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Mimi Parseghian shares her observations on how the Lowell High debate is changing the political process in Lowell.
Political Consequences of the Lowell High Debate
By Mimi Parseghian
The “high school decision” is going to make or break some political lives. The City of Lowell has not seen this kind of grass roots mobilization, anger, frustration and machination since the days of the debates regarding the construction of the arena and stadium.
I may have been naïve but until a couple of months ago, I thought the decision was in effect made: we are renovating the old school. The eminent domain issue regarding the doctor’s office was the only point of contention. I was wrong.
Thursday night’s meeting was the culmination of a month of discussion in municipal meetings, the press and, more importantly, on social media. That forum has given an opportunity to those who usually do not get involved in city affairs to organize, speak up and impact the course of the discussion and perhaps the decision.
Unlike in the past, when old media controlled the means of dispensing information, social media has made it possible for information to be disseminated in real time with little or no filter. The exchange of data as well as the verification and validation of commentary have transformed the City Council “public hearing” to a 24 hour conversation. At times, the loud dialogue is creating a divisive atmosphere.
The decision makers had to make sure that everyone understood and agreed that the process was fair and open. Thursday’s 11th hour wrench now has made this impossible. The flip-flop of Skanska (project manager) and Perkins Eastman (architects) in answering questions added to the atmosphere of mistrust.
Will the decision on the high school have a minor or major impact on the November City Council election? There is going to a significant group that will be dissatisfied. Who they will support will become evident as we approach the decision. It may even impact next year’s State Rep and State Senate race. They have been put in a position to help bring back a level field. Will they attempt to do so? Will they succeed? All four of them were present at last Thursday’s meeting.
At the end of this combative process, a new generation of local activists will emerge and that is good.
New Lowell High School
Talk of the new Lowell High project dominated the city this past week. There was Tuesday’s council meeting, the “committee of the whole” council gathering on Thursday that included 16 public speakers, a blizzard of comments on Facebook, and the bombshell news that the intended footprint of the new building on the Cawley Stadium site sits on a parcel encumbered with a deed restriction that limits the land’s use to recreational purposes. At the finish of Thursday’s meeting, the eight councilors present voted to recommend to the full council that it forward all four sites recommended by the city’s school building committee to the state for its consideration. In the meantime, the city will commence the process of undoing the deed restriction on the Cawley site.
Because there is so much to discuss about the Lowell High project, and because there is no city council meeting this week due to school vacation, I’ll save some other issues – the Hamilton Canal District and the Trust Ordinance for example, for later. Today, it’s all Lowell High . . .
The Cawley Site
Below are a couple of overhead photos of the Cawley Stadium area, the first a Google image of the area as it is now, the second is a similar image with the footprint of the proposed high school atop of it:
In the “as it is now” photo, the white building at the top is the state-owned Janas skating rink. To the right of that is Martin Baseball Field. Below that are several practice fields. To the right of them is Clark Road; below them is Village Street. The wooded area below Village Street is part of the privately-owned Holy Ghost Park. In the lower right corner is the rear of Market Basket. In the bottom center is the outfield fence of Alumni Park baseball stadium. Above that is the soccer field. To the left of the soccer field is the rear of 495 Chrysler and Lannan Mazda. In the center, ringed by the brown running track, is Cawley Stadium. To the left of Cawley is the stadium’s parking lot and Douglas Road.
When you compare the top photo to the one beneath it, you see that the new high school building would be constructed atop the practice fields and baseball fields that lie between Cawley Stadium and Clark Road. That tan area between the new school and Clark Road is a surface parking lot. Previous versions of this slide showed the stadium parking lot along Douglas Road retained as parking, but this latest version shows that area as green space. The reason for that change is related to the Thursday discovery of the restriction on the practice fields.
Recreation Only Restriction
UPDATE – It turns out that the recreation-only restriction from 1999 was in fact recorded at the registry of deeds. It was actually recorded on June 16, 2000 in Book 10880, Page 122 (although it is dated November 1, 1998). [To get your own copy, go to the registry of deeds website, move your cursor over the “search criteria” command on the upper left menu bar, and select “book search” under recorded land. Enter the book and page and you’ll find the document].
