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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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.

Diagram of all the attractions within 1/5 mile of Lord Overpass

Lord Overpass: Crossroads of Lowell?

Map with Sampson Connector, Lord Overpass

The Lord Overpass, named for Mayor Raymond Lord, was constructed in the 1960s. The Sampson Connector, named for Mayor Ellen A. Sampson, changed an intersection between Thorndike and Dutton into an uninterrupted curve in the 1980s.

A couple months ago, the State announced a commitment of fifteen million dollars for a reconstruction of the Lord Overpass. The Transportation Subcommittee planned to discuss the project last Tuesday, but their meeting was cancelled due to snow, and I do not see it rescheduled yet. However, it is an exciting conversation that seems to be gaining a lot of steam: if we’re going to have a major project, what should the final result look like? This is the first part of a multipart series exploring the entire Dutton Street corridor: history, issues, and true difficulty of finding solutions.

Please note that I’m going to link to plans, and because things are constantly changing, some pieces are relevant and others are out-of-date. For example, the Hamilton Canal District plan shows an old proposal for the Lowell Trolley Expansion, which has since been modified. Still, it’s very instructive to see these old ideas and how they have changed—and if anyone is curious why they changed, leave a comment, and I’ll try to find out!

What’s the Project?

The “Lord Overpass Reconstruction Project”, as it is officially called by MassDOT, is a project with quite a bit of history. As I understand it, its primary objective is to mitigate traffic that will be generated by the Hamilton Canal District. As currently envisioned, it will:

  • Extend Jackson Street to meet at an intersection with Fletcher and Dutton Streets
  • Provide a sidewalk along the eastern edge of the Northbound ramp between the new intersection and Middlesex
  • Change the number of through and turning lanes at key intersections
  • Replace some structurally-deficient bridges and retime some signals
Diagram drawn from MassDOT Project Description and renderings by C. Hayes.

Diagram by C. Hayes using MassDOT Project Description and recent concept drawings. Click for PDF.

To understand why the project currently looks the way it does, it might be good to walk through some history.

Starting at the JAM Plan

Although I’m sure folks began discussing problems with the Lord Overpass before it was even built, a review of the current discussion might begin with the Jackson-Appleton-Middlesex Urban Renewal Plan (JAM Plan). Urban Renewal is a set of actions generally considered “last resort” for sections of cities that face consistent disinvestment by the private sector, and cities must prepare follow strict State guidelines to prepare an Urban Renewal Plan before they use eminent domain to take key properties and sell them to developers.

The 2000 Urban Renewal Plan for the JAM district (an area roughly bounded by the South Common, Gorham Street, Dutton/Thorndike, and the Pawtucket Canal) was developed because nearly a third of the buildings in the area were in need of major repair, 43 buildings had been torn down and not replaced, 29 were being or had been foreclosed by the city for delinquent taxes, and the “mixed land use, obsolete street patterns, dangerous traffic intersections, and streets that are inadequate… for modern traffic volumes” would make future redevelopment unlikely.

Page from JAM Plan detailing traffic improvements

From the 2000 Jackson-Appleton-Middlesex Urban Renewal Plan. Click to go to PDF.

In addition to setting out plans to acquire parcels for what is now the Early Parking Garage, Appleton Mills apartments, the future Lowell Judicial Center, and a handful of other key parcels on Middlesex Street, the plan recommended:

  • Extending Revere and Elliot Streets[1] to make stronger north-south connections through the neighborhood
  • Widening of South and Middlesex Streets, making them two-way.
  • Building a pedestrian bridge over Thorndike Street near the Hamilton Canal.

Although the JAM Plan has many, many actions I’m not mentioning, one issue it raises is directly relevant to the current project: “The Samson Connector, Lord Overpass and other traffic improvements to the convergence of Thorndike and Dutton Streets have substantially restricted traffic patterns on Jackson Street.” The plan didn’t actually address that problem.

