North Common Amphitheater Welcome Rainbow in Lowell MA

Lowell’s Acre and “Community Urbanism”: Small Steps Leading to Big Impacts

I’ve often heard that Lowell’s Acre neighborhood has experienced an incredible revitalization in the last decade. By many accounts, the relatively safe, clean, and strong neighborhood I’m familiar with was very different only a few years ago. Describing the Acre of 10 years ago in a story about Moody Street’s transformation, CBA’s website mentions “vacant buildings falling into disrepair and families moving out.” Although University Crossing, the new Jeanne D’Arc office, and several CBA housing projects are among the most visible aspects of the revitalization, there is a concurrent, smaller-scale effort that looks as if it’s paying just as many dividends: projects led by the Acre Coalition to Improve Our Neighborhood (ACTION).

Dave Ouellette, president of ACTION, took members of the community on a tour of a few of these projects in November. The tour was publicized by Do-It-Yourself Lowell[1], a citizen-led initiative to facilitate similar projects and events throughout Lowell. I found Mr. Ouellette’s story instructional and inspiring, as the projects tie sound planning principles with a community focus in a way that has helped redefine a neighborhood.

Map with path of tour, background: Google Maps

Path of tour.

North Common Amphitheater

We started our tour with the North Common Amphitheater, also known as the “Welcome Rainbow.” The origin of the Amphitheater and ACTION are tied together.

Dave Ouellette talking in front of metal frame in amphitheater.

Mr. Ouellette gave a sneak preview of the newest addition to the Amphitheater. Letters will be installed on the metal frame spelling “ACTION Theater”, which can support lights, backdrops, curtains, or a movie screen. The City will run power to the frame.

The Coalition for a Better Acre (CBA) had served as a neighborhood organization for the Acre since it had formed in 1982 to successfully oppose a plan to raze the Acre’s Triangle neighborhood. However, in a community meeting organized by the Lowell Police Department after a 2009 shooting, discussion about a resident-led neighborhood organization moved Mr. Ouellette to found ACTION to more directly speak on behalf of residents. In addition, ACTION understood that physical projects along with sustained outreach were needed to reduce crime and increase community.

In 2010, CBA funded travel expenses for Mr. Ouellette and five others to attend the annual NeighborWorks America Community Leadership Institute, a three-day training session that includes a workshop in which teams create action plans for their communities. These plans, which had to “show substantial change,” were eligible for a $2,000 reimbursable grant from NeighborWorks. CBA’s team created a plan to improve the amphitheater.

Mr. Ouellette told us that he grew up in the housing next to the North Common, and remembered that the 1970s-era amphitheater once hosted music and entertainment. It was a place to meet neighbors. However, by the late 2000s, lights around the amphitheater had been out of service for twelve years. Vegetation obscured it from the road, and gangs used it as a fighting arena. The team realized that it could be a benefit to the community once again.

It was the start of a years-long project involving many groups and people. Suzanne Frechette, Deputy Director of CBA, and others assisted the group with an initial clean-up and power washing. In 2010, they asked the city to cut down the vegetation. In 2011, ACTION facilitated a partnership between the City and YouthBuild America to reconstruct the concrete steps: YouthBuild built the forms while the City mixed and poured concrete. In 2012, Western Avenue Studios, YouthBuild, and the Boys and Girls Club sponsored an invitation to the community to paint 26 mural spaces with “Welcome” in the many languages spoken in Lowell. The Cultural Organization of Lowell (COOL) provided paint, brushes, and other materials. Finally, the City restored the lighting, an $8,000 project in itself.

Each step built upon one another. Each step proved the next step was possible. Most importantly, each step involved the sweat equity of the community the project would serve. In an unveiling celebration, Mr. Ouellette stood in front of the amphitheater, one empty mural space remaining, and asked, “What does this mean?” People shouted out answers until one came up with: “One City, One World!” The crowd cheered, and this became the phrase on the top step.

