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City Council meeting preview: Oct 24, 2017

Mimi Parseghian shares the following about what’s expected at tomorrow night’s Lowell City Council meeting.

I believe that the agenda item 5.1.C under the City Manager’s answer to the motions will probably garner the most discussion and debate.

This report is in answer to last week’s motion by Councilor Jim Milinazzo asking the City Manager to provide an ancillary cost summary for the LHS project and its funding plan.

The report prepared by CFO Conor Baldwin also includes a debt service schedule which includes principal and interest payments for capital improvement.  That table indicates that starting in FY 2019 and ending in FY 2049, we have outstanding debts totaling $18,341,158; $11,024,500 principal and $7,316,658 interest.   Starting in FY 2020, we will pay for these loans about $800,000.  In FY 2034, it drops to about $400,000.

There is another motion response that should be of great interest to most of us:  Lord Overpass Update.   The project has three phases and according to the report by Diane Tradd, Assistant City Manager/DPD Director, “it is fully funded through various grants, states and local funds.”

“A public meeting to present the Concept 4 at 25% design will be held in the Pollard Memorial Library basement meeting room at 6:00 p.m., November 13, 2017.  This will be the fifth public meeting/presentation regarding this project.

The information distributed to the City Council for this week’s meeting also includes a 7-page report, titled LowellSTAT Follow-Up from 9/19/2017 Development Services Meeting.  LowellSAT was implemented in 2010 to “improve the transparency, efficiency and accountability of the City government.  The information gathered is analyzed and provides data to assist in strategic planning.

The issues discussed in the report are: Trash Violations, Permit Revenues, Final Cost Affidavits, Receivership Program, DART Program, Barber Shop Program, General Billing, and Request Tracker.  Granted you may need to be a policy wonk to read all 7 pages but it covers precisely what local government’s role is, that is provide a safe and quality life style for its residents.

FY 2018 Live Auction Results is an informational report distributed by the City Manager. According to the memo, the City held an auction on 5 abandoned properties.  The auction netted $627,000.  The funds will be deposited in the Sale of City Property special revenue bund. CFO Baldwin who wrote the report states  “… these blighted properties will be returned to the tax rolls and will bring empty properties back into use. Many of the parcels have sat vacant for several years and in some cases, decades. Some of the participants in the auction were abutters of the properties and purchased the parcels to improve the overall neighborhood quality of life. Based on the success of this first auction, we anticipate having at least one more live auction before the end of the fiscal year.”

Item Number 6, Votes from the City Manager, has 5 items:

  1. Authorize City Manager to Execute Easement Agreement Between the City and UMBA (University of Massachusetts Building Authority) regarding LeLacheur Park.
  2. Authorize City Manager to Execute Easement Agreement Between the City and UMBA (University of Massachusetts Building Authority) and UML (University of Massachusetts Lowell) Portion of Pawtucket Street and Salem Street.
  3. Authorize City Manager to Execute Easement Agreement From City to UML; Broadway Street and Pawtucket Street.
  4. Authorize City Manager to Execute Memory of Understanding (MOU) Boston Surface Railroad Company, Inc.
  5. Authorize City Manager to Execute License Agreement Overhanging Awning Minas Lunch Corporation, 191 Appleton Street.

The City Council will vote to amend various sections of the Zoning Ordinance.  There should be limited discussion on these changes since they are the outcome of a series of meetings conducted by the City Council Zoning subcommittee to address various neighborhood issues.  According to R. Eric Slagle, Director of Development Services the report would be submitted to the Planning Board, … “the attached amendments to the Lowell Zoning Ordinance, which would cover several new use definitions, as well as other various changes to aid in economic development, provide thoughtful parking alternatives, and protect the large-scale residential tax base.”

There are 7 Council motions on this week’s agenda.

“City Council Bill Samaras Requests City Council Send Letter of Support to the Lowell Community Health Center Regarding their Request to Congress to Pass the “Community Health Investment Modernization and Excellence Act 2017” (CHIME). “ I looked up the bill and its states: “This bill amends the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to extend through FY2022 and make appropriations for enhanced funding for the community health centers program.” I like this motion.  Let’s see where the Councilors stand on this.

“City Council Bill Samaras Requests City Manager Initiate an Application to the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund Through the Mass Cultural Council and Mass Development to Enhance the Presence of Public Art and Lighting in the City and to Expand these Efforts into the City’s Neighborhoods for the Coming Year.”

