Diving Deeper into DPD’s January Downtown Report

A few weeks ago, I explored the a Downtown Vacancy Report prepared for Lowell’s City Council by the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and compared it to a similar report issued one year ago. The council discussed the report at their next meeting, praising its comprehensiveness while lamenting that some landlords are less aggressive at marketing their property than others.

The report is the first in a series of planned reports every six months, which will give a richer picture of trends than a single snapshot in time. It was a response to a motion by Councilors Leahy and Kennedy, who suggested a report in the wake of announcements of La Boniche and Giovanni’s Trends’s closure. Councilor Kennedy said, “I think it’s important that the City Council and the administration monitor just what’s going on downtown.”[1]

However, it raised questions for me: Why was the amount of commercial space shrinking? Are rents comparable to other cities? What are the factors that are influencing businesses to close? I reached out to the City’s Economic Development Officer, and she was incredibly generous with her time to discuss these and other issues related to the Downtown.

What’s the source for the information?

The Lowell Sun recently reported that the report was a result of “a recent study commissioned by the city”, but city staff actually continuously update the City’s commercial property database.

For the total number of square feet of commercial and residential space, the DPD uses the assessor’s database—the same database that powers the City’s public map app.

Sample Site Finder Report.

Example page from Site Finder Report. Lowell produces reports tailored to businesses’ needs.

DPD uses a variety of sources to track the tenants of each property. For most of the larger properties, they can find information with their subscription to CoStar, a company that communicates with real estate brokers and property owners across the US daily to provide up-to-date information to real estate professionals and urban planners. Smaller properties are more difficult to track. For those, the city keeps in constant contact with the property owners or the real estate brokers who work with those owners.

The City feeds all of this information into a database application called SiteFinder. That way, they can give reports of many available spaces to individuals looking to start or expand businesses. Some cities, such as Somerville, make this information available online. However, DPD would rather individuals contact the City for the information, so that they can begin a personalized conversation and better determine the needs of the individual business and offer appropriate assistance programs.

To prepare a Downtown Vacancy Report, they just need to double-check their records are up-to-date, use the information they already have, and write notes on key properties.

Why did the total commercial Square Feet shrink?

Interior of Counting House Lofts Apartment, Lowell

Interior of Counting House Lofts Apartments (Image: Counting House Lofts)

One of the most striking differences between this and last year’s report was that commercial square footage dropped by about 800,000 square feet. The City reported that the bulk of the change was conversion from commercial space to residential, such as:

  • Countinghouse Lofts, converted about 100,000 square feet to residential
  • The former Adden Building, adjacent to Counting House Lofts, converted 85,000 Square feet into 70 mixed-income residential (80% market rate)
  • 226-228 Central Street, being converted into condo-style apartments
  • 24-26 Merrimack Street (above Dunkin Donuts), converting 60,931 square feet into 47-market-rate residential units
  • A portion of Boott Mills West, converted into 77 market-rate residential units by WinnDevelopment

What about rents?

Vacancy is only part of the picture, and average rents are another important part. The City shared CoStar reports about downtown Lowell and surrounding communities.

Per Square Foot average Annual Rent (2014, 4th Quarter)

Retail Class C Office*
Downtown Lowell $12-$15 $11-$12
Greater Boston Average $16.14 $17.31
Southern New Hampshire $12.34 $16.39
Worcester $15.88
Rt. 3 North $15.92

*Real estate professionals categorize office space into three classes. Class C is the lowest, which may be in run-down buildings, in less-desirable areas, and/or need renovation for modern use.

Average rents must be taken with a grain of salt: many smaller properties offer negotiable rents, and some rents include utilities or common space, while others don’t. With those caveats in mind, Downtown Lowell’s retail rent range appears comparable to the area, slightly lower than the Greater Boston average but in-line with Southern New Hampshire. However, downtown offices appear to command low rents, and this may be one clear reason why commercial-to-residential conversions happen more quickly than new office development. For example, new Boott Mills apartments can provide nearly $24.00 PSF of revenue annually.[2]

Low rents might tell a story of a struggling downtown, with property owners only making enough to pay taxes. However, high rents and high vacancy may represent landlords overvaluing their properties.[3] That doesn’t appear to be the case with downtown as a whole, but it might be true for certain properties, with some landlords seeking rents that are comparable to Class A or B space even though they don’t have basic amenities such as internet access.

What does DPD currently do to help businesses?

The original motion requesting the report wasn’t just about vacancy. Councilor Leahy said, “I’m surprised we don’t get some semi-annual reports or annual reports [from DPD] to keep the Council informed on what they’re working on, where we’re going, what the direction is.”

