Lowell City Council Meeting: September 12, 2017

Communications from City Manager

(Most of these were reviewed in Sunday’s Week in Review blog post. Below are comments beyond what was included in the printed reports to councilors, so were board appointments and resignations).

Update on River Meadow Brook Trail. Manager Murphy said he met with Peter Gervais and his attorney today. Gervais will grant an easement over the parcel it acquired to allow the bike trail to pass over the property. In exchange, the city will give some tax relief since Gervais won’t be able to use that portion of the land. There remain some concerns by Gervais on liability claims by users to the trail, however, Manager Murphy is confident that will be worked out and the agreement should be finalized soon.

Semi-annual vacancy rate: Councilor Belanger says on first floor retail, vacancy is under 5 percent. He says upper floor developments have always been a challenge. Not long ago, upper floor vacancies were 20 percent, now it’s 10 percent. Most of the upper floor development is housing, but there are a couple of examples of small businesses located on upper floors. Allison Lamy from DPD comments on that. She says much of it is smaller or shared spaces. She says there have been some changes in ownership of some downtown buildings. That’s brought in some new thinking. DPD is trying to match these building owners with emerging small businesses that need less than 10,000 square feet.

State of the City Address by Manager Murphy

Emphasizes priorities have been economic development, education, and public safety. Starts with Hamilton Canal District. Says the Judicial Center is rising rapidly with five stories up and two more to go. There will by 1000 to 1500 people per day coming to that building. Adjacent to the judicial center, Sal Lipoli and Dave Heller (owner of Spinners) are working on a proposal for a mixed residential commercial building. 110 Canal Place just obtained tenants for its last two floors. Across from the Judicial Center, S&R Construction on Broadway wants to build an office building. So all parcels on the Jackson Street side of Pawtucket Canal will have projects on them. Across the canal, design is underway for the parking garage. All the infrastructure for those lots is being put in place. He says we still need a master developer for the Dutton Street parcels. Is pleased with the progress.

Thorndike Exchange is proceeding and should have occupants by January 2018. Kronos continues to move into Cross Point. And the city is proposing a TIF for Boston Chowder on Phoenix Ave.

As for public safety, Murphy says the city is safer than it has been in years. That’s due to wisdom of the city council in funding so many police officers, but also in the way the department leadership is deploying the officers wisely. He commends the superintendent and the police force for their outreach to minority populations in the city which he believes have been very effective in making all residents of Lowell feel safer. The Fire Department has a historically high level of staffing due to council appropriations. This has reduced overtime and station closings. He commends the fire and police departments for the work they’ve done on the opioid crisis.

In education, the city has a great partnership with education from kindergarten through doctorate. The city has made great investments in public schools, especially with exceeding net school spending requirements ($9mil above last fiscal year). Also great relationships between MCC and UMass Lowell and the city. The city has a responsibility that every school building be well-maintained and so capital funds are being expended on repairs.

These three things lead to a great quality of life. There’ve been more festivals and downtown events than ever before. There’s a new 10-year lease with the Lowell Spinners. Capital expenditures have focused on curb appeal around the city and improvements to the Lowell Memorial Auditorium.

He closes by saying that as a life-long resident, he’s proud of the state of the city today.

Public Hearing on restrictions on use of jet skis and other watercraft on the Merrimack River.

Police Superintendent Taylor speaks in favor of the ordinance. Says it addresses a public safety concern. City has the authority to regulate boating on its rivers. The stretch from the Rourke Bridge to the Pawtucket Falls is very congested with many uses on a narrow stretch. That includes the UMass Lowell Bellegarde Boathouse, the Lowell Motor Boat Club, the Rynne Beach, the National Park Service tour boats all use it. Also, Pawtucket Falls can be very dangerous if not approached with caution. Says all of this is not conducive to the use of high speed jet skis. Says this ordinance allows people with jet skis to use the river on the other side of the Rourke Bridge all the way to New Hampshire. He say jet ski traffic on the Merrimack has risen because more waterways ban them or impose stricter enforcement. He closes by saying that there were two jet ski related fatalities this summer. He believes without limits, there will be more tragedies. He also says that the police superintendent has the authority to appoint a harbor master (which he has) which gives the police enforcement power.

