This coming Tuesday will be the last city council meeting of the year and of the 2016-17 council term. The first item on the agenda, under Mayor’s Business, is “Recognition – Mayor’s Holiday Fest Committee.” That event – the First Annual Mayor’s Holiday Fest – took place on November 28, 2017 at the Olympia Restaurant, but its presence on the agenda means the “kerfuffle” – as someone of Facebook labeled it – that arose at last Tuesday’s city council meeting about who was invited to the City Hall Holiday Open House earlier that same night might resume this week.
Normally I wouldn’t devote much space to a spat about a party invite snub, but this dispute is in many ways emblematic of this city council term which has repeatedly shown a lack of a shared vision for the city’s future among councilors. There’s nothing wrong with having different opinions about how the city should proceed into the future, but those differences should be brought out in the open, debated and, if a divide still exists, be decided one way or another by votes or the council or the electorate. Only after such a grand strategy is adopted, acknowledged and publicized can city government effectively deal with the many matters that arise on a weekly basis.
I don’t recall this council having such a discussion about a strategic plan for the city. There’s a saying about the purpose of planning that applies here: “If you don’t know where you’re going, how are you going to get there?” I also believe that the council has made it through the entire term without once mentioning the city’s existing strategic plan, Sustainable Lowell 2025, on the floor of the council.
Back to the Holiday Open House. The issue was raised early in last Tuesday’s meeting by Rita Mercier. I captured part of what was said in my council meeting notes, but those who spoke – I believe it was just Councilors Mercier and Elliott and Mayor Kennedy – spoke rapidly and said much in a short period of time, so I didn’t capture everything. Here is what I did get:
Councilor Mercier on a point of personal privilege says she was not invited to the city’s Holiday Open House that took place earlier this evening. She says other councilors did not get the word about it either. She says in all her time on the council she’s never been disrespected like she was tonight. Mayor Kennedy says he does not run it, and did not invite anyone to it. He says it was planned through the city manager’s office and he’s surprised that the city manager’s office did not invite councilors. Councilor Elliott says “none of us were notified.” He says he came early by coincidence. He says this event is for the people and no one seemed to know about it.
The real question raised in this exchange was who was the intended audience of this event? Was it city workers and their families? Neighborhood groups? The public at large? Everyone seemed to have a different opinion.
I pulled the above image from Facebook. It’s a save the date notice for the “2017 Lowell City Hall Holiday Open House.” The notice says the event was hosted by the offices of the Mayor and City Manager and it was to be held on Tuesday, December 5, 2017 from 4 to 6 p.m. It doesn’t mention who was invited.
In reply to my Tuesday night blog post, a city employee left the following comment relative to this issue:
Two separate emails about the holiday open house, one with a save the date card attached, were sent out to the entire city via the email broadcast system by James Ostis in the Mayor’s Office on 11/20 and 11/28. Do city councilors in 2017 expect us to believe they do not use their city email? Does the mayor expect us to believe he doesn’t know what comes from his own office? Election is over, here come their true colors. I’d be happy to provide copies of the emails for posting. Have to wonder if this is aimed directly at the manager.
So if the audience for the event was city employees and their families, sending out two different emails to everyone who works for the city would seem to be the proper method of spreading the word. If you work for the city, you should read your email, whether you’re an entry level clerk or a city councilor.
Councilors seem to believe (with good reason) that their televised meetings are an effective way to communicate with the public. Several times each meeting, some councilor will say “could you explain this more fully for the people who are watching at home.” Several years ago, councilors also instituted an “announcements” section of the agenda as a way of informing the public of upcoming events.
Sure enough, at the council meeting before this last one, Mayor Kennedy, at the end of the meeting, said “The Holiday Open House at City Hall will be held on December 5 from 4 to 6 pm; the public is invited.” One problem: the meeting during which that announcement was made happened two weeks earlier, on November 21, 2017. Councilors cancelled the intervening meeting (November 28) and in that two week gap between meetings, some councilors, and others who heard the initial announcement, seemed to forget about it.
So we had a notice that didn’t specify who was invited, emails to city employees, and a verbal invitation to the public from the Mayor delivered at the previous council meeting. Those who spoke about this at Tuesday’s council meeting revealed differing views of what the event was supposed to have been about – after the event was over.
If you magnify this dispute a thousand times, you get the fight over Lowell High. In that dispute, one group believed keeping the high school downtown was best for the city; the other group felt a suburban location was superior. Once you peel back all the other arguments, that’s what the high school decision comes down to. There’s nothing wrong with having that difference of opinion. The problem was that the city failed to identify that dispute and resolve it before the Mass School Building Authority process got underway. Advancing through the formal process while at the same time waging a citywide fight over the location was not a recipe for success. The pressure of rapidly approaching deadlines and millions of dollars of expenditures being at stake, magnified the intensity of the fight over the high school location.
