Map of Doors Open Lowell

Opening Lowell’s Doors

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Marion speaking at Community Excellence Awards

Paul Marion speaking at Community Excellence Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaslight building, interior

Gas Light building, interior

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

Lowell Masonic Temple, interior

Lowell Masonic Temple, interior

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

Bowling trophy

Lowell Masonic Temple, interior

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

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

Chuck Parrott leading tour of Canalways

Chuck Parrott leading tour of Canalways

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

Chuck Parrott leading Lowell tour

The tour went well on into the evening

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

Lowell, MA at night

A nice end to the evening

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

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

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1979 aerial

Lord Overpass: A 150 Year History

Information packets uploaded by the Friday before Lowell City Council meetings include reports the city council requests, petitions for permits only the council can grant, and the minutes of the previous meeting. They can be found by visiting http://agenda-suite.com:8080/agenda/cityoflowell/Meeting.html and clicking on the book icon to the right of the appropriate meeting. The public has an opportunity before the meeting to request to speak in favor or against any motion a City Councilor makes, and City Councilors welcome emails about upcoming agenda items. This is one of a semi-regular series of posts about the information in those packets and upcoming City Council motions.

There’s a few interesting items the City Council will discuss today, including a bond order to repair the Lower Locks and Leo Roy parking garages; a report on the Lowell Police Department’s training expenses and revenue with news that they plan to incorporate Tasers and cultural competency trainings; a motion about keeping communication between UMass Lowell, a dorm developer, and the City open; and a vote endorsing the 2013-2018 Open Space and Recreation Plan.

There’s also a public petition to address the City Council regarding firearm licenses in Lowell. I have not researched the issue, but I learned the petitioner is the Director at Large of the Gun Owner’s Action League.

However, this post will focus on the sole item the Transportation Subcommittee is covering starting at 5:30 pm: “Discussion of Lord Overpass Improvements.” Discussion of transportation improvements seems timely, as a man died last weekend from injuries he sustained after being struck by a car elsewhere in Lowell. It’s also part of an ongoing conversation; Aurora and I described the “Lord Overpass Reconstruction Project” a few weeks ago. The project involves not only the overpass, but improvements to several intersections along Thorndike from the train station all the way to an extension of Jackson Street to meet Fletcher at Dutton. The improvements were called for and developed in public sessions related to the Hamilton Canal District.

We also talked about several issues we have heard brought up: as currently described, the project does not improve Dutton Street’s walkability; the project has no separated bicycle paths; the idea for a pedestrian bridge was scrapped; and in a larger sense, the project doesn’t touch upon the importance of the area as a crossroads of Lowell, where many attractions would be less than a five-minute walk away if pedestrian accommodations were in place. However, the conclusions Aurora and I reached were clear. There are no easy answers, and those answers are limited by available funding.

Today, Aurora and I thought it would be illuminating and fun to go over the history of the Overpass and the streets it connects.

1825 map with Thorndike and Dutton highlighted

1825 basemap from UML Digital Map Collection.

Between 1821 and 1825, the first large-scale mills were built in Lowell. Dutton Street was built along the new Merrimack Canal and Thorndike Street was built to connect this intersection with a west-east highway toward Chelmsford at what is now Gallagher Square, previously Davis Square. Even then, it served as an important connection between highways leading to other cities and the downtown. Its importance only grew as the Boston and Lowell railroad was constructed soon after, crossing the canals at the same point as Thorndike.

1936 atlas pages surrounding future Lord Overpass

This map was stitched together with pages from the 1936 Franklin Survey Company Atlas at UML Digital Map Collection.