“City Council James Milinazzo Request City Manager to Prepare a Detail List of All Estimated Costs Associated with Both High School Locations (emphasis mine) and the Direct Impact to the Taxpayer Including Soft Costs, Construction Costs, and Ancillary or Related Costs; i.e. Article 97, Water and Sewer Upgrades, Transportation and Pedestrian Improvements, Potential Eminent Domain Costs, and Busing Costs, etc…” I hope all 9 councilors applaud this motion and like most tax payers in Lowell join us in eagerly waiting for these estimates.

“City Council Jim Leary Requests City Manager Provide a Report Regarding DPW Usage of Chemical Application when Treating the Road Before, During and After Storms; Report Should Include Costs Associated with Implementation and Recommendations for Saving Costs.”

“City Council Jim Leary Requests City Manager Provide a Report Regarding the Number of Contractors Used to Treat Roads Before, During and After Storms; Report to Include Use of GPS/GIS Technology, the Amount of Product Each Contractor Vehicle Applies on the Roads, the Costs Associated with the Implementation Recommendations for Saving Costs.”

“City Council Jim Leary Requests City Manager Review the Feasibility of Changing the Direction of Traffic over the Howe, Ouellette and Rourke Bridges [to] One-Way During Peak Driving Periods in an effort to Determine if this Could Improve Traffic Congestion.”

Kerouac’s Death Day in Lowell, a Brilliant October 21

I happened to be at the Kerouac Commemorative public artwork in Kerouac Park at Bridge and French streets yesterday, Jack’s Death Day, where I stopped while guiding a group of 17 arts administration master’s program students from Boston University around Lowell’s historic and cultural district. The flawless blue sky played off the millions of red bricks in the downtown core in the most appealing way. The historic district never looks better than on such days when the sky is the color of blue cat’s-eye glass marbles. We encountered other pilgrims including a couple of thirty-something thin bearded guys from Quebec who were excitedly pulling each other’s arms, saying, Look at this, look at this. After a few minutes I was surprised to see a Marion cousin of mine from central Mass. walk into the sculpture plaza with her poet-husband who was in a college writing workshop with me 42 years ago. It was great to see Robin Marion and Bill O’Connell. They had a younger couple with them, no doubt seeing the polished granite portrait-in-language for the first time. Extending my tour group a courtesy, a half dozen scrappy guys who had been chatting on the stone benches in the middle of the sculpture plaza moved over to the park benches when we showed up so we could make our short visit and talk a little on our own. Everybody was cool.

The BU students knew the Kerouac name, and several had read On the Road, but not more than that. I was not thinking that the day was Oct. 21 when we stopped by. Only the flurry of remembrances on Facebook reminded me how much the “wheel” had turned since the grim day in Florida, 1969. The Kerouac Commemorative will be 30 years old next year. The author’s presence in the community is stronger than ever. A multi-day literary festival named for him drew hundreds of people earlier in the month, as occurs annually. The planners are already brainstorming for 2018, talking about a special poetry event as a feature.

I’m recently back from 12 days in France—Paris, where bookstores and Left Bank book-stall vendors carry French translations of Kerouac and where English versions are available at Shakespeare and Company, which honors JK and all the Beats with a front-of-the-store bookcase crammed with their titles—and then on the Seine River through Normandy, the jumping off point for so many of the French who emigrated to New France/Quebec in the 1600s, the ancestors of the French-Canadian Americans of New England, many of them from Brittany as well. I don’t think I experienced “satori” with my wife in France, but we enjoyed the trip immensely. None of the people or places felt foreign at all, and it was homecoming for me since all my people begin in that place, the DNA showing Viking, Visigoth, and Roman traces—all the rampagers who swung through northwest coastal France—but no mark from the actual Franks of King Clovis days, the fifth century. Kings. In Lowell, we tend not to call Kerouac the King of the Beats because we understand that he didn’t favor that label.

Leaving the sculpture site, my group headed left to Kearney Square still dominated by the former newspaper main office high-rise with the big SUN sign on the roof. One of the students asked, That’s where he had his first writing job, isn’t it?

Kerouac Commemorative Image (c) by Tony Sampas

Lowell Week in Review: October 22, 2017

Lowell Master Plan – forgotten & neglected

Urban Planning and Lowell High

“Have you ever seen anything like this?” That’s a question repeatedly asked of me lately. It refers to the divisive fight over the location of Lowell High School, of course. My answer is, no, I have not seen anything like this. The fight over whether to construct the Tsongas Arena and Lelacheur Park back in the mid-1990s generated quite a bit of heat, but not like this; not even close.