I was made aware of a few of the active programs to promote business:

One of the marquee programs still available is the Downtown Venture Fund. This program was started in 2001 as a partnership between the City of Lowell, the Lowell Development and Finance Corporation, and several banks to provide low-interest loans to individuals that want to start restaurant or retail establishments in the core of downtown Lowell. Over 300 businesses have taken advantage of the fund in the last twelve years, including Blue Taleh and Old Court. I’m sure there are a lot of stories about the loans being critical pieces of dreams made true—a Boston Business Journal article explained, “To a person, the [interviewed] entrepreneurs said they could not have gotten their businesses off the ground without the Venture Fund…”

The Merrimack Valley Small Business Center provides microloans, workshops, and mentorship programs to small businesses in Lowell, Lawrence, and other towns. They also run a community kitchen and the outdoor summer Farmer’s Market. They have helped many small businesses in the downtown area.

The Sign and Façade Program grew out of the City Manager’s Neighborhood Impact Initiative, which ran from 2009-2013 under City Manager Bernie Lynch. The former program concentrated on a different neighborhood each year, targeting sidewalk, security, façade, and other improvements in a coordinated way. The funding pool is now being used partially for a grant of up to $2,000 for any eligible business throughout the City to improve its appearance, including paint, lighting, awnings, or signage.

These, along with communication with brokers, landowners, and prospective tenants, are largely the same programs that were around during the last downtown improvement report.

What else could be done?

Pop-Up Stores

Pop-up store in Holyoke, 2013.

Pop-up store in Holyoke, 2013. Image: Spaces of Possibility

Pop-ups are stores that might be only open for a weekend or a season, filling a vacant storefront temporarily, either as an expansion of an existing business or a whole new business. Some pop-ups are successful, and evolve into year-long businesses, while others fill a specific niche at a specific time. Either way, they create a sense of liveliness and draw an audience that helps neighboring, permanent businesses.

I have been told that many landlords require a two-to-three year lease, wanting to lock-in stability rather than deal with the increased workload and uncertainty of shorter terms. This is common, as short-term leases are relatively new: an article about Washington DC might as well be written about Lowell, even with the City interested in promoting the concept. What may be needed is a legal framework and model lease to make it easier for reluctant landlords.

Window Displays

Downtown display for First Thursday im

Downtown display for First Thursday (Image: Mary Hart)

DPD is working closely with COOL to make it possible for more artists to display public art or other installations in vacant stores. However, they’ve been encountering difficulty when property owners cite insurance and liability concerns. During the City of Lights parade, artwork was displayed in some windows, and one of the pieces disappeared, either stolen or accidentally thrown away. These incidents create even more doubt that an arrangement is possible without clear legal terms.

Notably, we can also build on many success stories. For example, a local artist and a property owner worked together to showcase a colorful display about Lowell’s First Thursdays 2015.

Architectural Lighting

Notes from September Business Summit

  • More lighting, brighter lights
  • Surveillance cameras around downtown
  • Cleanliness
    • Windows cleaned on a daily basis
    • Planters (consistent)
  • Public bathrooms (Is there one in John Street garage? Why not in Market Street garage?)
  • Panhandlers/element
  • Valet parking for business (Dudley’s)
  • Lack of retail
  • Survey residents for their shopping habits
  • Meals tax
  • Permitting
  • Real Estate taxes
  • Investment by property owners
  • BID
  • Shop Lowell campaign
  • Future Downtown Business Summit
  • Street cleaning during early morning
  • Off-street parking
  • Better removal of snow during snow parking bans
  • No parking in John Street garage
  • Loading zones at the corner of Central/Merrimack Street
  • Old Court corner

A primary concern raised by some of the dozens who attended the September Downtown Business Summit (see sidebar) was the need for more lighting downtown. I was told that the City hoped to add brighter bulbs for the Victorian lamps downtown, but other interesting ideas have been raised.

The DPD may look for funding to help property owners install architectural lights that would brighten downtown and show off downtown’s greatest physical asset: its architecture. Additionally, there may be ways to encourage downtown businesses to leave storefront lights on during the night to showcase their window displays. This may involve education or finding funding for low-cost LEDs to reduce electricity bills.

Upgrading Office Space

Finally, another issue of concern is that property owners’ options for securing low-interest loans, grants, or other assistance for renovations are limited. Businesses looking to grow or expand can often obtain state financing from sources such as MassDevelopment, and developers creating housing can find funding from historic and low income tax credits.

However, property owners wishing to renovate offices with elevators, improved wiring and heating, internet connections, or other work without a tenant lined up have no such options. It’s a catch-22, as a tenant could secure financing, but few tenants are interested in considering old buildings without renovations. It may be another reason we see more apartment conversions than office development.

DPD is continuously looking for ways to help property owners finance renovations to attract new office tenants. However, it’s clear that speculative renovation carries its own risks. Trinity Financial renovated 110 Canal Street for $14 million, finishing in spring 2013, but it still took until spring of 2014 to officially secure UMass Lowell’s Innovation Hub and M2D2 Expansion as a tenant for two of the four floors, and UMass Lowell won’t finish the interior improvements and move in until at least summer 2015. Still, it’s unclear if UMass Lowell would have selected that site for expansion without those initial improvements made two years ago.

Is Downtown in a Good Place?

The critical question remains: is downtown on the right track? When the City Council discussed the January Vacancy Report, they seemed to be optimistic. Councilor Belanger said, “We have a fantastic planning and development dept. We will be getting another update in six months and believe it will further improve… Downtown is going in the right direction; there is no doubt in my mind.”

