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Lowell Week in Review: December 10, 2017

Mayor’s Reception Room, Lowell City Hall. Photo by Tony Sampas

This coming Tuesday will be the last city council meeting of the year and of the 2016-17 council term. The first item on the agenda, under Mayor’s Business, is “Recognition – Mayor’s Holiday Fest Committee.” That event – the First Annual Mayor’s Holiday Fest – took place on November 28, 2017 at the Olympia Restaurant, but its presence on the agenda means the “kerfuffle” – as someone of Facebook labeled it – that arose at last Tuesday’s city council meeting about who was invited to the City Hall Holiday Open House earlier that same night might resume this week.

Normally I wouldn’t devote much space to a spat about a party invite snub, but this dispute is in many ways emblematic of this city council term which has repeatedly shown a lack of a shared vision for the city’s future among councilors. There’s nothing wrong with having different opinions about how the city should proceed into the future, but those differences should be brought out in the open, debated and, if a divide still exists, be decided one way or another by votes or the council or the electorate. Only after such a grand strategy is adopted, acknowledged and publicized can city government effectively deal with the many matters that arise on a weekly basis.

I don’t recall this council having such a discussion about a strategic plan for the city. There’s a saying about the purpose of planning that applies here: “If you don’t know where you’re going, how are you going to get there?” I also believe that the council has made it through the entire term without once mentioning the city’s existing strategic plan, Sustainable Lowell 2025, on the floor of the council.

Back to the Holiday Open House. The issue was raised early in last Tuesday’s meeting by Rita Mercier. I captured part of what was said in my council meeting notes, but those who spoke – I believe it was just Councilors Mercier and Elliott and Mayor Kennedy – spoke rapidly and said much in a short period of time, so I didn’t capture everything. Here is what I did get:

Councilor Mercier on a point of personal privilege says she was not invited to the city’s Holiday Open House that took place earlier this evening. She says other councilors did not get the word about it either. She says in all her time on the council she’s never been disrespected like she was tonight. Mayor Kennedy says he does not run it, and did not invite anyone to it. He says it was planned through the city manager’s office and he’s surprised that the city manager’s office did not invite councilors. Councilor Elliott says “none of us were notified.” He says he came early by coincidence. He says this event is for the people and no one seemed to know about it.

The real question raised in this exchange was who was the intended audience of this event? Was it city workers and their families? Neighborhood groups? The public at large? Everyone seemed to have a different opinion.

I pulled the above image from Facebook. It’s a save the date notice for the “2017 Lowell City Hall Holiday Open House.” The notice says the event was hosted by the offices of the Mayor and City Manager and it was to be held on Tuesday, December 5, 2017 from 4 to 6 p.m. It doesn’t mention who was invited.

In reply to my Tuesday night blog post, a city employee left the following comment relative to this issue:

Two separate emails about the holiday open house, one with a save the date card attached, were sent out to the entire city via the email broadcast system by James Ostis in the Mayor’s Office on 11/20 and 11/28. Do city councilors in 2017 expect us to believe they do not use their city email? Does the mayor expect us to believe he doesn’t know what comes from his own office? Election is over, here come their true colors. I’d be happy to provide copies of the emails for posting. Have to wonder if this is aimed directly at the manager.

So if the audience for the event was city employees and their families, sending out two different emails to everyone who works for the city would seem to be the proper method of spreading the word. If you work for the city, you should read your email, whether you’re an entry level clerk or a city councilor.

Councilors seem to believe (with good reason) that their televised meetings are an effective way to communicate with the public. Several times each meeting, some councilor will say “could you explain this more fully for the people who are watching at home.” Several years ago, councilors also instituted an “announcements” section of the agenda as a way of informing the public of upcoming events.

Sure enough, at the council meeting before this last one, Mayor Kennedy, at the end of the meeting, said “The Holiday Open House at City Hall will be held on December 5 from 4 to 6 pm; the public is invited.” One problem: the meeting during which that announcement was made happened two weeks earlier, on November 21, 2017. Councilors cancelled the intervening meeting (November 28) and in that two week gap between meetings, some councilors, and others who heard the initial announcement, seemed to forget about it.