So why has this been the case? I have a theory: it flows from a lack of respect for urban planning and the planning process among city leaders, both elected and otherwise, something that has happened with alarming frequency over the past couple of years.

Take the Hamilton Canal Master Plan, a document that emerged from countless public meetings and thousands of hours of work from city planners. It was adopted unanimously by the city council, and it always called for mixed use development throughout the district. That means housing. But when our Master Developers, first Trinity and then Winn, proposed building housing within the district, the city council balked. Some wanted no housing. Others would take some housing, but only if no poor people were allowed to reside in it.

What message did that send to the planners and to ordinary citizens who contributed so much of their time to the process? The message was that none of that mattered, at least to city councilors. They were going to do whatever they felt like on that particular day.

So what’s in the Hamilton Canal pipeline now? Housing, with Winn committing to twin apartment buildings that will house mostly market rate tenants, but will also have some lower income apartments which are needed to qualify for the state program being used to finance the project.

The same council that had first embraced housing as part of the HCD Master Plan, then rejected it, has now embraced it again, unanimously. In the process, the city has parted ways with two master developers for the project and has been unable to find anyone interested in becoming the third master developer. Yes, the Hamilton Canal is looking better these days – I wrote about that at length two weeks ago – but how much better would it have been if we had stuck with the plan in the first place?

And then there’s Sustainable Lowell 2025, the master plan for the city that was adopted unanimously by the city council in 2013. The plan was to serve as the city’s blueprint for the next ten years. It was a comprehensive plan that addressed neighborhoods, housing, mobility, urban living, the environment, health, technology, infrastructure and public engagement. It was the product of several years of work, both by city planners and by citizens – one public input session I attended had more than 60 members of the public participating – and it was, and still is, a fantastic document.

Thirteen months ago, my Week in Review featured and praised Sustainable Lowell 2025, but then I added the following:

Yet here we are, more than three years after the plan was adopted, and I cannot recall a single instance of it being mentioned at a city council meeting. I won’t speculate why that is so, but whatever the reason, it is unfortunate. The strategic plan reflects a shared vision for the city, and should guide the decision-making process in every case. When an issue comes before the city council, someone should ask “how does this fit into the city’s Master Plan?”

I can report that the city council’s streak is intact: Not one councilor has mentioned Sustainable Lowell 2025 at a council meeting for more than four years since its unanimous adoption.

So why is it that city councilors are repeatedly willing to ignore strategic plans that they have previously adopted? Perhaps it’s because a strategic plan takes five to ten years to implement, while councilors operate in two year cycles, with eyes fixed firmly on the next election. Maybe that’s why short-term issues dominate discussion at council meetings while long-term solutions to those problems and others are largely ignored.

Which brings me to the Lowell High School debate. About three years ago, the school committee began agitating to get in the queue of the Massachusetts School Building Authority for new school construction. A needs assessment by the school committee revealed that the most pressing need was for new middle schools – not one, but several. But the MSBA now only allows one school per community. Rather than go for one new middle school, the school committee shifted its sights to a new high school, because that would allow the city the largest amount of financial assistance from the Commonwealth. And so the process began, not because of a community-wide recognition that Lowell needed a new high school, but as a way of maximizing the amount of money the city could obtain from the Commonwealth for new school construction.

Early in the process, the community response was underwhelming. Last spring, the architects and engineers hired by the city to plan the project went on the road, attending community meetings in every neighborhood of the city to get citizen input. I attended one such meeting of the Highlands neighborhood group at Cross Point. About a dozen and a half people showed up and most of them to hear the police representative report on car breaks and burglaries in the neighborhood. Everyone politely sat through the high school presentation, but no one acted like they cared.

Suddenly everything changed with the plan for the new high school morphing into the bitterest fight in the city’s recent history. How that came to be, and who is behind it, is still unclear. But I believe that much of the chaos that has ensued it traceable to the city council’s demonstrated aversion to strategic planning.

Consider last Tuesday’s council meeting where item after expensive item of infrastructure improvements, all preconditions to the construction of a new high school, were unveiled. There was $5 million for a storm water retention area; $700,000 to $2.45 million in traffic improvements; $1 million for sidewalks; $2 million for field replication; $700,000 for a new water main on Rogers Street. The list went on and on. And what was the response of city councilors? “That work has to be done anyway” and “It be wonderful for this work to finally be done.” No one mentioned a capital budget or a capital plan. That’s because none of those items have every shown up in one.

Again, strategic planning gets tossed aside or ignored by the council. To me, that, more than anything else, explains why the city is in its current predicament.

