Lowell Week in Review: December 15, 2013

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.

Downtown Businesses

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.

16 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: December 15, 2013

  1. Joe S. says:

    The downtown needs some change, and the modified traffic pattern due in 2014 may be a step in that direction. However, once that is done and the bugs are worked out, there will likely be more to be done. Something even more transformational could really improve the business climate, but what that something is will be an elusive subject. But what makes the future interesting is the uncertainty of what may come from the minds of some innovative people. Any ideas?

  2. kad barma says:

    “Residential” is an extremely variable term. “Residential” in downtown Lowell terms means government assistance and a consequence of dollar stores, nail/hair/wig salons and pawn shops, interspersed with the occasional Dunkins and CVS. I’m tired of hearing “more residents” as the proposed panacea for what ails us. Unless or until the underlying demographics are changed, no amount of wishing is going to make any progress here towards some sort of Shangri-La of upscale retail, fancy restaurants, and bars that don’t make any noise. Want to attract more shoppers downtown? You’ll first need to solve the paradox between it having been filled with exactly the kinds of people shoppers don’t like to be confronted with while they’re shopping. (You know, people on government assistance who can only afford to shop in dollar stores, etc.) Or, we could perhaps fairly charge Belvederans for their free trash pickup and use the proceeds to pick the excess garbage not freely picked up out of the canals…

  3. DickH says:

    Kad – I know that “the only people who reside downtown are on government assistance” is a recurring theme of your’s and that you live there and I don’t, but I see a lot of deeds for condominium units in downtown that are purchased by people who are not on government assistance. Those people live downtown and they spend money downtown – at least where they can. Whether it’s downtown residents of any economic class or people from other city neighborhoods who visit downtown, the amount of money spent will not be sufficient to carry the economy. Still, it’s an important part of the bigger picture. I just think that “third place” concept has some validity (that being people desire somewhere to go besides home and work). I think downtown with a mix of reasonably priced shopping, eating and entertainment could serve that purpose well with the full recognition that it won’t nor should it become Newbury Street or Newburyport

  4. Joe says:

    I do not mean to pick on councilor Elliot. I think every city council needs an Elliot type. But i think he has taken the mad as hell mantra a little too far. Where are his ideas? He has been a councilor for 18 years. Enough of the fake outrage every time something goes wrong. This isn’t leadership. It’s actually the complete opposite.

  5. kad barma says:

    Dick, and I am one of those who bought a condo, pay a mortgage, and spend almost all my money down here, at least regarding groceries, gas, entertainment, meals out, beer, etc. etc. (I do have to buy my appliances out at Drum Hill, but that’s because no one down here sells any). The issue is necessarily one of scale and proportion. Statistics suggest there are thousands of residences down here. So how many of those deeds you see are increases to the number of mortgage-paying, spend-all-ones-money-down-here emigres, vs below-market or government subsidized tenants? It can’t be too many, because the median income down here is barely above the poverty line.

    Just because one or two or a dozen of the condos turns over to a new owner doesn’t mean the total number of people able to spend money down here increases at all. Loft 27? It’s bordering on 50% assistance, and rapidly heading towards more. Mass Mills? Possibly even more than that. (I don’t know the most recent mix over there). Appleton Mills? The whole premise there is below-market rents. River View Towers? TONS of assistance there. (A significant portion of “Downtown Disorder” stats that the cops like to point out in suggestion that we have bar problems are actually domestic disturbances from River View, and you could download the Crime Map app if you’d like to remain current on it).

    “Residential”, as I pointed out in my first comment, is an extremely variable term. The city alternately despises “Blowellians” who might buy expensive condos downtown, and then suggests a spontaneously-generated surfeit of them will magically transform their downtown and solve all their problems. That’s BS, and you’re propagating the fallacy to suggest it’s not. Nobody wants to live anyplace where they might be despised, and least of all in a crime and nuisance-beset neighborhood covered in un-picked-up trash and dominated by folks who, through no fault of their own other than they are living where they were put y the government, are anathema to shopkeepers, restauranteurs, and anyone else who might try to change things.

  6. Brian says:

    People have mentioned in the past that the Enterprise Bank parking lot between Merrimack and Middle is underutilized and not a good use of urban real estate. I’ve parked there hundreds of times and was recently looking at a google map of downtown Lowell and noticed the alley is called City Ave, running from Shattuck to Palmer. See pic I found online http://www.flickr.com/photos/jewishfan/9785962115/
    What if you had retail/restaurant space facing both Merrimack St and the ally AND retail/commercial space facing Middle St and the alley, while closing City Ave off to traffic, creating a pedestrian mall/alley?

  7. Joe S. says:

    Kudos to Brian for some innovative thinking. How are those alleys used today? Making them pedestrian-friendly by opening them up for business would be a big improvement.

  8. kad barma says:

    I don’t mean to discourage innovative thinking, but it should be considered that businesses generate more of what alleys are useful to service than residences might, and dumpsters and other exigencies have to go somewhere if not there. I might also observe that unoccupied space is not something which is lacking down here, and if we were to be picking spots to turn into attractive urban walkways, I’d suggest cleaning up the canals and taking advantage of the better views afforded by that effort first.