Sgt Charles Pappas is the Lowell Police Harbor Master. He speaks next. He’s a Coast Guard veteran with significant experience on maritime law enforcement. He says jet skis produce numerous hazards on the Merrimack. He says when he stops people on the river, he asks them where they are from (most aren’t from Lowell) and why they are here (other places have stricter enforcement). Urges the council to pass this ordinance.

Dana Skinner of UMass Lowell, concurs with private speakers. Says there have been numerous near misses with rowing skulls and jet ski. Says this is much needed and UML is fully in support.

Ryan Wright, chief of law enforcement with Lowell National Park. Says park employees have reported many safety concerns posed to its tour boats by jet skis acting unsafely, forcing tour boats to take evasive action.

Resident of Dunbar Ave is in favor of the ordinance and wishes it would extend further up the river. Another resident who works at UMass Lowell whose young family uses the river says he regularly sees unsafe operation. Says it’s important for residents to be able to enjoy the river. Presence of jet skis creates anxiety and keeps others from using the river. A Tyngsboro resident who uses a jet ski says greater enforcement is what is needed. Mark Romanoski representing the Merrimack Valley Rowing Club. They do a “learn to row” program and this summer they had a number of near misses. Support ordinances. Gentleman from recreation department who teaches swimming says it’s dangerous, that the ordinance is needed, but there must be stronger enforcement.

Hearing is open to those who oppose the ordinance:

Chris Manthos of American Watercraft Association. He says he’s heard all night of how Lowell can handle anything but apparently can’t enforce the law in its river. He says every problem stated tonight is a law enforcement problem. He says this is unfair and unjust. Says the innocent shouldn’t be held responsible for the guilty. Encourages council to “revisit this when cooler heads prevail.” He accuses Chief Taylor of acting unethically tonight. John Richie says he was alerted to this meeting by the Water Craft Association. Identifies self as a Massachusetts resident. Says recent tragedies have prompted this unfair and unjust restriction to be proposed. Says New Hampshire requires a license to use a jet ski, Massachusetts does not. Daniel Goyette, a Lowell resident who owns a jet ski. Asks that no new restrictions be placed on jet ski riders. He asks that the laws that are already on the books be enforced.

Public input portion closed.

Councilor Mercier talks of her life-long experience using the Merrimack River. She says the jet ski users who came to the podium probably obey the rules, but they’re not the ones we are concerned about. We’re trying to separate jet skis from other river users. They can still use the river north of the Rourke Bridge. She says she plans to support this ordinance.

Councilor Samaras says he wonders where some of the people who spoke came from, then says after hearing from UMass Lowell athletic director and thinking of high school rowers, we have to be concerned with their safety. Says that part of the river is not a place for that type of equipment. Supports the ordinance.

Councilor Elliott says he will support it. We can’t sit back and do nothing after the two tragedies this summer. The high speed nature of jet skis contribute to the safety issue. This is what we can do within our power. There is no license requirement in Mass. There should be, but that’s not up to us. We can’t enforce existing laws 24/7, we don’t have the resources to do that. This makes sense.

Councilor Leary says he will support it. Reiterates the relatively short stretch of the river affected by this.

Councilor Belanger says after two fatalities, this council has to act. But his observation of the river is that jet skis are negatively affecting all of the other river uses. That’s enough of a reason to support this.

Councilor Milinazzo says he will support the ordinance. Asks if law enforcement partners will also be authorized to enforce this ordinance. (Yes).

Ordinance passes unanimously.

Next public hearing is an ordinance amendment regarding pub crawls. No members of the public speak for or against. Chief Taylor is summoned to the podium. Says this ordinance will reduce the risk to public safety downtown. Says this will hold organizers accountable and will also give police 30 days advance notice (have to get a permit from license commission). Ordinance passes unanimously.