Wilfred Lavasseur (Whiting Street) Park

Lavasseur Park site prior to park development. (Source: Google Maps)

The lot prior to park development.

The tour then moved to the Wilfred Lavasseur park, which until 2012 was an empty lot. Although once children had played in the lot, it had since become a dumping ground and a hotspot for drug deals for more than a decade. The City administration was impressed with ACTION’s leadership on the North Common project, and asked for help to transform the city-owned empty lot into a community space in 2011.

Alleys between houses were often used by drug dealers to enter and exit the lot, so the group created a plan to fence the alleys off and create community gardens along the edges of the park. Along with grants from the City, Mass Service Alliance, Lowell Rotary, and NeighborWorks, Mr. Ouellette said ACTION “used the City as Lowes.” They recovered bricks from a renovation project near City Hall and intercepted the concrete barriers that would separate the center of the park from the gardening area.

Art panels at Lavasseur ParkMost notably, when the Revolving Museum closed, it threw away many mural panels. ACTION and Mill City Grows came together to rescue dozens of pieces of art from the dumpster. These are now displayed on the fences of the garden and in other community garden locations across the city. More than 200 volunteers built the fifteen garden plots, shed, benches, and pergola over 18 months with the help from the city, CBA, Mill City Grows, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust, UMass Lowell, and YouthBuild.

Tour group as Lavasseur Park

The tour group finds the park, named for the late owner of Cote’s Market, attractive even in winter.

The space is now used actively by community members of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, and they keep an eye on the once-derelict lot. The operations are overseen by community member Billy Heath, who attended the Garden Coordinator Institute, a seven-part workshop provided annually by Mill City Grows.[2]

Decatur Alley

The tour then turned to what may be ACTION’s next project, Decatur Alley. The old path runs between Merrimack and Salem streets, stretching from University Crossing to Decatur Street. Although Mr. Ouellette remembers walking the path as a child, it had since become overgrown and was used by drug dealers or others attempting to duck under fences to evade police.

Group and Decatur Alley

The tour traveled through Decatur Alley, cleared and just waiting for a project!

Last year, ACTION and CBA organized and participated in volunteer crews to clear the alley of vegetation and trash. The crews included members of groups throughout the community, such as dozens of volunteers from Somebody Cares. In a Sun story, Mr. Ouellette said, “We found 12 mattresses, six tires, air-conditioning units, needles, everything you could think of.” ACTION also reached out to the homeowners abutting the alley, including UMass Lowell. They convinced the University to not erect a fence that would shut off and reduce visibility on one end of the alley.

The ultimate plan developed with the community is to transform the alley into a cobblestone walkway lined with benches, poetry pedestals, and artwork. ACTION plans to dedicate one area to veterans, which would engage yet another piece of the community. Another area would showcase artwork from local schools. An area behind Cote’s Market would become a spot for picnicking. The path could be used by students and residents alike.

The path—and the tour—ended at St. Jeanne Baptiste church, a place so interesting it deserves its own post.

Decatur Alley in Lowell MA

Lowell House has provided a path behind its residences, providing an example of how the alley can become an attractive path.

Lessons Learned

As we talked about what made the projects successful, Mr. Ouellette expressed his belief that more important than finding funding is making sure projects are a volunteer effort. He has seen several projects falter because they were built using a grant, but then had little to no community involvement in maintenance. If the community itself builds the project, they own it, and they take care of it. Trash used to be a problem at both the amphitheater and Lavasseur Park, but now community members take care of the area.

He also stressed that anyone can be involved. Children helped pull weeds, young adults built structures, and older neighbors served drinks. The diversity of volunteers and partner organizations is inspiring. Once again, this all works toward ensuring mutual ownership of the projects.

Finally, the projects must be useful, providing many functions for different audiences. The garden is a place to grow food and to relax. The amphitheater can be used for plays, movie screenings, and festivals (and hopscotch courts have been stenciled on to keep it useful between events). The more people using the project, the more people around to help keep it clean and safe.