Their discussion focused largely on “problem” landlords. Councilor Kennedy said, “I know it’s difficult, because we don’t own that property, so it’s not like we can do anything we want. It’s really up to the landlords to determine just how aggressive they’ll be renting out their property, but I imagine everybody would like to be at full occupancy if they could,” and others echoed his sentiments.

City Manager Murphy agreed. He relayed a story of the City lining up a tenant for a large storefront downtown, but the property owner declined, planning on selling the building and believing that the property would be more valuable empty than with a tenant.

Councilor Kennedy suggested engaging a retail expert or commercial broker to provide suggestions, and the City Manager said that the City would provide a report on the efficacy of doing such.

It is still unclear why downtown seems to have been hit particularly hard in the last year, with several long-term tenants closing shop. The Sun reported that Giovanni’s Trends owner said that the two-way traffic conversion was a factor, but Councilor Belanger expressed surprise at this in the City Council meeting; he said that conversations he had with business owners about the change had been largely positive.

An often-cited reason for optimism is the expansion of UMass Lowell and transformation of Lowell into a college town. The latest UMass Lowell alumni magazine described an event in which the Chancellor of UMass Lowell and the City Manager reached out to a crowd of 100 students on how to Lowell could better serve students. The article explored the question of what a “college town” is and what benefits colleges could bring. The article ended with a quote from Paul Marion: “It’s not going to happen on its own. And it will take time. But the right starting steps are being taken.”

Indeed, it does appear that new businesses are moving in to serve a college crowd. Bishop’s Legacy Restaurant is serving food in a more to-go than sit-down setting, and Jimmy John’s, a national sandwich chain famous for their campus locations, is moving in the Giovanni’s Trends space.

Coming soon, we will write about two other exciting initiatives, the development of a Downtown Business Improvement District and Downtown Business Association. Additionally, the City Manager is planning a follow-up summit with property owners in the near future. In the meantime, please let us know whether you have any other questions about DPD or downtown!

Notes

[1] Councilor Kennedy mentioned that Giovanni’s Trends mentioned a negative impact of the two-way conversion and wanted to survey business owners to better understand what impacts they experienced. Councilor Leahy also mentioned derelict storefronts, including those on Fletcher Street near the senior center.

[2] Residential and commercial property can’t be compared directly. For example, residents don’t pay for common space like laundry rooms, while offices pay for common space like lobbies. Residents don’t pay for repairs, while offices might. An empty store costs less to build than an empty apartment. Finally, offices are almost always have more time between tenants than apartments. Therefore, property owners use more extensive analysis when considering converting commercial into residential units.

[3] In a very large market, it’s possible to determine whether rents are appropriate by comparing them to the amount buildings sell for, but in a small market with only a few sales like downtown, it’s harder to make these estimates.

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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!

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.

 

Learning Lowell Pub Crawl: Coming to a Downtown Near You!

Hi, everyone!

Chris and I decided we need to learn more about Lowell’s fine establishments, and what better way to do that than invite our readers on a pub crawl? This Friday, we will meet at Old Worthen and move steadily eastward, one bar an hour. Everyone is invited and welcome to join for all or part of the night to share stories and good times. We don’t know if we will have a small or large group, but either way, we know it will be fun!

Schedule

Friday, June 13

  • Old Worthen – 7:00 pm
  • Cobblestones  – 8:00 pm
  • Fuse Bistro – 9:00 pm
  • Old Court  – 10:00 pm
  • Ward 8 – 11:00 pm

“Lowell Looks Ahead” Part 2: Downtown and Business Friendliness

A couple of weeks ago, we reviewed the panelists of “Lowell Looks Ahead,” a talk show roundtable hosted by Teddy Panos of WCAP, and what the panel said about education’s role in economic development.[1] This week, we will cover the remaining themes. Notably, this post won’t cover the show verbatim, as panelists skipped back and forth between topics. Rather, panelists’ comments are arranged by topic with my own thoughts and fact-checking interspersed. I encourage anyone interested to listen to the remarks made in context here.

One important topic that won’t be covered is the Lowell High School. We’re planning a series of posts about this topic, and we will include the panel’s comments there.

Downtown Developments

Merrimack Street looking east, Lowell, Mass. (Courtesy of Library of Congress/Forgotten New England)

Bon Marche as it once was. (Courtesy of Library of Congress/Forgotten New England)

Perhaps the most controversial items the panel discussed were about Lowell’s downtown. Most of the panelists lived in Lowell when major department stores such as Bon Marche and Cherry & Webb were downtown. The panel agreed that the retail anchor model was unlikely to return. George Behrakis recalled a turning point when he was speaking to a friend as Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce:

He said to me, “Listen, shopping centers have taken over. If local communities are to be competitive, you need parking where your store is. The women are not going to walk from a parking lot to the store. The old days are gone where everybody walked downtown or took the bus downtown.” –George Behrakis

Jim Cook, of Lowell Plan, spoke during one segment of the show and agreed that a large department store “is not going to happen.” However, he noted that smaller start-ups funded by the Lowell Development Financial Corporation, such as the Back Page, are finding success and stability.

