When you break open the box holding a 1000-piece puzzle, pour out the pieces, and start assembling them, it’s a good idea to look at the picture on the cover of the box. It’s a good idea to look at it often. Without that “big picture” as a guide, it’s hard to know what to do with the individual pieces.
In some ways, running a business, a city, or any organization is like making a puzzle. Instead of a photo on the box, the organization must have a strategic plan that sets out its goals and a strategy for achieving them.
The organization’s strategic plan should be consulted often. Nearly every decision an organization makes, should be made in a way that helps advance the objectives set out in that strategic plan. Unless the members of the organization are constantly looking at that big picture—the photo on the front of the puzzle box—any advance towards the objectives of the organization will be coincidental, not purposeful.
Lowell has a strategic plan. It’s called Sustainable Lowell 2025. Here’s what the city’s website says about it:
A Vision for Lowell’s Future: Sustainable Lowell 2025 is the result of an extensive planning process that took place between 2011-2013, with substantial public participation, data collection and analysis. Adopted by the Lowell Planning Board and endorsed by the City Council in March of 2013, it serves as the City’s Comprehensive Master and Sustainability Plan, and provides a shared vision for the on-going development and revitalization of the City, with particular emphasis placed on economic, social and environmental sustainability.
A lot of work went in to Sustainable Lowell 2025. It is a long document that sets out the city’s collective goals in nine chapters:
- Sustainable neighborhoods;
- Housing choice;
- Mobility & access;
- Vibrant & unique urban hub;
- Healthy & sustainable local economy;
- Environmental resilience;
- Effective operations, infrastructure & technology;
- Sustained public engagement.”
Each of those chapters gives a succinct mission statement followed by a dozen or more objectives that will help accomplish the mission. Each objective is followed by a list of specific tasks that will help accomplish that objective.
To illustrate how it all works, here is the mission statement for the Vibrant & Unique Urban Hub chapter:
Lowell will serve as a vibrant urban center that leverages its history, creativity, diversity, and physical environment to provide residents, businesses, visitors, shoppers, and potential investors with a unique, high-quality experience. Through this approach of creative place-making, Lowell will continue offering rich social, cultural and entertainment opportunities to existing residents while attracting newcomers to the city whose innovation and entrepreneurship can further strengthen the local economy.
That chapter then lists 14 objectives. One of them, number 5, is “Promote waterfront access and development downtown.” Following that are six tasks that will help attain that objective. Those six tasks are:
- Conduct a comprehensive survey of waterfront property, evaluating assets, opportunities, and potential impediments to redevelopment, recognizing that appropriate development at certain waterfront sites can effectively create waterway stewardship and improve their visibility within the city.
- Establish and promote a regulatory framework that encourages outdoor cafes and retail entrances along riverfront and canalside walkways, where appropriate.
- Enhance visibility of waterways from neighboring streets and squares.
- Promote events and displays that celebrate the City’s waterways, such as sprays, lighting, and environmental art.
- Support the extension of the Riverwalk and plan for future connections to the Concord River Greenway and other trail networks.
- Emphasize the importance of good stormwater management practices in preserving and enhancing the city’s waterways.
That’s how our Master Plan is organized. It is intended to cover everything done by the government of the city of Lowell. Its creation took thousands of hours of effort from city employees, but also from hundreds of residents who participated in the inclusive plan-creation process. The resulting Master Plan, which was unanimously adopted by the city council without debate or controversy, was intended to guide city government to the year 2025.
Yet here we are, more than three years after the plan was adopted, and I cannot recall a single instance of it being mentioned at a city council meeting. I won’t speculate why that is so, but whatever the reason, it is unfortunate. The strategic plan reflects a shared vision for the city, and should guide the decision-making process in every case. When an issue comes before the city council, someone should ask “how does this fit into the city’s Master Plan?”
Much of what has happened since this plan was adopted is consistent with its stated objectives. A great example is the colored lights on the Merrimack Canal during Winterfest and on Swamp Locks for the September First Thursday celebration. One of the recommended tasks (cited above) of the Master Plan is “Promote events and displays that celebrate the City’s waterways, such as sprays, lighting, and environmental art.” The two canal-lighting events are exactly what was contemplated by the Master Plan. I suspect that if we went page-by-page through the Master Plan, we would find many other examples of congruence. But without any reference to the plan, compliance is just a happy accident and other projects are just as likely to go off the Mater Plan rails.
If you are interested enough in this topic to have read this far, I have two requests: First, set aside some time and read the entire plan. Second, anytime you find yourself discussing an issue with a city councilor, ask “How does that fit into the city’s Master Plan?”