Ultimately, each project is individually useful and addresses a need, but as a group, they are transformative. As I understand it, many small actions over years revived the amphitheater, created the community garden, and will create the Decatur Alley path. In turn, each of these is a relatively small project compared to a new University building. However, these small steps when put together—along with constant engagement—are majorly enhancing Acre residents’ quality of life.

North Common Amphitheater Partnership Monument

Small steps and partnerships can transform a park and a community.

Lowell's Amphitheater: A Remembrance of Time - Each step is a unique cultural design of your ancestral devotion. So... step up to the podium and shout out loud to your ocean/of listeners. And listen to the echo of whispers of your heart and/mind, where your spirit dwells.

Local Poet Augustus Clayton provided poetry for pedestals at both the Amphitheater and  Levasseur Park. Local poet Augustus Clayton provided poetry for pedestals at both the Amphitheater and Levasseur Park.

Notes

[1] I am a lead coordinator of DIY Lowell and plan to write a detailed post about my experience putting together the initiative soon.

[2] Some information from Lowell Sun.

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3 Neighborhoods, 5 Candidates, 18th Middlesex Lowell

The primary election for representative of the 18th Middlesex District is only a little more than a week away, and five people are running for the democratic nomination. The winner of that election will run against unenrolled candidate Fred Bahou in November.

The 18th district contains the Lowell Highlands and the Acre, a district that was nearly 70% nonwhite or Hispanic in 2010, an increase of 10% proportionately from 2000. It’s a growing district, but it also faces some challenges related to crime: although neighborhood scout rates the Upper Highlands as the safest neighborhood after Belvidere and western Pawtucketville, parts of the Lower Highlands and Acre seem to have some of the lowest safety scores.

Cornelius Kiernan* 1949 – 1976 26 years
Paul Sheehy* 1965 – 1972 8 years
Phil Shea* 1973 – 1979 7 years†
Edward LeLacheur* 1975 – 1998 24 years
Robert B. Kennedy* 1975 – 1978 4 years
Tim Rourke 1981 – 1982 2 years
Susan Rourke 1983 – 1992 10 years
Steve Panagiotakos 1993 – 1996 4 years†
Kevin Murphy 1997 – 2014 18 years†
*Prior to 1978, the 18th as we know it didn’t exist; pieces of three districts would be put together to form it. Councilors with asterisks were elected to these predecessor districts.
† Left for higher/different office.

The last I wrote about state politics, Kevin Murphy was still representative of the 18th, but since then, he was chosen as City Manager and the position has been vacant ever since. I don’t live in the district, but because the three representatives Lowell sends to Beacon Hill all work together, this election is very important for all of Lowell. In addition, those elected to the 18th Middlesex tend to stay in office a long time and only leave to pursue higher office or to retire, so the person elected this year could be in office twenty years from now.

A couple of weeks ago, Khmer Post and LTC sponsored a televised debate with a special screening at LTC. I attended that event and was surprised to see a mostly full room. However, it appeared that half the room had Rady Mom or Dave Ouellette shirts, and I imagine that those who didn’t were connected to one of the other candidates. Regardless, it was an interesting peek into a group I don’t see too often. Of course, early all the action was on the screen.

I thought I’d share my impressions taken from the debate, from websites, and from the Lowell Sun. Quotes from the debate may be off by a word or two, but Richard Howe’s blog has the video and a comprehensive summary.

The Candidates

People watching screen at Lowell Telecommunications Corporation (LTC)

Screening of debate at LTC. Soben Pin of Khmer Post is on screen, one of a panel of questioners.