The Hamilton Canal District

People at Lowell Memorial Auditorium at Vision Session for Hamilton Canal District

Image from second Vision Session hosted by the City at Lowell Memorial Stadium. the group of over 85 individuals preferred the concept that included the Jackson Street extension. Source: HCD District Master Plan

The JAM Plan was changed quite a bit when Joan Fabrics moved out of town, and the City realized that future industrial use of the northern section of the neighborhood was probably infeasible. The City asked developers to submit their proposals for a master-planned mixed use district. Trinity Financial was selected in 2003, and completed an extensive public outreach process that included five major public meetings and many smaller meetings. The JAM Plan was amended to include Trinity’s Hamilton Canal District master plan.

The plan created a special “form-based code” for the district that would allow private developers to buy parcels and construct buildings that met their needs while following guidelines that would create a unified urban feel to the district. It also laid out parcels that would become open space. Most importantly to this post, it analyzed and projected traffic impacts, and it laid out improvements to be made.

The executive summary states:

The traffic impacts of the full build out of the HCD have been carefully examined, discussed in numerous public working group meetings, and proposed solutions have been fully embraced by the community. The mitigation measures are numerous and detailed in this Master Plan, but the two most significant traffic interventions include the extension of Jackson Street east to Fletcher Street across Dutton Street and the reconfiguration of the Lord Overpass so that it will be able to handle the predicted traffic increases much better than it currently handles the existing traffic. – HCD Master Plan

The plan documents how the idea of extending Jackson Street was discussed and preferred in the visioning sessions. The developer liked it because it would increase visibility and access of their project from Dutton/Thorndike, and others liked that it would connect the project with the Acre in a direct way.

Features included:

  • A connection with the NPS Canalway Bridge
  • Crosswalks across Dutton/Thorndike
  • A sidewalk on the east edge of the ramp that would provide continuous pedestrian accommodation along both sides of Dutton/Thorndike
  • Connections between the Western Canalwalk and the Pawtucket Canalwalk

However, the changes recommended for the Lord Overpass were more subtle. The plan laid out other offsite improvements, and the City has moved forward on many: for example, the two-way conversion of Middlesex, repaving and some changes to Appleton, and sidewalk improvements along the South Common and near Marko’s Mediterranean Grill.

Of course, planners also laid out new streets inside the District. Most relevant to the discussion, a new pedestrian/trolley bridge would provide an alternative pedestrian connection from the South Common area through the district to where the NPS Parking Lots are now.

From Hamilton Canal District Master Plan, 2007.

From Hamilton Canal District Master Plan, 2007. Click for larger JPG.

A City-Building Vision

Map and photos of visioning sessions

Example of visioning mapping session from Back Central neighborhood.

Finally, there’s a little-discussed but really cool document that was written in 2009: A City-Building Vision for the Hamilton Canal District and the Neighborhoods. This contains recommendations developed by extensive sessions between neighborhood residents and city planners across the central neighborhoods. There are a few relevant recommendations in here, too:

  • Explore opportunities for a safe rear entrance to Gallagher terminal from the Lower Highlands
  • Create a stronger “Gateway” to Cambodiatown near the Lord Overpass on Middlesex Street
  • Consider an “Arts Walk” connecting downtown and the JAM District
  • Apply funds from the Traffic Calming Program at key intersections between Downtown and JAM

Putting it Together: The Current Plan

Richard Howe took a photo of the most recent design plan, which has changed slightly from the recommendations in the HCD Master Plan.

20141014_114457

Photo taken by Richard Howe in at October 2014 event with most recent concept plan (Click for larger version).


Diagrams in 2007 Hamilton Canal District Master Plan (Click for PDFs).
 

As it stands, there are very minor differences between the two concepts, which include:

  • In the new concept, there are four lanes in the western leg of the overpass instead of three.
  • In the new concept, the traffic island where Fletcher meets Dutton/Thorndike is kept. The old concept removed it for an extra westbound lane.
  • In the new concept, there’s no highway-style “free” turn from Dutton to Fletcher.

What are the Issues?

