Lowell Week in Review – July 20, 2014

With no city council meeting this week due to the summer schedule, city political activity was a bit light. On Tuesday, the city officially posted the job of Assistant City Manager which I think is a good thing. Beginning with Jim Sullivan in 1971, almost every city manager had a strong number two person who was the clear second in command (Sullivan hired Bob Healy who went on to be manager in Cambridge for decades and who most recently has been assisting City Manager Murphy with financial matters here in Lowell). Over the past decade the chain of command at city hall has been altered with the heads of Public Works and of Planning & Development being designated Assistant City Managers in addition to their regular duties. There was also a position called Assistant to the City Manager created (now filled by Henri Marchand) but that’s an entirely different position which, while very important, falls farther down the chain of command of city government.

I think having an Assistant City Manager who has no other duties other than being Assistant City Manager would be beneficial to the city. In any organization, it’s important that leaders have clear authority to act, with that authority being clear both to those within the organization and, just as importantly, to those outside the organization.

There’s been much speculation as to who will ultimately get the job (as well as speculation about what duties the job will entail) but the deadline for applying is today so if you haven’t already submitted your resume, tough luck: you missed your opportunity.

Gerry Nutter devotes much of his Sunday Notes to this topic so check out what he has to say.

In other city news, the School Committee voted to move the school department headquarters back to the Bon Marche building on Merrimack Street (and to occupy some complementary space in another building across Merrimack Street). The original move into the Bon Marche building back in the early 1990s was a controversial one. The building had been a major department store in Lowell for decades and was eventually purchased and operated by Jordan Marsh but that chain closed the Lowell store after a few years. The building sat vacant for quite a while, quietly deteriorating and becoming a major eyesore on Merrimack Street.

Local developers Nick Sarris and George Behrakis acquired the building but needed tenants to proceed with the renovations. At the time, the school department headquarters was located in what is now the Juvenile Court at the corner of Appleton and Gorham Streets (that building was constructed in the 1890s as the Lowell Post Office). Those who opposed the move argued that the school department was paying no rent in that location and that moving to the Bon Marche would burden the department’s budget. The city council eased some of that burden by agreeing to pay half the rent for the first three years from the city budget and the deal squeaked through. The school department occupied all of the second and third floors plus a ground floor space on Kirk Street which served as the Parent Information Center. At the same time, city leaders including Paul Tsongas also persuaded Wang (which was still in business) to take the two top floors for a call center it was operating and UMass Lowell to take the ground floor retail space on Merrimack Street for its college bookstore. Barnes and Noble operated the UMass Lowell bookstore so that’s how B&N ended up on Merrimack Street. B&N ended its relationship with UMass Lowell a couple of years ago and the bookstore, operated since then by UML, closed about a year ago to prepare for its reopening this September at University Crossing. The former bookstore space on Merrimack Street has been vacant since then.

Without the assist by local government described above, the Bon Marche building might still be vacant rather than serving as an anchor on Merrimack Street. I think everyone believes it should be full and functioning so this move is good news and seems to be free of the controversy that surrounded the first move into the Bon Marche twenty years ago. Hopefully funding for the schools remains at a level that prevents the rental payments from becoming a strain on the budget.

Speaking of funding of the public schools, that’s an issue that has arisen in connection with the likelihood that some of the children that have crossed the border into the US southwest will end up here in Lowell. I’m proud of Governor Patrick for the leadership he’s shown on this issue in offering to house some of them here in Massachusetts. It certainly is a controversial decision with reaction ever so predictable based on the stark differences in political philosophy that exist in this city, state and country. That’s a phenomenon that permeates almost every aspect of life in America from bike lanes to foreign policy. On this issue, I have chuckled repeatedly at some locals who have spent lifetimes condemning local welfare recipients who have suddenly become advocates for government spending on the poor already amongst us when the alternative is supporting poor kids coming here from Central America.

As the governor pointed out so eloquently, the issue is really a humanitarian one, something both co-authors Marie and Paul point out in recent posts on the topic. Kendall Wallace also joined the chorus of the compassionate with a Saturday Chat (“A Proud History of Embracing New People”) that emphasizes Lowell’s heritage as an immigrant city, something he argues makes us a stronger community today. Please note that I am in complete agreement with Mr. Wallace.

As I mentioned above, this issue does touch indirectly, at least, on school funding. Back in 1987, an influx of refugees from Southeast Asia put an enormous strain on the Lowell public schools with more than 50 new students registering for the schools EACH WEEK. At the time, city officials argued strenuously that this spike in students was due to Federal policies and that the Federal government had a duty to provide the additional funding needed to properly educate these students. The argument brought some Federal money into the city but not nearly enough to offset the expenditures. Fortunately, the majority in government didn’t use inadequate reimbursement from the Feds as an excuse to turn our backs on the newcomers to the city and met the challenge with the funds available. Our history tells us that was the proper thing to do. Hopefully today’s decision makers let that precedent guide their actions today.

Having a spike in new school enrollments on a 1987 scale is almost unimaginable today but the argument is the same whether the new students are from Guatemala or Iraq or Burma or the Congo. I believe a majority of Lowell residents (unfortunately only a slight majority) welcome these newcomers, as Kendall Wallace did in his column, because they realize that in the long run new residents revitalize the city and also because so many of us recall that our own ancestors were once newcomers from foreign lands. With this in mind, our political leadership at the local, state and Federal level should vigorously make the case that the city is deserving of even more state and Federal funding to assist with the educational and societal needs of refugee children enrolling in the Lowell public schools.

It was a slow week in real estate. Still no sign of the foreclosure deed for the Prince Spaghetti property.

Aurora of the Learning Lowell blog has a great post about her experiences commuting from Lowell to Boston via public transportation. As someone who prefers commuter rail to Route 93, I appreciated her observations especially the more local one about the extreme challenge of getting from the train station to downtown on foot via the Lord Overpass and Dutton Street. If someone ever writes a textbook titled “Urban Planning Gone Wrong”, those two 1960s era efforts would warrant their own chapter. If the Hamilton Canal District is to reach its full potential, both the Lord Overpass and Dutton Street have to be radically reconfigured to better accommodate pedestrian traffic from the train station and the lower Highlands and Acre into the downtown.

Don’t forget the Lowell Folk Festival is next weekend.