So we had a notice that didn’t specify who was invited, emails to city employees, and a verbal invitation to the public from the Mayor delivered at the previous council meeting. Those who spoke about this at Tuesday’s council meeting revealed differing views of what the event was supposed to have been about – after the event was over.

If you magnify this dispute a thousand times, you get the fight over Lowell High. In that dispute, one group believed keeping the high school downtown was best for the city; the other group felt a suburban location was superior. Once you peel back all the other arguments, that’s what the high school decision comes down to. There’s nothing wrong with having that difference of opinion. The problem was that the city failed to identify that dispute and resolve it before the Mass School Building Authority process got underway. Advancing through the formal process while at the same time waging a citywide fight over the location was not a recipe for success. The pressure of rapidly approaching deadlines and millions of dollars of expenditures being at stake, magnified the intensity of the fight over the high school location.

This downtown-suburban split didn’t originate with the high school debate. That was just the latest and loudest battle in a long series of conflicts over this vision of what Lowell wants to be.

One big area of dispute is on housing policy. This came up at Tuesday’s council meeting during the public hearing on changes to the city’s zoning code. Several councilors criticized an amendment that would permit the required parking for dormitory-type buildings to be up to 1500 feet away. Their concern is that residents of such buildings will not park 1500 feet away but will find curbside parking closer, all to the detriment of already congested neighborhoods. Development Services Director Eric Slagle pointed out to councilors that the existing zoning code already contains that 1500-feet-away language and that this amendment just clarifies how that distance is to be measured, but the matter was still continued for further discussion to a subcommittee meeting this Tuesday before the public hearing resumes at the Tuesday council meeting. (And for the record, I don’t think the private dormitory proposed for Merrimack and Cabot is a good idea, but that’s more because UMass Lowell says it is not needed than because of parking policy).

This debate illustrates my larger point: the lack of a shared vision for housing development in Lowell. Lowell is not unique in this. It’s a debate taking place across the United States. This Friday, the Upshot Column of the New York Times had a story about prosperous cities and housing policy (“What Happened to the American Boomtown?” Throughout American history, according to the article, places with the most opportunity attracted the most new residents, creating a cycle of fast-growing cities and rising prosperity. But that’s not the case anymore, because prosperous cities like San Francisco, New York and Boston, have such restrictive housing policies that hardly any new housing is being constructed. Consequently, the cost of existing housing has skyrocketed, making the high cost of housing a deterrent to people locating from where the jobs aren’t to where the jobs are.

Lowell is not Boston, but it is close enough to Boston to serve as home to people who work in that city but who can’t afford to live there. That’s especially true given our existing commuter rail service. Why do you think Sal Lupoli is putting so much money into converting the old Thorndike Factory Outlet adjacent to the train station into hundreds of apartments for would-be Boston commuters? That’s why he is also contemplating a 20-story mixed use building in the Hamilton Canal District, just a short walk from the train station.

Mr. Lupoli has a vision and sees this opportunity, but I’m not sure the city council does. This council has fought vigorously against housing in the nearby Hamilton Canal District, driving out a second master developer over that issue, seriously debating whether housing should be completely eliminated from the plans for the district, and only grudgingly accepting the Winn Development proposal for two apartment buildings within the district.

If you collect all the discussion of housing that occurred during the council meetings over the past two years and distill it down, you might say that Lowell’s housing policy has two objectives: To prevent or severely limit the construction of apartments that might be inhabited by poor people; and to require onsite or adjacent parking for any apartments that are constructed.

Certainly parking in congested areas is a big problem that negatively affects the quality of life of residents, but what we’re doing today doesn’t differ much from what we’ve been doing for the last couple of decades. It didn’t work very well then, so why do we think it’s going to work better now? Urban planners across America contend that when it comes to the construction of new housing, far less emphasis should be placed on the amount of parking associated with it. Whether that is true or not is not my point. My point is that here in Lowell we won’t even discuss whether that’s a valid approach. Instead, everyone retains his or her own opinion until a new project is proposed and then policy chaos ensues. Better to discuss the policy ahead of time, set it, and give developers fair warning of the policy rules they will have to live by.

