Hearing about the Route 38 Hearing

To follow up on our previous posts, I attended last week’s public hearing on the Route 38 project near Kittredge Park. Its purpose, in MassDOT’s words:

As part of the design process for this project, we are conducting this public hearing to explain the proposed improvements, listen to your comments and answer any questions you may have. At the conclusion of the hearing, MassDOT will review all of your comments and, where feasible, incorporate them into the design of the project.

Wait, first, what exactly is MassDOT’s Public Process?

Under state and federal law, the state has to allow citizens to comment on projects. I’ve looked into this a bit to try to figure out how the process works, so I’ll spend a little time on that here.  MassDOT’s guiding documents do put an emphasis on public participation. Their 2014 Public Participation Plan lists their values related to participation: Dedication, Respect, Innovation, Diversity, and Honesty (accuracy, understandability, and accessibility).

A project’s public life begins when it’s first put on the “Transportation Improvement Plan” or “TIP” before design begins. The Nesmith Street project was put onto the TIP because of a Road Safety Audit conducted in 2010. The regional planning agency annually requests comment about the TIP at meetings around Greater Lowell, reaching out through traditional media and email lists. I’ve heard mostly only people very interested in the transportation system—transportation planners and public officials—comment on the TIP. In fact, even though the Route 38 project was on the TIP, one public meeting participant asked why he had only heard of the project recently, from the Sun article.

The “Public Hearing” was another step of that public process. When a project has completed its environmental process, right before MassDOT formally accepts the preliminary design that will be developed into the final design, it holds a formal meeting to allow citizens to get their comments on the record. The way they conduct this review is highly regulated, including notice requirements and accessibility. A list of everything they have to consider is here. This is the last time for formal public participation, unless the project gets delayed or they encounter unforeseen environmental complications. I learned a lot about their process by reading Chapter 2 of their guide.

What happens at a session like this? They show their plans, which are 25% complete. This part of the meeting is both very detailed and lacking some of the most relevant information. I often struggled to follow what was being discussed, to see what was being discussed on the slide, and to understand the values that were being promoted. Other participants expressed confusion, too. I appreciate that they were willing to share their plans online (which surely should be standard) because it allowed a little more time to digest.

Nesmith Street Plan

This is an image of their plan for Nesmith Street. Grey is road widening, brown is sidewalks, and yellow is new greenspace. The City engineers put together a great Route 38 project website with all their materials here.

What was MassDOT’s presentation about Nesmith?

After a brief introduction by MassDOT, their consultant from Bayside Engineering then spoke about the project, which includes five intersections. In addition to the ones I’ve written about on Learning Lowell before (Nesmith/Merrimack and Nesmith/Andover), they are putting in new signals at Nesmith/Stackpole so they can be coordinated with the other signals; and they are doing a realignment and signal improvements at the intersection of the Route 38 highway at Boylston/Fairmount and Douglas/Phoenix.

Almost all the participants were interested in the Nesmith Street work, and that’s where the engineers spent most of their presentation. The consultant engineer presented several alternatives they had considered, then showed the audience which alternative had already been chosen.

There were several things common to all alternatives:

  • The outside edges of the sidewalks would stay in the same place, meaning only the sidewalks and what’s between them would change.
  • The project would improve crosswalks at both intersections, including handicap ramps.
  • It would make the signals a pedestrian-only phase, meaning people have to press a button and wait for the light to go through its cycle, but then all the lights will be red to make people crossing the road safer.
  • Finally, the project would make two of the curves between Andover and Nesmith a little more “square.” This will make cars turning onto Nesmith go just a little more slowly.

These changes were supported by the participants at the meeting. The differences between the alternatives? Whether they make Nesmith wider or not.

This leads to the big question: do the trees have to go? Does the road have to get wider? According to them, absolutely yes. The details for why are easily obscured by technical details, but I’ll do my best. They considered 4 options that save the trees and one that widened the road. The differences between the 4 options were which ways the lanes would go.

Five very simple diagrams of the options shown at MassDOT presentation

This is a simplified drawing I did to try to understand the different options, showing the direction traffic would go in each direction, with Andover Street being at the bottom and Merrimack being at the top. The numbers over each drawing are how wide the road would be, including lanes and shoulders. Option 4 is just keeping it the way it is, and option 5 has a left-turn lane that starts in the middle going in either direction.