Brian Donovan

Sun interview

Mr. Donovan mentioned that as a retiree, he could devote all his time to the statehouse. His opening statement was direct: “The issues we have in the city are violence and an education system that needs improvement,” and those areas seemed to bring his most impassioned answers, including an opinion that violent crime is on the rise in Lowell:

It’s easy to say it’s safe if you aren’t being affected. – Brian Donovan

He said that gangs were a factor, and he would focus on funding gang units. He showed a lot of anger toward criminals, saying “they don’t care who they’re hurting,” and calling them “thugs.” Along with the gang unit, Mr. Donovan has told the Sun he would make sure police and fire would have “top shelf equipment.”

In response to other questions, he spoke once again about finding state money: when asked about how he would engage with Asian Americans, he mentioned finding small business grants and funding set-asides. Asked about education, he mentioned providing support for college students. However, he did acknowledge the challenge Massachusetts businesses have because of workforce costs: in other words, housing costs.

Jim Leary

Sun interview

Mr. Leary is a familiar face in Lowell politics, an insurance claims manager who has served on the school board since 2007. However, he has made economic development a major focus of his campaign. He would seek grants for infrastructure and job growth; development and marketing of Cambodiatown; and work with the colleges to attract new tech businesses. In fact, he was very animated about the idea of working with Cambodian (and presumably other) businesses to identify their specific needs, and believes a key is to connect Cambodiatown with the Hamilton Canal District.

However, he also acknowledged crime problems:

I used to run… up School Street, and I would feel completely safe… But when you wake up two in the morning with fireworks, and you start to feel disturbed. – Jim Leary

Finally, he had specific ideas about easing the burden of higher education on students, including pushing more college-level classes in the high school and looking toward the State University of New York system for ways to make college low-cost.

Rady Mom

Sun interview

Rady Mom came to the United States as a refugee when he was ten years old, and has been a resident for twenty years. He now runs a small acupuncture business in the Highlands and has extensive civic experience. Although he was not as specific as other candidates on his plans, he spoke with a great deal of conviction:

It is amazing to have this opportunity. Where I come from, there was none of that.

His approach to violence was somewhat different, in that he emphasized the role of working directly with schools and families in their own language. In fact, this was a repeated theme throughout the debate. He stressed creating connections between community members, between Lowell and the statehouse, and between agencies. Notably, he mentioned that he would make sure Cambodian businesspeople felt it was “OK” to reach out to the statehouse.

I have been a little surprised that Mr. Mom doesn’t share more of his experience in interviews and debates. Even the Sun mentioned, “He almost never spoke about politics, legislation or the Statehouse.” His story as a refugee is chilling, but I’d love to know more about how he’s helped guide Lowell institutions such as the Boys and Girls Club and the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association.

It’s not that I’m a politician… First and foremost, I’m a community activist. – Rady Mom

David Ouellette

Sun interview

I’m familiar with Mr. Ouellette from a number of Lowell events. He’s Lowell’s Senior Building Inspector and founded the Acre Coalition To Improve Our Neighborhood (ACTION) in 2009. He would resign from his city position if elected, but continue to attend ACTION meetings and walk the Acre. Mr. Ouellette is also focused on public safety, agreeing the community policing and anti-drug campaigns need funding, but had a unique additional perspective as a code enforcement officer:

We go in there after there’s been a shooting… and we write up all the problems in that house. …we have those people move out, because we condemn the property right on the spot, and it gives instant relief to the neighborhood. – Dave Ouellette

This perspective came up again, when Mr. Ouellette talked about a plan to give loans that could provide fire suppression sprinklers modeled on lead removal loans. Depending on the applicant, loans can be fully amortizing and may be deferred until home sale or refinance.

It’s also notable that although Mr. Ouellette mentioned his work discussing with potential business owners about code and law requirements for business, but didn’t highlight the strategy outlined on his website, including increasing street activity through pedestrian and bicycle facilities and community gardening, providing small retail incubation space, and providing sustained funding for those with mental and cognitive disabilities.

