Frank Keefe: “Lowell is a beacon for the rest of the Commonwealth”

The concluding session of the 2010 “Public Matters: Empowering Lowell’s Leaders” program took place this evening at Middlesex Community College. Urban planning guru Frank Keefe (Lowell’s chief city planner a long time ago) was the keynote speaker. I found his remarks fascinating, uplifting and, to anyone interested in Lowell’s developmental trajectory over the past 40 years, invaluable.

Keefe said that when he first got to Lowell, the prevailing “vision of Lowell” was “amorphous and divided” with at least one scenario advocating the demolition of all remaining mill buildings with the resulting rubble used to fill-in the canals. He praised the city council that killed the plan to extend the Lowell Connector through the Back Central Street Neighborhood but said a key event came when Richard Nixon killed funding for Urban Renewal in 1973. Without Federal funds, there was no way to finance the demolition and rebuilding plans.

The turning point within the city came with the establishment of the Centerl City Committee. Up to that point, “the politics of patronage and negativity prevailed” but Central City brought together representatives of every sector of Lowell and forced folks to grapple with a shared vision for the future of the city. That committee decided that Lowell should find its future in its past. Keefe explained that up until that point, historical preservation was all about the colonial era with all available funding going to Federalist buildings and Revolutionary War sites. The notion of spending preservation dollars in a gritty industrial city such as Lowell was unheard of.

Keefe gives Pat Mogan much of the credit for the selected strategy. Mogan said that after hearing incessant negativity from parents about their community, it was no wonder that kids grew up wanting to leave. By teaching young people to respect, embrace and have pride in their past, the kids would stick around.

As for the tactics employed, Keefe described a unique “Lowell formula” which consisted of (1) a shared vision arrived at by consensus building with every constituency and (2) every city agency following complementary policies (by which he meant the shared vision identified the specific missions of each city department and each of those missions advanced the overall vision).

Keefe said the results have been “magical” and that Lowell has done these “complementary projects” better than any other city for the past forty years. He said Lowell had long ago mastered the knack of “getting stuff from the state.” Before Lowell, state parks were in forested areas such in Carlisle; Lowell proposed and got a “Heritage State Park” in the middle of the city. Community colleges were another example: before Lowell they were in sparsely populated areas unlike any shared image of “community.” In Lowell, the community college is in the middle of the city.

Lowell also benefited through the years from being the target of affection of two powerful politicians: Mike Dukakis and Paul Tsongas. Keefe explained that Dukakis’s father was a graduate of Lowell High School who went on to Harvard and Harvard Medical School. Consequently, “Dukakis loved Lowell.” Tsongas added two key features: (1) he made sure that the private sector was “fully engaged” and (2) helped create the Lowell Plan and the LFDC who were active partners in all subsequent developments. Tsongas also recognized that there had to be an emphasis on culture, the arts and education.

The result of all this effort was “a new politics” that valued “projects not patronage” all of which was sustained by the leadership and cooperation of the city council, city managers, and city planners. “No other city in the Commonwealth has had the sustained vision and commitment that Lowell has had.” Keefe closed by speculating how tempting it must be for state and Federal politicians to say “Lowell’s done well and gotten its share; no let’s help another city.” But Keefe emphatically urged that that temptation be resisted. “Lowell is a beacon” he said “that must be sustained as a role model for the rest of the cities in the Commonwealth.”

4 Responses to Frank Keefe: “Lowell is a beacon for the rest of the Commonwealth”

  1. Patty C says:

    What a great night. As a student enrolled in Public Matters 2010 I would recommend it to anyone that wants to know more about Lowell’s past, get involved in the present, and is committed to its future. We learned of Lowell’s success from so many people, and we also learned more about ourselves as individuals and what important stories we have, and finally the story of ‘us’…and how that ‘us’ can work toward continuing that success story. I’m inspired!

  2. Bill says:

    I know Frank called it the Central City Committee but it was (and is) the Center City Committee, established in 1972. It was the beginning of the public-private partnership followed by the Lowell Development and Financial Corpo (LDFC) in 1975 and the Lowell PLan in 1979.

  3. JoeS says:

    At the Innovative Cities Conference, Adam Baacke mentioned the continuing challenge of the “gap” in fostering re-development in Lowell. The level of investment required for re-development is not all that much different in Lowell vs. Boston, but the return on investment is much higher in Boston due to the higher prices and rents that Boston real estate realizes. The City has done well in reducing the investment demands through historic preservation grants, thereby reducing that gap. These renewed historic properties then form a basis for further investment, but with the “gap” a continual challenge. The complete build-out of the Hamilton Canal District wil face that challenge. What options does the City have to plug the gap to spur the investments required to complete that job? Maybe incentives such as that provided by the Renewal Community designation can get us over that hump, and once the investment is completed the lower costs associated with location in Lowell should hold us in good stead for future competiiveness, especially with a strong educational presence in the City.

  4. George DeLuca says:

    “Lowell and the New Urbanism”
    Yes … the Tully, Dukakis, Tsongas connection was huge in Lowell’s revival back in the day … and the vision has evolved. Except for one thing … Paul was quarterback on a team focused on bringing major businesses to the Lowell area.

    Lowell’s success will not crystalize via the Hamilton Canal District alone, but needs a central business district such as along Morrisette Blvd. that bridges downtown resources and UML’s ongoing initiatives focused on bringing modern day research, development and manufacturing opportunities to the City. The corridor is largely underutilized, with some incredible amenities built in.

    Marty Meehan was in a great position to be the modern day Paul Tsongas, and it’s true we’ve lost a great deal of the political clout that Mr. Keefe cites in his post: Ted Kennedy, Steve Panagiotakos and Marty himself in his former life as a US Rep. These are big shoes to fill. We shouldn’t be resting on our laurels. Marty’s doing a phenomenal job in nurturing Lowell’s potential as a modern day college town with great prospects.

    The effectiveness of the Lowell Plan, Center City Committee and Lowell Financial Development Corp. has waned a bit. Pay attention to the political “communities” now growing in neighborhoods. If this new brand of leadership can organize, and, coordinate collectively via consensus building; Lowell can be the regional, national and international economic development leader that Adam Baacke often speaks about. But to achieve this, Lowell needs modern day visionaries who can run point.

    Perhaps Marty will run again.