By the mid-1930s, the railroad had been extended to Nashua and the roads looked largely like they would for the next hundred years. This image is from the 1936 atlas, the last atlas to be made before the Lowell Connector and Lord Overpass were built. Here’s some points of interest:

  • Thorndike, which had been designated Route 3, ran where the east ramp is now, lined with commercial buildings on its east side.
  • The area that is taken up by the Lord Overpass used to be a train station and the Hotel Merrimack.
  • North of Pawtucket Canal, Dutton Street curved westward and made a 5-way intersection with Western, Thorndike, and Fletcher.
  • Western Avenue used to continue over the railroad tracks to connect what is now Western Ave Studios with Thorndike Street.
  • Middlesex crossed the railroad tracks at-grade, but Chelmsford Street bridged over them as it does today.
  • Jackson Street never met Thorndike, but a smaller “West Jackson Street” did.
Image: richardhowe.com

Image: richardhowe.com, original source unknown. Downtown is to the left of the image, and what is now Gallagher Terminal is to the right. The leftmost north-south street is Middlesex, and the rightmost is Appleton/Chelmsford.

This photo from the 1930s[1] shows how steep the section of Thorndike between Middlesex and Appleton/Chelmsford was, one of the issues mitigated by the Lord Overpass. At the time, the Appleton/Chelmsford/Thondike intersection was called “Crotty Circle,” with a monument to World War I soldier George Crotty added to the center in 1937.

South Common

South Common Image: Steve Conant, via richardhowe.com. What is now Gallagher Terminal is across Thorndike from the South Common.

This photo was taken a little later, after many of the buildings along Thorndike, including the Hotel Merrimack, were demolished.

In the 1950s, a strategy of modernizing Lowell was adopted. Early in the 1960s, the Lord Overpass was constructed to accommodate traffic loads that were projected into the 1980s, a sister project of the larger I-495 and Lowell Connector project. The ultimate goal of city planners was to connect the Lowell Connector to Father Morissette Boulevard in a great loop around downtown, surround downtown with parking, and create a pedestrian mall in the center. Other initiatives razed old industrial or residential buildings to provide developable, accessible lots to attract electronics and plastics manufacturing.[2]

The neighborhood between Chelmsford Street and the railroad was demolished for that reason, and most of that site today is occupied by MACOM, an electronics manufacturer.

1979 aerial

1979 image: Lowell National Historic Park, via Massachusetts Digital Commonwealth. Downtown is to the left of image, and Gallagher Terminal is in upper-right corner.

This 1979 image shows the overpass mostly as it is today, with one difference: the Sampson Connector had not yet been built. Planned in the 1970s and built in the 80s, the Sampson Connector fused together Thorndike and Dutton to ease traffic going toward downtown, making what was a practically five-way intersection into a “T” where the majority of traffic would not need to stop and turn. I am told the Sampson Connector project also removed Dutton Street’s parking lanes to create a four-lane thoroughfare. I also believe this project terminated Western Avenue at the railroad tracks, creating a lot that would become Dunkin’ Donuts.

For better or for worse, all of these projects were to ease automobile traffic and promote economic development that required automobile access. A lot could be—and has been—written about what these projects achieved and where they fell short. I feel that they tried to compete with suburbs on their terms and had only mixed success promoting development because there’s always more space for roads and cheap land in suburbs than in the city. In addition, making it easier to drive into the center of Lowell also made it easier to drive right through Lowell, facilitating suburban auto-oriented development. It’s easy to forget, however, that it might have felt as if these projects were more successful when Wang Laboratories was in town.

I’m not sure how the history of the roads and infrastructure projects could help us think about the Lord Overpass today. Missing in this examination are the traffic counts and stated goals for each of the projects. Additionally, an analysis may include the economic and property tax impact of losing prime parcels compared to improved economic performance elsewhere. Regardless, it does show that major infrastructure projects are “sticky.” Roads remained the same way for a hundred years, and we still drive on projects designed sixty years ago. Smaller projects such as road diets, one-way conversions, and bike lanes are easier to reverse if they don’t work out, but large projects stay with us a very long time.

Notes

[1] The photo is undated, but must be from before 1937, because it contains the monument, but from after the early 1930s when trolley lines were removed from Middlesex and Appleton Streets.

