With trips to Washington and Charleston, South Carolina during the past two weeks, I’ve temporarily fallen out of the rhythm of Lowell politics. In my absence, it seems a big debate has broken out over a proposal to build a new Lowell High School on the South Common. My co-writer Paul raised many questions about the South Common proposal in a blog post earlier this week. I too have questions about such a proposal.
My biggest question, though, is what do the South Common proponents intend to put on Kirk Street once the existing high school is gone? Lowell High is by far the largest employer, the largest concentration of people, and the largest physical footprint in downtown Lowell. If it is moved elsewhere, what is to take its place? From now on, anytime someone says “let’s move Lowell High to the South Common, Prince Spaghetti, Cawley Stadium, wherever,” the first response should not be a critique of the proposed new location; it should be this question: What is to go on Kirk Street? Is there a plan? Or is there just some vague hope that “if we vacate it, they will come.”
In the absence of any kind of reuse plan for the current Lowell High site, my sense is that this “move Lowell High out of downtown” band wagon is the latest installment of the struggling-downtown-business-owner excuse of the month club. In January it was “aggressive panhandlers” as the cause of vacant storefronts; in February it was inadequate snow removal; in March it was parking enforcement; and now in April it is Lowell High School. What will it be next month, Middlesex Community College? The UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center? How about Lowell Memorial Auditorium? What’s the next excuse?
There’s no doubt that running a business in any downtown in a Massachusetts Gateway City is a tough and precarious undertaking. For the downtown as a whole to succeed or at least to endure requires a strategy. More than a decade ago, the city embraced the creative economy as its downtown development strategy. More recent proposals like the Jeff Speck plan and the city’s master plan have built on that. They weren’t intended as immediate solutions to the economic problems of downtown businesses, especially as we continue to struggle with the after effects of the Great Recession, but at least these plans present a coherent strategy. Critics of these plans seem to be growing louder and are gathering momentum. But what is their plan? Do they have one? All this talk reminds me of that old Wendy’s commercial:
Where’s the plan?
I don’t want to be accused of having a “status quo mentality”, I just want to see a plan. To propose the relocation of the city’s largest downtown employer, the same entity that also occupies more downtown space than any other, without having a solid proposal for what will take its place isn’t bold leadership. It’s recklessness.