of Canalways

Chuck’s tour was so informative and engaging, I hope he won’t mind if I steal a few tidbits for my trains and trolleys tour in September, part of Lowell Walks. For example, do you know that the only canal wall the National Park System owns is the Dutton Street side of Merrimack Canal, because the Boston and Maine Railroad bought it to reinforce it to support nearby trains, then NPS bought the railway for the trolleys?

Chuck Parrott leading Lowell tour

The tour went well on into the evening

We just made it in time to see the interior of two condos: Trio and the Birke building. Although we didn’t take any snapshots of the interior of the apartments, they were amazing. Each was beautiful in its own way, and we enjoyed chatting with the hosts quite a bit. We did manage to take a photo of the Trio condo’s roof patio. We briefly considered kicking the owner out of his home and living there ourselves, but figured we would be caught! Besides, he was a charming host.

Lowell, MA at night

A nice end to the evening

Doors Open Lowell continues for one more day. See http://www.doorsopenlowell.org/ for more information!

In addition, the Mill City Skill Share is occurring at locations throughout downtown and the Acre, and Made in Lowell Marketplace is happening at Mill No. 5. You can’t deny that a lot happens in Lowell!

U Lunch at UTEC

There are lots of delicious lunch destinations in downtown Lowell, and it’s our civic duty to occasionally forgo the squished pbj at the desk and treat ourselves to a lunch out. Whenever we put our money where our mouth is (get it?) and go out to eat we do our part to support a vibrant, bustling Lowell. But in terms of benefit to Lowell for your sandwich buck? It’s going to be pretty hard to beat Cafe UTEC.

I’m sure most people know what UTEC is, but if this is the first thing you’re hearing about it, basically, UTEC is exactly the kind of organization you hope your community has. They reach out to youth in the community, specifically targeting kids who are heading in directions that bring chaos and violence. They provide dedicated, accepting, nonjudgemental community and guidance that helps get them on the path to be productive and empowered citizens.

"UTEC offers all youth a clean slate"

“UTEC offers all youth a clean slate”

UTEC does this in many different ways, and with many different tools, but one of the biggies is their workforce development training, where they essentially have the youth work in-house, learning both job skills and the consistent habits that an employer will expect. UTEC builds furniture, does maintenance work, caters events, and now, they run a restaurant.

Cafe UTEC's bright and cheery space.

Cafe UTEC’s bright and cheery space.

Cafe UTEC would be a great place to go when you’re having a glum Monday- it has great energy. The kids that work there have a lot of warmth and enthusiasm, and there’s a steady hum of youthful chatter and bustling activity.  UTEC’s culture is all about positivity, just being there puts me in a better mood. It’s a breath of fresh air in a world (and occasionally a city) that can be pretty grouchy.

The food is equally fresh and energizing. Cafe fare with lots of nice lighter options, and seasonally, veggies from the community gardens of Mill City Grows. Everything I’ve had there has been flavorful and thoughtfully put together but not pretentious. Excellent vegetarian and healthy choices that don’t break the budget: $5 salads, $7 soup and sandwich combos.

I’m working my way through the menu, and I’ve been happy with everything I’ve ordered so far. I’d especially recommend the eggplant panini, the grilled cheese and soup combo, and the cinnamon-spiced hot chocolate. I’m also happy to report there’s a tofu bahn mi. Chris and I have been so far been thwarted in our love of Vietnamese sandwiches here in Lowell, for whatever reason places don’t offer the tofu option that seems to be common elsewhere.

Tasty trio: Eggplant panini, bahn mi,  grilled cheese with soup.

Tasty trio: Eggplant panini, bahn mi, grilled cheese with soup.

All of that deliciousness is made and served by youth learning specific workforce skills and lifelong workplace habits in a supportive, caring environment. Lots of kids from difficult backgrounds want to make their lives better and build a real future. But without the skills, and with so many things working against them, it’s easier said then done. If things go wrong and you’re late to work at Dunkin’ Donuts, you get fired. If you’re late to work at UTEC, they work with you to figure out what’s getting in your way, logistically or even emotionally. That extra support is the help youth need to make real, positive changes in their lives. Eating at Cafe UTEC is a great way to support those youth and these programs, and any profits the Cafe makes will go right back into the program.

Cafe UTEC is located downtown at 41 Warren St, right across the street from the Umass Lowell Inn and Conference Center. They’re open for lunch Monday-Thursday, with occasional special dinner events. You can check their facebook here for specials and deals (on Wednesday you got a free drink if you wore something Patriots themed). If you don’t already follow UTEC’s main facebook page you totally should, I find it to be a real bright spot in my facebook feed. Finally, they have a new blog over at the Sun to add to your blogroll. UTEC’s always busy, so there’s always something new to hear about. I look forward to whatever they do next!

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.

A Tale of Two Cities: Salem and Lowell

Paul Marion’s excellent post series about Salem a few weeks ago struck a chord with me (Read it here, here, and here). Last fall, I worked in Salem as a tour guide during their busy season, and I’ve spent a lot of time pondering Salem and Lowell, two cities with a lot to offer but a big difference in tourism volume. I have a couple of thoughts about what Salem does well, and how Lowell might think about playing to its own strengths in similar ways.