Chancellor Marty Meehan of UMass Lowell mentioned another important development:

We have a proposal from a potential developer that would build a hotel and also looking to build private housing as well. They’re in negotiations right now, talking to that developer, but nothing has materialized yet. –Chancellor Marty Meehan

Chancellor Meehan also noted that environmental cleanup needs may impede development. There haven’t been any announcements about the parcel since the show. The Chancellor also noted that, although state funding was not available to build an adjacent practice rink at the time of Tsongas Center’s construction, “Frankly, going division 1 in all sports… is going to mean that we need to get that practice rink that should have been built, really, in the beginning.”

Thorndike Furniture Outlet

Comfort Furniture Building (Courtesy richardhowe.com)

The show also included Sal Lupoli, who recently purchased the former Comfort Furniture building, a prime development site near Gallagher terminal. Mr. Lupoli explained that he negotiated for “well over” three years with the two owners, before finally reaching a deal. He now plans market-rate housing atop destination retail such as “a restaurant, a small upscale pub or small upscale environment whether they’re getting off train or bus.” He credited the state delegation for including funding in the Transportation Bond Bill for an overhead connection to the Gallagher terminal parking garage.

Regardless of anything else, I believe Mr. Lupoli’s successful negotiation is impressive. Jerry Caplan is the owner of Thorndike Mill Outlet and former co-owner of the building.

What we need to do is work with Jerry, because he’s local, and what we believe in as a company… is to “enhance, not disrupt.” –Sal Lupoli

Mr. Lupoli said that there was a “small timeframe” for Mr. Caplan to downsize, but he hopes to keep Mr. Caplan there “for a while.” He also says that development will move slowly, so that he can work closely with the City Council and planners to “maximize” the site.

Despite positive developments, the panel believes downtown vacancies are a problem. Mr. Panos said bluntly, “Our main drag is pretty barren.” Mr. Cook agreed vacancies are a concern, but argued that downtown’s vacancy rate was comparable to nearby malls’ vacancy rates, suggesting much of the turnover was related to personal reasons or larger trends and not downtown’s viability.

Mr. Cook may not be far off: the 2012 overall retail vacancy rate was 7.9% in Boston’s northwest suburbs (including Greater Lowell), and Lowell’s downtown retail vacancy was 8.55% last December, but up-to-date reports are costly. Regardless, it is clear that the vacant, prominent storefronts trouble many in the city.

Are Lowell’s Demographics Problematic?

Median Income by Census Tract

Median Income by Census Tract (Source: City-data.com)

Many blame downtown’s difficulties on its surrounding demographics. Mr. Panos suggested that because of downtown’s large number of income-restricted housing units, there are not enough residents with “disposable income” to attract chain retail, restaurants, and boutique stores. The panel agreed. Mark O’Neil brought up a chicken-and-egg problem: amenities that would attract upper-income residents will not move in without upper-income residents. He said, “Trader Joe’s is not going to come downtown. A hardware store would not survive.”

Mr. Behrakis turns to “Griffin Report” and “Advertising Age” for real estate trends, and says:

You look at “what is the spending power of Lowell in downtown.” Because there isn’t any there, no one’s coming. –George Behrakis

I know of a saying in real estate: “Retail follows rooftops” (the commercial market lags the residential by up to a year.) Initial residential attraction could be related to a combination of affordability and interesting destinations. When enough of these residents move in, chains crunch the numbers and move in, in turn attracting more residents in a virtuous cycle.[2] However, each resident supports only a limited amount of retail, regardless of their income. A “rule of thumb” is that each household can support 15 to 20 square feet of walkable retail, and I plan to do an analysis based on this rule in a future post.

Mr. McCallum suggested an additional problem: as properties are turned into residences; those properties are taxed at the lower rate even though residents require more services. Research consistently shows that residences generally cost a city more than the taxes they generate, regardless of whether a split rate is used. This is a problem for every town.

Can Downtown Attract Out-of-Towners?

If converting storefronts to residences to “correct” the size of downtown is off the table, downtown must attract shoppers from out-of-town. Speaking on this, Mr. McCallum said, “If you build it, they will come.” He listed attractions and events that already attract residents, but Mr. O’Neil countered that he lives in Westford, and although his friends go to Lowell to attend a ballgame or restaurant, they “go right home” afterward.

This echoed a sentiment Mr. Behrakis made early in the program:

…you’ve got to change your philosophy, you’ve got to change your style of downtown. Whether it’s the Market Street or John Street garage, they’re not going to walk at night to go to a restaurant. It’s very difficult [even] for [Memorial] Auditorium, to park in the parking lot, for a woman to walk across the street. You have to go down at ten or eleven at night, and tell me if you’re going to walk alone. So, safety is a big factor for the downtown. Women going to a restaurant at night, they don’t want to go near a bar, walking home going to their car.