[2] I haven’t read Mehmed Ali’s University of Connecticut Dissertation yet, but I found several sources that cite it when recreating the urban renewal timeline.

New Urbanism, from Buffalo to Lowell

A few weeks ago, I attended the 22nd annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism. New Urbanism is a movement within urban planning that supports tools to promote walkable, mixed-use communities rather than communities with segregated housing, employment, and shopping.

Main Street Buffalo

Despite its reputation, Buffalo has many vibrant, walkable districts.

This year’s conference was held in Buffalo, NY, but the movement is international in scope. Many Lowellians will be familiar with one of the movement’s proponents, Jeff Speck, the planner who developed Lowell’s 2010 “Downtown Evolution” plan. However, he is only one of many planners and architects from around the world advocating New Urbanism.

Much of what was discussed made me reflect upon Lowell: What seems right and what opportunities might still exist? I’ll share my thoughts here, but these explanations only scratch the surface. If any reader is intrigued by any of the ideas mentioned here, please drop a comment, and I’ll expand in a future post. I also welcome corrections or additions.

What is New Urbanism?

This was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a topic of discussion at the conference. I originally understood New Urbanism as a movement about physical form: sidewalks, building types, densities, landscape, road widths, and similar. In fact, the movement is a very large tent. There were those more interested in programming and making sidewalks alive. There were those that designed new developments in a “traditional” fashion, others that wrote codes that would guide development (or at least not get in the way) toward that direction, and still others that worked to change the public realm in existing development. The keynote speakers spoke of grand demographic changes, letting a younger generation guide urban development, and the definition of resilience.

There were common threads. One was that all communities, rural to urban, can be built to accommodate both cars and pedestrians. One was about the power of cities is to mix different types of people and different activities to create something greater than the sum of its parts. One is that cities must do much more to address natural ecology and global warming.

Despite its diversity, New Urbanism’s core principles remain about the built environment’s effect upon society. This often brings it criticism, such as art critic Colin Dabkowski’s complaint that New Urbanism ignores racial segregation and pervasive poverty in favor of focusing on “making prosperous neighborhoods more prosperous” and hoping the benefits trickle-down. Having attended many sessions and talked to many people, I don’t think that complaint is on the mark, but there also is a kernel of truth that it doesn’t—and can’t—incorporate everything. Chris Hawley, Buffalo city planner, summarized: “New urbanism—necessary, but insufficient.”

Jeff Speck and Lowell at CNU

 

Jeff Speck at CNU22 with Lowell slide in background.

Mr. Speck used Lowell as an example.

Mr. Dabkowski’s complaint was principally leveled at Jeff Speck. He spoke at several plenary (attended by all conference participants) sessions. Mr. Speck argues that cities must become more walkable to attract and retain young people, become ecologically sustainable, promote healthy lifestyles, and let people spend their money and time for things other than transportation.

lwrhighlands


drumhill
A planner may prioritize pedestrian crossings in the Lower Highlands (upper  picture) rather than Drum Hill (lower picture) just because theres a better chance of encouraging people to walk.

Parking is a key piece of this, and he mentioned Donald Shoup’s High Cost of Free Parking. Shoup argues that cities have forced businesses (through minimum parking regulations) to subsidize drivers at the expense of pedestrians. However, even if the city doesn’t require parking, banks that finance developments might, assuming anyone who would rent a two-bedroom apartment would also drive two cars. In the presentations, Mr. Speck praised Lowell specifically for giving developers flexibility by dedicating spaces in parking garages usually empty at night for mill redevelopments. This allowed the developers to present proof there would be enough parking to banks.

It was another concept that drew the criticism, however. Mr. Speck argued for “urban triage.” It is difficult to summarize briefly, so I’ll do it some injustice by describing it as the following: when choices must be made, cities should focus on improving those areas that have walkability potential. This could be seen as favoring already-nice neighborhoods, as critics worry. In reality, however, practicing urban triage might mean fixing the sidewalk along Bridge Street in Lower Centralville before adding street trees to Belvidere, because Bridge Street could become a walkable link between downtown and Centralville shops, while Belvidere will probably stay autocentric.