This downtown-suburban split didn’t originate with the high school debate. That was just the latest and loudest battle in a long series of conflicts over this vision of what Lowell wants to be.
One big area of dispute is on housing policy. This came up at Tuesday’s council meeting during the public hearing on changes to the city’s zoning code. Several councilors criticized an amendment that would permit the required parking for dormitory-type buildings to be up to 1500 feet away. Their concern is that residents of such buildings will not park 1500 feet away but will find curbside parking closer, all to the detriment of already congested neighborhoods. Development Services Director Eric Slagle pointed out to councilors that the existing zoning code already contains that 1500-feet-away language and that this amendment just clarifies how that distance is to be measured, but the matter was still continued for further discussion to a subcommittee meeting this Tuesday before the public hearing resumes at the Tuesday council meeting. (And for the record, I don’t think the private dormitory proposed for Merrimack and Cabot is a good idea, but that’s more because UMass Lowell says it is not needed than because of parking policy).
This debate illustrates my larger point: the lack of a shared vision for housing development in Lowell. Lowell is not unique in this. It’s a debate taking place across the United States. This Friday, the Upshot Column of the New York Times had a story about prosperous cities and housing policy (“What Happened to the American Boomtown?” Throughout American history, according to the article, places with the most opportunity attracted the most new residents, creating a cycle of fast-growing cities and rising prosperity. But that’s not the case anymore, because prosperous cities like San Francisco, New York and Boston, have such restrictive housing policies that hardly any new housing is being constructed. Consequently, the cost of existing housing has skyrocketed, making the high cost of housing a deterrent to people locating from where the jobs aren’t to where the jobs are.
Lowell is not Boston, but it is close enough to Boston to serve as home to people who work in that city but who can’t afford to live there. That’s especially true given our existing commuter rail service. Why do you think Sal Lupoli is putting so much money into converting the old Thorndike Factory Outlet adjacent to the train station into hundreds of apartments for would-be Boston commuters? That’s why he is also contemplating a 20-story mixed use building in the Hamilton Canal District, just a short walk from the train station.
Mr. Lupoli has a vision and sees this opportunity, but I’m not sure the city council does. This council has fought vigorously against housing in the nearby Hamilton Canal District, driving out a second master developer over that issue, seriously debating whether housing should be completely eliminated from the plans for the district, and only grudgingly accepting the Winn Development proposal for two apartment buildings within the district.
If you collect all the discussion of housing that occurred during the council meetings over the past two years and distill it down, you might say that Lowell’s housing policy has two objectives: To prevent or severely limit the construction of apartments that might be inhabited by poor people; and to require onsite or adjacent parking for any apartments that are constructed.
Certainly parking in congested areas is a big problem that negatively affects the quality of life of residents, but what we’re doing today doesn’t differ much from what we’ve been doing for the last couple of decades. It didn’t work very well then, so why do we think it’s going to work better now? Urban planners across America contend that when it comes to the construction of new housing, far less emphasis should be placed on the amount of parking associated with it. Whether that is true or not is not my point. My point is that here in Lowell we won’t even discuss whether that’s a valid approach. Instead, everyone retains his or her own opinion until a new project is proposed and then policy chaos ensues. Better to discuss the policy ahead of time, set it, and give developers fair warning of the policy rules they will have to live by.
This same dynamic arises in our debates on traffic, particularly on our bridges across the Merrimack. During the November 21, 2017 meeting, councilors discussed the prospects of a new Rourke Bridge as a way to improve cross-river traffic. The debate was mostly about how to apply more pressure on state officials to provide funding for a wider bridge. Councilor Leary pointed out that given our current road network, a wider bridge would just relocate the same traffic jams to the roads around the bridge since they aren’t capable of handling any additional traffic, but his completely accurate observation about the futility of widening the bridge didn’t seem to lessen the determination of his colleague to widen the bridge.
As should be clear from this discussion of new housing and of bridge traffic, you can’t search for solutions in isolation. This stuff is complex and any solution has to be comprehensive, taking multiple factors into account. But until we spend a substantial amount of time and effort as a city in debating a comprehensive strategy to pursue, we will continue to grasp at isolated measures and continue to be frustrated when they don’t work.
There are a couple of events today that may be of interest to readers. At 2 pm, the Lowell Democratic City Committee will hold its Holiday Social at Warp & Weft and 197 Market Street in Lowell. The event goes until 5 pm, admission is $10, and everyone is invited.
Then you can head over to University Crossing at 220 Pawtucket Street where U.S. Senator Ed Markey will hold a town hall meeting from 5 to 6:30 pm (doors open at 4:30 pm). The public is invited but organizers have asked people to RSVP via Facebook to assist in event logistics.