I believe people think we are at a crossroads, no pun intended. Discussions in bars and online have crystallized into a Facebook group with vibrant discussion, posts about history, and many maps. In the group, former Mayor Patrick Murphy suggested that, among other things:

The availability of funding is not alone a good enough reason to go forward with a project with only a perfunctory public process, particularly if it does not further the community’s vision of a more walkable, bikeable, vibrant place. – Patrick Murphy

The Lord Overpass is a concept I’ve been battling with since I first came to Lowell, charged with finding ways to make it easier to get from Gallagher Terminal to Lowell National Historical Park. Here are some issues I’ve heard over the months:

Dutton Street

I’ve heard folks express concern that the plan does little to address unpleasant walking conditions along the west side of Dutton that Aurora talked about in her commuting to Boston post. Some think more crossings are needed between Broadway and the Pawtucket Canal, others want bike lanes and wider sidewalks. In short, the current project is focused south of the canal, even though work needs to be done north of it. That said, would extending the project be losing control of the scope and expenses, like a mini-Big Dig? This is an interesting topic that will be covered in the next post in this series.

Few Separated Pedestrian Paths

I’ve heard a few people ask whether connecting using a pedestrian path to connect Jackson with Dutton/Thorndike, instead of extending the entire street cars and all, would be better for pedestrians. Generally speaking, sidewalks along roads get more use than separated pedestrian paths for a variety of reasons, including visibility and directness. For example, more people use the relatively meager sidewalk along Prescott than the parallel canalside pathway behind Back Page. In addition, more intersections make cars go slower, another boon to pedestrians. Finally, transferring some traffic from Middlesex to Jackson would make Middlesex somewhat safer and bring benefits to businesses along Jackson.

These trade-offs seem to be worth the extra confusion of an additional intersection, so long as the street and intersection are designed in a pedestrian-friendly way. This is why “extending the street grid” is a commonly-used tool in the city planner’s toolbox to make cities more walkable.

No Pedestrian Bridge over Dutton/Thorndike

Pedestrian Bridge over Storrow

Pedestrian Bridges such as the one over Boston’s Storrow Drive are the exception, because few areas have as high a pedestrian level as the Esplanade next to as impassable a street as Storrow. Image: Google Maps.

Others wonder why the plan for a pedestrian bridge over Dutton/Thorndike was scrapped. My guess is that it’s notoriously difficult to get people to use pedestrian bridges over roadways. The Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center says:

Studies have shown that many pedestrians will not use [a pedestrian] overpass or underpass if they can cross at street level in about the same amount of time. Overpasses work best when the topography allows for a structure without ramps, such as an overpass over a sunken highway.

Few want to climb the stairs or ramp rather than just waiting for traffic and crossing at-grade, and the bridge itself might feel lonely and unsafe. It makes it all the more important to make very safe crossings at grade.

No Bicycle Lanes

Bicycle boxes allow bikes to wait in front of cars so they're more visible, allowing left turns and preventing getting hooked by cars making right turns. Research on whether they work is mixed. Image: Treehugger

Bicycle boxes allow bikes to wait in front of cars so they’re more visible, allowing left turns and preventing “right hooks” by turning cars. See Treehugger for related research.

Some have suggested that bicycle lanes, bicycle boxes, and other infrastructure should be included in the plan. This is an interesting suggestion, one to which I think the City would be very receptive. However, the long term challenge is that the existing off-road pathways are only wide enough for pedestrians, and there’s little room for bicycle lanes without sacrificing vehicle lanes on many of the streets the Lord Overpass connects. Bicycle infrastructure might get a cyclist through the Lord Overpass, but then they would have to mix with traffic after they get through.

The Bigger Question: Crossroads of Lowell

Finally, many note that the area really is a crossroads of Lowell. Dick Howe’s excellent post illustrates why: Gallagher Terminal, the American Textile History Museum, entrances to Cambodiatown and the Hamilton Canal District, Western Avenue Studios, Mill No. 5, the South Common, and Swamp Locks canal boat dock are all within a 1/5 mile radius from one another, but separated by railroad tracks, canals, and Dutton/Thorndike. This project adds some extra roads, but doesn’t do anything to establish this as a “place” that truly serves pedestrians as well as cars. A place that is not only safe, but also pleasant, exciting, comfortable, and attractive.

It’s hard to imagine what could be done for $15 million that could move us in that direction. It would have to show a clear, safe, and interesting path over the railroad tracks to Western Avenue Studios. It would have to have a wide sidewalk lined with interesting views or shops along Dutton/Thorndike. It would need a great gateway to Cambodiatown over an otherwise-boring Middlesex Street bridge. It would have to be easy to get across Dutton to the Textile Museum no matter which direction a pedestrian walks.