Nesmith Street

The plan would remove the trees between road and sidewalk on both sides, resulting in 12 trees total removed.

Option 3 is the widened road. It would keep the 5’ sidewalk on the Kittredge Park side, but that sidewalk would have signs and electric poles added to it. The sidewalk would be on top of a retaining wall that would be almost 4’ at its tallest, but an average closer to 2’. The retaining wall would be stone masonry and have a decorative railing. The sidewalk on the other side would be narrowed to 5’, requiring removal of three additional trees. This is in the plans, but they did not mention this out loud, and I didn’t understand it until I was able to look at the plans online. I wonder how many people in the room did.

Modeling Traffic

The engineer did an analysis of each option, giving a letter grade that represents how long people would have to wait during morning and evening rush hour at each intersection. They also showed how long their model thinks cars would back up before each light turns green during rush hour.

Their model, which is set in the year 2024 and assumes that traffic will increase for the next ten years, showed that all the options would cause traffic to back up from Merrimack past Andover or vice-versa, but that the 4-lane option would cause the least amount (in evening rush hour, the traffic would back up from Merrimack to just past Andover). However, I’m still not sure how they figured that out, and just how bad traffic would be under options 1 or 2. It would be nice to understand better what they presented, because it’s so hard to know whether they’re hearing our values as they build their models.

Option 3 PM Queue Analysis Nesmith Street

This is an example of the “queue analysis” they showed us. The red and yellow lines represent how far they think cars will back up during a red light. All the analyses are on the city’s website.

Those models are worth talking about a little bit. They’re based on ever growing traffic numbers, which if they continue, would result in losing any gains over time as the number of cars on the road continues to grow with Boston’s sprawl. This goes to MassDOT’s overall focus: their concerns are at the state level. To them this is a state highway, not a neighborhood road.

Categorizing Roads

When they opened up for comments, someone asked why the neighborhood should have to bear the brunt of all this traffic. The answer was, in essence, because that’s the way it is.

State legislation in the 1990s mandated a process to classify roads—this is called “Functional Classification”. MassDOT worked with regional agencies to define every Massachusetts road into one of three nationally-understood categories: Arterials, Collectors, and Local Roadways. Nesmith Street was classified as an Arterial. According to MassDOT, “These roadways provide the highest level of mobility at the greatest vehicular speeds for the longest uninterrupted distances. Generally, these roadways provide connections between Massachusetts cities, metropolitan regions, and bordering states…”

The categories are further sub-divided based on whether they’re urban or rural, and whether they’re limited-access, major, or minor. The category of a road changes what design it gets. For example, the MassDOT Design Guide states that designers should try to put a minimum of 4’ shoulders in urban arterials and 11’ lanes in urban arterials. Local roads can be narrower. Whenever designers go beyond minimums or maximums, they have to get permission from a “Design Exception Committee” and the Federal Highway Administration if they’re getting federal funding.

It’s a deliberately difficult process to get roads recategorized. A town that wants to change the category of a road has to prove that land use and traffic patterns have changed, and the road is no longer used for travel between cities. It’s a reinforcing cycle: cars use a certain road to get between cities, and that road gets categorized as an arterial, and then local and state engineers design it to be easier to use as an arterial, then more cars use it to get between cities.

When asked about this, the MassDOT engineeres replied that there are only so many paths over the river into New Hampshire. Any path is going to be full of traffic. The neighborhood just has to accept it. Our local engineers did mention that because traffic is bad on Nesmith, cars are going on other local roads like East Merrimack. The engineers’ goal is to minimize the amount of traffic on roads that aren’t arterials.

Map with cut-throughs around Nesmith

A drawing I did showing some ways cars avoid Nesmith, cutting through other neighborhood roads

It’s really important to note that the engineer said they would not consider lanes narrower than 11’ and even called 11’ lanes “nice and tight”. According to the MassDOT design guide, lanes between 11’ and 12’ should be used for speeds above 45 MPH, traffic above 2,000 vehicles per day, or trucks and busses more than 30 per hour. Traffic on Nesmith is above 30,000 vehicles per day.

