Urban Planning and Lowell High
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” That’s a question repeatedly asked of me lately. It refers to the divisive fight over the location of Lowell High School, of course. My answer is, no, I have not seen anything like this. The fight over whether to construct the Tsongas Arena and Lelacheur Park back in the mid-1990s generated quite a bit of heat, but not like this; not even close.
So why has this been the case? I have a theory: it flows from a lack of respect for urban planning and the planning process among city leaders, both elected and otherwise, something that has happened with alarming frequency over the past couple of years.
Take the Hamilton Canal Master Plan, a document that emerged from countless public meetings and thousands of hours of work from city planners. It was adopted unanimously by the city council, and it always called for mixed use development throughout the district. That means housing. But when our Master Developers, first Trinity and then Winn, proposed building housing within the district, the city council balked. Some wanted no housing. Others would take some housing, but only if no poor people were allowed to reside in it.
What message did that send to the planners and to ordinary citizens who contributed so much of their time to the process? The message was that none of that mattered, at least to city councilors. They were going to do whatever they felt like on that particular day.
So what’s in the Hamilton Canal pipeline now? Housing, with Winn committing to twin apartment buildings that will house mostly market rate tenants, but will also have some lower income apartments which are needed to qualify for the state program being used to finance the project.
The same council that had first embraced housing as part of the HCD Master Plan, then rejected it, has now embraced it again, unanimously. In the process, the city has parted ways with two master developers for the project and has been unable to find anyone interested in becoming the third master developer. Yes, the Hamilton Canal is looking better these days – I wrote about that at length two weeks ago – but how much better would it have been if we had stuck with the plan in the first place?
And then there’s Sustainable Lowell 2025, the master plan for the city that was adopted unanimously by the city council in 2013. The plan was to serve as the city’s blueprint for the next ten years. It was a comprehensive plan that addressed neighborhoods, housing, mobility, urban living, the environment, health, technology, infrastructure and public engagement. It was the product of several years of work, both by city planners and by citizens – one public input session I attended had more than 60 members of the public participating – and it was, and still is, a fantastic document.
Thirteen months ago, my Week in Review featured and praised Sustainable Lowell 2025, but then I added the following:
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?”
I can report that the city council’s streak is intact: Not one councilor has mentioned Sustainable Lowell 2025 at a council meeting for more than four years since its unanimous adoption.
So why is it that city councilors are repeatedly willing to ignore strategic plans that they have previously adopted? Perhaps it’s because a strategic plan takes five to ten years to implement, while councilors operate in two year cycles, with eyes fixed firmly on the next election. Maybe that’s why short-term issues dominate discussion at council meetings while long-term solutions to those problems and others are largely ignored.
Which brings me to the Lowell High School debate. About three years ago, the school committee began agitating to get in the queue of the Massachusetts School Building Authority for new school construction. A needs assessment by the school committee revealed that the most pressing need was for new middle schools – not one, but several. But the MSBA now only allows one school per community. Rather than go for one new middle school, the school committee shifted its sights to a new high school, because that would allow the city the largest amount of financial assistance from the Commonwealth. And so the process began, not because of a community-wide recognition that Lowell needed a new high school, but as a way of maximizing the amount of money the city could obtain from the Commonwealth for new school construction.
Early in the process, the community response was underwhelming. Last spring, the architects and engineers hired by the city to plan the project went on the road, attending community meetings in every neighborhood of the city to get citizen input. I attended one such meeting of the Highlands neighborhood group at Cross Point. About a dozen and a half people showed up and most of them to hear the police representative report on car breaks and burglaries in the neighborhood. Everyone politely sat through the high school presentation, but no one acted like they cared.
Suddenly everything changed with the plan for the new high school morphing into the bitterest fight in the city’s recent history. How that came to be, and who is behind it, is still unclear. But I believe that much of the chaos that has ensued it traceable to the city council’s demonstrated aversion to strategic planning.
Consider last Tuesday’s council meeting where item after expensive item of infrastructure improvements, all preconditions to the construction of a new high school, were unveiled. There was $5 million for a storm water retention area; $700,000 to $2.45 million in traffic improvements; $1 million for sidewalks; $2 million for field replication; $700,000 for a new water main on Rogers Street. The list went on and on. And what was the response of city councilors? “That work has to be done anyway” and “It be wonderful for this work to finally be done.” No one mentioned a capital budget or a capital plan. That’s because none of those items have every shown up in one.
Again, strategic planning gets tossed aside or ignored by the council. To me, that, more than anything else, explains why the city is in its current predicament.
On October 16, 2017, Judge Inge issued his Memorandum of Decision and Order on the Lowell School Committee’s request for a preliminary injunction based on the committee’s argument that it, not the council, had the authority to select the site for a new high school. The judge denied the school committee’s request, declaring that Mass General Laws chapter 45, section 34 “does not apply to the selection of a site for the construction of the new Lowell High School or the approval of the plans for the new school by the school committee.” No word whether the school committee will appeal this decision.
The next meeting of the Massachusetts School Building Authority is this Wednesday, October 25, 2017. It does not appear that the Lowell High project will be taken up at that meeting. The next MSBA meeting after that is Wednesday, December 13, 2017.
The other Lowell court case, Huot vs City of Lowell, was in the U.S. District Court last week. There, the judge denied the city’s Motion to Dismiss. This is the case brought by a number of Lowell residents under the Federal Voting Rights Act which they allege is violated by the city’s method of electing city councilors and school committee members.