Diagram of all the attractions within 1/5 mile of Lord Overpass

It’s a huge question, and I’ll explore some ideas others have floated and some examples from other towns in the next post.

Notes

[1] The plan for Elliot Street was changed, as the Early Garage was built in the way of any potential extension to Jackson Street. I am unsure of the status of the plan for extending Revere Street or King Street at this time.

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.

Dick Howe leading tour of Lowell Cemetery

Lowell’s Buried Past: The Cemetery and Beyond

The Lowell Cemetery was founded in 1842, and Catherine Goodwin gave tours of it for forty years. She passed away in 2011, so I was sadly never able to meet her or take one of her tours. In Ms. Goodwin’s obituary, Marie Sweeney of the Lowell Historical Society said, “Her passion was contagious. That, combined with her gift of storytelling, made her an invaluable teacher. She knew how to engage a crowd and make learning so much fun.” Her book and DVD, Mourning Glory, is on sale from LHS.

In 2009, Ms. Goodwin passed the role on to Richard Howe Jr., a local historian, blogger, and Register of Deeds. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend his tour for two years, and he certainly carries on her legacy of teaching through storytelling in a beautiful setting. Last Friday, I enjoyed an amazing fall day while listening to Mr. Howe’s stories. I also heard a mix of people whisper things such as “I didn’t know that!” and “Oh, I know which one he’ll go to next—it must be the chair!”

Dick Howe in front of Bonney Memorial

Mr. Howe in front of the Bonney memorial. Many think she’s dubbed “Witch Bonney” because she’s tantalizingly clad and spooky, but we think the legend grew because the statue is so visually powerful.

In fact, I’ve never heard anything but positive comments in person and on Facebook: “Fantastic,” “Richard makes it so interesting, you can’t wait to hear the next story,” “Each time we go, we learn something new,” “Your tours are to die for–no pun intended!!” Not only do they draw both new and old faces, they reach people outside Lowell. I was able to find a meetup group that normally focuses on “Portsmouth and Beyond” for last year’s tour–organized by someone from Pelham.

It’s a “must go” in Lowell. Mr. Howe selects each story for a different reason. Some stories are of famous residents, such as James Ayer, who built one of the largest patent medicine companies in the world. He provided the funding for a town hall for a new town, which was named Ayer in his honor, yet when he unsuccessfully ran for US Congress, he was supposedly burned in effigy in that very town.

He chooses other stories because of the unique headstones, such as the afore-mentioned chair. Horace Ebert was not particularly famous, but his family commissioned an exact reproduction of his chair for his grave. Other stories are simply of everyday people: a particularly tragic one being that of Scottie Fineral, who lost his life in the first Gulf War in 1991, when he was 21.

Mr. Howe pointed it out partly to highlight that although the recency of that war hits modern audiences hardest, many who died in wars a century ago had lives cut just as short. If Scottie Fineral had lived to be my age, he would have seen the rise of widespread personal computers, the internet, smartphones, the new Star Wars, widespread acceptance of gays and lesbians, and so much more. I can only imagine we could say the same thing about those who died in the Civil War, World War II, or Afghanistan.

This is the genius of the cemetery tour: each story is entertaining in its own right, but all illuminate a larger aspect of history. Mr. Howe mentioned during his tour that although many think of history as facts and dates or even discrete movements:

I think of [history] more as a bunch of streams that come together. –Dick Howe, Jr.

As he pointed out, some of the stories cover folks who were born and fought in the Civil War, then went home to Lowell to contribute to huge social, technological, and business advances. The stories show how events in the war led directly to movements during the gilded age in a way two separate chapters in a history book never could. Yet the stories are also more immensely personal and relatable, both because they took place in Lowell and because they are about people: a person who got his start in a drugstore and built a medicine empire, a person whose life ended too quickly in war, a person who just loved his chair. People enjoy those stories because they both entertain and illuminate.

A number of folks have suggested developing more tours in and around Lowell’s downtown, which could have exactly the same effect. Each building or street can tell a story, each story can contribute to a larger picture. In addition, the tours could draw similarly large crowds if marketed well. Who doesn’t want to learn they live around the corner from where telephone numbers were invented or where the sponsor of the G.I. Bill lived most of her life?