Litigation Update

On October 16, 2017, Judge Inge issued his Memorandum of Decision and Order on the Lowell School Committee’s request for a preliminary injunction based on the committee’s argument that it, not the council, had the authority to select the site for a new high school. The judge denied the school committee’s request, declaring that Mass General Laws chapter 45, section 34 “does not apply to the selection of a site for the construction of the new Lowell High School or the approval of the plans for the new school by the school committee.” No word whether the school committee will appeal this decision.

The next meeting of the Massachusetts School Building Authority is this Wednesday, October 25, 2017. It does not appear that the Lowell High project will be taken up at that meeting. The next MSBA meeting after that is Wednesday, December 13, 2017.

The other Lowell court case, Huot vs City of Lowell, was in the U.S. District Court last week. There, the judge denied the city’s Motion to Dismiss. This is the case brought by a number of Lowell residents under the Federal Voting Rights Act which they allege is violated by the city’s method of electing city councilors and school committee members.

If the method of electing councilors and school committee members is to change, the most likely way for that to happen is through a negotiated settlement of this lawsuit. That’s what happened back in the late 1980s when the city’s public schools faced a Federal takeover for failure to adequately implement a school desegregation plan. Parents of minority students had sued the city but, while the litigation was pending, the city negotiated a settlement of the lawsuit with the parents. That settlement was approved by the judge, and the desegregation plan that is still in place today was implemented.

The same thing could happen with this issue, but the case is unlikely to settle if councilors aren’t willing to change the system by which they get elected.

That’s one of the many reasons why the just-released Lowell Votes 2017 Election Guide is such a valuable document. Among many other questions asked of council candidates is one the probes each candidate’s willingness to change the current system. Here are the responses candidates gave to that question:

Corey Belanger – The outreach has begun and I will continue to listen. To this point I have seen no clear evidence that district representation will achieve making the council more diverse. I will continue to be open minded and research the issue.

Rodney Elliott – Yes, I brought this to the forefront a year ago by bringing this to the city council. I feel it will benefit the city and better represent our population and neighborhoods.

Edward Kennedy – Worcester is a Plan E city that has had a city council comprised of a mix of at-large and district city councilors. I would be open to changing the makeup of the Lowell city council to include such a mix if the city council subcommittee concludes it would improve neighborhood representation.

John Leahy – I am willing to listen. I like the system we have now, but maybe we need term limits instead, or maybe we need both. Change is always good.

James Leary – I disagree with the lawsuit and ultimately we will win the issue. However, I support citizens voting on a measure to change to an updated version of Plan E form of government similar to Worcester, with a strong city manager, elected ceremonial mayor, and combination of at large and district councilors.

Rita Mercier – Personally, I like the Plan E form of government. I know of no discrimination. Put this issue on the ballot and let people decide and I will abide by it. Unlike Cawley or LHS, people’s choice on ballot is too late.”

James Milinazzo – I support the ad hoc committee. The small percentage of minorities elected/appointed (3%) is well below the percentage of minorities in Lowell. We need to ensure that minority groups feel represented/involved. Communities have changed at-large systems to be more inclusive. Lowell may need to do so.

Daniel Rourke – As a councilor, I enjoy serving the entire city rather than one particular neighborhood. I am, however, open to listening to possible changes with input from the community. We should look at different ways to increase civic participation.

William Samaras – Government works best when it is reflective of the people that it represents. I will support any changes, whether through district representation or some other well-though plan, that would create more opportunities for a more representative council or board.

Joseph Boyle – Yes. We need to move in the direction of neighborhood representation. I do not have an ultimate solution in mind, but wish to learn from other communities’ experience with different systems to see what structure would best fit our needs.

Sokhary Chau – I support a change in favor of a hybrid of at large and ward representation in order to ensure that we hear voices from all neighborhoods.

Karen Cirillo – I do. Lowell should move to a hybrid system, with members who run by district and at-large, like in Worcester. I love the diversity of Lowell and the contributions that all Lowellians bring. The city governance should reflect this diversity to better respond to the needs and concerns of all.

David Conway – did not respond

Daniel Finn – I think that the Plan E form of government works well for the city of Lowell but I am open to discussion if that is what the people of the city want.

Robert Gignac – Yes. I believe the city should explore a hybrid model comprised of district city councilors and at large city councilors while maintaining Plan E with a City Manager as CEO.

Martin Hogan – I am a full proponent of changing our municipal form of representation to one that fosters a greater openness and ability for the council to address the issues of the city, both specific and general. I would like our form of government to change to a hybrid of both district and at large members.

