If Lowell High moves, what’s to take its place?

With trips to Washington and Charleston, South Carolina during the past two weeks, I’ve temporarily fallen out of the rhythm of Lowell politics. In my absence, it seems a big debate has broken out over a proposal to build a new Lowell High School on the South Common. My co-writer Paul raised many questions about the South Common proposal in a blog post earlier this week. I too have questions about such a proposal.

My biggest question, though, is what do the South Common proponents intend to put on Kirk Street once the existing high school is gone? Lowell High is by far the largest employer, the largest concentration of people, and the largest physical footprint in downtown Lowell. If it is moved elsewhere, what is to take its place? From now on, anytime someone says “let’s move Lowell High to the South Common, Prince Spaghetti, Cawley Stadium, wherever,” the first response should not be a critique of the proposed new location; it should be this question: What is to go on Kirk Street? Is there a plan? Or is there just some vague hope that “if we vacate it, they will come.”

In the absence of any kind of reuse plan for the current Lowell High site, my sense is that this “move Lowell High out of downtown” band wagon is the latest installment of the struggling-downtown-business-owner excuse of the month club. In January it was “aggressive panhandlers” as the cause of vacant storefronts; in February it was inadequate snow removal; in March it was parking enforcement; and now in April it is Lowell High School. What will it be next month, Middlesex Community College? The UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center? How about Lowell Memorial Auditorium? What’s the next excuse?

There’s no doubt that running a business in any downtown in a Massachusetts Gateway City is a tough and precarious undertaking. For the downtown as a whole to succeed or at least to endure requires a strategy. More than a decade ago, the city embraced the creative economy as its downtown development strategy. More recent proposals like the Jeff Speck plan and the city’s master plan have built on that. They weren’t intended as immediate solutions to the economic problems of downtown businesses, especially as we continue to struggle with the after effects of the Great Recession, but at least these plans present a coherent strategy. Critics of these plans seem to be growing louder and are gathering momentum. But what is their plan? Do they have one? All this talk reminds me of that old Wendy’s commercial:


Where’s the plan?

I don’t want to be accused of having a “status quo mentality”, I just want to see a plan. To propose the relocation of the city’s largest downtown employer, the same entity that also occupies more downtown space than any other, without having a solid proposal for what will take its place isn’t bold leadership. It’s recklessness.

15 Responses to If Lowell High moves, what’s to take its place?

  1. ErikGitschier says:

    Is it the responsibility of an education system to provide economic development over student learning? Why shouldn’t we be talking about the best location for the students and not trying to look at them second to economic development? I am not suggesting any site over another but when the focus seems to be about economic development and not the students it is a injustice to the education system in Lowell. Why not have a study done by someone who will look at the learning environment for our students, staff, and administration above all else including economic development? We will still have around five to eight years or more to plan for the future before any change will happen.

  2. Jack Moynihan says:

    Thank you Dick for once again providing an eloquent and succinct summary of a current “hot button” local issue. While I agree with Paul Marion, Robert Forrant, and George DeLuca (and others) that the South Common is not the best location for a new Lowell High https://www.richardhowe.com/2014/04/15/dismantle-the-south-common-hands-off/comment-page-1/#comment-70433 – I have no vested interest in any other location. However, in light of recommendations and cost studies indicating that leaving the high school in its present location – I would like to hear of some concrete plans for business development of the current high school site before agreeing to the city’s moving the school and leaving that large downtown location desolate.

  3. Christopher says:

    What’s the impetus to move Lowell High at all? It’s in a nice central location.

  4. Bob Forrant says:

    EG, the best learning environment is one where caring teachers and administrators are teaching young people using the best available books and materials. We really do know what works for providing students with a terrific learning environment – continuing to raise this as though the folks who want the HS to stay where it is somehow do not care about education is disingenuous at best. And, when the SC spent time figuring this out don’t you think they had education in mind above all else? Finally, if the reimbursement needed to create a first-rate HS comes with the stipulation that it stay where it is – which seems to be the case – lets see city councilors and candidates for the council run on increasing taxes by quite a bit to build a new HS! Fiscal watchdogs where are you?

  5. Nancy P says:

    Thank you Dick for your excellent commentary. Why move Lowell High when it is in a central location and close to MCC so LHS students can take classes at MCC or UMass Lowell? What would take LHS’s place in the downtown? More UML or MCC?