However, not everyone agrees that 11’ lanes are ideal in urban settings, even with high traffic volumes. The National Association of City Transportation Officials’ guide recommends 10’ lanes in all but special circumstances, and Chapter 5 of the MassDOT guide itself mentions that 10’ lanes can be used in areas of limited right-of-way to provide greater separation between vehicles and pedestrians.

What did the neighborhood have to say?

There were about 30-40 residents in attendance, and perhaps a dozen spoke. MassDOT let city officials speak first, and city engineers read a letter from the City Manager supporting the project during the time. The meeting went late, after 9:00 pm, and many residents left before they had a chance to speak. However, the library was kind enough to stay open that everyone who waited could have their say.

There were concerns big and small. Nobody commented that they thought making the road wider was a good idea. Many liked the idea of better timed lights and pedestrian crossings, as well as clearer lane markings. Lots of people were disappointed in the potential loss of the trees, and many were worried about traffic speeding up and getting noisier. Nobody was excited about a long and disruptive traffic project. Some had more specific concerns, such as the design of the retaining wall or the accommodation of bicycles.

One participant asked whether MassDOT or the City was thinking about the entire road system holistically and the problem of there being not enough routes for cars travelling through (not to) Lowell, and the city engineers said that it was a problem faced by all communities, not just Lowell, and that, “We’re working on it.” Jane Calvin argued that the health of trees, or that the wrong type of trees were planted, should never be an argument to remove a tree planting strip, as that can be fixed without removing the strip. She also pointed to a City ordinance that said that the City would need to replace each tree they cut down with an equivalent tree or trees elsewhere. The Sun wrote up a great story about it, talking about both sides’ positions.

Does the fact that a dozen residents voiced concerns matter? Probably not. I have to be honest with this post: it’s very likely that there’s very little that can be done about this situation. While MassDOT is fulfilling its legal obligation to show us their plans, they have very little motivation to change them at this point. When people voiced concerns, they generally defended their existing design. For example, they showed a picture of the least healthy tree in the area when talking about the trees, and they said they believed the retaining wall would serve a similar traffic calming function.

They’ve spent a lot of time on this getting it the way they think it should be, and hearing residents say “we think it will be less safe” isn’t going to change an expert’s mind. They’re committed professionals, of course they believe in what they’re presenting. It would take a massive pushback, universal and noisy, and including our state representatives to alter the course of things now.

Should we try? I think so. This isn’t the engineers’ and planners’ fault. They work with the information they have, and with the parameters they’ve been given. Chris works with the city folks that helped in this process, and they’re good people, working every day to build a better Lowell for everyone. They were eager to offer to explain the process to residents with detailed questions, and they even offered to meet with residents to do a walk-through of the area in question. It’s not helpful to frame city or state folks as villains. They’re convinced based on their research that this is the best course of action for the greatest number.

If we’re going to build a Lowell where trees and pedestrians matter as much as cars, they’re going to have to hear from us as a community that these things matter to us, and they’re going to have to hear it a lot. They hear a lot of complaints from drivers! We will probably lose some of these debates along the way, unfortunately. But sea change is possible, even if it takes longer than we want it to.

How to Comment

The last day to send comments to MassDOT is 10 days from the hearing date, so that means any comments must be postmarked by this Wednesday! If you want to sign the petition to save the trees, click on this link and do it by Tuesday before 3:00 pm, when it will be mailed to MassDOT. Here’s the full info:

Written statements and other exhibits in place of, or in addition to, oral statements made at the Public Hearing regarding the proposed undertaking are to be submitted to Patricia A. Leavenworth, P.E., Chief Engineer, MassDOT, 10 Park Plaza, Boston, MA 02116, Attention: Roadway Project Management, Project File No. 606189. Such submissions will also be accepted at the hearing. Mailed statements and exhibits intended for inclusion in the public hearing transcript must be postmarked within ten (10) business days of this Public Hearing. Project inquiries may be emailed to dot.feedback.highway@state.ma.us.

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Route 38, with trees in strip

The Happiness Cost of Widening Nesmith Street?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading Charles Montgomery’s Happy City, the book chosen for Pollard Memorial Library’s next “Lowell Reads” event. I’m really looking forward to talking about it as a community: it’s a book that goes in depth about if, how, and why urban neighborhoods make us happy.  I bring it up because I read the chapter about greenspace right about the same time I heard of a proposed State project on Nesmith Street.