  9. Peter Richards says:

    Although a really minor issue, the moving the manger debate makes no sense to me.

    Given the horror expressed by this council over the costs of defending suits against the city and paying judgements against it, and given the litigious nature of some, why choose a course of action that is highly likely to lead to both? It is religious symbol on church property in a prominent location. Not seeing the great travesty.

  10. Troix says:

    Kad – this is tough and not uncommon for smaller city’s like ours. In Boston they have the T which links neighborhoods with community resources so it’s not all centralized or localized to any one particular area of the city. However, here in Lowell the reason why most subsidized housing is downtown (TD Bank building) and the Acre is due to access to Lowell Community Health Center, CTI, DTA, Lowell House, Bridgewell, etc. Even UTEC is downtown for both proximity to the HIgh School and I would suspect access to the buses, River Place Tower, etc. Once upon a time, downtown Lowell was not a nice place to visit. So, yeah folks built Mass Mills, River Place Towers or at least converted those places into a percentage of subsidized housing but that’s for tax breaks from the Feds, by the way. Now we’ve cleaned the place up and have done a great job at diversifying small businesses and re-establishing a purpose for our mills whether they are apartments (Loft 27) or condos (Renaissance) and we now have a mix. I work here and enjoy walking over to Brew’d…lunch at Market Street Market, Fuse, Tremont Pizza and of course the occasional indulgence of an amazing ruben at the Old Court. I like being downtown. It’s such a different place then when I grew up here and I’m proud.

  11. joe from Lowell says:

    Between 2000 and 2011, Kad, the % of downtown residential units that are subsidized declined from 80% to 50%.

  12. joe from Lowell says:

    Peter Richards,

    The manger debate makes sense when you realize that it is about using symbols of religion to mark a space as being “our turf.”

    For one side, it’s about using a depiction of the birth of Christ the way a gang member might use a can of spray paint, or a dog might use a telephone pole. Some people are upset that taxpayer dollars aren’t being used to mark Lowell’s central public space as “our turf.”

  13. Chris H. says:

    Just a note. I believe Enterprise Bank still would like to develop its Merrimack-facing parking lot and move some of its operations there, but progress is moving slowly because all the involved parties have to navigate red tape. I believe Lowell National Historical Park and Enterprise are trying to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.

    I’ve seen a lot of really nice alley conversions into outdoor seating with a bit of lighting and planters. But I also agree with Kad that maintaining loading zones is important and we have a lot of nice Eastern canal frontage that could serve the same purpose if property owners and tenants were interested.

  14. Brian says:

    The Eastern Canal area by Middlesex/UML ICC is beautiful. The challenge with the Eastern Canal is getting there. Crossing Central and Prescott on foot is not fun. I hope the new traffic pattern discourages people using downtown as a cut through from the connector to Dracut/Pelham.

  15. Peter Richards says:

    Joe, I appreciate the observation which is something I recognize but my comment was more directed at the council and its apparent outrage. Not really thinking it is a turf issue for them, more political expediency.

  16. kad barma says:

    Thanks, Joe, for the statistic–any hints as to where you got it? My experience is that the majority of the growth in new construction took place during that time, but that the first occupants who were not subsidized have been giving way to subsidized replacements (the number of condos on the market for extended periods of time speaks to the supply exceeding the demand) over the past few years and we’re not headed in a positive direction, or at least not at a pace which would enable us to simply sit back and let gentrification solve all our problems.

    Troix, I, too, enjoy all that’s down here, and wouldn’t trade it for any other neighborhood. I’m just amazed that these conversations will alternate between “the rich condo folks ruining our city”, and “the rich condo folks who will save our city” without ever addressing the fact that the median income in this neighborhood is one of the lowest in the city, and there’s precious little a shopkeeper or restauranteur can do to invent business on the backs of people who don’t have the money to spend.

    This issue is not the amount of residential space, (we already have more of it than can be filled by people of even moderate means, as demonstrated by the number of subsidized units combined with the number of vacant units waiting to “get their price”) the attractiveness of downtown to cause people with disposable income to come here to dispose of it. The suggestions to convert yet more space (like the alley suggestions above) don’t address that imbalance. I watched downtown become choked and barely passable by what I would describe as a moderate snowfall, and I saw plenty of reasons why people might have trouble embracing this neighborhood on a day-to-day basis. (Throttling streets to one lane in each direction is a great idea, if only you could tell me where the delivery trucks, ambulances and school buses are going to go whenever it snows). Bus stops for the mobility impaired were not cleared. Snow was piled in the streets blocking the meters. Traffic was crawling if it moved at all.

    An effort has to be made to address the overall impression of downtown, not just one storefront at a time. The “Furniture” building is still an eyesore. Until we can clean up places like that, and create an impression of consistency and quality down here, the challenge will continue to figure out how to attract people who are willing to buy the vision without having the benefit of the coming improvements for many years. Ask Freddie at the Courthouse Deli what he got for putting in all his years maintaining an attractive space in a neighborhood that didn’t turn around as quickly as he was led to believe it would.