This same dynamic arises in our debates on traffic, particularly on our bridges across the Merrimack. During the November 21, 2017 meeting, councilors discussed the prospects of a new Rourke Bridge as a way to improve cross-river traffic. The debate was mostly about how to apply more pressure on state officials to provide funding for a wider bridge. Councilor Leary pointed out that given our current road network, a wider bridge would just relocate the same traffic jams to the roads around the bridge since they aren’t capable of handling any additional traffic, but his completely accurate observation about the futility of widening the bridge didn’t seem to lessen the determination of his colleague to widen the bridge.

As should be clear from this discussion of new housing and of bridge traffic, you can’t search for solutions in isolation. This stuff is complex and any solution has to be comprehensive, taking multiple factors into account. But until we spend a substantial amount of time and effort as a city in debating a comprehensive strategy to pursue, we will continue to grasp at isolated measures and continue to be frustrated when they don’t work.

Events Today

There are a couple of events today that may be of interest to readers. At 2 pm, the Lowell Democratic City Committee will hold its Holiday Social at Warp & Weft and 197 Market Street in Lowell. The event goes until 5 pm, admission is $10, and everyone is invited.

Then you can head over to University Crossing at 220 Pawtucket Street where U.S. Senator Ed Markey will hold a town hall meeting from 5 to 6:30 pm (doors open at 4:30 pm). The public is invited but organizers have asked people to RSVP via Facebook to assist in event logistics.

Pearl Harbor Day Remarks

On Thursday, December 7, 2017, I was one of the speakers at the Greater Lowell Veterans Council Pearl Harbor Day remembrance ceremony held at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium. Also speaking were Mayor Ed Kennedy and State Representative Dave Nangle. The choir from the Butler School attended and sang a number of patriotic songs. Here are my remarks:

Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge, Lowell, Mass. Carries East Merrimack St over the Concord River near Lowell Memorial Auditorium

Thanks to the Butler School choir for providing such fine entertainment this morning. Their presence here is historically appropriate, as well, because on Sunday, December 7, 1941, several thousand people crowded into this building to hear another group sing. It was a Moses Greeley Parker lecture. Admission was free, doors opened at 2:15 pm, and the event began at 3 pm. The performers that day were the Trapp Family Singers, the same group that is familiar to us from the movie, The Sound of Music.

The song list that day did not feature Edelweiss, Do-Re-Mi, or Climb Every Mountain; those songs would be written 17 years later by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Instead, the Trapp Family sang Austrian folk songs, some classical pieces by Bach, and a few traditional Christmas carols.

I’m sure the Trapps gave a wonderful performance, but when asked about that day, people who were there – including my mother, who was then 9 years old and had come with her family – don’t talk about the music, they talk about what came afterwards. That’s because as soon as the performance ended, everyone learned that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and that the United States was at war.

Now the fact that we went to war with Japan should not have been a complete surprise. Tensions between the two countries had been steadily rising for years, and things were particularly intense during the summer and fall of 1941. Just two days earlier, on Friday, December 5, 1941, giant headlines in the Lowell Sun read “US Jap War Decision Possible Within Hours.”

What did come as a huge surprise to us was where the Japanese attacked. Our country’s military planners and political leaders expected that a Japanese attack, if it should come, would be against American bases in the Philippines, which were much closer to Japan and within that country’s zone of military operations. They could not imagine an attack against Pearl Harbor which was 4000 miles from Japan.

Yet that is where the Japanese attacked. Using six of their aircraft carriers and the 400 aircraft they carried, the Japanese did what no one had ever done before; launch a major attack against a distant military base using carrier-based aircraft.

One reason the Japanese undertook such a bold and risky mission was because their naval commander, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, knew America well. He had spent two years studying at Harvard, had served as a Naval attaché in Washington, and had traveled extensively around the United States. He knew first hand of the industrial might of America.