The intersection of Nesmith Street and Andover Street in the Belvidere neighborhood is a busy spot, and it’s one of the more dangerous intersections in the City of Lowell.  It had 29 crashes in 2014–more crashes than any other intersection that year, with police crediting those trying to “cut in at the last minute,” according to the Lowell Sun. It was the 7th on a list of “High Crash Locations” in the region based on 2010-2012 data, with 19 injuries during that time, according to the Northern Middlesex Council of Government’s 2016 Regional Transportation Plan. This is likely why the state has targeted it for improvement. Nesmith Street is Route 38, meaning it is under the State’s jurisdiction, as many of our biggest traffic problem zones are. I’ve spent a fair amount of time at the intersection myself, both on foot and by car, because this used to be part of my commute.

What does this have to do with greenspace? Because the proposed improvements include 11-foot lanes and “may require removing a row of trees between the road and a sidewalk next to Kittredge Park”, according to the Sun. These trees are on the state property on a steep incline between the road and sidewalk. Let’s talk about what those changes might mean.

How did we get here?

Black and white picture of 1981 Kittredge Park

The intersection in 1981, when Washington Square was listed as a historic district.

Let’s start with a look at the history of that section of Route 38. Belvidere Village grew around what is now East Merrimack Street near the Concord River crossing in the early 1800s. Nesmith Street connected Belvidere Village and Tewksbury to the south. In 1831, Lowellian brothers John and Thomas Nesmith purchased an estate and subdivided it, placing a formal park called “Washington Square” at the center of their new neighborhood. Nesmith Street was laid out as a 60’ boulevard with 10’ sidewalks. Deeds required new residents to plant trees along the street for “shade and ornamental purposes.” The area was slowly settled by prominent Lowell residents, and became one of the most fashionable neighborhoods in Lowell. The horse-drawn trolley connected it to the mills in the Civil War-era, and the electrified trolley ran down Nesmith Street to Tewksbury, opening up the rest of the area to development. The entire neighborhood is now listed in the National Register of Historical Places as Washington Square Historic District.

Washington Square Park had an interesting history, itself! It was used as a cow pasture for a while, and then a Lowell merchant leased it for a garden and saloon. Only in 1860 did the Nesmith Brothers sell it to the City and it officially became a park. The granite curbing the City installed remains to this day. In the 1920-30s, the park was renamed “Kittredge Park” in honor of Paul Edward Kittredge, a US serviceman who died by mortar fire in 1918. Sometime after the 1970s, a sliver of the southwest corner of the park appears to have been sliced off to widen the intersection with Andover Street.[1]

1953 state taking layout

The layout map from the 1950s. Hunts Falls Bridge is on the right, Nesmith Street on the left, with the new highway through the middle. Find more historic state plans at MassDOT’s website.

The nature of the area changed drastically in the early 1950s. The State took a great deal of land north of the river to make the Veterans of Foreign Wars highway, which included a rotary and a bridge to more directly connect Routes 38, 110, 133, and 113. Most importantly, it took about a dozen properties to extend Nesmith Street from East Merrimack to the new Hunts Fall Bridge with a four-lane divided highway. Probably because of the acute angles this created with intersections at Stackpole and Merrimack, channelized right turns were added.

This may create the problem today. Using Google Maps, it looks like each of those 1950s lanes are 12’. They all feed into that 1820s boulevard that devoted 20’ of its 60’ right-of-way to sidewalks and strips of trees. With curbs and shoulders, that seems to leave only 36 to 38’ for traffic, which is striped as two 18’ lanes but, notably, usually used as four 9’ lanes.

When I first moved to Lowell I worked in Salem, and I used to go through this intersection to head east out of town. I vividly remember how confused I was by this road, which is marked as 2 lanes but most treat as four. There are more than a few roads like this in the city, and as a driver unfamiliar with the area, there’s nothing worse than being honked at, tailgated, or encountering an unexpected car in your blindspot as you try to figure out whether you’ve misunderstood the road markings, the other car is just breaking the law, or this unfortunate middle ground where everyone familiar with the road just knows how it works and that they won’t face any penalty for treating the road according to common understanding.  If I had to guess, I would speculate that this confusion plays a role in the number of accidents that happen on this stretch.

