Here are some observations on the past week in Lowell politics. Most of the items covered below come from last Tuesday’s City Council meeting which I covered in detail in a previous post.
The item that dominated the discussion at last Tuesday’s City Council meeting was the state of storefront vacancies in downtown Lowell. Several councilors are skittish about the fate of downtown because several businesses have or are expected to close. There was a lot of “what is the city doing to find new businesses?” but not much “this is what should be done to attract new businesses.” The former bookstore in the Bon Marche building was repeatedly cited. The owners of that building, Nick Sarris and George Behrakis, have a long track record of landing quality tenants in their downtown buildings. I’m sure they’re trying very diligently to fill the space and if they have been unsuccessful to date, I’m not sure what the Division of Planning and Development can do.
I thought Bill Martin made the most sense in that discussion when he pointed out that the city is in the midst of a strategic shift in the makeup of downtown from upper floor professional offices to residences. The idea is that the several thousand people who live downtown will create a critical mass of customers who will support the variety of retail establishments we all hope will fill downtown storefronts. Those residents and the many students from UMass Lowell, Middlesex Community College and Lowell High School would seem to be the most likely patrons of downtown stores.
Because the city has been pursuing this strategy, it’s poised to take advantage of an emerging trend in national retail. My sense is that just as malls killed downtown department stores and related retail, now the internet is killing malls. If you need a new shirt, why drive to Nashua or Burlington in the hope that one of the big box retailers there will have the size and color you need when by just a couple of clicks of your mouse, a shirt in the exact color and size you want will be delivered to your front door in just a couple of days. Going to a mall makes no sense.
However, people still have the urge to engage with others in a retail setting. That’s where downtown retail has great potential not as a substitute for the mall, for online shopping, or for historic department stores, but as a place to bump into friends as you browse for unique and surprising items. I experienced exactly that while shopping in downtown Lowell yesterday. I even risked crossing Dutton Street to visit the Gates Block which now houses dozens of artists. Although it’s only a short distance, getting from one side of Dutton Street to the other while on foot is always an adventure. Mayor Murphy was absolutely correct in filing his motion to redesign the Sampson Connector (aka Dutton Street) to make it friendlier to walkers.
Even though the city is on the right track with the transition of downtown Lowell to an office/retail/business district to a mixed residential/retail neighborhood, all offices of city government should do all things reasonable to help downtown businesses succeed and, for those that don’t succeed, help building owners land replacement tenants. But running a small business is tough and it shouldn’t be surprising that there are many failures and false starts.
This topic should receive additional scrutiny this coming Tuesday night. The City Council meeting packet contains a lengthy and detailed memo from the Department of Planning and Development on the state of downtown retail occupancy, on efforts by the city to promote downtown and on the overall strategy being followed.
Free Cash and the Pension Contingency Fund
Back at the November 19, 2013 meeting, several councilors questioned the wisdom of the city manager’s proposal to put $3mil in free cash into a pension contingency fund but this week the council voted unanimously to do just that without a lot of discussion (although the issue was discussed at the Finance Subcommittee meeting which preceded the regular meeting). I’m not sure what changed in the interim.
Greater Lowell Vocational School
Perhaps the most significant action taken by the council on Tuesday was the unanimous decision to commence legal action against the Greater Lowell Vocational School for its unconstitutional method of electing representatives. The principal at stake is “one person, one vote” which probably arises in the Due Process clause of the U.S. Constitution. There are 8 members elected to the Greater Lowell Vocational School Committee. Here’s how they are chosen:
The 106,519 residents of Lowell elect 4 school committee members
The 29,457 residents of Dracut and 2 school committee members
The 11,292 residents of Tyngsborough elect 1 member
The 3,179 residents of Dunstable elect 1 member.
One thing is certainly evident from these numbers: representation is “non-proportional” – that is the ratio of representatives to population is not the same for the 4 districts. The member from Dunstable represents 3,179 people; the member from Tyngsborough represents 11,292; each of the two members from Dracut represent 14,728 people, and each of the four members from Lowell represent 26,630 people.
