Lowell Week in Review: April 16, 2017

With Easter, Patriot’s Day, school vacation and no council meeting, it’s a slow time politically, so here are some updates on a few projects:

South Common & Thorndike Street Improvements Underway

Earlier this week, a platoon of DPW workers and contractors arrived at the South Common and started digging. The big sign that faces Thorndike Street, besides naming a bunch of state and city officials, shows that a number of the walking trails on the Common will be redone, and that new lights, trees, and shrubs will be added.

The longest length of the new walkway will bisect the Common from west to east, running from Thorndike Street to South Street. It sits on the path that the trolley was once supposed to follow before that project was cancelled. But the trolley was actually coming from someplace – Middlesex Street and the rest of downtown – before crossing the Common. I’m not quite sure who this new walkway is supposed to service. I’m selfishly happy with it since any time I have to walk from my office in the Superior Courthouse to the Gallagher Terminal, I’ll have a nice straight-line route on a new walkway, but there’s not a lot of foot or bicycle traffic heading in the same direction. Still, it will be a nice amenity to cite when promoting the reuse of the Superior Courthouse, which is something we all should be discussing these days since the Lowell Justice Center construction is rapidly progressing (see below).

Besides the improvements to the South Common, the big project sign also shows changes to Thorndike Street. Outbound in front of Keith Academy, Thorndike will be widened to three lanes from the current two, with the leftmost lane being left turn only onto Highland Street and the two other lanes proceeding straight towards the Lowell Connector onramp. Then Highland Street, where it meets Thorndike, will have two lanes: one for right turns inbound on Thorndike and the other for left turns heading outbound on Thorndike. Left turns here have previously been prohibited here, so this is a significant change. Thorndike inbound at the Gallagher Terminal will also be widened to three lanes, with the left most one being a dedicated left turn lane to get into the terminal (and also into the Thorndike Exchange project, I believe, but not with a dedicated traffic light for those turns). Currently, here and at South Street, Thorndike is only two lanes, so people making left turns tend to block the traffic coming behind them. Adding these dedicated left turn lanes should help reduce traffic tie-ups. I suspect these additional lanes will be added by narrowing the existing lanes and not be widening the roadway.

Lowell Justice Center

As I wrote recently, the state agency overseeing construction of the Justice Center expects the exterior of the seven-story building to be up and enclosed by the end of 2017. From the photo below, which is taken from across Middlesex Street, it looks like the foundation is ready to be poured. The building will be L-shaped. The zigzag footprint is visible in the photo.

Lowell Justice Center foundation under construction

The second photo (below) is also from across Middlesex Street and shows the portion of the work site closer to Thorndike. I believe that cement wall visible in the center of the photograph is the adjacent two-story structure that provides prisoner reception and shipping and receiving at an underground level, and a secure parking deck for judges on ground level.

Lowell Justice Center annex

Franco-American School Sold

The Franco-American School, formerly known as the Ayer Mansion with an address of 357 Pawtucket Street, was sold on Thursday for $2.3 million. The buyer was Franco American Holdings LLC. Brian McGowan is the manager of this limited liability corporation.

The deed was accompanied by a “declaration of covenants,” promises made by the buyer to the seller.  The “whereas” section states that the buyer intends to enter into an agreement with Coalition for a Better Acre to construct a mixture of market rate and affordable housing on the 4.5 acre site. The buyer does agree that the “mansion, school, Stations of the Cross, and Grotto portions of the premises shall be preserved in their current character to the best of the buyer’s ability.” The buyer also agreed to create a canal side park accessible to the public that will include the Grotto and the (relocated) Stations of the Cross. Finally, the buyer has donated $25,000 as the initial contribution to an endowment fund for the maintenance of the Grotto and the Stations. The buyer will create an entity to oversee the park, with that entity managed by a board consisting of representatives appointed by the buyer, CBA, and Franco American School Inc.

There are two buildings on the property now: the mansion which fronts Pawtucket Street; and the school which is attached to the rear of the mansion, running along School Street. The Stations of the Cross run along a pathway on the other side of the school. The Grotto sits behind the school. Behind the Grotto is land running to the bank of the Northern Canal.

A preliminary development sketch attached to the deed indicates that the school will be converted to 50 units of market rate housing. The use of the mansion has not yet been determined, but 14 parking spaces are dedicated for its occupants. On the portion of the property now occupied by the Stations of the Cross, Coalition for a Better Acre will construct a 4 to 6 story structure with 10 residential units per floor. This would create from 40 to 60 housing units. Most of the rest of the parcel will be taken up by parking spaces. The Stations of the Cross will be repositioned to a new pathway/park that will run between the Grotto and the Northern Canal.

This new park should be a nice amenity to the city and the neighborhood. The Northern Canal is an under-appreciated recreational asset. Although its walkway is only open from May through September (for now), it is a great walking trail that stretches all the way from the UMass Lowell East Campus (starting next to the Fox Hall high rise dormitory), continuing under the Howe Bridge and reaching all the way to School Street. Across School Street from the end of this walkway is the Northern Canal Gatehouse. The Gatehouse is owned by Enel and is a working component of that company’s hydro-electric infrastructure in Lowell, but the National Park also controls access for tours of the building. (Its riverside viewing platforms provide great views of Pawtucket Falls). Now with this new Grotto-Stations of the Cross park in the same vicinity, there will be even more reasons to visit this part of Lowell’s waterfront.

Ayer Mansion

Franco American School (from School St)

Grotto behind Franco American School

Stations of the Cross on the grounds of Franco American School

2 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: April 16, 2017

  1. Jack Walsh says:

    I’m having trouble making sense of the drawing on the sign. Does this mean there won’t be any soccer fields at the South Common? I was looking forward to the pickup games in the summer, which, until 2 years ago, were wonderful.

    The park served a large number of young men. Grass for soccer is still green.

  2. DickH says:

    The soccer field won’t be touched by this project (which is unfortunate in itself). That field is along the left edge of the photo on the sign. It is not colored green. The green parts are what will be worked on in this project. The walkway from Thorndike to South Street will be at the top of the hill that overlooks the playing field.

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