It could also just be sheer volume: a lot of cars go down those narrow lanes. Counts seem to be around 30,000 daily. This is more than the VFW Highway or Westford Street near Drum Hill—the only other surface road that has that level of traffic in Lowell is Thorndike around the Lowell Connector and the Lord Overpass. Those cars cross Andover Street, which carries around 20,000 cars daily. The way I understand it, many of those are cars going from Centralville, Dracut, and New Hampshire to jobs closer to Boston.

So, the trees should go?

Kittredge Park, Lowell, MA purple flowers, monument, structure

Kittredge Park in 2013 from Life from the Roots blog

At first blush, it might seem like it makes sense to sacrifice that planting strip, historic as it may be, to make it safer for those thousands of commuters. But I wonder whether it will make the road either safer or more pleasant. In Happy City, Mr. Montgomery argues cities that have faster traffic aren’t actually “happier” according to surveys. Instead, he discusses studies showing that greenspaces, trees, and nature bring mental and physical health benefits. The benefits are there even if people have just glimpses of nature, but are stronger when people can interact with the greenspace. He argues that his own research showed that small amounts of greenery everywhere was more important than occasional trips to the park.

I know trees make a big difference in my own sense of how inviting and pleasant a street and walkway are, but I wanted this to be a little bit less anecdotal, so I asked professor Google about it, and I came up with this report, “22 Benefits of Urban Street Trees.” Trees slow traffic and reduce crashes by 5 to 20%, reduce asthma health impacts, and increase neighboring home value by $15-20,000, among many other effects.  It suggests that a single tree could create $90,000 of direct benefits.

I think it’s especially important for this area to keep its trees, even near a tree-filled park. The trees separate the road from sidewalk, making it feel safer and more pleasant. This street is an important pedestrian connection between Belvidere and downtown, and you see lots of students and families walking. We should be focused on making it more walkable, to encourage those living in the western reaches of the neighborhood to walk and explore downtown and keep the park inviting for those who live in Lower Belvidere.

Route 38, with trees in strip

Route 38 today, courtesy of Google Maps. Note planting strip, trees, and sidewalk on right.

So what is the solution?

Back to the intersection. The State sees there are a lot of accidents, and there is a lot of congestion, and wants to fix that. I suspect that clarifying the markings alone would help, but it’s hard to see how wider lanes, which we know encourage cars to go faster, wouldn’t just make the minor crashes into more serious ones. Do we really need 11’ lanes, or can we make the existing 9’ lanes safer?  Maybe 9’ is just too narrow, but National Association of City Transportation Official (NACTO)’s Urban Street Design Guide calls for 10’ lanes, so maybe that could be a compromise.

On the other hand, maybe we could reroute some of the overall traffic away from that stretch of Nesmith? An interesting chapter from Victoria Transport Policy Institute’s “Traffic Demand Management Encyclopedia” suggests that even a 1% decrease of cars on a congested highway could reduce delay related to congestion by 10-30%.

nesmithdetail

Nesmith Street in 1879, when times were simpler. What is now Kittredge Park is labeled “Park Square” between Lower Belvidere much as it exists now and large estates that have yet to be subdivided. Thanks for the maps, Center for Lowell History!

But I have to confess, I do feel a little hopeless about any effort to eliminate Lowell’s gridlock, as State Senator Donoghue suggested was this project’s focus. It seems to me like at certain times of day, we just have too many people trying to get from the North to Boston or the reverse, passing over a limited number of bridges over the river. I was listening to a podcast this week that talked about traffic problems, and it quoted a study about the paradox that tends to happen when you add lanes to a busy road: once you make it less congested, more people drive, and it only gets busier again. Do we really think there’s any capacity we could add that could overcome the number of cars going the same direction we experience at rush hour?

While traffic safety is important, making roads smoother for cars often comes at a cost. In this case, with trees on the line, the cost is clearer than usual. Because so few of Lowell’s streets have trees or planting strips separating sidewalk from traffic, it seems short-sighted to sacrifice one of the few in such a critical area without exhausting every other alternative first.  I have to ask: why would we put so much effort into making the Lord Overpass safer and more pleasant for everyone only to go in the opposite direction on another important hub?