Connected Narratives

One thing that I think Salem does really well is sell a series of stories, a clear and connected set of narratives. A trip to any place is an immersive experience, and people want a trip to offer specific feelings. Salem has done an excellent job of simultaneously packaging itself as a place to:

  • Have fun while exploring wacky spooky history (the sillier shopping, the Witch Museum and other funky touristy “museums”),
  • Connect to the Colonial American past (The House of the Seven Gables, the Salem Maritime Historic Site, and the lovely cemeteries and historic neighborhoods), and
  • Experience a sophisticated cultural destination (the formidable Peabody Essex Museum, and the more upscale shopping and dining).
Visiting Salem is an immersive experience. Here, the red line leads you to the Witch museum with a B&B next door. (Google Maps)

Salem is an immersive experience. Here, a red line leads you from Witch Village to the Witch Museum and nearby B&B.

These three separate but overlapping narratives bring in a critical mass of visitors and give them a clear sense of Salem as a destination. Lowell has strong narratives too! I think this is one of Lowell’s greatest strengths, and when I say that, keep in mind that I visited as a tourist before I ever considered living here. I think Lowell is really lucky in that many of its biggest draws from a tourism perspective fit into a series of stories or ideas.

  • The most obvious is the industrial history story associated with the National Park here.
  • Overlapping with that is the theme of textiles generally, with the National Park, the Textile Museum, and the Quilt Museum.
  • Another strong motif is immigration and different ethnic and cultural groups, again told in the Park, and with our many unique ethnic neighborhoods and restaurants.
  • Finally, there’s an overarching story here about revitalization, about historic preservation and a cultural turnaround.

Although these narratives exist, they are not quite as smoothly packaged yet as Salem’s. It wouldn’t be too hard to put together brochures or walking guides along these lines: “Lowell will have you in stitches for your day of textile fun” or “Eat your way across the Acre.”

Museums could anchor a Lowell Textile Tour.

Museums could anchor a Lowell Textile Tour (Bing Maps).

Outreach to Boston

The day we visited Boston, we found 2 pamphlets for Salem but none for Merrimack Valley.

The day we visited Boston, we found two pamphlets for Salem but none for Merrimack Valley.

Interacting with the folks on tours in Salem made it clear to me that it has figured out how to sell itself as a day trip from Boston. Salem gets tons of non-regional visitors, especially during the Halloween season. People I chatted with were often visiting Salem for the day as part of a longer trip to Boston. Lowell is just about the same distance from Boston as Salem (theoretically half an hour by car, 30-45 minutes by train), but I think we’re not reaching this market as well as we might be.

salem3One explanation for this? Salem has amazing tourism outreach. Check out this example from Faneuil Hall. Here’s one of the big card displays offering the visiting tourist a million options. See Salem? It’s there twice, in Salem’s nice glossy booklet and in House of the Seven Gables. Where’s Lowell? Nowhere. Now, sometimes I see the Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau booklet there, which is something, but that booklet is covering a huge area, and Lowell’s just part of it. I think the unprepared tourist, trying to decide what to do with their day, is unlikely to be led to Lowell.

Now why is Salem so much better at this? Some of it we can’t change. Lowell’s biggest draw is the National Park, and the National Park can’t spend money on advertising. Like literally, legally, they can’t. Salem’s National Park stuff is a smaller piece of the pie, proportionally. The mighty Peabody Essex, other historic sites, plus all those funky stores and touristy “museums” band together and spend a lot more money than Lowell can, at least right now. That doesn’t mean Lowell can’t apply its resources strategically, of course.

What can Lowell do?

Quilts on display at NEQM.

I think the biggest thing Lowell can do to try to copy the positive aspects of Salem is think about how to strengthen and play to the strong themes it has going. I get the impression Lowell does get “textile” theme tourists, for instance. How can we figure out how to make their day in Lowell a more immersive, memorable experience? I think a store that sold fabric or crafting supplies in the downtown might be a good fit there. Maybe we can figure out how to better wind in Lowell’s modern textile artists too. I notice that several of this years’ Parker Lectures are textile-themed, that’s probably a strong connection.

Mill Works, contemporary fiber art recently exhibited at ATHM.

Also key: more communication and collaboration between Lowell’s diverse forces, as suggested by the recent marketing meeting in June and the emergence of First Thursdays. If Lowell’s forces put their heads and their money together, they can present a stronger, more unified front.

On a smaller scale, there’s something everybody excited about Lowell can do to help it. Good internet reviews and buzz are a big part of how people make their travel decisions. This is an area where Salem is running laps around us: for example, the Peabody Essex Museum has 135 Yelp reviews. The American Textile History Museum has eight. Each of us can help Lowell by taking to our favorite social media and making sure that people know about what there is to do in Lowell. Consider taking a minute and dropping some positive Tripadvisor or Yelp reviews of restaurants, stores, and cultural destinations you like. Follow and Like the cultural organizations you enjoy, and Share their pictures and announcements with your friends. I’m not suggesting any level of phony boosterism. But these things do matter, and it requires such a teeny amount of effort to support the organizations in Lowell you want to see do well.

I’ve visited both Lowell and Salem as a tourist, and now I’ve guided tourists in both as well. Both are fun, vivid places, with lots to see and do (and eat). Lowell is every bit as interesting as Salem as a destination, and I often chat with tourists in Lowell who’ve had a wonderful experience visiting the city and have really felt a connection to its stories. I don’t want everything that Salem has for Lowell: some of its spooky tourism crosses the line from cheesy to downright disrespectful. Chatting with Salem locals, it was clear that too much tourism can be a curse as well as a blessing, and that sometimes the city could be a weird place to actually live. But I’m confident that Lowell could handle a little more tourism without losing its strong sense of itself.

Let us know in the comments if you have thoughts on other good strategies Lowell could adopt from Salem or other potential tourism role-models.