Paul Ratha Yem

Sun interview

Mr. Yem is a realtor and former director of the Cambodian American League of Lowell who missed a chance to be put on the official ballot because most of his signature papers did not list his hometown. Nevertheless, he’s running a write-in campaign and had very interesting things to say in the debate. Like Mr. Mom, he came to the United States as a refugee. However, he came to Lowell to do human service work for other Southeast Asian refugees.

Yem would focus on economic development and job creation, and much like Mr. Leary, sees great opportunity in connecting Cambodiatown with the Hamilton Canal District.

This is the area that I can be proud of… I was with the Lowell Institute for Savings back in the eighties promoting small businesses and promoting home ownership. – Paul Ratha Yem

He mentioned many businesses still open and expanding from the micro loans he organized. Although he did not mention policy approaches in the debate, his website suggests ensuring funding for infrastructure projects, increasing local-hire requirements for development projects, and creating a streamlined “governmental environment.”

Unlike the other candidates, his discussions with residents of the Acre and Lower Highlands revealed immigration and family reunification to be a top issue of most 18th Middlesex residents. He would pursue legislation to give relief for cities with large immigrant populations and reform immigration writ-large. However, he has noted that the Upper Highlands residents cite crime as a priority, and he believes he can help the LPD in their community policing strategy with his experience fostering relationship between communities and police in the Executive Office of Public Safety in the late 80s. I find it notable, but not surprising, that those living in relatively safe areas of Lowell are more concerned about crime than those living closer to the center of the city.

Finally, Mr. Yem displayed some courage on a set of yes/no questions the moderator asked at the end. Unlike all the other candidates, he voiced opposition to casinos and agreed with the Governor’s offer to house refugee children.

My thoughts on critical issues

Housing

I was surprised to see almost all the candidates seemingly unprepared on how to address what I see as one of Massachusetts’s most pressing issues: housing costs. It’s not just an equity issue: from my understanding, high housing costs create high labor costs which stifle economic development. Housing costs do not seem to be a leading issue in Lowell, but if Massachusetts is struggling because of housing costs, that will hurt Lowell in the long-run. Even putting that argument aside, housing costs are still much higher in Lowell than in comparable cities in the Midwest and south.

Solutions were not forthcoming. Some of the candidates focused on the need for more market-rate housing without suggesting what barriers may exist, while others focused on the question’s other piece, the Hamilton Canal District. Mr. Ouellette suggested a strategy for improving Lowell’s existing housing stock which is perhaps a greater issue in Lowell than affordability. On the other hand, Mr. Yem mentioned his knowledge of the reality of renters in Lowell: many still pay half or more of their income on rent. Housing costs and affordable housing will be the subject of a future post.

Crime

I was not surprised to hear security be a leading issue in all candidates minds, but few made the deeper connections between crime, poverty, and early intervention. Rather, most focused on maintaining or increasing funding for existing police programs. Mr. Donovan even said he thought violent crime in Lowell was increasing, which may play to voters’ perceptions but is not backed up by police reports that include a 14% reduction in aggravated assaults compared to last year, continuing a trend that began in 2010 (link to Sun article).

However, I was happy to see that after discussing funding, many of the candidates had more suggestions. Mr. Yem mentioned assisting the police have a force that racially reflects Lowell better, Mr. Mom and Mr. Leary mentioned a focus on schools and families, and Mr. Ouellette outlines eyes on the street and mental health funding as other strategies to reduce crime.

However, I would have liked to see more comments on the role of the state in encouraging evidence-based policing, including the increased level of safety that police accountability and procedural justice brings. Nobody mentioned the problematic recidivism rates. I also was disappointed in the lack of mention of the role of organizations ranging from UTEC to Lowell House.

Women

It is of course notable that all candidates are men. When asked how they would support women to fill the leadership pipeline, few had ready answers. Mr. Ouellette even said, “That’s a good a one!” Ultimately, each suggested a different approach, from connecting with UMass Lowell (Mr. Donovan) to finding mentorship opportunities (Mr. Leary), to ensuring education is preparing women for careers (Mr. Ouellette).