Notes

[1] Thanks to The Massachusetts Cultural Resource System, Center for Lowell History Digital Atlas Collection, Lowell Historic Board Belvidere Historic District Brochure, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust Belvidere Village History, and Wikipedia for historic facts.

A Place for Art in Lowell

Chris and I attended an interesting meeting last week hosted by Lowell National Historical Park and the Cultural Organization of Lowell. They welcomed Javier Torres, the Director of National Grantmaking for ArtPlace, to discuss his organization, the National Creative Placemaking Fund, and what they might be able to do for Lowell.

Someone pointing at art shanty robot.

One example grantee built “Art Shantys” on a frozen lake that had been losing water to draw visitors during winter and attention to the dwindling lake.

ArtPlace is a ten-year program collaboratively funded by a number of private foundations and financial institutions and guided with assistance from a number of federal agencies. As Mr. Torres described it, their goal isn’t just to fund arts and culture projects, but rather to fundamentally shift American policymakers’ strategies to include arts and culture as a core sector of community planning. What does that mean? It means ArtPlace is trying to get local, state, and federal institutions to think of arts and culture as just as important to solving community problems as transportation, housing, public safety, and other core civic sectors.

They’re doing this in four major ways:

  • Community Development Initiative, which I’d describe as a one-time set of six pilot programs
  • Field Building, which includes building connections between planners to learn from one another
  • Research, which includes documenting strategies and creating measurable metrics of success

and what is sure to be of most interest to Lowellians:

  • Grantmaking, through what they call the “National Creative Placemaking Fund.”

The program could be a great benefit to Lowell. It provides up to $500,000 (although it looks like the most common amount granted is $250,000) with seemingly few strings attached. Even more interesting is that half a million dollars is earmarked for Massachusetts this year, giving Lowell a leg up against communities in other states. However, the grant is still very competitive. They fund about 25-30 projects a year, but receive upwards of 1,000 applications.

National Creative Placemaking Fund projects

An eligible project must fit a few criteria. It has to affect a specific geographic community, the place in placemaking. Rather than, “Helping low-income people throughout Massachusetts,” it must “Help everyone in Lowell,” or “the Acre” or “the 500 block of Merrimack Street.”

It also has to clearly define a planning and development challenge or opportunity. Several of the questions asked during the session focused on what this exactly meant. They try to break it down with a matrix, which looks kinda scary but is actually a neat idea:

Matrix with Ag/Food, Economic Development, Education/Youth, Environment/Energy, Health, Housing, Immigration, Public Safety, Transportation, Workforce

The challenge or opportunity must align with one or more of the categories along the y-axis. He gave the example of economic development – the challenge of keeping businesses open during a construction project, and transportation – the challenge of getting a group of indigenous people without cars to a nearby train station. There are more projects on their website, including economic development – challenge of isolated rural communities not mixing; environmental/education – opportunity of a nearby hummingbird center to provide eco-tourism and education; and economic development – the challenge of having community residents benefit from gentrification and demographic change.

The application is also graded on the compelling way arts and culture is deployed to address the challenge and opportunity, and a clear measure of success.

One thing Mr. Torres stressed was that they were looking for unique projects, meaning it helps if proposed projects are different from grants they’ve given in the past (including all the examples here!) In fact, he said that the priorities for this year were Environment/Energy, Health, and Public Safety.

The grants are open to any individual or group: government or private, nonprofit or commercial, single person or huge institution. However, they’re targeting civic/social/faith, commercial, and philanthropic individuals and groups in this round. If an individual is doing the project for a profit, they qualify as commercial. If they’re doing it for a church, they would be civic/social/faith. If they’re donating their time, they might qualify as nonprofit. If they’re donating their time and materials, they might qualify as philanthropic.

What’s the Process?

Most of the questions at the session involved the specific process needed to apply for a grant. It seems simple:

Before February 16: The first step is to create an account at this site. Registering doesn’t cost anything, is simple, and doesn’t obligate you to apply (you do need to provide an EIN or SS#).