I’m not sure why this was so difficult to find and I confess missing it myself when I first looked for it. It could because it gives a property address of “424 Douglas Road” which I believe is the address of Cawley Stadium itself. But the document also contains a “marginal reference” to a deed in Book 859, Page 20 (to see that, from search criteria, select “unindexed property search” and enter the book and page number). That is a 1934 deed from the Lowell High School Alumni Association to the city of Lowell which covers the land that now contains the practice fields and Martin baseball field.
This agreement, like the one recorded in 1995 in Book 7412, Page 155 at the registry of deeds for the soccer field, restricts the use of the property for recreational purposes in exchange for money received from the Commonwealth to improve the property for recreational use.
Both the 1995 and the 1998 versions specifically state that any attempt to use the land for other than recreational purposes must be done in accordance with Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution (which requires a two-thirds vote from both houses of the state legislature to remove land from recreational use), the approval of the Secretary of Environmental Affairs, and the provisions of Massachusetts General Laws chapter 40, section 15A (which requires a two-thirds vote of the city council). When discussing this at Thursday night’s meeting, City Manager Kevin Murphy stated that the Code of Massachusetts Regulations (which supplement the General Laws) has the additional requirement of a unanimous vote of the local Conservation Commission and the Board of Parks.
The agreements go on to say that even with all of those approvals, the city shall “provide other property and facilities of equal value and utility” with the agreement of the Secretary of Environmental Affairs, hence that conversion of the Cawley Stadium parking lot to green space as a partial offset of the recreational land that would be taken for the school building.
The Downtown Site
The other three options (in addition to the Cawley plan) being forwarded to the state involve the current downtown site of Lowell High School. I believe the three photos above depict those proposals. If they don’t, they will serve to illustrate the concepts involved.
The current Lowell High School is made up of four buildings: the field house, the “Lord” building (both of those were built in the late 1970s), the “1922” building (which was built partly in 1899, partly in 1922, with 1990s additions), and the Freshman Academy which was once a K-8 magnet school and before that the Lowell Trade High School. The Freshman Academy is an entirely separate building, located at the corner of John Street and Fr Morissette Boulevard. The footprint of these four buildings is best shown in the first photo above. This option would renovate all four buildings. Among other things, it would require “extensive modular classrooms” and “temporary gym facilities.” The reason it would require many modular classrooms is because it just renovates the existing buildings so there is no place else to put students while any one of the buildings is being worked on. The total cost would be $331mil with the city’s contribution $116mil.
The second photo down would renovate both the Lord and 1922 buildings and would demolish the existing field house and replace it with a new fieldhouse and a new Freshman Academy wing. The current Freshman Academy would revert back to city control, presumably to be used as a middle school. This option would require “temporary gym facilities” but “few modular classrooms.” Both this and the previous option would be entirely on land already occupied by the high school. The total cost of this option would be $344mil with the city’s contribution $136mil.
The third photo down shows option three. It is similar to option two, but it involves taking the adjoining property by eminent domain. In the center left of the top two photos, there is a small building ringed by a parking lot adjacent to the high school. This is the property – commonly referred to as “the dentists’ office” – that would be taken by the city. This option would construct the new field house and the new Freshman Academy wing around the existing Field House. Once the new buildings were complete, the old Field House would be torn down. Consequently, few modular classrooms and no temporary gym facilities would be needed. The total cost of this option would be $334mil with the city’s contribution $126mil. (According to Manager Murphy, the cost of the “dentists’ office” in an eminent domain taking would be $2mil, which given the scale of the entire project, would be a negligible cost).
Building the school at Cawley would have a total cost of $332mil with the city’s contribution being $148mil.
Note that the city’s contribution of the downtown option three – $126mil – is $22mil less than the city’s contribution to the Cawley project – $148mil – even though the overall cost of both projects is essentially the same. The reason for that is that building at Cawley would incur more costs that would not be reimbursed by the state such as utilities and other infrastructure work.