  6. Ellen A. says:

    My own children had a great experience at Lowell High School, plus the benefit of being downtown and the freedom that allowed. They often went out with friends after school, browsed the bookstore, got a slice of pizza, ice cream, poked around the other shops. It was convenient that they could get some food, and then go back for rehearsals for band or drama or be part of other activities. I worry with a move of locations that students will lose that freedom. Sure I understand there will be bussing to whatever location it may be, but I worry it would be too limiting with all of the after school activities all ending at different times. Downtown is a convenient location for so many reasons. My children had the great experience of city life.

    I also worry that if a completely new high school is built, it won’t have all of the amenities of the current school. If the new building option is chosen, I am sure it would get to the point of being over budget. All of a sudden, you are required to cut a million, leading to a smaller auditorium or gymnasium. Another million needs to be cut, and all of a sudden you have two science labs instead of the planned 3 or 4. Yes, the current high school is in need of an extensive renovation, but with the structure already in place, you will get more for the money.

  7. ErikGitschier says:

    RF, I don’t believe I stated anything about a final location. If the MSBA states the best location for student learning is it’s current location that’s great. My point is we should not be selling a High School on the benefits it has on economic development but rather should be focusing on the benefits to students. I guess to you the facilities have no benefit in student learning it’s all about the books and materials as you stated. Can you tell me why then we need to renovate or build a new High School? It seems from everything I have read people are concerned more about what will go where the High School currently sits then they are about the students. The funding from the MSBA is for a High School not economic development.

  8. George DeLuca says:

    The study you’re requesting in your first post was already completed by MassInc. Then City Manager Bernie Lynch and Lowell School Superintendent Jean Franco participated, however, the results were never discussed in Lowell.

    The answer to Dick Howe’s question is contained therein.

  9. Joe S. says:

    From a 2009 report on old Lawrence High re-use:
    Since the new Lawrence High School campus, featuring six separate theme schools, opened last fall on Route 114, these programs have moved in the Old Lawrence High:

    * The Adult Education Program. Students who were working toward graduate equivalency degrees or taking other adult courses previously attended class at the Saunders School.

    * Newcomers program. High school-age students new to the country and dealing with English as a Second Language issues were previously being taught in trailers at the Storrow School.

    * High School Learning Center Alternative Site for students who don’t succeed in the traditional setting. Courses were offered previously at the Saunders School.

    * School for Exceptional Studies, special needs students in grades kindergarten through 12. Was previously at the Rollins School.

  10. Diana says:

    Downtown Lowell has been my workplace for many years and I’ve always been glad to be close to the high school and the students of LHS. Most after school activities and youth welcoming organizations are located in or near DT.
    I am parent of a LHS graduate and a DT business owner. The DT area is sad and struggling enough, without the high schoolers it would be close to bleak.
    I’m troubled by the suggestion that there’s a bandwagon of DT business owners picking a flavor of the month to complain about. Those issues are not to be trivialized. I have to walk by the corner of Bridge and Merrimack streets every day and it’s the same. Just yesterday morning a fellow chugged down a vodka nip and tossed it on the ground in front of me. One might say the “Great Recession” is also an excuse.

  11. George DeLuca says:

    As requested, here’s my vision as released on March 17:

    I’m in the process of updating it, with research currently in progress. In the meantime, you and your readers can update yourselves to recent developments with UML’s M2D2 Innovation Hub:


    Lyle Moran also does a good job reporting on the event in the Lowell Sun.

    To me, it’s not about Lowell High School students vs. Downtown Lowell’s economic development. We need to prepare our students for participation in the global economy. LHS Headmaster Brian Martin knows this very well.

    The location of the high school in the city is secondary to the educational opportunities offered our students, especially considering the need to prepare students for the ever changing workforce.

    My view: the Cawley Campus site is the most conducive to providing a state-of-the-art education in a top notch campus in the City.

    Massachusetts is well aware of its potential in the global economy, and would support Lowell wholeheartedly, ready to consider Lowell a major regional asset in this pursuit.

    In fact, Supt. Franco and former Mgr. Lynch attended and participated in a conference about changes in how we prepare our students for the workforce. Education and workforce development is now a merging concept.

    Projecting its availability in 6-8 years, interest in the High School property will be like a modern day gold rush.

    For more info, please use the link above. I’ll be in touch with an update in late May.