An appropriate time to ask, “How does this fit into the city’s Master Plan?” would have been during the Food Truck debate at Tuesday’s city council meeting. The ordinance proposed by City Manager Murphy would ban food trucks from the core of downtown. He stated the reason for the ban was twofold: to assist the existing restaurants in that zone by not tempting their customers with nearby food trucks; and to preserve highly valued curbside parking spaces.
Some councilors disagreed with the ban, asserting that more dining choices would draw more people to downtown. Other councilors were sympathetic to the plight of downtown restaurants. Others didn’t want food trucks parked curbside, but on Lucy Larcom Park or JFK Plaza. Still others were more concerned about the price charged to reserve an all-day parking spot than with where the food trucks were to be located. (The manager explained that the stated fee – $10 – was set by another ordinance which was currently under review).
Ultimately, the council passed the ordinance as proposed (with the downtown food truck ban included), but tasked the city manager with reporting back to the council in nine months with an assessment of the ordinance’s effect.
I cite the Food Truck discussion not for its outcome—either banning them or not would be acceptable to me—but because of the process used to adopt the ordinance. Shouldn’t at least one councilor have asked, “What does the Master Plan say about this?” I haven’t checked, but I bet it says something like “maximize the dining options downtown,” although it might instead say, “protect existing businesses from innovative competition.” Whichever the case, following the plan, or at least considering what it said, would likely yield a more rational, consistent outcome than the process we witnessed Tuesday.
“Promote Waterfront Access”
That’s the directive of the Master Plan. And it’s a topic that got much attention from the 30 people who attended the “Happy City” panel discussion at the Pollard Memorial Library on Thursday night. Mid-sized cities across America lust after a waterway that serves as the centerpiece of civic, cultural, and social life in the community. Lowell has waterways in abundance: two rivers and 5+ miles of canals. Millions of dollars have been invested in and alongside these waterways, yet many of them are grossly underutilized. I’m thinking in particular of the Riverwalk and the Western Canal Walkway. Both are beautiful paths constructed at great public expense, but few people in the city even know that they exist. The Riverwalk runs from the Boott Mills to the Howe Bridge and the Western Canal Walkway stretches from Fletcher Street to the Merrimack River. We should all pay more attention to these and similar amenities in the city. The first step should be to study why no one uses them after which we can start remedying the obstacles to greater utilization.
Mill No. 5 Master Plan
Like the city, Mill No. 5 has a Master Plan. Unlike the city, Jim Lichoulas, the owner of Mill No. 5, consults with his master plan every time he makes a decision. That was clear from remarks by Lichoulas to the 55 people who attended yesterday’s Lowell Walk on Entrepreneurs in Lowell which was expertly organized and led by Franky Descoteaux and Lianna Kushi.
Lichoulas explained that his family has owned the Mill No. 5 building since the 1970s. He said he has always been a fan of a Main Street as the center of economic and social activity in a community. Finding downtown Lowell too big to have a single Main Street, Lichoulas set out to create one on the fourth floor of Mill No. 5, using salvaged storefronts from elsewhere to transform the long central hallway into an indoor Main Street lined with vibrant, interesting businesses. He sees that center hallway as a model for what the rest of downtown Lowell could become.
Someone on the tour asked about a fireplace with a decorative mantle in the midst of the Victorian Lounge room. Lichoulas explained that the mantle was from a big home in Brookline, Massachusetts, whose owner found it inconsistent with his design scheme and tore it out. Somehow it came into the hands of Lichoulas, who installed it here in a way that invites the comment, “I didn’t know the mills had fireplaces.” Lichoulas said his strategy for developing Mill No. 5 has been to take things that others have discarded and to find value in them. He said it was almost a metaphor for Lowell: try one thing; see if it works. If it doesn’t work, try something else. If it does work, build upon it.
Other entrepreneurs we met in Mill No. 5 were Jen of Sutra Studio (a yoga studio) and PJ of Alcyone Life Sciences, Inc. (Yes, there’s a biotech company in Mill No. 5). After that, we headed outside and visited Lowell Community Health Center where we were greeted by CEO Susan West Levine. Our next stop was at the former Majors Pub which is now The Social Pup dog grooming and day care center.
Our final stop was outside the Appleton Mills apartments, where we were serenaded by Lowell’s own Big Daddy Blues Band. It was a quintessential Lowell moment: a sunny fall day, a bunch of people strolling the streets together, listening to interesting, inspiring stories, and you suddenly come upon a great blues band rehearsing on the patio outside their used-to-be-a-textile-mill apartment. Here’s a sample of Big Daddy’s music on YouTube.
There’s a lot to like about Lowell; even more if we pay attention to our Master Plan.