The new urban migration of business

Today’s Globe has a story about businesses abandoning suburbia and flocking to the city, overlooking significantly higher rents to accommodate the strong desire of employees to live, work and relax in an urban environment. To those who believe in the path Lowell embarked upon years ago of downtown revival and emphasis on developing the city’s cultural economy, stories like this help validate that strategy. But the story also raises some concerns since it is entirely Boston-centric. No one mentions Lowell for good or bad, but among the communities mentioned as places that businesses are moving away from are Waltham and Watertown. While neither of them is Lowell, they both have active, interesting downtowns.

For much of its early existence, Lowell was clearly the number two city in Massachusetts. Political and cultural leaders who came to the Commonwealth visited Boston and Lowell. There’s no reason why that can’t be the case once again. With the UMass Lowell, MCC, the National Park, canals, mill buildings and all of the activities going on downtown, Lowell has what it takes to be a magnet for urban-seeking businesses. The challenge is one of perception, not resources.

3 Responses to The new urban migration of business

  1. Adam Baacke says:

    Thanks for posting the link to this article. I too read it with great interest, since it definitely appears to validate our economic development strategy to some degree. However, your concern is also a valuable one to emphasize. The challenge for Lowell, given its location in the Greater Boston area, is to establish whether it is a “city” or a “suburb” with respect to these market trends.

    Historically, it has always been found by the market to be a “city.” That was great for it during the nineteenth century period of industrialization and the early 20th century period of immigration both of which fueled enormous positive growth in Lowell.

    It was less good during the post-war years when suburbanization took hold in earnest across the country and locally and cities were in widespread decline. This trend aligned with the final decline of Lowell’s textile industry leading to serious economic disinvestment in the City. However, during this era, Lowell also shifted its economic development strategy to one of trying to be a competitive suburb and suppressing its urbanity. In my opinion, this was a real problem for our neighborhoods because it included a zoning model from the 1960s that completely ignored the character of Lowell’s established neighborhoods leading to really bad infill developments and sprawl into formerly agricultural and open space areas. It also led to some unfortunate infrastructure projects like Father Morrissette Boulevard. However, it was initially good for Lowell’s economy, particularly with the development of Wang’s presence in the City. Although Wang’s decline proved that lack of economic diversification, typical of suburban places, was not so good for Lowell’s economy.

    The National Park began a trend to re-embracing Lowell’s identity as an authentic urban place. A more recent wave of immigration starting in the 1980s reinforced it, bringing both challenges and a revived sense of entrepreneurship, perseverance, and creativity.

    Over the past 10-15 years, the City has recognized the shifting trends in demographics and market preferences described in the Globe piece and also observed that it is difficult for a city to compete in the game of trying to be a better suburb than truly suburban places. As a result, the City has worked to try to enhance and promote its identity as a true city environment that is significantly more affordable for residents and businesses than Boston or Cambridge. This model has also attempted to attract businesses by first attracting the types of potential employees typified by those mentioned in the Globe article and helping show businesses how they can recruit more effectively than in the surburbs. The presence and growth of UMass Lowell and their recent urbanization of their campus planning helps significantly in this strategy. The City Council has also done an excellent job reforming the zoning code to dramatically reduce the opportunity for inappropriate neighborhood development patterns.

    However, the big question which remains incompletely answered is whether Lowell is recognized broadly in the market as a “city” by those who seek to live and work in urban places as described in the Globe or whether as a result of our location on the outer beltway of Boston, Lowell is viewed by a significant proportion of this audience as a more urban suburb. The challenge for all who care about Lowell’s economic future is to embrace the positive aspects of it being an urban place and help the broader marketplace identify it as a truly great one. If so, the trends the Globe describes, which are well-documented and playing out across the world, bode very well for the City. On the other hand, if Lowell moves backward toward a suburban-centric economic development strategy, it will likely find itself very poorly positioned in a shrinking market for office/industrial parks, garden apartments, and sprawling subdivisions.

    DPD expects to release a draft of an updated Master Plan later this year, which will more thoroughly and articulately expand on this strategy. We look forward to everyone’s comments.

  2. Corey says:

    I too read this article with great interest. As you know, I work in Waltham and was pretty reluctant to do so. I – of course – am looking forward to the new Master Plan document, and the modern commercial development slated for the Hamilton Canal District. Can you imagine however, how wonderful it would’ve been for somebody to pick up the huge block that Dunkin’ Donuts is in and refit that as a modern office block instead of apartments? Or if we could get a great new office building on the Enterprise Bank lot?

  3. Joe S says:

    “However, the big question which remains incompletely answered is whether Lowell is recognized broadly in the market as a “city” by those who seek to live and work in urban places as described in the Globe or whether as a result of our location on the outer beltway of Boston, Lowell is viewed by a significant proportion of this audience as a more urban suburb.”

    Maybe we should strive to have the best of both worlds. The public transportation connection we already have to Boston, and the vision to further improve that at the local level, should ensure that Lowell residents are in a position to work in Boston while enjoying some of the benefits of lower-cost living here. But as a State, Massachusetts has to recognize the benefits of distributed economic development as opposed to focusing all its development in the center city of Boston. In that respect, satellite urban centers such as Lowell should be able to grow their economies based on unique talents that they have to offer. In Lowell’s case that would seem to be centered on the University and the local education system’s ability to advance the Gateway city’s changing population.