Back in 1994 I had a conversation with Harold Bell, who was one of the founders of the school and who represented Tyngsborough on the board. Having grown up watching Lowell politics and its recurring conflicts, I was baffled that the Voke board had an even number of members (8). He said the only way the towns agreed to join with the city was if the towns collectively had the same voting power as did the city. I asked what they did when they had a tie vote. He said that had never happened so it wasn’t an issue.
At the council meeting, there was mention that representatives of the city and the towns had been negotiating a non-judicial solution to this issue but that negotiations had broken down and that filing suit was the next step. It almost seems that such action is intended to restart the negotiations. given the background of the schools founding, however, I think this is a dispute that will ultimately be resolved by an appellate court years from now.
Tax Rate Shift
The council took a vote on the differential between the residential and commercial tax rates. Chris on Learning Lowell has a good explanation of the issue.
December 17, 2013 (this week’s) City Council Meeting
Be sure to dial up this coming Tuesday’s Lowell City Council meeting. The council will be voting to cancel its final two meetings of the year (which would be on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve) so this will be the final meeting for Mayor Murphy and Councilors Marty Lorrey, Joe Mendonca and Vesna Nuon (“final” since none of them will be taking office again in January although they all may return at some future date). Each should make parting comments from the floor of the council. Mayor Murphy, in fact, has placed the following item on the agenda under Mayor’s Business: “Farewell Remarks of Mayor Patrick Murphy.”
Other items of interest at this meeting will be a final vote on the city’s new Anti-Panhandling Ordinance, a motion by Council Rita Mercier that the “City manger” (e.g., the city-owned, life sized, Nativity diorama) be returned to JFK Plaza next Christmas (this year, it’s set up in front of St. Anne’s Church on Merrimack Street). Also, the council will vote to go into executive session to discuss the appeal of the zoning board of appeals denial of a proposal to place a methadone clinic on Stedman Street.
This Thursday was the first trash day in my neighborhood since the city’s contractor delivered our big green recycling bins. They aren’t to be used until January, but some people didn’t get the word and had the green bins curbside this week. Because it’s in my neighborhood, I know some of the residents who live in these houses. They were a combination of new city residents but also current and retired municipal employees. In a blog post I wrote on this, a commentor raised a concern about what else people might put into the recycling container given its size and cover and wondered what the city’s plan is to prevent that kind of abuse from occurring.
Mayor’s Holiday Party
Jen Myers has an excellent report on Thursday night’s holiday party in the Mayor’s Reception Room at City Hall to which all residents were invited.
Nelson Mandela Memorial in Lowell
The African Cultural Council of Greater Lowell in cooperation with the Lowell Community Charter Public School held a wonderful celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela on Friday night complete with speeches, music and dancing. I wrote a report with some photos on Friday night. State Senator Eileen Donoghue and Mayor Murphy spoke at the event, but City Councilor Rita Mercier was the only other local elected official to attend.
Lowell Social Media Conference
The co-authors of Learning Lowell each did a post on the December 7, 2013 Lowell Social Media Conference. Aurora covered the discussion of Twitter, video and other social media tools while Chris reviewed the discussion about social media’s role in local politics.
“Have you seen the Globe today?”
There are a couple of items related to Lowell either directly or indirectly in today’s Globe. A major article suggests that Charles Dickens may have gotten the idea (and some of the content) for “A Christmas Carol” from a story written by the mill girls of Lowell in their “Lowell Offering” journal. Dickens had visited Lowell the year before he wrote about Scrooge and Cratchit and he left the city with a pile of the mill girl created magazines, one of which included a story about Christmas ghosts and other things that would be familiar to fans of “A Christmas Carol.”
Another story explains how bicycles have become a new battleground in the country’s culture wars, with conservatives routinely using bikes and pro-bike policies as emblematic of liberal excess. This is not news to anyone who has followed the ongoing commentary by some in Lowell that is dismissive or contemptuous of pro-bicycle policies being pursued by the city.
Finally, a Globe editorial promotes a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts which found that “the arts and culture sector contributed a whopping $504 billion to the American economy in 2011.” More evidence that Lowell is on the right path of economic development for downtown.