I thought it was especially interesting that Mr. Yem brought up the difficulty of recruiting women at the Cambodia Town organization in a culture where men are traditionally dominant. However, Mr. Leary’s suggestion may be best: “Start listening.”

Majority-Minority District

I found it notable that there was only brief mention of other races and ethnicities outside of Cambodians. Many of the candidates made the basic argument that strategies would help people of all races, such as crime reduction and job creation. However, it seems that the persistent poverty many of the groups face require a special approach for each group.

Notably, only Mr. Yem addressed the audience in another language than English, but I have no idea if that would help or hurt his chances in the primary.

Youth Engagement

Finally, I was disappointed nobody got the chance to comment on one of the more disappointing results in the Lowell legislature: The Vote 17 Amendment to the Election Reform bill. The entire Lowell delegation supported that bill, and it will take more pressure to get the good idea moving.

Conclusions

The most interesting thing that I found about this slate of candidates is that they do not sort easily into a left-right spectrum. All were focused on the particular needs of the community; all advocated for funding (although each funding priority was different); and all were democrats in a slightly different way. Some mentioned funding more often, while others suggested inter-community negotiation and discussion. Each brings special focus and skills, and I hope to continue watching them all, regardless of who wins the primary and the final election.

(Edit: A former version of this post was missing a number of previous representatives. Thanks to Dick Howe for assistance.)

Map from Sustainable Lowell 2025

Bicycle Lanes, Data-driven Decisions, and Community Visions

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

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

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

Truck in bicycle lane in Lowell, Massachusetts

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

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

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

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

What are our Goals?

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

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

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

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

What about Cars?

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

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

Map from Sustainable Lowell 2025 Plan

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

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

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

Road Diets

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

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

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

Confusion, Education, and Enforcement

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

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

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

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

Children at 2013 Lowell Bike Safety Rodeo

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

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

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

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

Poor Design of the Bicycle Lanes?

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

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

Bicycle lanes in Lowell, Massachusetts.

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

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

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

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

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

What Now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Map from Sustainable Lowell 2025

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Community, One Hour at a Time

Earlier today Chris and I got to have lunch with an enthusiastic Lowellian working on an interesting project. Joy Mosenfelder is working for Coalition For a Better Acre, and her pet project is the Merrimack Valley Time Exchange, a really cool idea that does a lot of neat things at once.  

In essence, a Time Exchange is a system where you trade an hour of effort or expertise on your part for an hour of someone else’s. It’s an exchange system where hours, not dollars, are the currency. So for instance, if you shovel an elderly person’s driveway for an hour, you can get an hour of having your car fixed, or a ride to work. Or learn glass blowing. The idea is that it helps people connect to get their needs met within their community, and additionally helps people to find ways to contribute. Joy was especially enthusiastic about the way that it can help build connections between people in the sometimes isolated segments of the Lowell community.

If you’re interested in learning more about the project, there’s a great opportunity coming up. This Friday at 7pm you can come to Lowell Makes for an open house/potluck/music event. We’ll be there (as long as I catch the early train home from work, anyway), and I’m psyched to have a chance to learn more about both the Time Exchange and Lowell Makes in one fell swoop.

We had a nice chat with Joy about how the exchange is going, and it was really interesting to learn more about both the practical and philosophical ideas that make it work. To my ear, a huge part of what it’s trying to do is build the kind of community that would have existed in ideal moments of human history (pre-agrarian hunter-gatherers or tight-knit small towns and neighborhoods, whichever you prefer) in which people help each other constantly, with the knowledge that everything they can contribute is balanced by something they get in return. Dense tangles of help and obligation. In our modern world, everyone seems to agree, it’s very easy to get disconnected from those webs of connection. The project is a way of codifying and giving structure to the exchange of help, a lattice to help the community plant grow.

