Lowell Week in Review: August 10, 2014

At the same time as City Manager Kevin Murphy was stating that his “number one priority was making downtown Lowell a college town” I was pulling into Williamstown, Massachusetts for a few days.  Williamstown, 120 miles west of Lowell, is tucked into the northwest corner of Massachusetts and borders New York and Vermont.  It’s also home to Williams College (and not much else) so while Williamstown is certainly not Lowell, spending a few days there is conducive to thinking about “college towns.”  Besides, there is a Lowell-Williamstown connection.  I discovered that while roaming through the Williams College Museum of Art.  I spotted a large portrait of a familiar figure, Amos Lawrence, a native of Groton who along with his brothers was central to the early industrial success of Lowell (think Lawrence Mills).  In his later years, Amos became quite the philanthropist, with Williams College among his biggest beneficiaries (the art museum is housed in Lawrence Hall).

Amos Lawrence


So is shifting Lowell’s downtown development focus to becoming (more of) a college town a good idea?  I certainly think so and have been saying so for a few years.  There is no shortage of ideas about downtown Lowell and what it might become.  The best discussion I’ve found is taking place on a Facebook group called “Innovative Cities: Lowell, Massachusetts.”  If you’re on Facebook, be sure to join the group.

For all the ideas about what Lowell should become, I think it important to remember the management rule that says “the perfect is the enemy of the achievable.”  Put another way, don’t hold out for the perfect solution but go with what you’ve got.  And what we’ve got in Lowell in 2014 is two thriving institutions of higher learning in UMass Lowell and Middlesex Community College.  Trying to latch onto their energy and use it to Lowell’s advantage seems like a sound strategy to me.

After all, what’s the alternative?   To paraphrase former Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino, “Bon Marche is not walking through that door, fans.” Downtown retail as we knew it in the age of Cherry & Webb, Pollard’s, and the Bon Marche is dead and will not return.  Fittingly, the suburban malls that put downtown retail out of business are now fading due to societal shifts from online retailers that deliver goods to your front door in days if not hours.  Those who still talk of large nationally known “anchor” stores or clumps of factory outlets or of anything of a like nature as a vision for downtown Lowell aren’t dealing realistically with the challenges we face.

So what exactly is a “college town?”  Ironically, it has little to do with college students (although they are an important component).  It’s more about the vibe and the energy that emanate from institutions of higher learning and the drawing power they exert on interested and interesting people who have money to spend.  In this way, Manager Murphy’s vision is completely compatible with the “creative economy” that the city has been pursuing for downtown for nearly two decades.

Here’s what the Cultural Organization of Lowell (COOL) website says about the cultural economy in the city:

Lowell is increasingly becoming a destination for creative entrepreneurs and artists to locate their businesses. Our aim is to support and highlight Lowell businesses that fit the creative economy definition put forth by the Lowell Plan and City of Lowell. We define the Creative Economy as industries that have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent, and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation of ideas, products and/or services.

This approach also capitalizes on the entrepreneurial impulse of immigrants.  From the time that Hugh Cummiskey led his crew of Irish laborers here in 1822, many of those who leave their country of origin and come to Lowell have an independent, adventurous nature that leads to the creation of small businesses of all types.  The types of restaurants, ethnic markets and specialty stores that result fall squarely within the creative economy/college town concept.  While malls killed downtown retail and the internet is killing malls, there is still a place for a physical spot that offers unique and interesting goods and services.  In his stated goal of drawing more Cambodian-owned businesses into downtown, Manager Murphy is also on the right track.  To further aid the creation or relocation of these types of small businesses, perhaps the city should hold a “permitting hackathon” of the type just held in Boston as a way of finding ways to streamline and ease the process of starting a business.

Another characteristic of a college town is the ability to explore it on foot.  Williams College is bisected by Route 2, the major east-west artery in northern Massachusetts, yet vehicular traffic proceeds at a safe pace and immediately comes to a halt when a pedestrian enters a well-marked crosswalk.  Lowell has made some important strides in making itself more walkable with the remaking of Fr. Morissette Boulevard into a more bicycle and pedestrian friendly way and the two-way traffic pattern that launches in the core of downtown next Saturday should also help, but crossing Dutton/Thorndike Street remains a life-threatening experience.  Appleton Street and the Lord Overpass aren’t much better.  And any foot route from the Gallagher Transportation Terminal to downtown cries out “stay away” rather than “welcome.”

