Urban Renewal in Lowell, Massachusetts 1955 – 1972

To understand the story of the city of Lowell over the past half century, you must also understand the impact of Urban Renewal. So several months ago when Daniel McDermott, a student at Assumption College, contacted me (and others) for information about Urban Renewal in Lowell for a paper he was writing for a Land Use Policy class, I was happy to help. With the semester complete, Dan shared the finished paper with me, and gave me permission to post it here.

Urban Renewal in Lowell, Massachusetts 1955 – 1972

By Daniel McDermott

Lowell, Massachusetts, the first successfully planned industrialized city in the United States, often coined the “birthplace” of the American Industrial Revolution, Lowell had found itself in an economical decline by the late 1920’s. Southern competition had driven the once economically dependable cotton mill manufacturing companies, out of business across the New England area. Lowell, like most post-industrialized cities, looked to eminent domain, urban renewal, and zoning laws with private, local, state, and federal funding to create a new vision for Lowell. The hiring of Charlie Zetteck in 1954 as Lowell’s first professionally trained signaled the start of the city’s revitalization movement. Zetteck would create Lowell’s first master plan. Unfortunately, the extensive master plan would only last until 1972, when local activist groups stopped the completion of the Lowell Connector Project.[i] Despite Zetteck’s wishes for his master plan to last centuries, his work built a foundation that would start to reshape the city of Lowell.

The need for urban renewal was rooted from two problems, “sub-standard” housing and the automobile.[ii] Most housing built in the heart of Lowell was crowded, built for immigration groups that worked in the mills. By the 1950’s most of these neighborhoods were classified as slums, by the city of Lowell, and in need of desperate repair. Second, the increase of automobiles, traffic congestions became a problem. Lowell’s narrow streets and uniquely patterned streets from the river and various canals through the city added to the already difficult driving experience. This hindered the economic growth and value of businesses in downtown Lowell. The post-WWII expansion of suburbs drove people out of the downtown area, a trend later called suburbanization.[iii] Lowell saw this with the development of new single family homes in the Highlands and Belvidere neighborhoods. The city slowly started to become outdated. Lowell, originally laid out in the early 19th century, was ultimately not designed to handle its subsequent development.[iv]

The Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954 were decisive pieces of legislation, signed by Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, which gave incentive to, what would be known as, the “urban renewal” movement. Both acts allocated funding to the Federal Housing Authority to build a combined 900,000 public housing units in the United States. Additionally, the Housing Act of 1949 increased funding for “slum” clearance programs associated with urban renewal projects.

One of the fundamental tools used to carry out urban renewal projects was eminent domain. Eminent domain is power granted by the constitution and given to the state or federal government to take privately owned land for a public use with just compensation given to the original owner. Condemnation is the term used when a government officially transfers a property title from the original owner to the government. The power of eminent domain can be delegated to federal agencies, municipalities, and government subdivisions. The Federal Housing Authority was delegated eminent domain powers. Once an urban renewal plan was approved, the first step was to acquire the “sub-standard” areas quickly, the government agencies would reply on eminent domain for this first step.[v]

In 1954, the city of Lowell would make a decisive decision with the hiring of Charlie Zetteck as a full-time city planner for the city. Brad Morse, then city councilor, noted that the existing Lowell planning board had become an empty city agency. Morse admitted the planning board did not even submit their annual report in the last few years.[vi] The board had originally been formed in 1916 but did not obtain much power to effectively change the city. The sense of a new leadership under Zetteck led to the formation of the Lowell Planning Department in 1954, which replaced the existing planning board.[vii] Zetteck was a professionally trained planner, learning his trade from MIT, his first task would be creating a master plan from scratch for Lowell. Master plan was a powerful document, it included information on every zone, land use, property, streets that exists and what the city wanted the future landscape and uses to look like. Zetteck’s planning goals were simple, provide safe and clean accommodations, promote industries, grow the tax base, and provide new jobs.[viii]