Although I think there are absolutely will walk if there are good destinations and proper amenities such as lights and good sidewalks, I did agree with Mr. Behrakis on another point: he advocated for more effort to attract businesses (and therefore lunch and after-work customers) to upper stories of downtown buildings. He said, “They will spend money. Housing won’t bring in money.”

Business Friendliness and Taxes

Following this, the question may be whether Lowell is a competitive location for businesses. When asked this, the panel immediately brought up Lowell’s tax rates. Robert Caruso, CEO of Lowell Five Bank, said that Lowell Five’s property taxes rose 66% in five years and “That is not an indication it is a business-friendly environment.” He said Lowell had one of the highest commercial rates in Massachusetts, sending a “bad message.” He said Haverhill had a more competitive rate.

Mr. McCallum and Mr. Behrakis agreed. They said that businesses look at the total cost of running that business, and taxes are naturally part of the cost. While Mr. McCallum compared Lowell’s taxes unfavorably to other parts of the United States such as North Carolina, Mr. Behrakis said that he owns properties in Lexington, Bedford, Haverhill, Cambridge, and Boston, and that Lowell ranks #1 in taxes. He says an “old community” like Lowell cannot compete on taxes.

Mr. Panos mentioned that most city officials he’s spoken with have said that businesses “don’t look” at the tax rate, but suspects the real reason the tax rate is not changed is because it is “political suicide” to suggest a residential tax increase. He argued that it is “shortsighted thinking,” but nobody is “getting through to the elected officials,” and they show a lack of understanding of what motivates businesspeople to open businesses.

I actually have to partially disagree with the panel. Studies show that although business owners often cite taxes as a primary concern in surveys, links between tax incentives and job growth are ambiguous at best. Business’s behavior shows that infrastructure, cost and skill of local labor, local supply and demand, and even ease of navigating land use regulations are more important in their decision-making. Retailers will look for customers, tech companies will look for places that skilled workers want to move, and manufacturers will look for a combination of good transportation infrastructure and low labor costs.

I do believe Mr. McCallum is correct in that taxes are a consideration. However, the relative importance of taxes is different for each business type; rate is less important than overall tax bill; and tax stability is nearly as important. A developer wants confidence that when she creates a pro-forma for a property, her predictions on income and cost will both be close to correct. The taxes will then be factored into how much the developer will offer for the property. However, if there’s a worry that there will be a sudden jump in taxes, it’s much harder to determine an offer. This is not to underestimate how important efficient use of taxes is. A successful community cannot have a high tax without infrastructure, amenities, and services commensurate with that tax.

This is why Marc O’Neil’s observation requires some consideration. He predicts that there will be a tax increase in this fiscal year and believes that the rate should be more balanced between residences and businesses. He suggested that the business community needs to come together as a force to ask for lower business property taxes, and that it stops “people from coming in or expanding.” I would be very interested to know which businesses may have considered Lowell if it weren’t for taxes.

Is it Just an Attitude?

During Sal Lupoli’s segment, Mr. Panos asked, “Why did you choose Lawrence first?” Mr. Lupoli explained that he originally wanted to open a store on Merrimack, but it didn’t work out and he opened instead in Salem, New Hampshire (in 1990). In 2002, he sought to expand from his Salem facility into Massachusetts and examined Lowell, Lawrence, and Haverhill because of their large, talented labor pools. As to how he made a final choice, he said, “To tell you the truth, it was the City of Lawrence that refused to let me leave the office.”

He expanded:

Any entrepreneur, woman or man, that creates their business from scratch, they want to be welcome. Because as an entrepreneur, you have a lot of things you’re dealing with on a daily basis, and when it comes to the permitting process, or when it comes to building that public-private partnership, you want to be welcome… You want resources only the town offers or has has access to or has tacit knowledge of in order to be successful.

He said that the ideal city makes an entrepreneur say, “How can I fail,” because of people “rooting for” the company and offering resources. He said that it was the “little things that make all the difference, because that may be the tipping point.”

I will tell you today, and it’s because of 25 years of hard work, I go into communities that want me in that community. If I knock on somebody’s door and the Town Manager or the Mayor answers the door in some respect, and it’s lukewarm, or they start to tell me about all the hurdles, and they say “no because,” instead of “yes yes,” Then you know what I do? I politely shake their hands, wish them well, and I go on to the next community that wants to take my tax money, or take the opportunity to create some kind of business in that community. And there are plenty of communities in these 350 plus towns and cities that want jobs and want tax revenue.

In my experience, Mr. Lupoli’s position is common. It’s a fact that communities compete with one another. In many cases, this inspires communities to be efficient, creative, cooperative, and uncorrupt. Other times, it becomes a mere competition between states that to give the largest tax break. Regardless, Mr. Lupoli mentioned that the City of Lowell’s reception had been “nothing but positive,” mentioning that Lowell’s three representatives “have always embraced” him.