Yamamoto convinced the leadership in Japan that the only way to win a war with America was to deliver a crushing knockout blow at the beginning and end the war within a year, two at the most. In any conflict longer than that, Yamamoto said the United States was sure to prevail.

The plan to attack Pearl Harbor was intended to be that knockout blow, and it nearly succeeded. In reports created right after the attack, Japanese pilots wrote that they knew they had achieved complete success because when they tuned their aircraft radios to the frequency of the commercial radio station in Honolulu, they heard popular music. If the Americans knew the attack was coming, the radio station would be off the air. The Japanese pilots used the radio waves from that station to guide them directly to their target.

The Japanese pilots wrote something else in those after action reports. They wrote of their amazement with how rapidly and accurately the Americans on the ground fought back, despite being completely surprised by the attack. The heavy anti-aircraft fire coming from the ground shot down a number of Japanese planes and disrupted the aim of the rest.

A number of men from Lowell were at Pearl Harbor that day, and they all fought back. Clifton Edwards, a 1936 graduate of Lowell High who lived on Merrill Street, was a 24 year old seamen on the USS Curtiss, which was one of the few ships to get underway that morning. The ship’s movement and the intense anti-aircraft fire coming from it attracted the attention of the Japanese and the Curtis was hit by several aerial bombs, killing 19 of its crew, including Clifton Edwards. The second Lowell man to die that day was 23 year old Arthur Boyle of 28 Ralph Street, A 1940 graduate of Lowell High, Private Boyle was an aviation mechanic stationed at Hickam Field, the main US Army air base in Hawaii. Boyle was killed while trying to get an American fighter plane airborne to counterattack the Japanese.

While the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was devastating, it was not the knockout blow intended. A big reason it was not was that despite a desperate and deadly situation, individual American service members used their own initiative and courage to fight back. Throughout the opening year of the war – the Japanese window of opportunity for victory, according to Admiral Yamamoto – the actions of thousands of men like Clifton Edwards and Arthur Boyle kept America in the fight, giving the country time to mobilize its superior resources, to go on the offensive, and to ultimately prevail.

Lowell in World War One: Dec 3 to Dec 8, 1917

This is the 34th weekly installment of my Lowell in World War One series which commemorates the centennial of the entry of the United States into World War One. Here are the headlines from one hundred years ago this week:

December 3, 1917 – Monday – British regain ground on Cambrai front. Mighty problems confront Congress as it reassembles for second war session. Work actually begins tomorrow when President Wilson will outline program for vigorous prosecution of war. Estimates of $13,000,000,000. More wells required at the boulevard. Commission Brown stated that unless there is sustained periods of rain, it will be necessary for him to dig up to 200 more wells along the boulevard to supply adequate drinking water since average water consumption is up considerably over last year.

December 4, 1917 – Tuesday – Wilson urges war on Austria. Immediate declaration of war recommended by President in address to Congress. Says nothing shall turn US aside until war is won and Germany is beaten. Russia and Germany sign armistice. Maximum prices for coal in Lowell. New England Fuel Administrator James J. Storrow today announced the maximum prices at which coal can be sold in Lowell. Will occupy Bigelow plant. The United States government intends to lease either by agreement or by requisition the plant of the Bigelow Carpet Co in Lowell and the plant is to be occupied entirely by the United States Cartridge Company.

December 5, 1917 – Wednesday – Delay war declaration against Austria. Postponement until next week by Congress probably as a result of conferences. Austrians on eve of war with US make new attempt to pierce Italian front. More Lowell men sent to Camp Devens. Seven more Lowell men were sent to Camp Devens today to take the place of seven others previously drafted but recently granted exemptions from service at the Camp.

December 6, 1917 – Thursday – Halifax in flames following big explosion in harbor. U.S. ammunition ship rammed by another vessel. Ships destroyed and crews killed. Freight cars blown from tracks. Explosion heard over 60 miles away. Hundreds killed and thousands injured.  Half of the city of Halifax is in ruins as a result of the explosion. Bay State to aid sufferers.