If the method of electing councilors and school committee members is to change, the most likely way for that to happen is through a negotiated settlement of this lawsuit. That’s what happened back in the late 1980s when the city’s public schools faced a Federal takeover for failure to adequately implement a school desegregation plan. Parents of minority students had sued the city but, while the litigation was pending, the city negotiated a settlement of the lawsuit with the parents. That settlement was approved by the judge, and the desegregation plan that is still in place today was implemented.
The same thing could happen with this issue, but the case is unlikely to settle if councilors aren’t willing to change the system by which they get elected.
That’s one of the many reasons why the just-released Lowell Votes 2017 Election Guide is such a valuable document. Among many other questions asked of council candidates is one the probes each candidate’s willingness to change the current system. Here are the responses candidates gave to that question:
Corey Belanger – The outreach has begun and I will continue to listen. To this point I have seen no clear evidence that district representation will achieve making the council more diverse. I will continue to be open minded and research the issue.
Rodney Elliott – Yes, I brought this to the forefront a year ago by bringing this to the city council. I feel it will benefit the city and better represent our population and neighborhoods.
Edward Kennedy – Worcester is a Plan E city that has had a city council comprised of a mix of at-large and district city councilors. I would be open to changing the makeup of the Lowell city council to include such a mix if the city council subcommittee concludes it would improve neighborhood representation.
John Leahy – I am willing to listen. I like the system we have now, but maybe we need term limits instead, or maybe we need both. Change is always good.
James Leary – I disagree with the lawsuit and ultimately we will win the issue. However, I support citizens voting on a measure to change to an updated version of Plan E form of government similar to Worcester, with a strong city manager, elected ceremonial mayor, and combination of at large and district councilors.
Rita Mercier – Personally, I like the Plan E form of government. I know of no discrimination. Put this issue on the ballot and let people decide and I will abide by it. Unlike Cawley or LHS, people’s choice on ballot is too late.”
James Milinazzo – I support the ad hoc committee. The small percentage of minorities elected/appointed (3%) is well below the percentage of minorities in Lowell. We need to ensure that minority groups feel represented/involved. Communities have changed at-large systems to be more inclusive. Lowell may need to do so.
Daniel Rourke – As a councilor, I enjoy serving the entire city rather than one particular neighborhood. I am, however, open to listening to possible changes with input from the community. We should look at different ways to increase civic participation.
William Samaras – Government works best when it is reflective of the people that it represents. I will support any changes, whether through district representation or some other well-though plan, that would create more opportunities for a more representative council or board.
Joseph Boyle – Yes. We need to move in the direction of neighborhood representation. I do not have an ultimate solution in mind, but wish to learn from other communities’ experience with different systems to see what structure would best fit our needs.
Sokhary Chau – I support a change in favor of a hybrid of at large and ward representation in order to ensure that we hear voices from all neighborhoods.
Karen Cirillo – I do. Lowell should move to a hybrid system, with members who run by district and at-large, like in Worcester. I love the diversity of Lowell and the contributions that all Lowellians bring. The city governance should reflect this diversity to better respond to the needs and concerns of all.
David Conway – did not respond
Daniel Finn – I think that the Plan E form of government works well for the city of Lowell but I am open to discussion if that is what the people of the city want.
Robert Gignac – Yes. I believe the city should explore a hybrid model comprised of district city councilors and at large city councilors while maintaining Plan E with a City Manager as CEO.
Martin Hogan – I am a full proponent of changing our municipal form of representation to one that fosters a greater openness and ability for the council to address the issues of the city, both specific and general. I would like our form of government to change to a hybrid of both district and at large members.
Matthew LeLacheur – Running for office for the first time has given me a clear understanding of how hard you have to work and the barriers to getting elected. I fully support moving Lowell to a combination of ward and at large councilors and will make it a goal of mine to reduce those barriers for future candidates.
Vesna Nuon – It is time to make our government more reflective of the communities it serves. Everyone who calls Lowell home should have a say in decisions that impact their lives. A representative who lives on one’s neighborhood, who understands its unique needs and culture, will ensure that its voices are heard.
So that’s where the candidates stand on changing the method by which future councilors elected. To learn more about all the candidates, both for council and school committee, see the Lowell Votes voter guide which is now online.
Great opportunities to meet the candidates in person are available this week in two “candidating” forums. (Candidating is like speed dating – voters sit at tables and candidates rotate from table to table for a set period of time).
City Council Candidating is this Monday, October 23, 2017, from 5:30 pm to 8 pm at the Lowell Senior Center.
School Committee Candidating is this Wednesday, October 25, 2017, from 5:30 pm to 8 pm at the Lowell Senior Center.
Both events are sponsored by Lowell Votes and Coalition for a Better Acre. Food, child care, and Spanish and Khmer translation will be available at both events.
Lowell High Distinguished Alumni
The 14th annual Lowell High School Distinguished Alumni induction ceremony will take place this coming Wednesday, October 25, 2017 at 1 pm in the school’s Cyrus W. Irish Auditorium. This year’s honorees are:
- Esther M Wilkins – Class of 1933
- Gerard R Wallace – Class of 1952
- Brian J Martin – Class of 1968
- Brian L Chapman – Class of 1980
- Thomas A Golden Jr – Class of 1989
This is always in interesting and inspiring ceremony to which the public is invited. Started in 2004, the Distinguished Alumni event each year honors six graduates of the school who have made their mark on their field, their community and their country. All are linked together by their shared experience as former students of this city’s high school. Information about past honorees is available on the school’s website.