Mr. Howe has suggested beginning a weekly downtown tour led by various experts in the community. I would love to see a series of tours featuring, for example, French-Canadian Lowell, urban planning innovations in Lowell, or Lowell from a youth perspective. These tours could not only entertain and enlighten, but bring folks who don’t normally visit Lowell’s historic areas to local businesses.[1] I’d love to hear people’s ideas for tours they could lead in the comments, in emails, or on Facebook!

Finally, I’d like to share fellow bloggers’ reflections and photos:

Notes

[1] Notably, most studies include walking tours as an effect (For example, increased historic preservation creates walking tour guide jobs). If downtown tours are started, perhaps it would be a good opportunity to create a small study to measure impact, such as estimating the number of tourists eating lunch downtown.

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.

 

First Thursdays: Art Battles and Big Pictures

Lowell’s First Thursdays is an exciting monthly event encouraging visitors downtown to explore shops and museums the first Thursday of each summer month. Born out of a brainstorming session held in April, the monthly event enjoys support from the Council Organization of Lowell (COOL), the City of Lowell, and Lowell National Historical Park. However, the event is at its heart grassroots, making it an interesting example of businesses and museums organizing an event without a formal, supporting organization.

Live Art Battle in Lowell on First Thursday artists painting

Artists went head-to-head in a contest that was decided by audience applause. More photos on their facebook page.

Last week was the third “First Thursday,” and from my discussions with folks at a few galleries, the most successful yet. One participating business manager told me that she was beginning to see brand-new clientele at last week’s event. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was the first not to be rained upon.

Aurora and I kicked off our Thursday experience by meeting a meetup.com group at the “Our City Live Art Battle,” where artists compete for a chance for $1,000 at the Downtown Arts Fest in Nashua. One artist from Lowell and one from Nashua furiously painted two very different works of art: although each started as abstract fields of color, one slowly morphed into an idyllic scene while the other became even more abstract: a shock of color violently smashing through the painting’s white border.

As we chatted with others from the meetup group, members from Nashua’s Positive Street Art started streetdancing. A few children joined in the dancing and painted at the kids’ art table. Meanwhile, others drifted in and out to catch a glimpse, many of which were passing-by and curious.

Dancers from Positive Street Art in Lowell MA Market Mills

The music and dancers activated the space, encouraging a few onlookers to join in!

After the Art Battle, the Meetup group visited two local galleries: Brush and Zeitgeist. The group was surprised by the secret Zeitgeist holds: a funky vintage clothing shop hidden away, appropriately named the Back Room. I heard some marvel at how varied the subjects and styles were in each gallery.

Three paintings at Brush Gallery Lowell MA

The Brush’s current exhibit is inspired by gardens (photo: Maria)

For those that don’t know, Zeitgesit stays fresh by keeping one side devoted to rotating shows from visiting artists, and maintaining the other side with the latest works from members of their collaborative. I also appreciate its large variety of affordable art, including prints, jewelry, 3″x3″ paintings, t-shirts, mugs, and the like. One can purchase quite a number of unique works for $10 or $20.

As the group explored, we saw artists from Western Avenue Studios/Loading Dock Gallery presenting a travelling art fashion show, wearing art clothing and carrying signs encouraging onlookers to “ask about what I’m wearing.” I hate to say, we didn’t ask, but we enjoyed looking! The meetup.com group finished the night at Athenian Corner, although by then, Aurora and I had to leave.

Building Toward a Big Picture

I noticed a great number of folks going through the galleries and walking down the cobblestone streets: a compliment to other downtown events, from painting at Tutto Bene or the outdoor music of Athenian Corner. This highlighted for me the way each month must build upon the last, as Aurora and I attended a previous First Thursday that did not seem to reach its potential, even taking the rain into account. For example, shops advertising promotions closed hours before the event’s 9 pm end time, and I heard the musicians at Whistler House had sparse audiences. However, August’s event was much livelier, everything was as advertised, and I imagine September’s will be even busier.

Mary Hart, who was instrumental in kicking off First Thursdays (link to Lowell Sun), was kind enough to give me some inside information about the event. She agreed, “We have had mixed success in attracting crowds, but we seem to be building.” I believe it is critical that every participating business and museum stay open the extra hours, keep the sale going, and keep participating. It was personally quite disappointing to find sales ended or businesses closed, and I imagine that others finding closed doors might not come back. I think the larger story, however, is that a handful of folks who enjoyed the early events despite the rain are helping to build buzz and each month brings more visitors.