Partnerships

This speaks to an important theme revisited throughout the panel: partnerships between business and public entities. Teddy Panos asked the panel whether City Councilors approached each of them for advice. Mark O’Neil laughed that the “City Manager constantly comes to us.” Quite a few candidates reached to Mr. McCallum, and mentioned that it was a two-way street. Businesspeople also have the power to reach out to officials, and he always had a good relationship with them. He never had issues and would meet “not frequently, but once in a while.”

Mr. Caruso said he talked to only Corey Belanger, Rodney Elliot, John Leahy, and Rita Mercier in the previous election, and was asked about the location of Lowell High School and economic development. He credited them for making time, as Lowell has many competing issues, and it is sensible that a single business manager would not be a priority. Nevertheless, he believes there is not enough political outreach. He noted public/private partnership in Lowell has been a winning strategy for many years, and that the state delegation has continued to be cooperative with business.

I did find it notable that the three of the four City Councilors Mr. Caruso named have made many of the economic development-related motions in 2014, such as creating a downtown hotel initiative, downtown task force, or weighing in on the Lowell High School decision.

The Lowell Plan: Is its Next Step a Shared Marketing Campaign?

Lowell Plan LogoMr. Caruso previously sat on the board of the Lowell Plan, and said that this was one vehicle that “at least used” to serve as a vehicle for public/private cooperation. Mr. Cook, its director, said that losing someone with “the stature of Paul Tsongas” changed the Lowell Plan’s role. He said that it now operates behind the scenes and provides a “sort of round-table” where business community and elected officials can talk about the community.

Many initiatives have come out of this dialogue, such the American City Corporation 80s downtown study, partnerships with UMass Lowell and Middlesex Community College, the “There’s a Lot to Like About Lowell” marketing program, the 10-year plan for downtown, and more recently, the “Downtown Evolution” plan by Jeff Speck Associates. Mr. Cook agreed that the city needs to begin a “solid marketing program” for 2014, and believes Lowell Plan can push that initiative forward.

I’ve recently learned that the Lowell Plan is being used as a model for both Lawrence and Salem. Not only does it facilitate dialogue, it plays unsung roles as well: as a private agency, it can start programs and make deals without the red tape of the federal or state governments. It can also hold private meetings, where businesspeople and city officials can be frank without worrying about political repercussions. However, this “lack of transparency” is often what many citizens critique. To me, this is a difficult balance to achieve. Backroom deals invite corruption, but too much control makes it difficult for the government to move quickly, think beyond the election cycle, or take perhaps-proven actions that nevertheless don’t fit within cookie-cutter enabling laws.

Chamber of Commerce: Focusing on the Positive

Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce LogoDanielle McFadden, President and CEO of the Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce, spoke on their role in economic development:

The partnerships that are happening right now are really great. We can all continue to work together. We can keep the conversations going. –Danielle McFadden

Although Ms. McFadden acknowledged the problem of vacant storefronts, she focused on the positive. She shared that Little Delights is working on coordinating businesses for a shared mailing. The owners of El Potro said that their reception in Lowell was better than Somerville, and they were amazed that they were invited to a City Council meeting and that the mayor attended their opening.

When asked whether the Chamber of Commerce received pushback from businesses in the outer neighborhoods and the outer suburbs because of the amount of focus on Lowell’s downtown, Ms. McFadden reported there was no pushback. She believed that they agreed that “Naturally you will gravitate toward downtown.  A vibrant downtown creates a destination.”

Why Should We Have a New Partnership?

One of the suggestions that came out of the panel was for a new committee that might assist businesses and the City working together.

Good government creates good communities. We have a good government. We have a city council, a plan E. I think they should put together, as I mentioned before, I think the Mayor needs to put together a committee to look into all this and work with the Lowell Plan, the Chamber of Commerce, but also the business community. –George Behrakis

He suggested strategizing and “bringing in consultants.” We mentioned this idea in “Quite a Task: Downtown Lowell Task Forces,” but since then, I’ve heard Mayor Elliot has been working on forming the committee. I hope he releases more information soon, as I was unable to tell from the panel why they felt existing venues did not serve their needs.

Partnerships between Businesses and Residents: Do they Understand One Another?

Toward the end of the show, Mr. Panos mentioned that many asked him to include a resident perspective, but he mentioned that WCAP features citizen perspectives “every day.” However, the producers looked to businesspeople for the panel because, “If you’re looking to create medicine, you go to a pharmacist or doctor… if you’re looking to create jobs… you’re going to go to the folks who employ people.”

He thought that residents did not understand the business perspective, such as in the debate between residential and commercial tax rates or even in the national attitude about income inequality. He asked the panel how to bridge that divide. Mr. McCallum suggested:

Put them to work in good-paying jobs. That’s what we need to do. People will understand that. They can relate to it, obviously. You’ve got to take this from conversation to reality. And the reality is that people need a livelihood. –Elkin McCallum

Mr. McCallum believed that regardless of anything else, the economy changed and people just want to return to well-paying jobs. He praised philanthropists for bridging the divide, and believed there was mutual respect, but not understanding. However, Mr. Caruso suggested it was because of national tone:

I believe part of our divide today is because of our politicians… They’re talking about income injustice and inequality, that’s going to be a big thing you will hear about… What we need is unity, and we have to stop the name calling. –Robert Caruso

He believed Senator Elizabeth Warren, criticizing big business, is causing part of the divide. Mr. Behrakis agreed that partisan politics is creating disunity, compared to his experience decades ago.

