There have been times during the past year when I’ve expressed concern that the current Lowell City Council has been too reactionary and has been lacking in strategic vision. Over the past two months, however, there have been some motions that could go a long way to remedying that problem. The motions I speak of, when combined with some existing project plans, combine to create an incredibly exciting, dynamic blueprint for revitalizing a core portion of Lowell, namely the main artery that runs from the corner of Pawtucket and Merrimack Streets all the way to the Gallagher Train Station. Consider the eleven projects annotated on the map below:
- University Crossing – UMass Lowell’s student and community center on the banks of the Merrimack on the site of the former St. Joseph’s Hospital.
- Upper Merrimack Street corridor – from City Hall to University Crossing, this is prime territory for UMass Lowell expansion and for housing and business development driven by the university, by the ever-resourceful Coalition for a Better Acre, and for the dynamic, innovative Acre Neighborhood group. Councilor Bill Samaras recently filed a motion to have the city’s Department of Planning and Development brief the council on plans for this stretch.
- Smith Baker Center – abandoned for years after most recently serving as the Lowell Council on Aging facility, the Smith Baker Center has the potential to be an amazing performance venue that fits the spectator capacity niche that falls somewhere between the Lowell Memorial Auditorium and the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. The performance hall on the second floor permits the ground floor to be used for retail or business purposes which would hopefully help with the costs of operating the overall facility. A few months ago Mayor Rodney Elliot convened a task force to investigate the way forward for this facility. While nothing official has been announced, multiple sources tell me that many on this task force are optimistic that a viable project will emerge in the near future.
- National Park Service parking lot – the Dutton Street parking lot that services the Market Street visitor center. This space has been one of the major roadblocks holding up the larger Hamilton Canal project. With the current surface parking lot seen as THE prime private business development space of Hamilton Canal, the city has tried for years to acquire this parcel from the National Park Service. Back during this summer, City Manager Kevin Murphy finally was able to announce that an understanding had been reached whereby the city would build a new parking garage deeper into the Hamilton District and that the garage would be uniquely designed to permit tour buses to enter and navigate. Building this garage will be an expensive proposition, but with so much of the larger development turning on this facility, it really has to be done and the sooner the better.
- Trolley Line Extension – Just weeks ago the city picked up a $2 million planning grant for the expansion of the existing trolley system the first phase of which would extend the line from the Swamp Locks (on Dutton Street opposite the Textile History Museum) through the Hamilton Canal project, across Middlesex and Appleton Streets then up to and across the South Common to the Gallagher Terminal. The contemplated expansion would transform the trolley from a novelty ride for tourists to an integral part of a mass transit system.
- Judicial Center – Once constructed, this will be one of the most magnificent public buildings in the Commonwealth (I’ve seen the plans). It will be seven stories tall and will be built in an energy-friendly style with lots of glass and steel that will complement and enhance the neighboring brick mill buildings. This building will not only consolidate all court operations now in the city (District Court, Juvenile Court, Superior Court and Registry of Deeds), it will also bring substantial court resources from Cambridge and Woburn to Lowell. Half the probate court session in the entire county will sit in Lowell along with nearly half of the Superior Court sessions (there are only two now) and a permanent Housing Court presence. Once open, this courthouse will draw hundreds of court employees, litigants, jurors and others to the Hamilton Canal district each day. But that all depends on the building being constructed. Last I heard, the timetable has it opening in 2018 but with the current budget deficit projects like this are always at risk of being delayed or cut. Hopefully the Baker administration will see that the benefits of going forward with this project outweigh the budgetary value of any savings gained by killing it.
- Lord Overpass redo – In early November, Governor Patrick came to Lowell with $15 million for the renovation of the Lord Overpass. My fear has been that state planners will simply upgrade the existing traffic circle and simply ignore the dire need to make the entire corridor more pedestrian friendly. This past Tuesday, Councilor Bill Martin filed a motion that the DPD do a presentation to the Transportation Subcommittee on the plans for this project. Everyone in the city who is interested in walking, biking and public transportation should plan to attend this meeting and become vocal advocates for relegating the failed 1960s car-culture era projects like the Sampson Connector to the scrap heap of history and redo the entire Dutton-Lord Overpass-Thorndike stretch into something more walkable and bikeable.