Before March 2: The next step is to send in an application. Each individual or organization can only submit one application. The application asks about the amount requested, the total budget, and 900 character answers for each of the four criteria. It also asks for other information about the geographic location of the project and when you think the money will be completely spent (they give you three years).

They also ask for a three-minute video in which you tell them more about the project. Mr. Torres stressed that they don’t want anything fancy; they just want to “get to know you.”

After May 31: ArtPlace will score the applications based on the clarity and compellingness of the four answers, with tiebreaker bonus points for priority projects. At that point, they will contact top applicants for a second phase, where they begin to dig into what partners applicants will have (they have to have partners), how exactly the funds will be spent, whether the impacted community has been engaged, if the project requires more resources to sustain, and other in-depth questions.

What sort of projects does Lowell need?

I’ve heard a number of ideas already being discussed. The best thing is that Mr. Torres explained that multiple projects from Lowell don’t necessarily compete against one another. Rather, they would each compete on their own merits. Although I doubt they would choose more than one project from Lowell in a year, I do imagine that it only helps Lowell’s chances to submit several different creative projects.

Lit up graveyard

Providence recently secured a grant to help them light up and make programming changes to a community center and cemetery suffering from disinvestment.

The audience included a wide range of folks, from youth service providers such as Girls, Inc and Boys and Girls Club; artists and gallery owners from Arts League of Lowell, Brush Gallery, UnChARTed, Western Avenue Studios, and more; community agencies such as Community Teamwork, Inc. and Coalition for a Better Acre; activists from Lowell Bike Coalition; downtown business owners; cultural organizations such as Angkor Dance Troupe, COOL, and Lowell Heritage Partnership; and uncountable others—probably over 100 in the audience.

I’m really interested to hear what folks come up with, almost outside of what actually ends up applying or winning. A prompt like this can encourage folks to think creatively and reach out for collaboration in new and surprising directions.  My understanding is that the key will be to really clearly articulate a non-arts-related challenge and an arts-related response. I’ve already heard suggestions of challenges to tackle including homelessness and panhandling, empty buildings, and low amounts of transit use; and opportunities including the canals and unutilized hydropower stations. And I think both Chris and I have employers considering  applying as well. But I hope we hear lots of different ideas, from lots of different folks. Because they’re looking for submissions outside governments and nonprofits, it would be great to get the business community, churches, and fraternal organizations more involved.

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.

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

Lord Overpass: Crossroads of Lowell?

Map with Sampson Connector, Lord Overpass

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

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

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

What’s the Project?

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

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

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

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

Starting at the JAM Plan

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

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

Page from JAM Plan detailing traffic improvements

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

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

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

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

The Hamilton Canal District

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

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

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

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

The executive summary states:

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

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

Features included:

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

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

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

From Hamilton Canal District Master Plan, 2007.

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

A City-Building Vision

Map and photos of visioning sessions

Example of visioning mapping session from Back Central neighborhood.

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

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

Putting it Together: The Current Plan

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

20141014_114457

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


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

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

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

What are the Issues?

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

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

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

Dutton Street

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

Few Separated Pedestrian Paths

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

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

No Pedestrian Bridge over Dutton/Thorndike

Pedestrian Bridge over Storrow

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

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

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

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

No Bicycle Lanes

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

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

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

The Bigger Question: Crossroads of Lowell

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

What I love and hate about commuting to Boston.

From December to June, I was working three days a week in Boston (at New England Aquarium, if you’re curious). Sunday, Monday, and Friday, I either walked or took the Downtown Shuttle from Downtown Lowell to Gallagher Terminal, and then I took the train to North Station.  Here’s a middle-ground free summary of the experience:

MBTA Commuter Rail at Gallagher Terminal

MBTA Commuter Rail

Love the train. I love trains, and I love this train. It wasn’t always perfectly sparkling, but the train was, at a very basic level, almost always clean, reliable, and on time.

 

 

 

Laptop on table in MBTA commuter rail car

The best spot is the top of the double decker cars – outlets and tables!

Hate the train’s unreliable Wi-Fi. I know that’s such a first-world problem, because it’s nice that they even have Wi-Fi. But its unpredictability can be pretty crazy-making. Some cars it works, some it doesn’t, it can be soooooo sloooooow, and it forces you to reconnect at least a couple of times over the course of the trip.