TIF Agreement for Phoenix Ave (Boston Chowder expansion). City Manager explains that the company has to expand and was looking at moving out of Lowell, but DPD convinced them it would be beneficial to stay. They will put $4mil into this building and increase employees from 50 to 80. Approved.

Purchase Agreement with WinnDevelopment for Parcels 8 & 9 in Hamilton Canal District – Representative of Winn speaks to council. They will build two separate apartment buildings of high quality construction, market-rate, middle income, seven stories high. Sustainable green construction. There will be 10,000 square feet of commercial retail in one of the buildings. Also, they’re exploring a link to their Loft 27 which is closer to Central Street along the canal. 66 one bedroom units; 68 two bedroom units. 88 of them will be the “middle income” units (up to $87,000 per years). And 24 low income units. State funding requires an 80/20 mix of market and affordable housing. Winn expects construction to begin in fall of 2018. Councilor Leary says the 10,000 sf of retail was a compromise (there wasn’t going to be any). Councilor Elliott says there’s been a lot of planning but not much has gotten done. This is a real project and it could jump start the entire development. He says this is good news. Councilor Mercier says this is a better proposal than what was presented previously. Councilor Belanger says he’s been strongly opposed to having housing in the Hamilton Canal District. But he says the 10,000 sf of retail has helped change his mind as has the income levels required of residents. So he now supports this proposal. Unanimously supported by council.

Motions

Councilor Mercier – Req. City Council vote to approve to remove the utility pole behind Saint Patrick’s Church and place it across the public way on Adams Street.

Councilor Mercier – Req. City Mgr. have Law Department explore what steps are necessary to allow children to attend neighborhood schools and to obtain release from City consent decree. Councilor Mercier says a school committee candidate called her and said this was none of her business, but she says the school superintendent told her to “go for it.”

Councilor Mercier – Req. City Mgr. have Traffic Engineer install Handicap Parking Sign (60 Day Trial) for 380 West Meadow Road behind home on LaPlume Avenue.

Councilor Mercier – Req. City Mgr. have proper department find ways and means to allow residents of Merrill Street to close property lines with the City along the Concord River Walkway. (2nd request).

Councilor Rourke – Req. City Mgr. add Fowler Road to the paving list.

Councilor Milinazzo – Req. City Mgr. invite representatives from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to review and comment on the proposed traffic improvements recommended by the Traffic Engineer to support Lowell High School moving to the Cawley site at a public meeting to be held in the City Council Chambers. Lengthy discussion among councilors on whether the city should first have a professional traffic study before asking the state Department of Transportation to look at the city traffic engineer’s traffic plan. Mayor Kennedy clarifies that the city will send both the traffic engineer’s study and the Perkins Eastman traffic study to the state Department of Transportation for comment. Manager Murphy says that further work by the city on the traffic study has been put on hold pending a court ruling on the school committee’s lawsuit.

Councilor Milinazzo – Req. City Mgr. provide a comprehensive list of all regulatory and zoning approvals needed to construct the high school at the Cawley site, including those approvals needed from both Tewksbury and Chelmsford.

Councilors Leary and Milinazzo – Req. City Council take proper measures to relocate Belisle Memorial Square from Moody and Pawtucket Streets to Moody and James Streets.

Councilor Samaras – Req. City Mgr. provide a report detailing the effects of tax increment financing agreements (TIFS) on economic development in Lowell.

Councilor Samaras – Req. City Mgr. provide update regarding the Wellman Street project.

Councilor Leahy – Req. City Mgr. follow up with Superintendent of Schools regarding which buildings may or may not be turned back over to City after new high school is completed.

Councilor Leahy – Req. City Mgr. update City Council regarding street sweeping for the Fall.

Councilor Belanger – Req. City Mgr. work with LPD to enhance safety patrols along street corridor from Kearney Square to Kerouac Park. Councilor Belanger says there seems to be in increase in problematic activity here. He thinks it’s because the police have been active elsewhere. He says this area tends to be forgotten about, but Kerouac Park is a beautiful place, so we’d like to address the problems in a timely manner.