- Thorndike Factory Outlet – It was back in 2013 that Sal Lupoli, owner of Sal’s Pizza, acquired this property and appeared before the city council to share his plans for a mixed residential and retail facility that would be directly connected to the Gallagher Terminal by an elevated pedestrian walkway built with state funds obtained by the city’s legislative delegation. This was most recently in the news when a bolt of lightning fractured the large Hood Medicine smokestack which was damaged beyond repair and was torn down. The intended facility would be a great addition to the bigger picture of this neighborhood.
- South Common – The city has plans to revitalize this important public green space. A big part of that would be replacing the grass and (mostly) dirt surface of the field in the bowl of the common with artificial turf which would turn the space into an excellent soccer field. As we saw during last summer’s World Cup, the diversity of Lowell’s residents and the widespread participation of a generation of young people through the Lowell Youth Soccer Association make the city a natural hot bed for soccer. Although not part of the current plan, a chunk of space on the periphery of the common should be ceded to Mill City Grows for a community garden.
- Gallagher Terminal – the rebuild of the parking garage is well underway but much should be done to improve the quality of services offered at the Gallagher Terminal. Around the world, train stations become regional hubs of activity with retail, dining and other amenities to complement the public transportation. The Gallagher Terminal does not invite people to linger. It has a definite get in and get out ambiance. And getting from the Terminal to downtown Lowell on foot cries out to visitors in a hundred different ways that “you’re not all that welcome here.”
- Cambodia Town – The Pailin Plaza section of Cambodia town is densely packed with restaurants, retailers and dozens of other small businesses. It has huge potential to attract visitors coming by train and those who work and do business at the new courthouse and the Hamilton Canal district which is not that far away. But like much of the rest of the area, the ability to walk safely and comfortably to this area is an afterthought at best.
- Western Avenue Studios – Every time I visit this place there’s another floor or section that’s been opened up. With more than 200 artists and countless others inhabiting this place, it can be a great complement to Hamilton Canal workers and residents if it was easier for them to get there. This is an especially tricky problem because not only is WAS walled off by the Sampson Connector, but also by the active train tracks that extend from the Lord Overpass up Middlesex Street through UMass Lowell’s South Campus and into North Chelmsford. Concerned about liability, the railroad has expressed no interest in finding a safe and convenient way for walkers to get from Hamilton Canal to Western Avenue. A good little leaguer could throw a baseball from one to the other but to physically get from one to the other you have to get in your car and follow a roundabout journey that is anything but direct.
So there are twelve projects, all connected geographically, that combine to be a transformative undertaking if we only think big. Too often over the past year, public policy discussion in the city has been reactionary – responding to complaints about parking, traffic, crime. To make real improvement, we have to think big, think strategically. These twelve projects (and others in the same area that elude mention this morning) constitute a major strategic plan.
Consider a piece in Friday’s Boston Globe “Capital” section: five editorial writers offered their suggestions to the incoming Baker Administration on ways to “make Massachusetts more prosperous.” Here’s the fifth suggestion:
Build rail to the gateway cities
Because of their cheap commercial real estate, cities like Lowell, Lawrence, and New Bedford could be dream locations for tech startups. But it will be tough to persuade Boston-based entrepreneurs — and the venture capitalists who support them — to make the trip out of the Hub or convince their employees to do the same. Improving commuter rail service is key to changing this mentality. Baker should use this as a rationale to push for South Coast Rail, and to improve the service on the Lowell line from North Station. Better transportation could export some of the energy that currently animates the Seaport District to other parts of the state — and grow the economy in cities that could use the boost
We all think of the Lowell Line as a way to get us into Boston (which is how I travel there anytime I have to go). But what if the Lowell Line brought young high tech workers who are determined to live and recreate in the big city to Lowell each weekday for work in the Hamilton Canal District? The train station is just a short walk from there (and assuming the current walk is made safer, more inviting, and more pedestrian friendly). More workers in the Hamilton Canal District will mean more people venturing into the Acre and Lower Highlands for restaurants, shops and eventually housing as rising Boston rents and condo prices make living in Lowell a more attractive option.
Combine with this the momentum of UMass Lowell and you really can remake the city. The starting point, however, is recognizing that the center of gravity of downtown Lowell must shift from the intersection of Merrimack and Central to Dutton and Fletcher. That should be ground zero for our attention. Let good things radiate out from there, not to the neglect of the rest of the city but for the benefit of us all.
There were, of course, other things going on in the city this past week but there’s already enough to think about in this post. I’ll roll out some other things during the coming week in separate posts.
Merry Christmas to all.