Zetteck’s master plan contained various urban renewal projects that utilized eminent domain, the first coming in March of 1959 with the Church Street Project. Two major projects, the Lowell Connector and the Northern Canal Zone project, would be the most significant in the way it reshaped the city. Furthermore, it demonstrated the power the city reserved to use eminent domain for these projects. The cities first step was to secure federal funding, from various federal agencies, for these urban renewal project as most required multiple acres of neighborhoods to be taken and redeveloped. The city cited population declines along with the fact, Lowell had already been a prosperous city to try to qualify for funding.[ix] The city made their proposal more attractive for federal funding by providing plans to build public housing, an essential qualifier from the Federal Housing Authority to receive federal funding for urban renewal projects.[x]

L’Ptit Canada, or Little Canada, was a neighborhood, predominantly populated by French Canadians who settled there to work in the local mills. The project would be called the Northern Canal Zone project, named after the Northern Canal that ran through the neighborhood, to seem more attractive as Zetteck hoped to gain public support. Located along the Merrimack River, just north of central downtown Lowell, the neighborhood had been chosen because a majority of the housing was deemed “sub-standard” by the city and the Federal Housing Authority.[xi] The project involved taking 96 acres by eminent domain, in addition, taking 325 buildings and displacing 2500 French Canadians.[xii] The project would be repurposing one-third of the land for public facilities and the other two-thirds for redevelopment.[xiii] Zetteck’s master plan called for public housing west of the Northern Canal, and east of the Northern Canal would be general business and small plots for industry.[xiv] The project would allow Zetteck to tackle traffic problems with a proposed new road along the Northern Canal that would lead to Lowell High School and downtown Lowell.

The other major project in Zetteck’s master plan, the Lowell Connector, a proposed highway branching off of Interstate 495, which ideally would allow easy access to downtown Lowell. This easy access would promote businesses, because of this the Connector was seen as the artery to Zetteck’s vision.[xv] The Connector’s first leg would be three and a half miles long, connecting Interstate 495 to downtown Lowell from Gorham Street. The second part was planned to connect Interstate 495 to Merrimack Street in Lowell, but lost support through pushback that construction would be disruptive to the oldest part of downtown Lowell. An alternative second part was proposed around 1968. This alternative plan connected the Lowell Connector to Massachusetts Route 213 in Dracut, but the plan never received the funding.[xvi] The Connector, if fully built, would’ve bisected neighborhoods. The public began concerned at how many people would be displaced.[xvii]

Both projects were envisioned to fill Zetteck’s goals as he created the master plan for Lowell and reshape the city. However, both projects came with public pushback that would influence the carrying out of the projects. The Northern Canal Zone project’s main opponent was John F. Carney. Carney spoke out about the potential eviction of residents. Carney would single out Zetteck on public radio, blaming him for the city’s problems.[xviii] Despite Carney leading an anti-urban renewal political group that would gain political power, which caused Zetteck to resign in the mid-1960’s, the neighborhood was still taken by eminent domain and destroyed in the early 1960’s.

The Lowell Connector project would receive larger public criticism, due to the fact it would be built through various communities. The original planned project bisected multiple neighborhoods. Along with local government’s poor communication, various grassroots activist groups protested the project.[xix] Despite the Department of Housing and Urban Development mandating projects must build public housing, city councilors stated they were not in the plans to build public housing.[xx] Public activists wrote a letter to HUD, stating the Northern Canal project was an urban renewal disaster, and hoped to avoid a similar disaster with the Lowell Connector project. The letter continued stating the city of Lowell had abused their eminent domain powers.[xxi] From 1970-1972, the Lowell Connector project had been delayed with various obstacles as HUD withdrew funding over public concern. Finally, in June of 1972, with the first leg of the Connector, to Gorham Street, already completed, the Lowell city council decided to hold a public forum to discuss finishing the roadway.[xxii] An estimated 700 protestors showed up to the forum to express their concern. The message was felt throughout the room as even local business owners feared to speak for the Connector in case their businesses suffered from their unpopular stance. Despite the Chamber Commerce strongly endorsing the Connector in the Lowell Sun, the Chamber did not publicly support the project after the forum. The city council would vote 6 to 3 against completing the project.[xxiii] The vote signaled the end of Zetteck’s master plan created back in the mid-1950’s.