December 7, 1917 – Friday – Senate votes for war on Austria. Resolution declaring war on Austria unanimously passed in Senate. People of Halifax stunned by magnitude of disaster. Police estimate dead at 2000. A heavy snowstorm that set in today has impeded relief and rescue but has also aided firemen in fighting the flames. The explosion occurred when the Belgian relief steamer Imo collided with the French munitions steamer Mont Blanc, causing the detonation of 4000 tons of trinitrotuluel, one of the most powerful explosives manufactured. Relief train from Massachusetts speeding towards Halifax with medical personnel and supplies.

December 8, 1917 – Saturday –  American warship sunk. Destroyer Jacob Jones, one of the newest and largest submarine hunters in the US Navy, was torpedoed and sunk last night. Two-thirds of her crew were taken off in life rafts, the rest of the crew are missing including the ship’s commander, Lt Cdr David Bagley, brother-in-law of Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.  Private dispatch reports 4000 killed in Halifax disaster. Stricken city isolated. The Massachusetts relief train, which was due to arrive in Halifax early this morning, was stalled in great snow drifts last night.  America’s declaration of war against Austria is seen as moral support for Italy, which is hard pressed by the Austrian-German army.

‘What’s Past Is Prologue’ (Shakespeare)

Here’s another entry about politics from my 1992 personal journal. I had been volunteering in Paul Tsongas’s presidential campaign for about a year when he suspended his campaign for the Democratic nomination on March 19 for lack of capacity to keep battling Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Paul had won eight primaries and caucuses in the process, including New Hampshire. (Former California governor Jerry Brown hung on through the later primary elections, eventually winning six against Clinton.) But Clinton surged in Super Tuesday states and had prevailed in the money primary and among the media analysts. However, for the general election there was another candidate in the running: billionaire businessman Ross Perot of Texas, who campaigned as an independent. Opinion polls in early summer showed him ahead when pitted against Clinton and Pres. George H. W. Bush. He would win nearly 20 percent of the vote (but no electoral college votes) in the November election. Clinton in the end gained only 43 percent of the popular vote and 370 electoral votes to G. H W. Bush’s 37.5 percent of the popular vote and 168 electoral votes. Wondering about Perot, I wrote the following in June, 1992. Looking at the entry now, Perot seems to be a forecast of Trump, 24 years later. — PM

Why Ross Perot Has Taken Root. Pick a Reason. (6/9/1992)

  1. Reasonable people don’t want a president who arrives damaged in a campaign marked by sex, lies, and videotaped attack ads.
  2. The Reagan-Bush administrations stretched to the snapping point people’s willingness to accept bad judgement by their leaders.
  3. Most people don’t understand the Savings & Loan scandal beyond feeling they were robbed.
  4. Political leaders did not guide the nation to any intellectual and emotional resolution when the Cold War with Russia was declared ended. There has been no public expression of victory, no grief for the suffering since the late 1940s, no recognition of the anxiety from living on the brink of nuclear annihilation for decades, and no call to action resulting from this enormous result. The all-encompassing threat of the USSR seemed to melt away.
  5. People are looking for a third way, any way other than the one offered by two tired, overweight, atrophied creatures called the Republican and Democratic parties.
  6. Public argument on all issues, as structured by the electronic media, is presented in two extremes, leaving a large portion of the public angry, confused, or turned off.
  7. Most people simply want a job that provides enough money for them to live a happy but not extravagant life.
  8. Cynics in each of the main parties have manipulated voters’ worst fears and most selfish appetites to win their approval and gain power. Simple answers to complicated questions are often popular.
  9. The 50 percent of voters who opt out of national elections may run to the polls to vent their frustration and anger.
  10. A faction of extreme anti-government political thinkers and religious radicals have wielded disproportionate influence over public policy for the past 12 years.
  11. The election of a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (George H. W. Bush) to the presidency was the last straw in shady power politics for some voters. Picture how Americans would respond if the head of the KGB spy agency became the top political figure in Russia.
  12. Millions of Americans are out of hope and don’t believe their government as now organized can help them fulfill their dreams. Pre-revolutionary conditions exist in the USA due to an extreme imbalance in income distribution.

—Paul Marion, 1992

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