Matthew LeLacheur – Running for office for the first time has given me a clear understanding of how hard you have to work and the barriers to getting elected. I fully support moving Lowell to a combination of ward and at large councilors and will make it a goal of mine to reduce those barriers for future candidates.

Vesna Nuon – It is time to make our government more reflective of the communities it serves. Everyone who calls Lowell home should have a say in decisions that impact their lives. A representative who lives on one’s neighborhood, who understands its unique needs and culture, will ensure that its voices are heard.

So that’s where the candidates stand on changing the method by which future councilors elected. To learn more about all the candidates, both for council and school committee, see the Lowell Votes voter guide which is now online.

Great opportunities to meet the candidates in person are available this week in two “candidating” forums. (Candidating is like speed dating – voters sit at tables and candidates rotate from table to table for a set period of time).

City Council Candidating is this Monday, October 23, 2017, from 5:30 pm to 8 pm at the Lowell Senior Center.

School Committee Candidating is this Wednesday, October 25, 2017, from 5:30 pm to 8 pm at the Lowell Senior Center.

Both events are sponsored by Lowell Votes and Coalition for a Better Acre. Food, child care, and Spanish and Khmer translation will be available at both events.

Lowell High Distinguished Alumni

The 14th annual Lowell High School Distinguished Alumni induction ceremony will take place this coming Wednesday, October 25, 2017 at 1 pm in the school’s Cyrus W. Irish Auditorium. This year’s honorees are:

  • Esther M Wilkins – Class of 1933
  • Gerard R Wallace – Class of 1952
  • Brian J Martin – Class of 1968
  • Brian L Chapman – Class of 1980
  • Thomas A Golden Jr – Class of 1989

This is always in interesting and inspiring ceremony to which the public is invited. Started in 2004, the Distinguished Alumni event each year honors six graduates of the school who have made their mark on their field, their community and their country. All are linked together by their shared experience as former students of this city’s high school. Information about past honorees is available on the school’s website.

Neighborhood oases in era of Trump by Marjorie Arons-Barron

Reading, especially fiction. Listening to music.  Attending theater and concerts.  Taking courses.  Working. Gardening. Connecting with friends and family. All worthy efforts to distract from the havoc that Donald Trump is wreaking upon us.  All effective, if temporary, relief from the three hard copy newspapers arriving daily and many more online, the background drone of ever-present CNN, and the iOS backlight from the electronic breaking news deliverer permanently attached to my husband’s hand.

Community is another blessed relief, with neighborhood images old and new.  Block parties held in front of our house and the pleasure of watching neighbors’ kids grow up before our eyes. Shared planting efforts in a nearby “island” where two roads merge into one, the flowers and shrubs  recently enhanced by a small birdhouse-like installation housing a book exchange. Folks pitching in to monitor homes when neighbors are away, or feed cats or take in mail. Rallying around a young widow whose husband died suddenly. The welcome diversity – white, black, young, old, Pakistani, Indian, Israeli, Russian, Christians, Jews,  other religions and no religions. This is not Donald Trump’s world.

Nor is it Puerto Rico, where community has been devastated. More than a quarter of water authority customers still lack potable water, and more than 80 percent are still not back on the electrical grid. Distribution of food and other supplies is still struggling. Kids are back in school only part-time. The crisis in the wake of Hurricane Maria is staggering and endures.

Nor can we forget the Texans who lost everything in Hurricane Harvey, now clinging to hopes the Houston Astros will defeat the Yankees for the same reasons we were all buoyed by the Red Sox after the Marathon bombing.  Or those in California who lost their homes and even their lives in out-of-control wildfires.

Which, of course brings me back to Donald Trump, whose intentional sabotaging of the Affordable Care Act and wavering on a bipartisan proposal to stabilize the health insurance industry are leading to loss of coverage and huge increases in premiums, even for those covered here by the Massachusetts Health Connector. Whose proposed tax “reform” gives 80 percent of the benefits to the top one percent of taxpayers, including himself. Who taunts the head of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and spurs  childhood images of hiding under desks in nuclear attack drills, only now the weapons are more lethal. Whose tone deaf responses to the families of fallen soldiers, however well intentioned,  make me cringe. Whose calling some neo-Nazi protesters “very fine people” and threatening illegal challenges to broadcast licenses prefigure a rise of authoritarianism that should bring a chill to everyone’s spine.

And on and on. Still, it’s a beautiful fall day. The leaves are turning color. The sky is blue. The October sun is warm. It’s time to go out for a walk in the neighborhood and maybe get the car washed.

We celebrate what we can.

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