Joy told us that people have traded all sorts of things, from childcare to the rental of the 119 Gallery. She notes that the exchange could use more tradespeople, as positions like plumbers, carpenters, and HVAC are in high demand. On the other hand, if you feel like you’re not sure what you could contribute, don’t sweat it. Joy says a lot of people respond that way, and she firmly believes that everyone has something to offer. Even if you absolutely, positively have no special skills, people post looking for help with very basic tasks, or even for simple company. If you’d like to get an idea of what people trade, you can check out the board here.

They currently have 87 members, ranging in age from 17-80’s, representing 10 different cities in the area. Around a quarter of the members are low income, and the area’s diversity of language and culture is represented. It really seems like a cool way to get connected with and contribute to the community, and I hope it continues to grow in its second year the way it has in its first.

If you’d like to support the Time Exchange, they have a fundraiser going on over at Crowdtilt. Here’s their Facebook and their Twitter, and I hope to see some of you at the Friday event!

(As an aside, if you represent a Lowell business or organization you think our readers would like to hear about, feel free to contact us for a sitdown. We always enjoy learning more and chatting with interesting folks.)

Dining in The Acre: Olympia Restaurant

Since Chris and I are adding food blogging to our repertoire, I wanted to write up another place we’ve visited. A couple weeks ago we went out on a Saturday night to the Olympia, one of Lowell’s Greek restaurants. According to their website, they’re the oldest, founded by a Greek immigrant in the 1950’s.

Chris and I are vegetarian (I’m sure you’re all shocked) and I have to say this wasn’t the best place for that: everybody in the online reviews talks about lamb. But we found plenty to eat. We split tzatziki (tasty yogurt dip), spanakopita, saganaki (fried cheese), and Zorba fries. All were to our liking, and I especially recommend dipping the zingy Zorba fries in the yogurt dip.

Saturday night they seemed relatively busy but not jammed full. I was interested to notice, looking around, how many of the other diners seemed to be Greek, especially big family groups. It always seems like a good sign when an ethnic restaurant is popular within its own community. Lowell has a lot of strong ethnic neighborhoods and communities, and the Greek community is an especially active group.

The Olympia’s website says they’re in an “historic location”, and they’re right. Lowell’s Greek neighborhood had historically been in this area of town, known as the Acre. The Acre is west of downtown, and you can figure out a lot about its history in a stroll around the neighborhood. A couple things that should clue you in to it’s ethnic history: the stunningly beautiful St. Patrick’s, pointing to the Acre’s original population of Irish immigrants, and the gold topped Holy Trinity Orthodox church, with the distinctive domes that are often a clue to a Greek neighborhood.

Photo by Chris

St. Patrick’s Church

Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church

Another thing you’ll probably notice are housing projects, which were very controversial when they were first built in 1939. Like a lot of Urban Development up through the 1970’s, the project didn’t see a problem with displacing vibrant ethnic neighborhoods in exchange for “modern” redevelopment. In the name of progress, many traditional neighborhoods and historic buildings were knocked down for housing projects and highways. Some cities accidentally dealt themselves mortal wounds in this process, and are still struggling to recover from the choices they’ve made.

North Common Village going up in 1940. Read more about the project and the Greek community’s history here.

Lowell has made mistakes, but it’s been really lucky in a lot of ways.  Lowell still has really strong ethnic communities and strong neighborhood pride, and lots of people working to keep both around. Despite being displaced by the Acre’s changes, the Greek Community is still a proud force in Lowell. Meanwhile, the Acre’s a much broader mix of people than it used to be, but it still has a sense of identity. The Coalition For a Better Acre and the Acre Coalition To Improve Our Neighborhood (ACTION) are actively working to make the neighborhood a better place.

Stick around as Chris and I continue to explore Lowell’s diversity in the tastiest ways possible. Let us know if you have any recommendations!  The blog’s a great excuse to eat out.