This seems to serve as a good lesson for similarly recurring events, as it might be easy to be discouraged, especially when weather doesn’t cooperate. However, momentum may very well be building. Notably, I haven’t found this type of advice anywhere in downtown revitalization guides, and I believe it deserves further study.

What’s the Goal?

An interesting question is one posed by the National Trust’s Main Street Center:

Before you create any special event as a part of a campaign, ask yourself: What is the purpose of this event? Which of the largest market segments will the event attract?

The folks from the meetup group were from many places: Lowell, the immediate suburbs, and even New Hampshire. Is this the target market the event attracts? Ms. Hart revealed that the group behind First Thursdays hoped to adopt monthly “open galleries” events that other cities (including Worcester and Boston) organize to entice downtown employees to linger after work and leverage convenient evening hours and proximity of museums and galleries, attracting outside visitors. Goals included:

  1. Attract more visitors to [the group’s] sites
  2. Encourage longer visits including meals and purchases from downtown businesses
  3. Build a loyal following and establish as a regular event

With that in mind, I wonder where the “downtown employee” and “outside visitor” markets could be even better reached and what businesses critical to those markets might be being left out. I pondered this while watching the Art Battle, realizing the only thing that could have made the event better was if it were in an area with more foot traffic, perhaps catching folks that walk to and from the Leo Roy (Market Street) garage, capturing people going home from work who might not be tuned in to any Lowell media. They may ignore a banner, but they certainly won’t ignore a group watching artists speed-paint against one another!

This also builds buzz, as mentioned before: perhaps the passer-bys don’t stay that day, but they’ll make it to the next one: once again, using each event to build momentum on the next.

A Jump-Started Test Drive

Ms. Hart explained that this was a “test drive” of a monthly cultural night. After the first discussion with artists and gallery people, downtown museums and the National Park were invited to a meeting to discuss the possibility. Twelve groups were represented at that meeting. I understand the group chose Thursday to avoid conflicts with existing weekend events.

Ultimately, participants agreed to share work of creating themes, maps, and schedules and pay a nominal fee to cover printing costs. The group accomplished nearly all its advertising through social media, with each participant doing the work to market the event. The group chose venues specifically to minimize expense and the need for city permits. In addition, the organizer accomplished business outreach by visiting each door-to-door. Ultimately, the level of activity in such a short time is among the most exciting elements of the effort:

What we have achieved, and this is the best part, is to identify and gather a core of committed people willing to get something started without grant money, extensive proposals or endless meetings! -Mary Hart, Artist & Event Organizer

This means that not only does each event, even rainy events, build buzz, but they also provide a learning opportunity for the next event.

What’s Next?

Photo by Fresh Air Fridays

Photo by Fresh Air Fridays

Immediately next is Thursday, September 4. In Ms. Hart’s words, “an opportunity to gather and celebrate the richness and excitement of our institutions.” Information will be posted on COOL’s website as soon as it is available. The First Thursdays group will soon discuss and vote upon next steps after September; the event may continue in a different form over the winter or may be summer-only. Ms. Hart mentioned the regardless need to identify ways to advertise outside social media.

In addition, Fresh Air Fridays will continue through August: artist markets, the Lowell Farmers Market, and street performers all complementing the Lowell Summer Music Series.

For me, these events beg a question: is it better to cast a wide net or tailor an event to a specific group? I could imagine a complimentary monthly event designed to attract families with young children or University Students. If each week, a different event could play downtown’s strengths to a person with different interests? Even better! I truly believe Lowell has enough talented, creative folks to support it.

Kids' painting table at Art Battle.

Kids’ painting table at Art Battle.

Judging the finished pieces

Judging the finished pieces

Loading Dock Gallery Artists at Visitor Center

Loading Dock Gallery had a travelling fashion show: artists had a table at the National Park Visitor Center and walked in the outfits with signs “ask me about what I’m wearing.”

Sunset at Ayers Loft Gallery Lowell

A gorgeous sunset capped a perfect evening out