An interesting rebuttal by Mr. Speck, including a short argument for favoring downtowns before other neighborhoods (another hot topic in Lowell) is here.

Tactical Urbanism

One of the most exciting conversations at the conference was about “tactical urbanism” and “lean urbanism.” The idea is that activists or planners can make short-term, sometimes temporary projects that actually change the urban form long-term. This includes anything from making a parking spot into a mini-park, putting pop-up stores and displays in empty storefronts, and guerilla gardening (often illegally planting flowers or vegetables on public or vacant land).

Somerville pop-up plaza from Chris Orchard, Somerville Patch

These interventions are low-cost experiments that show what “could” be to investors or the public. In Somerville, planners closed off a small public parking lot, invited food trucks, and created a “pop-up plaza” to run an open house. People learned the value of the additional public space and the location intercepted people who would never attend a meeting in a city hall or library. The planners weren’t even sure they secured all the appropriate permits—doing so may have delayed or drove up the cost of the event.

Another example came from Memphis, where planners worked with entrepreneurs to create pop-up events for an abandoned brewery slated for demolition. The planners helped the entrepreneurs secure the needed permits from various departments while the entrepreneurs cut a deal with the building’s owner, cleaned up the space, and planned food truck and other events. “Tennessee Brewery Untapped” resulted in renewed interest from developers to buy and renovate the space to use the first floor for a brew pub or other use.

A project during CNU chalked a plaza into extra space in a five-points intersection. image

A project during CNU chalked a plaza into extra space in a five-points intersection. (Image: Buffalorising)

A panel including Dan Bartman, a senior planner from Somerville and Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns, among others argued that planners need room to experiment and fail. One panelist argued that if you try four risky things, and three fail and one succeeds, you’re rewarded in the business world but punished in the public planning world. He argued, “If you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying hard enough.” This makes sense: if you spend $1,000 each on four projects, and one succeeds and brings in $10,000 in new tax revenue, it’s perverse to say the other three were “wasted” money—so long as the projects are small.

Perhaps Lowell could embrace this principle more. Many small ideas are shot down quickly because of difficulties securing the right approvals, but maybe someone on the inside could pull the right strings. Murals could be painted. The city could work up a model one-month lease agreement that landlords could use to temporarily occupy their storefronts. Best of all, these kind of urban interventions could be applied anywhere—not just downtown.

The SmartCode

Much of the conference revolved around form-based codes. These are codes that focus on the relationship between building facades to the street and the scale of buildings to street blocks. The “SmartCode” is a model form-based code that can be adapted by communities to replace their traditional zoning.

It is centered around the idea that the form of cities change as they move from rural to suburban to the urban core, and divides this gradient into six “transect zones,” numbered so that urban planners from different cities can use the same language. Each of these transect zones are divided into sub-zones which get their own regulations: urban areas should have plenty of windows and doors to make an interesting walk, traditional areas should have porches or stoops, and so forth. At the conference, I heard a rule of thumb that any fifteen minute walk in an urban area should have three of these subzones, so that anyone living in a single family area can walk to a neighborhood center.

Transects

This type of form-based code may seem overly draconic to some, but its authors stress that it is meant to be flexible. It isn’t meant to dictate architectural styles any more than traditional zoning. Rather, it dictates how those styles must interact with the street. In return, it provides more flexibility in how those buildings are used.

This is a subtle distinction from traditional zoning, which controls form as well, but with more abstract measures. Lowell’s zoning code is something of a mix, which is common for modern zoning codes. It divides the City into suburban, traditional neighborhood, and urban districts which appears to roughly be T3, T4, and T5 transect zones. The more urban districts have few “traditional” regulations such as density restrictions and setbacks, and all districts have at least one subzone in which a mix of uses is allowed.