There has been much consternation about the need for modular classrooms if the high school remains downtown. In fact, not wanting their children to be taught in modular classrooms was been one of the major arguments used by the pro-Cawley side because the Cawley site would require no modular classrooms.
But as the architect pointed out Thursday night, only the “full renovation” option would require a substantial number of modulars. So why are there few modulars required with options two and three? The main reason is the sequence of construction. In option two, for instance, the field house will be demolished and the new freshman wing (with its 60 classrooms) will be built in its place. While that work is being done, students will continue to occupy the Lord and 1922 buildings. Once the new freshman wing is finished, students from the Lord Building will move into it and the empty Lord Building will be renovated while the 1922 and Freshmen Academy buildings continue as is. Once the Lord Building is done, students from the 1922 building will move in there and the 1922 building will be fully renovated. Once that’s done, the project is done and the renovated 1922 and Lord Buildings plus the new Freshmen wing will all be in use. This sequencing will be supplemented by a more efficient use of space in the existing pre-renovation buildings. The architect, I believe, said that currently only five out of seven classrooms are used at any one time due to complicated scheduling. That’s an occupancy rate of 71 percent. If you increased that to close to 100 percent, you would have additional space within each of the buildings.
With option two, you would still need “temporary gymnasium” space, or as the architect put it the other night, an inflatable gym. That’s because the current gym, called the fieldhouse, would be the first thing to go to make way for the new classrooms. That’s also why option three, which involves the eminent domain taking of the adjoining property is the least disruptive of the downtown options for the students. With the additional real estate, you can build the new structures around the existing gym and still use it until you’re ready to move into the new facility. The fact that option three is cheaper than option two is a bonus.
Thursday night, concerns that building a new high school on the Cawley site would pose a substantial obstacle to students who walk to the downtown high school were brushed aside with “we’ll put them on buses” types of comments. That’s great, because we don’t bus any Lowell High students now. More accurately, we don’t pay to bus them. Those who ride the bus now have to buy their own LRTA bus passes. Will the city now take on the cost of transporting Lowell High students from around the city to a high school on the Cawley site? What would that cost? And would that have to be absorbed by the school budget since that is where busing costs come from or will future councils add the cost of busing high school students to the city budget so it does not constitute a net cut to future school budgets?
One reason concerns about transportation can be minimized in these debates is that not a lot of parents of children who are or will be walking to the downtown high school have participated in this public conversation. Demographically, Lowell High today is 32 percent Asian, 31 percent white, 24 percent Hispanic, 11 percent African-American, and 2 percent mixed race. That means 69 percent of the students at Lowell High are non-white.
Watching the Thursday night council meeting on the new high school, I only recall one of the 16 citizen speakers being a person of color. That was Dominik Lay, who was a candidate for school committee last year. Not that it’s scientific, but if you scroll through the profile pictures of the 1,668 people who are members of the New Lowell High at Cawley Stadium group on Facebook, a group that has been extremely active in this process, both online and at public meetings, you’ll see fewer than 80 people of color which is about 5 percent of the group, a demographic blend that is far from representative of the high school’s population.
My point is that a great many of the people who will be most affected by this decision – the children bound for Lowell High and their parents – are not being heard from. Sure, they have every right to speak up like others are doing, just as they have every right to vote in city elections. Yet for a variety of reasons, they don’t. But that doesn’t mean that their questions or concerns should be ignored. It just means we’re not trying hard enough to reach them. If the council fails to actively seek out parents and students in the Southeast Asian, Latino, and African-American communities and hear of their wants and desires for a new high school, they will help make the case of those who claim that our current system of at large representation does not truly represent the interests of all of Lowell’s citizens.
[NOTE: A prior version of this post wrote that the deed restriction limiting the proposed site of the high school on Cawley Stadium had not been recorded at the registry of deeds. That was incorrect. The deed restriction was recorded although no one including me had been able to find it. This post has been rewritten to reflect these changed circumstances].
Andrew Sullivan was the best known blogger in the country for many years until he burned out from the constant posting. He has a new gig at New York Magazine with a format somewhere between blogging and a regular opinion column. I think this is his second piece in the series. He always has fresh insights.