Safety is certainly a major concern.  The police department is making a positive contribution with more officers visible on foot, on bicycles, even on Segways.  I’ve always thought that more video surveillance cameras would be a great force multiplier for the police.  For instance, waterways are great assets for cities.  Lowell has its Riverwalk which lines the Merrimack from the Boott Mills to LeLacheur Park but it is grossly underutilized in large part because of it feels so isolated (along with memories of the brutal attack on a female jogger a few years ago).  Whether it’s the Riverwalk or a downtown street, the best way to increase the perception of safety is to “flood the zone” with more people.  There’s strength in numbers.  A sole pedestrian encountering a panhandler might feel threatened; less so if that same pedestrian on one of several dozen in the same area.

So how to get more people into downtown?  First is to rid our collective consciousness of the schizophrenic treatment downtown receives and start treating it primarily as a residential neighborhood.  There’s a place for late night entertainment but when it comes into direct conflict with the peaceful enjoyment of their homes by downtown residents, what’s best for the residents should prevail.  By encouraging businesses that cater to the daily needs of those who live in downtown and that also offer entertainment options that aren’t centered on the consumption of alcohol, downtown would also be made more compatible with the student population that comes with being a college town.

Another way of increasing the population downtown is to make greater use of the assets we already have.  Lowell has an amazing list of institutions that cater to an enormous variety of interests from UMass Lowell sporting events at the Tsongas Center to the Merrimack Repertory Theatre to the National Historical Park to the Whistler House Museum of Art, the list goes on and on.  Rather than long for that one thing that will continuously attract visitors from afar for multiday stays, we should go with what we’ve got.  Everyone is interested in something so why not make it easier for institutions and informal groups to offer the widest variety of events possible throughout the year, targeting those who live within an easy drive of the city.  Once we tried a “be a tourist in your own town” weekend; why not make that a year round endeavor?

We should also find ways for informal groups with like interests to gather.  In the spring and fall I lead tours of Lowell Cemetery that routinely attract more than 100 people at a time.  That cemetery is a beautiful spot and there are some great stories to share, but it’s not unique in Lowell.  And it’s just not about history.  If someone organized a Three Stooges Film Festival it would fill the Lowell Memorial Auditorium.  How about a community viewing of key matches from the Premier League.  Perhaps the city could help by making more venues like the Pollard Memorial Library’s community room available at low or no cost to facilitate the hosting of such events by people with like interests.

So those are some of my thoughts on the Lowell as College Town discussion.  There are plenty of ideas.  What’s critical at this point is to adopt a shared vision of what’s to be done.  Without that, we’ll keep spinning our wheels.  Manager Murphy is in the best position to facilitate this discussion.  The city council has a big role to play (and is perhaps most in need of resolving the very different visions for downtown that exist on this council) but it’s not solely up to the council.  It’s a decision for the community to make collectively so please take advantage of opportunities to make your voice heard.

18 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: August 10, 2014

  1. Joe says:

    Fantastic write up. It seems like Lowell is on the verge of a major decision with regards to downtown. We either move the high school or we embrace the college town concept. There will be a loud debate about both of these ideas but I think it’s time for everyone involved to realize that what we have now isn’t working and it hadn’t worked for the last 30 years. The time has come for something either bold or big.

  2. Linda Copp says:

    I agree with the soundness of the ideas proposed by Mr. Howe. One of the problems with business in the downtown is that many elderly or lower income folk residing there can not afford to frequent many of the services or goods presently available to them. They do not have the discreationary income. If their needs could be met more easily and readily than requiring a trip outside the city all could benefit. I like the idea of more activites being offered on a more regular basis centered on a given interest. This would help create a more robust community willing to share their enthusiasm and interest in the group and would in turn create more foot traffic. Parking is still part of the equation. Still, now that I have a better understanding of the College town approach, I concur that it sounds like a very good alternative to the very divirgent proposals and approaches now in play that may contradict each other in many ways. We must come together and work in concert for success to follow.

    It is also helpful to create a business friendly atmosphere that encourages people to see the positives of locating here because we are willing to both work with them and encourage them. This does not mean we should not have regulations in place to protect us all. Transparency and discussion is always necessary. However, there is always room for review on matters which have proved to be detrimental to development.

  3. Jack Mitchell says:

    I think a strategic idea underpinning the promises of a ‘college town’ is that the DT will be more friendly to having our high school in the thick of it.

    Tell me, please, if you think I’ve misunderstood.

  4. DickH says:

    Lowell High remaining downtown is central to the concept of a college town. While the students and staff aren’t roaming around between 8am and 2pm the way more flexibly scheduled college students might, they are all over the place before and after school contributing their purchasing power to the mix at precisely the time when many downtown residents are absent. With its student plays, performances and events, the high school draws crowds into downtown the same way that other venues do. Spaces at the high school like the Little Theater and the cafeteria are precisely the types of “community common spaces” that the city might make available for after hours use by community groups. Sure there’s a cost for custodians and security, but that’s something the city should be able to cover as a contribution to promoting downtown. Maybe even use some of the meal tax revenue on tangible expenditures like that instead of print ads in the mainstream media that don’t yield much return. Absent clearly enunciated, realistically attainable alternatives for both a new location for the high school and something to take its place on Kirk Street, moving Lowell High shouldn’t even be part of this discussion.