Mayor Kennedy – Request City Mgr. instruct the City Traffic Engineer to prepare a report on whether the increase in traffic generated by a new high school at the Cawley site would trigger a broad base Traffic Impact Assessment (TIA) by Mass Department of Transportation (Mass DOT) pursuant to the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA). The report should include a reasonable estimate of the scope, cost, and time that it would take to complete a Traffic Impact Assessment as well as where such an assessment belongs in the schedule of events pertaining to the construction of a new high school at the Cawley site. Mayor Kennedy speaks on the motion: suggests that increase in traffic for a Cawley High School might trigger an environmental study under state law. Such a study would take nearly a year to complete. He says this stuff isn’t going to go away. We have to face up to it. City Manager says he’ll have a report on the criteria that would trigger such a study for the next council meeting.

Mayor Kennedy – Req. the City Mgr. instruct the traffic engineer to provide recommendations at aimed at increasing safety of the crosswalk on Pawtucket St between Arlington Street and Fanning Street.

Meeting adjourns at 9:52 pm

3 Responses to Lowell City Council Meeting: September 12, 2017

  1. Brian says:

    2 seven story buildings, 134 units and only one 10k square foot retail space?

    Someone needs to make a motion REQUIRING ground floor retail space on the remaining parcels.

    Every building approved without ground floor retail or restaurant space diminishes the public realm of the whole HCD.

    Why would someone want to visit if there’s nothing to do? It would be nice if someone living on floors 2-7 worked on floor 1.

    Most shocking is that Winn doesn’t see the value in making the buildings more attractive and valuable by incorporating ground floor shops as a rule.

  2. Brian says:

    Funny how Winn knows ground floor shops when in Boston or Rochester NY.

    http://www.slip65.com
    http://www.sibleysquareroc.com

    Both parcels 8 and 9 front the street and canal. Why wouldn’t they want several ground floor shops lining the street and water?
    http://extras.mnginteractive.com/live/media/site105/2015/1021/20151021__TFront~p1_300.jpg

    The success of the HCD will be determined mostly by how the ground floors of the buildings interact, contribute, and draw people in. What goes on in the upper floors, whether housing or office space is a secondary determining factor in creating great places.

    From Winn’s vision statement: “work with a passion for excellence and a commitment to exceed expectations.”

    The shovels aren’t in the ground yet. Maybe Winn can be convinced to reach excellence and exceed expectations in Lowell.

    WinnDevelopment
    p: (617) 742-4500
    f: (617) 742-0725
    e: info@winnco.com

  3. Jason Strunk says:

    I have seen the manager’s comments presented the same way in a few places so I think it is important to point this out. The fire department is not at historic staffing levels. LFD is currently staffed at a budgeted 213 members, though maintaining that number is always in flux due to retirements and gaps in hiring new personnel. The fire department was staffed in higher numbers prior to the three permanent station closings in 1992. At that time personnel numbered closer to 250 firefighters.

    LFD has reached a new high for staffing since 1992, but only due to federal SAFER grant funding. The number of firefighters had been capped between 201 and 203 for the past twenty years without grant funding. It dipped as low as 187 during the post 2008 financial crisis and also further back in 2003 after the dot com bubble burst. A SAFER grant helped us to recover from that low as well. The administration was smart to apply for an additional SAFER grant for four positions this year to help cushion the cost increases of the expiring previous grant for twelve firefighters that allowed the city to keep 213 positions. This will hopefully allow for new growth to catch up over the next two years and allow the city budget to finance these positions long term. If not attrition will eventually take a toll.

    The increased staffing has led to fewer station closings, though the problem has not been eliminated. There is good logic for keeping stations open, the fire department is responding to more incidents than ever, double the numbers from thirty years ago while saving more lives and keeping property damages lower. There are also no more alarm boxes on street corners eliminating a major source of false alarms from that time period.

    Regarding the opioid crisis it would be helpful to know how many does of naloxone have been administered by fire and police personnel. Every single one of those cases is a life that would otherwise have been lost.

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