What Path Lowell?

Quincy Market

Rouse’s first and most famous festival marketplace (Courtesy wikimedia)

Ultimately, the key question for Lowell’s downtown is how to attract shoppers and businesses. Mr. Behrakis believes the city should have followed a 1970s-era plan:

When Paul Tsongas was in town, he brought the group together, people that did Fanuiel Hall and Copley Place [American City Corporation, a subsidiary of Rouse Company]… I still have the plans, because I was on that committee. I don’t think too much was done to revitalize. –George Behrakis

Rouse Company was famous for designing and promoting shopping centers in the 1950s, planned communities in the 1960s, and festival marketplace conversions such as Fanueil Hall in the 1970s. James Rouse also advocated for large-scale urban renewal projects. I have never seen their Lowell plan, but from the description, it included changes to make downtown more of a destination shopping area than a traditional downtown.

Several other plans (detailed briefly here) have been drafted subsequently. Speaking about these, Mr. Panos said:

Every couple of years, we do one of these “how to fix the downtown things” but we haven’t been able to really settle on one thing. Is the Jeff Speck plan the way to go, or is the city and the downtown still seeking for an identity? –Teddy Panos

At another point in the show, Mr. Caruso said to Mr. Panos, “You and I, we laugh a lot. The only thing that came out of Jeff Speck so far is the bicycle lanes.” He also said:

Some of the ideas that the people who… have a history here in Lowell, I think add more [than] having somebody come in from the outside and tell you “this is what you really need.” –Robert Caruso

The panel agreed that plans are made without resident input or thought to previous plans. However, to me, each effort has built upon the last, incorporating local input, goals, and ideas. Incomplete action items from older plans are often included, as they can only be executed when conditions are right—for example, a trolley expansion or a development next to Tsongas Center. However, given that an agency rarely wants to advertise “what it has left to do,” perhaps implementation could be more systematically tracked and advertised.

A Highway Downtown?

Map of proposed Lowell Connector Extension

Lowell Connector to downtown, as proposed in 1956 (coreysciuto.blogspot.com)

The panel did suggest some ideas, and Mr. Behrakis suggested a controversial one:

I know I’m going to bring up a controversy, but I think the bigger mistake Lowell made, many many years ago, and I was a young man, I was proponent, but I got shot down. The [Lowell] Connector should have been going all the way into downtown Lowell, and not stopped at Gorham street, which is a disaster area. That Connector could have been the vitalization of downtown Lowell.

But you know with politics, with people saying “the community, you know, the neighborhood’s going to be…” Hey, listen! You’ve got to make the moves. You don’t make the moves, you gotta be positive.” The Connector is like a dead-end street, and you’ve got people coming into Lowell and saying, “Where do I go now?”

Mr. Behrakis reasoned that people have trouble finding the Tsongas Center, and Mr. Panos mentioned Thorndike Street must serve in that capacity. This position was common fifty years ago, as property owners believed poor access and congestion was causing downtowns to fail, and opening downtowns up would lead to lucrative redevelopment projects.

Unfortunately, urban cores never can have the ease of access of a suburban office park or shopping center. Highways ultimately destroyed the urban core amenities that are now attracting young people back into those cores. As a 2012 report describes, communities are actually finding success in removing, not expanding, their highways, such as Portland, Milwaukee, Toronto, and most famously, San Francisco.

Looking to Other Cities

However, the group suggested other solutions that are smaller-scale in scope. Bob Caruso mentioned that Newburyport was a “ghost town” in the 1950s and 1960s, and recommended studying cities such as that and Portsmouth, NH, and replicating their methods. Both cities used a historic preservation approach to their downtowns.

Mr. Behrakis cited Quincy’s redevelopment project as a model of success. Mr. Behrakis mentioned it was a $500 million project, but in actuality, the public-private project now totals $1.6 billion and has recently hit troubled waters as redevelopment did not move forward after demolition. The project reportedly has left part of its downtown empty for five years.

Although laws put in place during the funding of Lowell National Historical Park restricts demolition in Lowell’s downtown, the panel took a surprisingly cavalier tone toward historic preservation. Not only did Mr. Panos make jokes about the efforts put into preserving the Bowers House, Mr. Behrakis also spoke disapprovingly about Lowell’s preservation focus:

You aren’t going to tell me a building from 1920 is a historical building. A historical building is Europe 1,000 years ago, 250 years ago. –George Behrakis

In addition to Quincy, Mr. Behrakis cited the convenience of Nashua, New Hampshire’s, behind-business parking. Mr. McCallum also praised Nashua. Although Nashua does has an attractive and successful downtown, Nashua’s own planners suggest this is due to “grassroots organizing and one small intervention after another” to undo damages of large-scale, postwar urban renewal projects. Their downtown plan states that although Main Street is thriving, it is cut off from the rest of downtown.