I attended a technical session on how to calibrate the model SmartCode to existing cities’ context. The larger messages of the session included the value of a “synaptic survey:” measuring exactly what makes a good neighborhood in your community such as porches, setbacks, and awnings. This type of survey might be a great community-building tool, as planners and community members walk streets together to consider their neighborhoods on a micro-level.

Resistance to Historic Districts

Something I noticed repeatedly is a general distaste of CNU members for historic districts and standards. I don’t wish to overstate the case, but some seem to feel historic districts’ strict standards run counter to the architectural flexibility form-based codes seek to foster. I believe some may think historic standards may restrict positive improvements in walkability or diversity of building use and housing type.

Jeff Speck’s Downtown Evolution plan mentions preservation and the complex association it has with New Urbanist principles. For example, the plan states:

In any such transformation of a historic building or landscape, a delicate balance must be forged between communicating an understanding of a site’s original design and adapting that design to serve modern needs, or even transforming it into something more compelling.

The plan cites such changes as creating the walkway through the center of Market Mills to the courtyard and parking lot as an adaptation that enhances the urban form while respecting a preservation ethic.

Transit and New Urbanism

Lowell Trolley

Can the Lowell Trolley–even without an expansion–be a tool for urbanism?

I got in from Boston right in time to take the bus from the airport to the convention center. Upstate New York’s busses tend to be a lesson about their level of racial segregation, and Buffalo is no exception. What surprised me, however, was the reaction when I mentioned I took the bus: “Oh, really?! How did that turn out?”

I later learned that almost everyone rented a car from the airport and then parked it for most of the conference downtown. Even among planners, there’s a persistent perception that busses are too complicated or unreliable for outsiders, despite Buffalo having no particularly bad transit reputation. My ride went smoothly and took about thirty-five minutes (as opposed to fifteen by car).

Transit is relevant to New Urbanism: several principles in CNU’s charter deal with transit, stating that a framework of systems should maximize access and mobility, and that appropriate densities should form around transit stops so that transit can create a viable alternative to auto-dependence. The one session I attended about transit had something of a celebratory tone, as North American transit use is on the rise, and funding for system improvements is at least slightly easier to come by than in previous decades.

Buffalo has one light rail line[1]. Although its often been called “a train to nowhere,” it had the third-highest per-mile ridership after Boston’s Green Line and San Francisco’s Muni Metro until recent construction stretched headways from twelve to twenty minutes. The line was originally going to extend to the main campus of its University, but lack of funding ended it at the University’s satellite campus. It has never been able to secure funding to extend, although now the agency is examining alternatives to connect it to the main campus. Regardless, this highlights the risk of a disappointing “Phase I” creating a challenge for future transit phases.

Leaving Buffalo

This is just a smattering of the thoughts from Buffalo. Other interesting tidbits include the correlation between small block sizes and safety, efforts to replace highways with multimodal boulevards, the precinct-by-precinct planning process Toronto undertook, ways to design facilities that can be used by all people of all ages and abilities, the baby booms in urban areas as “millennials” start families, and much more. I’m sure these thoughts will crop up in future posts about Lowell.

Look Peatónito up on the internet. Youll be

Look Peatónito up on the internet. You’ll be glad you did.

One thing this post doesn’t convey is how fun the event was. We did a pub crawl with fifty attendees, toured titanic grain silos that are now being used as event/party space, and met a guy who dresses as a luchador and literally pushes cars out of crosswalks in Mexico.

Here’s a parting thought: A Toronto Sun reporter consistently made fun of bicycle lanes and talked about how bicyclists got in the way of cars. She was invited by planners to go on a ride-along during one event, and her next story was “Sun reporter gets an understanding of cyclists”. The chief planner of Toronto, in recounting this story, said, “We must transform our conversations if we are to transform our cities.” This seems especially relevant.

Note

[1] Light rail is a partially-or-wholly aboveground passenger train usually separated from traffic in its own right-of-way.

