Day-to-day political events took a break during the holidays so here’s a look at what 2015 might bring in Lowell politics. With a full work week and a council meeting on Tuesday night, the Week in Review will return next Sunday. For now, here are some possibilities for the coming year:
Walkability of Dutton Street
If you lived in Boston, were intrigued by some of the favorable publicity Lowell receives in the Boston media (like today’s story in the Globe Travel section), and decided to check the city out, you might hop on a train at North Station and head north. Arriving at the Gallagher Terminal in Lowell you’re met by – not much. I’ve been in that facility often enough and can’t ever remember seeing something that points the way to downtown. Sure you can hope a bus but in my experience people who make journeys of the type I describe prefer walking when the distance is reasonable. And the distance from the Gallagher terminal to say the National Park Visitor Center is not that far.
So our intrepid traveler works around the nonexistent signs, maps, brochures, guides, ambassadors, and sets out on foot along Thorndike and then Dutton Street. What does he see?
Not much that’s conducive to an enjoyable walk. As the photo above shows, you can stay on the west side of Dutton and be wedged between a big brick building and semi-trailers that come rumbling by. Or, you can cross to the east side of Dutton and straddle the trolley tracks. For the pedestrian, the imagery is not inviting. It shouts out, go back home and if you do come back, drive your own car. That’s exactly the wrong message for us to be sending in 2015.
Maybe Dutton Street deserves the Fr Morissette Blvd treatment – curbside parking and bike lanes that help calm the traffic and make the area a little more walker friendly.
In addition to that, we should embrace the canals and the walking paths alongside them. Lowell can market itself by better presentation of the physical city—-improving the curb appeal, which arises from factors that we can control at the municipal level. Lighting, cleanliness, landscaping, signage–and other elements of city life. Consider the photo below which shows canal-side walkways running through the Hamilton Canal District towards the intersection of Dutton and Fletcher Streets.
These walkways extend all the way to Dutton. Rather than end there, they should turn left and continue south on Thorndike to the South Common and turn right and continue along the east side of Dutton all the way to Market Street. Such a walkway would connect the Gallagher Terminal with downtown in an inviting, visually-pleasing way.
The other day I was looking through some notes at work and came across testimony I gave before the state legislature’s Judiciary Committee when it visited Lowell back in 2008 for a public hearing about the proposed judicial center. Back then, according to my notes, the Lowell Judicial Center was to have opened in 2014. It didn’t. There are many reasons why that timetable slipped, not the least of which was the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. But the economy is improving with each passing month and the city should make a real push to get the state to break ground on this building during 2015. As currently designed, the Judicial Center will more than double the amount of court-related activity that currently takes place within the city. Much of Middlesex County’s judicial business now conducted in Woburn and Cambridge will come to Lowell. This could serve as a real catalyst for the Hamilton Canal District and for the entire city.
Will he or won’t he? In other words, will Marty Meehan’s tenure as Chancellor of UMass Lowell come to an end in 2015? I’m sure UMass Lowell and the city of Lowell would benefit greatly from Meehan becoming the President of the entire UMass system, but it would also alter the warp-speed velocity of innovation, expansion and change that UMass Lowell has undergone since 2007. While not as monolithic in Lowell as UMass Lowell, Middlesex Community College exerts enormous influence in the city and it too is undergoing a change in leadership. Hopefully MCC’s focus on Lowell will continue unabated.
New School Superintendent
Last I heard the School Committee had engaged an outside group to recruit and screen candidates for superintendent of schools in Lowell, a position that became prospectively vacant when Jean Franco announced she would not seek an extension of her contract which ends this June. Franco is the third straight superintendent – Karla Brooks Baehr and Chris Scott – to have left due in part, at least, to some animosity with (some) school committee members. Who is hired and under what circumstances could be a big factor in this fall’s school committee election. A selection viewed positively by the bulk of the community would reflect well on school committee incumbents; a selection viewed otherwise could have an opposite result. For Lowell to move forward as a city, the public perception of the school system must meet the reality. Turbulence at the top doesn’t help that happen.
November will bring the biennial city election with all nine seats on the city council and six on the school committee on the ballot. Since the field won’t be set until mid-summer, we have a while to wait to know for sure who will or will not be running. Notwithstanding the buzz about the recent property tax increase and the continuing violence of last summer, I don’t sense any widespread discontent with the direction of the city which bodes well for incumbents seeking re-election. Still, it all depends on who votes. In the past few city elections, an average of about 10,500 of the city’s 54,000 registered voters participate. If that number goes up appreciably there could be a different result but that’s also a factor of who else is running. In any case, elected officials pay the closest attention to those who vote and if the look of the participating electorate were to change, so might some of the city’s priorities.