Lowell and the New Urbanism

Yesterday I wrote a short post and linked to a Globe story about the worker-inspired migration of businesses from the suburbs to the city and questioned where did Lowell fit into this story. Adam Baacke, the city’s Director of Planning and Development, gave a thorough response which was followed by several comments, all forming a critically important discussion about the city’s strategic direction now and in the coming years. Rather than leave such important content in the “comments” section of another post, I decided to move it here so it could stand on its own:

From Adam Baacke: 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.

Response from Corey Sciuto: 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?

Response from Joe Smith: “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.

Me: This is an important discussion. Please contribute to it through the comments section of this post.

10 Responses to Lowell and the New Urbanism

  1. PaulM says:

    For all that they did for Lowell in the 1970s through the 1990s, Patrick Mogan and Paul Tsongas often said that point of reviving the city was to make it a desirable place to live. Mogan would say this: “Lowell must become a good address.” Tsongas would say, “We’ll know we have succeeded when more people are choosing to live in Lowell and stay in Lowell.” Given the massive physical improvement across the city, with substantial work yet to do, I think the next phase of work has to be about “livability,” which is a jargon-y word, but people know what it is when they see it. Quality of life is another way to say it. Good jobs at good wages, Mike Dukakis used to say. Places to live up and down the income ladder. Excellent schooling, pre-K through Ph.D. First-rate health services. Inspiring cultural experiences. Clean, green environment. Safe. Wired. And don’t forget a high degree of social justice.

  2. Joe S says:

    Let’s look at one way the State may help develop an urban economic center at Lowell. First of all, the State has provided funds and tax credits for renewal in the City, and contributed significant funds for emerging technology at the University. We really cannot complain about that assistance. But it seems to have come without a solid business plan to ensure its success and to re-coup the State investment. Rather than a plan, it appears to be a “hope and a prayer” that such investment will pay off.

    One element of such a plan is to provide a “hook” into any successful development using the intellectual property that was generated at the University as a result of direct State investment. Since the University already has a policy, there would be some fine lines to walk in amending that for the benefit of the State, and in particular the City. Those fine lines should not be reasons to avoid the plan, but cautions to make sure the plan is well thought out, and doesn’t preclude successful business growth.

    At least a portion of the intellectual property rights should be retained by the State, and provided to private business with the “hooks”. One hook could be royalty payments for use of the IP for profitable business. But a better hook would be to waive those payments to a degree if the business operated in the State (where it would pay taxes, and its employees would pay taxes), and to an even greater degree if it operated in Lowell (in deference to the University’s tax-free use of land in the City).

  3. Joe S says:

    At the City level, something as mundane a bus shelters could offer an economic benefit if they were to be strategically located. There are certain mini-retail centers in populated areas such as Cupples Square, Horsford Square, Middlesex Village and others. A bus shelter in those locations may help businesses in those centers by focusing the neighborhood riders both coming and going.

    And speaking of buses, the Rourke bridge traffic discussions note that bus loads are not a concern as there are no bus routes over the bridge. But that raises the question – should there be? Would public transportation in that area lessen the need for private vehicle traffic?

  4. Arthur says:

    In 1980 , the census determined Lowell’s population to be 92,418. According to a 2003 study by the Urban Institute , roughly 5 % of the residemts were foreign born .
    In the 2000 census , the population had risen to 105,167 of whom about 22% were foreign born .
    The overall population rose by 12,749 in those two decades ; the foreign born residents had increased by 19,500 +/-.
    I seriously doubt that the policies espoused by Mr. Marion had much to do with that growth.The rise of Wang – made possible by government support – was a major factor in the 1980s , but the influx persisted in the 1990s when the economy was in poor shape. The Urban Institute concluded that about 9,500 foreign born came to Lowell between 1990 and 2000.
    I think it is vital that the next Master Plan reflect the elements that have been driving Lowell demographic trends over the past thirty years .

  5. Brian says:

    “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.”
    This makes sense because a big developer or employer isn’t going take a chance on Downtown Lowell without a significant base of urban dwellers. But are we there yet? Are there stats to back it up? If so, maybe the results aren’t being communicated effectively enough to prospective businesses. Or maybe we’re not there yet.
    I totally agree that we can’t and shouldn’t try and compete with the suburbs in our Master Plan. But I also think Bevidere, Upper Highlands, West Pawtucketville etc. are strenghts for the city. Maybe the young professionals will want a yard when they have kids. They’ll be able to bike to work instead of walking.
    The city is moving in the right direction. Some young Sal Lapoli will seize the opportunity and make a gajillion dollars. The question is when.

  6. PaulM says:

    Arthur and all:
    I don’t think anyone doubts that Lowell is a much different city in 2012 than it was in 1980. Did the cultural and educational development strategies (Nat’l Park, University, Middlesex CC, public school-building campaign, cultural sector growth) attract refugees, immigrants, and economic migrants? Nobody is saying that. We are, however, fortunate that the influx of people continued to energize the city with new families, small businesses, and fresh community organizations. Did the eudcative city and creative economy efforts help turn around the population decreases and re-sort the socio-economic mix is another question. The foreign-born segment includes Brazilian, African, Indian, and people from other nations looking for a vibrant community where they can get a foothold and that reflects our global diversity. Second-stage Cambodian and Cambodian-American settlement was a choice, not a refugee resettlement policy.