“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.

Nominations Needed: Preservation and Cultural Achievements

We’ve been learning about dozens of preservation stories in Lowell, some large and others below the radar. In some cases, these are historic preservation stories, in which unique architectural assets aren’t just preserved, but given a new life that allows visitors and residents to interact with history. In other cases, “cultural heritage” is preserved. Preserving cultural heritage could mean many things: research and documentation of culture, preserving oral histories, passing on traditions of art and folkcraft, providing venues for groups to showcase their culture, holding festivals and celebrations, and teaching children and adults about everything which makes us human. Recently, I learned about an award that honors and celebrates achievements in these two areas, sponsored by Lowell National Historical Park and the Lowell Heritage Partnership. I believe it is critical for the awards’ success to have a wide diversity of candidates, so everyone who knows of a student, group, or individual effort should send in a nomination—whether or not the effort is well-known.

National Park Service LogoThe history of the Lowell Annual Awards for Historic Preservation and Culture, also known as the Community Excellence Awards, starts in 2006. Sue Andrews, who helped set up the award program, was kind enough for me to discuss its beginnings. She worked with a similar award program in Blackstone Valley National Heritage Area, and it seemed to not only be a perfect way to not only raise awareness of achievements within Lowell, but also a way for the National Park to learn about community efforts large and small. In her words, it would help to “make the voices out in the community heard.”

The two categories, historic preservation and cultural heritage, were based on the National Park’s mission to “preserve and interpret the nationally significant historical and cultural sites” throughout Lowell. This year, two recipients in each category may receive awards: a middle through college student, and a member of the broader community. I began to see the awards as a way to create a dialogue between groups, facilitating sharing of resources and collaboration.

Lowell Heritage Partnership LogoIt was this spirit of collaboration that brought the Lowell Heritage Partnership in as a co-sponsor. The LHP was an organization I didn’t understand when I first moved to Lowell. It serves as a “Friends of Lowell National Historical Park” group, but its purpose seemed much broader than just serving as a nonprofit arm. And although it preserves and enhances Lowell’s cultural heritage along with its natural and architectural heritage, it doesn’t serve the same purpose as the Cultural Organization of Lowell, either. Rather, many individuals, committees, and groups contribute time or resources to the partnership, and I now understand it as a vehicle of collaboration, making a stronger connection between the National Park, neighborhood groups, and the Lowell community.

Last year’s winners included Richard Howe Jr. for his cemetery tours, the Southeast Asian Water Festival committee, Lowell Community Health Center for the renovation work in the Hamilton Mills, and Albert Lorenzo for a research project on the Lowell Canal system. The 2013 awards also posthumously recognized Dr. Patrick J. Mogan, considered by many to be the “Father” of Lowell National Historical Park. The Room 50 blog has a number of photos from the ceremony. The ceremony is part of May’s Doors Open Lowell, an event that lets participants tour renovated buildings, many of which are normally closed to public.

Southeast Asian Water Festival Committee accepting award

Southeast Asian Water Festival Committee accepts award in 2013, Paul Marion watches to the right (Courtesy Room 50)

I asked Paul Marion, president of the LHP, to talk about what made these awards important. He pointed out the value in recognizing people who “help to conserve our heritage day to day,” normally with little attention. He also said:

The awards speak for the value system of the National Park Service, Lowell Heritage Partnership, and preservation advocates in the community who seek to encourage vigorous, thoughtful, and enduring stewardship of the city’s distinctive places and stories. Much has been accomplished in the past 50 years when it comes to reclaiming Lowell’s position in the American narrative, and the benefits have been enormous during that time. It is important that we praise the efforts of those who contribute to this ongoing effort to protect and honor the history of Lowell…

We must always be vigilant in taking care of the physical, environmental, and cultural assets of Lowell—and we should always do so with an affirmative and optimistic spirit. We present the awards in that spirit.

For the official press release and nomination forms, click here.