Smaller Scale Solutions

Small efforts may be more feasible for many reasons. Mr. Caruso suggested replicating the valet parking featured in Boston’s North End. Visitors may pull up to restaurant front doors, and valets park their car in a safe location elsewhere. Mr. Caruso suggested that the valets work mostly for tips, and that Lowell Five parking lots may be used for secure after-hours parking.

Mr. Cook suggested that some businesses should consider stronger marketing toward the new market-rate apartments and condominiums downtown, extending their hours to be convenient to these residents. Some on the panel took exception to this, believing that business owners closed at 5:00 pm because they saw no business after that. In actuality, I’ve seen that some restaurants, such as Centro, are actually reducing lunch hours.

Does Lowell need a Visionary Leader?

Although it was not the last topic discussed, it may be a good topic to end on: How could Lowell move these ideas forward? The panel had diverging opinions. Mr. Panos suggesting that nobody since Paul Tsongas had the “gravitas” to “pull everyone together.” Later during the same section of the show, he said Sustainable Lowell 2025 was “Kind of a state of the union address but didn’t have a lot of specifics.”

Mr.  Behrakis believed Chancellor Meehan or others were capable and could advance economic development projects including beautification, demolition, and expanding parking.

Mr. O’Neil believes the media could—and should—play an advocacy role in the Lowell High School decision:

I think the media can help play a role of advancing things, and hopefully presenting all options, both sides. But, taking a stance, and the Sun—love it or hate it—has always been one of those institutions that took a stand and played a key role and help make things happen in concert with the business community and the residents. –Mark O’Neil

Although he said he wasn’t sure about a single individual, but rather many leaders from government, the school committee, business community, and residents should cooperate. He said the newspaper “would be happy to take a lead role in helping to advance it.”

This is something I have thought about a great deal, both in Lowell and elsewhere. I’ve read solid arguments that cities succeed partly because of strong leaders, and big, somewhat risky ideas sometimes pay off in great ways. However, it seems that the cities that have best recovered from deindustrialization do hundreds of tiny things right every day. They capitalize on their unique resources and history; market these resources successfully to businesses; and create strong links both between businesses and between public and private sectors. For example, Pittsburgh found success by consistently and fairly capitalizing on development to enhance transportation and recreation while maintaining key partnerships with universities. This was sustained over the terms of multiple mayors.

This is why I remain skeptical of “mega-projects.” Although Richard Florida, famous for terming “creative class,” is somewhat controversial, he has researched hundreds of cities, finding that mega-projects have not helped cities recover: “As with so many things in life, the small stuff really can make a difference to the people living in cities.” Researcher George Harbor statistically analyzed cities that formerly relied on manufacturing, and found workforce development, low cost of business, and network facilitation may be key policies. These policies don’t need a single, visionary leader, but rather an army of qualified individuals each doing their part.

There’s a Lot to Like about Lowell

In any case, the panelists were optimistic about Lowell’s future.

There’s a new discussion, here in Lowell, I think that’s the most important part of it. –Bob Caruso

Mr. O’Neil agreed that the business community was optimistic. Mr. McCallum agreed, recalling the Lowell High School hall of fame that included Mr. Behrakis and himself, Donna McCallum, Paul Tsongas, and Jack Kerouac. He cited everything from e-commerce to big box retail.

There’s a lot to like about Lowell. What I have always been a part of and felt good about was its spirit. –Elkin McCallum

I respect how strongly these businesspeople feel about Lowell and agree that there is a positive spirit in Lowell. As always, I look forward to anyone’s comments and corrections!

Notes

[1] A belated special thanks to Dick Howe Jr, author of “Local Legends of Lowell,” for fact-checking the biographies.

[2] A whole post could be made about whether the costs of this cycle—resident/business displacement and homogenization—outweigh the benefits, but that is a separate topic.

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.

Pizza and Sub and…Chutney?

I’ve lived in Lowell just over half a year now, and some of the newness has worn off. I’ve been to many of the places now that peaked my initial curiosity, and I’m starting to know how to find what I’m looking for without having to explore. It’s so easy to get complacent, to feel like Lowell isn’t going to surprise me in quite the same way.

Fortunately, whenever things start to get too comfortable, there’s a new discovery. For months now I’ve been idly wondering what the chalkboard sign that says “vegetarian” outside of Kearney Square’s Pizza and Sub Stop is referring to. I figured it was probably that they had a veggie pizza option that was popular.
Chandu's spicy and vegetarian menu

Nope! There’s a whole mini menu of unexpected choices. They have unusual pizza options like “Tikka Masala” and “Chutney and Cheese” and other choices that might be best described as Indian/Italian fusion, like garlic bread stuffed with samosas.

We took home masala veggie bread and masala fries, with pretty much no idea what we might end up with.

Masala bread and fries

It was super amazingly delicious. Savory, spicy, and a little sweet. Highly recommended for anyone looking for a little bit of Indian flavor in the downtown area. Here’s a link to their site if you’d like to see the quirky menu.