    What would be worth measuring through surveys and interviews is whether or not Lowell has become an attractive and affordable alternative for local people who in the past may have been part of the out-migration stream and non-natives who are looking for the urban lifestyle that Lowell now offers. Data is better than anecdote. The re-settlement of downtown as a neighborhood would seem to be strong evidence that people are choosing to live in Lowell. Neighborhood patterns bear closer looking. Jim WIlde from the Merrimack Valley Housing Partnership could shed some light with figures on new home-ownership in the past 20 years—who and where.

  7. jdayne says:

    A few observations from one data point: lived in Boston ~30 years, live in Lowell now 5 years, returning to live in Boston (Southie) this fall:

    1. Adam’s history, analysis and open question are — like Adam — on point, informed and rightly provocative. Adam, Theresa Park, City Manager Lynch and many others — Lowell has remarkable talent in City Hall. I cannot understand why the business, media or loudest community voices in Lowell do not actively, vocally and tactically support this talent.

    2. The meme in Lowell always is to compare today to yesterday. I would posit that, if you stopped the Globe’s bike riding resident of the North End on her way to her South Boston employment, she would not know or care about the grim past of those neighborhoods. She likely does care very very much about today’s conditions and has great expectations for tomorrow’s.

    The past can inform and offer insight for action (reference Adam’s post) but the past — grim or great — is not today and it gets really counterproductive to hear the same retreat into “but if you’d seen it then . . .”

    I’m a good deal more interested in today and tomorrow’s likely future.

    3. Where or who is the business, the media or the civic leadership in Lowell? Does Lowell really have to go back to Paul Tsongas to reference committed, clear and courageous individuals willing to take on a status quo that serves few well and many not at all?

    The behavior of the Lowell License Commission, the attitude of its members to the public they are intended to serve, the near silence of the other-than-bar business community on the matter of bars, hours, safety, today’s deteriorating downtown — I cannot understand the lack of visible leadership. Do not understand it. And it is a significant factor in this one data point’s (my) decision to leave Lowell.

    4. The Lowell Sun editorial group’s negative attitude to the City is an embarrassment. The Boston Globe and Herald rightly hold many Boston feet to the fire, do true investigative journalism, editorialize on matters where I may or may not agree. But neither paper expresses an editorial distain and loathing for the City it serves. Here, again, I’d expect the City leaders (such as they are) to have quiet and loud words on the opinions expressed by the Sun.

    5. The “2 floor” or office stock of property downtown is in appallingly bad condition. I challenge anyone who views the Union Bank block (for sale, call the broker) to reasonably believe any viable business will move into downtown. The condition of the Saab properties is ugly. That a headline in the Sun would suggest a developer got the Dunkin Donuts building for a steal shows a gross misunderstanding of capitalism’s need for a willing buyer as well as willing seller. No one came forward to offer more money because, I suspect, that building is in condition similar to the Union Bank block.

    Lowell has pulled long and hard on the flow of Other People’s Money into the City in the form, among others, of tax credits for historical facade upgrade. Sadly, the condition of the inside of many of the downtown buildings suggest more Potemkin Village than revived historical district.

    6. Lowell seems, always, to be looking for that OPM. State money, Federal money, charitable money, Lowell Plan money . . . and yet Lowell fights mightily against even justified, small increases in real estate tax rates that are necessary to build a truly competitive city.

    Urban planning, anchor institutions (Nat’l Park, UML, MCC, LGH, LCC . . .), OPM, talented City management, a train station . . . all of these are important to Lowell’s future. But, absent shared community will and support, Lowell will have a difficult time attracting and retaining new urban, in-migrants. I never expected to want to leave after 5 years, but life is both too short and too long for me to stay.

  8. Bob Forrant says:

    Said this elsewhere – but it fits here too: So, as I read all of this the significant challenges in front of Lowell are: 1) to devise strategies to promote business start-ups; 2) to figure out what will keep talented UMass Lowell grads in the city as they embark on their careers; 3) to work directly with the University to make the next step from its various labs and research to product development in the traditional and untraditional sense. I am reminded of the talk a couple of years back at the innovative cities conf. about the tech center in Ann Arbor. We need something similar – perhaps a partnership of sorts between the city’s dev. folks, CTI’s small business efforts, some aspects of the Sandbox initiatives, and the University. I’m quite sure all of these folks already talk to each other – what’s on the horizon? Jobs is the critical ingredient here.

  9. Arthur says:

    The minority population in Lowell has grown from less than 3,800 in 1980 to around 42,000 in the 2010 Census.
    The White population has dropped from 88,000 in 1980 to 64,000 in 2010.
    The net outflow of 24,000 Whites is not what the powers that be want to recognize; hence, the fluff about Downtown Renaissance , Arts & Culture , etc Absent the massive expenditure of public funds in Downtown , the net White outflow may have been greater ,but these measures can not be spun as a success if the goal was to maintain White residents which is what I perceive as the heart of the Tsongas/Mogan Plan.
    For the record , I consider such a goal to be self-defeating as well as plain wrong .

  10. Joe S says:

    You’ve made a leap to conclude that the Tsongas/Mogan objective was limited to “White”. I’m glad to see that you consider your misconception to be a wrong policy.

    The point is that the City will be better off when those who can readily move choose Lowell. Are we there yet? Not quite, as evidenced by jdayne’s comments.