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

It has been a while since we’ve written about the Jerathmell Bowers House, but it is becoming an interesting success story. I’ve been slowly learning more about the Bowers House, which hosted Lowell Historical Society meetings in the 1970s. The most recent chapter of the property’s history began in 2010, when the previous owners worked with the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust (LP&CT) to find a new use for the old house. LP&CT may be most famous for its work on the Concord River Greenway and offering programs such as the whitewater rafting trips. It also owns many open spaces and conservation restrictions, including the Spalding House on 383 Pawtucket Street, and is advancing restoration projects with a goal of creating exhibits about the house’s history. Much like the Bowers House, the context surrounding the Spalding House has changed: Once on a 10-acre parcel, the house was an inn for barge workers in the second half of the 1700s. However, the city grew into it, and now the house has a story of change to tell.

This made LP&CT a natural ally of the Bowers House. Jane Calvin, LP&CT’s executive director, was kind enough to share with me the story of how she lead tours through the house with agencies such as MassPreservation, Parker Foundation, and the City of Lowell. In addition, LP&CT assisted a Boston University student creating a report about the house. Although the exterior may seem unimpressive, the interior sports extra-thick walls purportedly for defense in King Phillips’ War, hand-hewn wall panels, and encased supports that typify pre-industrial construction. However, post-recession years have been tough for preservationists, and no developer could be found.

Finally, Kazanjian Enterprises, a well-known developer owned by a former City Councilor, bought the property and proposed an approximately 3,000 sq ft bank building and 6,300 office/retail building on the site in the summer of 2013. After talking with the City, they developed a site plan (Note the North Arrow is actually pointing west):150 Wood St_plans_Page_2

This plan preserved the historic house in its current location. However, transportation engineers believed the access on Wood Street was too close to the busy Westford/Wood intersection. They suggested moving or demolishing the Bowers House to locate a driveway there instead. This lead to the second proposal:

150 Wood St_Revised Plans page

In this proposal, the driveway is a bit more than 330′ from the intersection. The developer was unable to find anyone willing to move the house to another property, so they identified an area on the lot to move the house. However, this was a preliminary proposal, as the proposed area is in a flood plain of the Black Brook and would require mitigation if the house were moved there.

The Conservation Committee discussed this proposal around the time we first reported on the Bowers House. When reviewing the meeting, I noted that the developer inaccurately stated the property was “not listed on the historical register or anything.” It was also interesting that the Conservation Commission wasn’t aware of the reason for moving the house, and the developer had to “play telephone” between the transportation engineering office and the commission. Misinformation and lack of communication is a common problem in board review, and many communities are moving toward coordinated development reviews to streamline the process for developers.

The discussion also highlighted another common “problem” in planning, described by a Conservation Commission member: “Often times historical preservation and environmental protection butt heads.” This is one of the most exciting parts of my profession: finding and negotiating solutions to competing interests, all of which have the public interest at heart. The regulating bodies may even disagree internally about priorities. For example, some Conservation Commission members felt alteration to the artificial wetland was preferable to demolition of the house. Others thought maintaining the current slopes took precedence over saving the house. Either way, there were serious doubts about whether the house could survive such a move and if it would still be historically valuable without the chimney and foundation.

Most recently, the developer and the City worked to create a third proposal:

Pages from WOODWEST PLAN SET

This site plan, discussed at tonight’s Planning Board meeting, maintains the house in its current location (the area where the house could be moved is shown, but is no longer necessary). The developer reoriented the office/retail building to provide access about 285′ from the intersection. I hope to learn more about the story and who, if anyone, compromised. The developer must still work out details with the City, including the orientation of left turn lanes onto and off of Westford and pedestrian access, which was clearly expressed as a priority by the Planning Board. The Bowers House porch may be removed to improve sight lines at the driveway, but many consider the porch a nonessential addition. The hearing will be continued to the next Planning Board meeting, January 23. It will be exciting to see the next phase of the Bowers House’s history and learn about the work that ensured it could safely be preserved!