Eminent domain’s goal is to repurpose the land taken for public use. Did Lowell use eminent domain properly and successfully? The urban renewal projects in the 1960’s still economically impact the city of Lowell today. Today the Lowell Connector still exists and functions as a roadway, still ending at Gorham Street. The Northern Canal Zone project was responsible for Fr. Morrisette Blvd, a main roadway that connects the Highland and Pawtucketville neighborhoods to downtown Lowell. The roadway, I would categorize as the best public feature from the project. The west side of the Northern Canal is residential housing. The rest of what was once Little Canada, is owned by the state and houses different University of Massachusetts Lowell facilities. Zetteck’s goals were to provide safe and clean accommodations, promote industries, grow the tax base, and provide new jobs with his master plan. Aside from providing safe and clean accommodations, Zetteck’s visions did not come to reality.[xxiv] The Northern Canal Zone project and Lowell Connector did help with Lowell’s traffic problem to its entirety. However, most of the building in the Northern Canal Zone area are government owned, which would shrink the tax base, few industries would occupy properties in the zone as well. The economic impact these two projects had on downtown business could be debated.

Fortunately for Lowell, urban renewal was not dead. A new movement was just beginning as Zetteck’s plan was put to rest with the end of the Lowell connector. New leadership under Paul Tsongas, a local politician, and Pat Mogan, a local educator, would lead another generation through urban renewal, starting with establishing the Lowell National Historical Park in 1978.

[i] Mehmed Ali, Chapter One, “To Save a City: From Urban Renewal to Historic Preservation in Lowell, Massachusetts – 1920 to 1978” (PhD diss., University of Connecticut, 2006).

[ii] Ibid

[iii] US Department of Commerce. US Census Bureau. Demographic Trends in the 20th Century. By Frank Hobbs and Nicole Stoops.

[iv] Overall Economic Development Program, Greater Lowell Economic Development Committee, August 1961, p. 32; Lowell Courier Citizen, March 13, 1916; Lowell Sun, January 25, 1952, April 29, 1959.

[v] Urban Renewal: Acquisition of Redevelopment Property by Eminent Domain, 1964 Duke Law Journal 123-138 (1964)

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Interview with Charles Zetteck, November 20, 1997; Richard Tregaskis, “The Bombardier Who Would Build Cities.” Saturday Evening Post, May 4, 1946.

[viii] Interview with James Silk, July 21, 1999.

[ix] City of Lowell. City Planning Department. Lowell Redevelopment Authority Annual Report 1959.

[x] Ibid

[xi] Ibid

[xii] Interview with John Sayers, March 19, 1998; Lowell Sun, March 27, 1963

[xiii] “Northern Canal Zone Project – Land Acquisition Map.” Map. In UMass Lowell Ditigal Library. Lowell, MA: Lowell Housing Authority.

[xiv] Ibid

[xv] Ibid

[xvi] “Mass DPW 1968 Highway Plan.” Boston Area Roads, Crossings and Exits. Accessed May 07, 2017. http://www.bostonroads.com/.

[xvii] Lowell Sun, September 14, 1958; Interview with John Tavares, July 20, 1998.

[xviii] Ibid

[xix] Alan Solomont Collection; Interview with Alan Solomont, January 21, 2000.

[xx] Letter from Charles Horan, HUD, to William Kealy, Lowell Redevelopment Authority, February 4, 1966; Lowell Sun, September 1, 1966.

[xxi] Letter from Chelmsford Street Organization, signed by Roger Coutu, Sr. to HUD dated July 15, 1970; Lowell Sun, February 13, 1970.

[xxii] Ibid

[xxiii] Ibid

[xxiv] Ibid

One Response to Urban Renewal in Lowell, Massachusetts 1955 – 1972

  1. Joe Boyle says:

    The “slum clearance” – actual term used by proponents at the time – urban renewal era was one of the darkest episodes in our nation’s history. Well-meaning people caused suffering and chaos on a massive scale for little or no actual gain, based on allegedly scientific beliefs that were actually cauldrons of unexamined ideological assumptions, and of course the pain fell hardest on the most vulnerable, the urban poor and communities of color.

    It’s too bad he ended when he did. Subsequent projects, such as the Acre Plan and the JAM Plan, were quite different in concept and execution.

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