 

 

 

LRTA bus at Gallagher Terminal

LRTA Bus

Love the bus drivers. I found Lowell’s bus drivers to be friendly folk, and I never got the vibe you get from some of the world’s bus drivers that they wish they could drive the whole thing off a cliff. Sometimes they had music going, which might or might not be technically correct, but I personally love. Several times I saw them be really helpful and kind to the befuddled.

 

MBTA North Station

North Station fills up quickly

Hate no buses on Sunday. This was the bane of my commuting existence. No buses on Sunday. None. Thinking about it, I would give a Hate to commuting on Sunday on every level. Because the trains are infrequent, they’re always packed. Then, because of weekend events, the wait for the train at North Station and then the train ride itself are made a little too exciting with the presence of a million riled up Bruins fans, or Disney: Live! refugees all armed with light swords.

 

MBTA 10-Ride Pass

Count the number of punches!

Love poorly punched 10 ride passes for the train. I bought the 10 ride punch pass (in Boston, because there’s nowhere to do it in Lowell) and in my experience, there were a couple of the MBTA folks who had to punch your pass that did not care at all about that part of the job. Result, cards like this, where I got two or three free rides out of their carelessness.

 

 

 

Gallagher Terminal Interior

On a holiday, you may be in for a long wait at the terminal.

Hate the holiday schedules. Generally speaking, any holiday causes the bus to go to a Saturday schedule or none at all, and since a Saturday schedule meant no bus until after I had to leave and before I got back to Lowell, they had the same result for me. Holiday schedules for the train mean limited service, but at least I could make it there and back. Also, every person on a holiday train is grumpy about having to be there.
 

 

West Medford from the train

West Medford from the train

Love the view from the train. I have not gotten over how just plain pretty New England can be, and the views of countryside, picturesque town squares, and the Boston skyline always put me in a good mood.

 

 

 

LRTA Paper Schedule

The rare and elusive paper schedule

Hate how hard it is to find a paper bus schedule. I cannot understand this one at all, but for some reason, paper bus schedules are very thin on the ground. When I spotted an actually stocked pile of them on the bus one morning, the driver pointed out how lucky I was. That simply should not be—not when lots of people still don’t have access to the internet, not when Lowell wants to make life easy for tourists.

 

 

View from Lowell Line

Boston Skyline

Love the view to Boston getting into North Station. From the train, you can spot Bunker Hill, the Prudential Building, and the Museum of Science, and get a great view of the Charles.

 

 

I spent a lot of time staring at this sign while waiting for a bus.

I spent a lot of time staring at this sign while waiting for a bus.

Hate the way the bus and train schedule don’t even try to get along. The train I routinely took back got me to Gallagher one minute after the Downtown Shuttle left. I would see the bus leave from the train platform. A real bummer at the end of a long day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Corner of Market & Central

Corner of Market & Central

Love walking through downtown Lowell. It’s a beautiful city, and since I had to leave pretty early, I often got to catch quiet streets with the sun just coming up.

 

 

 

 

Lord Overpass, Lowell

Lord Overpass

Hate walking over the Lord Overpass. Haaaaaate. It’s a remarkably unpleasant, pedestrian-unfriendly part of the walk, which is really unfortunate for anyone that wants to day-trip from Boston. The overpass’s pedestrian paths often take you out of your way, and more than once I somehow followed one that was a straight-up dead-end, forcing me to jaywalk or turn all the way around.

 

 

Dutton Street, Lowell

It’s still a very popular walking route, despite narrow sidewalks

If there were any single piece of Lowell I could snap my fingers and redesign, the Lord Overpass would be it. Dutton Street is almost as bad, with narrow sidewalks that put you right next to very fast-moving, dense traffic. This part of the walk doesn’t feel safe, especially as it gets dark.

On a good day, I found the commute from Lowell to be straightforward, relaxing, and pretty. On a bad day it was frustrating and felt like it didn’t really care what I wanted. Overall time from leaving my apartment to getting to the Aquarium: about two hours. Commuting by foot and public transport wasn’t always the ideal experience, but it got me where I needed to go reliably, and it says something that I never considered driving to Boston, even on the worst day.

“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.