Updated Concept Perspective Drawing

Updated Concept Perspective Drawing

Jerathmell Bowers House, Pawtucket Dam, and the Master Plan

I relearned how quickly news evolves today. I’ve been working on following up Aurora’s post on the Jerathmell (now that’s a name) Bowers House, when richardhowe.com posted letters in support of preservation from both the Lowell Historical Society and Lowell Heritage Foundation. The intended audience of the letters were city councils and boards, the developer, and the community at large, calling for cooperation to do as much as possible to “preserve the historic value that exists in the building.”

The Bowers House discussion reminds me of a higher-profile preservation debate in Lowell: The Pawtucket Dam. For those who don’t know, the US Department of Justice recently filed a lawsuit against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission over FERC’s approval of replacing the dam’s historic flashboards with a pneumatic system. The controversies are different in nature as well as scale:

  • Modification vs. demolition
  • Within the National Historical Park boundaries vs. outside any historic district
  • Part of a system that is interpreted to hundreds of thousands yearly vs. a structure whose context has been removed
  • Legal challenges vs. a call to cooperate

Nevertheless, it raises the same questions:

  • How do we value historically significant structures with no currently apparent economic development value?
  • How do we weigh historic impacts vs. other impacts (flooding in the case of the dam, traffic in the case of the Bowers House)?
  • Are we protecting everything we as a community value, and are those protections sufficiently comprehensive?

I know some bring up another question: Why does society get to impede on private property rights without buying that property or an easement? To me, this is a non-starter. Property rights are an abstraction created by society, only as real as the rights of a squirrel defending its territory. Just as squirrel society defines squirrels’ rights, human society defines “property” and the bundle of rights given to an owner.

In the case of preservation, there’s Supreme Court precedent that society can’t take all property rights away from an individual without reimbursement, but it can use police power to take many rights so long as it is rationally justified and leaves the individual with an economically productive use of the land (link to National Trust summary of Supreme Court cases). It is society’s job to balance these rights to produce a just and productive system. Notably, I’m not aware of any proposed regulatory action involving Bowers House, so this question might not even be relevant here.

Map of Middlesex Village

Historic location of house. http://www.historicmapworks.com, Middlesex County Map 1875, F. W. Beers

Turning back to Bowers House, I often turn to a city’s comprehensive master plan to guide my thoughts about the goals of that micro-socety. The plan discusses a number of preservation efforts, but they largely concentrate on the mill buildings and downtown core. I could find only one applicable action item on page 71, as part of the objective to “enhance enjoyment, appreciation , and stewardship of Lowell ’s historic and cultural resources”:

Acknowledge and support efforts to expand Lowell’s historic preservation initiatives beyond the National Park and mill era to include recognition and stewardship of historic resources from all eras of Lowell’s past.

This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been other efforts involving the Bowers House. First of all, the property was listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks. This doesn’t afford it universal protection: it merely qualifies renovations on income-producing properties for tax credits; requires federal projects or projects requiring a federal permit that impact the property must complete an environmental review process; and in Massachusetts, limited protection and some matching grant opportunities. I admit I haven’t seen the application, as it hasn’t yet been digitized.

In addition, Lowell Parks and Conversation Trust was working with the previous owners on preservation options back in 2010. I’m currently trying to determine what, if anything, came of that effort. It may shed additional light onto options the community can consider now. If anyone has any info, please let me know, and I’ll spread the word!

Gibbet Hill Grill in Groton

Gibbet Hill Grill in Groton operates out of a 100 year-old barn.

Although the potential for reuse is slim, the best possible idea we’ve come up so far is a themed restaurant. It’s in a commercial district and an entrepreneur could play up its living history, serving regional food from multiple eras! Of course, it’s far from where tourists interested in history would go; three in five restaurants close after three years; and I imagine a lot of work would need to go into getting it up to code. Nobody said preservation was easy!