  5. PaulM says:

    Good reasoning by Dick, and he connected some dots. There’s an infrastructure argument for the college town or “city as a classroom/educative city” concept (which is what the late Dr Patrick Mogan called for). Now that we have Middlesex CC and UMass Lowell like bookends on the “shelf” of Merrimack Street, the high school location becomes even more meaningful as the midsection of what becomes a learning campus. Add to that the various museums, national park sites, auditorium, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, and public library, and you have even more educational and cultural building blocks. Regarding the high school, consider the added value of students being able to access learning opportunities at both the community college and university, which better positions the high school as an upper tier operation. Unifying this urban campus with consistent signage, landscaping, lighting design, and other elements would only make the presentation more organized and identifiable. On another of Dick’s points, consider the prospects of newcomers, immigrants, and refugees becoming part of the city’s social mix. While front-end services can be significant, in a larger sense each immigrant himself or herself is a “start up,” with all the possibilities that represents. Older communities like Lowell should want to keep renewing themselves. My ancestors, on both sides, came to Lowell from Quebec around 1880 with nothing, really, but hope, and climbed the ladder step by step.

  6. Joe says:

    Absent clearly enunciated, realistically attainable alternatives for both a new location for the high school and something to take its place on Kirk Street, moving Lowell High shouldn’t even be part of this discussion

    I suppose that all depends on what the discussion is. Is this a discussion solely about downtown becoming college town? Or is this a bigger discussion about downtown that includes a college town vibe?

    Lowell High and it’s theatre have been in the same location for my entire life. Sorry but I just do not see or sense any economic impact coming from its current location. If I am wrong then wouldn’t downtown still get the same impact(if not more)from a brand new state of the art theatre located in a new high school at the south common?

  7. Joe says:

    Last week manager Murphy clarified college town by including recent graduates and young professionals. In an economic sense he trended up. Does anyone really think that making the high school a centerpiece of this plan is a good economic idea? And when I say centerpiece I mean it quite literally. The current location of Lowell high is right smack in the middle of our circle of higher learning. What would the residents of college town prefer in that location? A brand new development built to service and entertain them? Or a high school?

  8. DickH says:

    Joe – There’s been lots of talk of “a brand new development” for Kirk Street but until someone identifies the developer and, more importantly, the source of the financing, it won’t get serious consideration. A whimsical concept isn’t enough.

  9. Joe says:

    I agree that it’s reckless to move the high school without some sort solid plan in place for such an important piece of real estate. But at the same time it seems like some developers get demonized for even looking at that lot of hallowed ground. I think these types of situations are perfect for manager Murphy. It’s not about him being for or against. It will be his ability to bring everyone together once a decision is made.

  10. Joe says:

    I completely understand anyone that wants to keep Lowell high downtown for sentimental reasons. Something’s do not come with a price tag. With that said Lowell High is not an “anchor tenant”. I believe the last 30 years of stagnation have proven that.

  11. Jack Mitchell says:

    “… some developers get demonized for even looking at that lot of hallowed ground.”

    If you know which developers have been looking at those parcels, please share the names. Maybe, we could get some concept of what is being considered.

    I’ll I’ve heard, so far, are sweet nothings being gushed on AM infomercials. Some politicians are quietly lobbying the bubble for moving the high school. But, as of now, there are no details. Or, as the say, “All hat and no cattle.”

    “The Promise of Could Be” just ain’t gonna cut it!

  12. Joe says:

    Jack,I hear and completely understand the argument of those that want to keep the high school in its current location. You are all digging in and preparing to defend your position at all costs. My question is why? The only actual evidence of the high schools economic impact is 30 years of false starts and failure. When times are good it’s wise to dig in and fight a defensive battle to protect what you have. Times aren’t good. Lowell needs to go on the offensive and that means making moves that are both big and bold.

  13. Jack Mitchell says:

    Let me correct you, Joe. I am not digging in and defending. Repeatedly, I have noted that those who wish to preserve the high school, in place, have used a public and transparent process to make their case. The folks holding C.Belanger’s hand have shown nothing. Filling AM airwaves with a sales pitch predicated on the Popeye character “J. Wellington Wimpy” (“I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today”) does not demonstrate any sort of business acumen. Unless, of course, one studied under Thomas Tusser.

    There is nothing bold about recklessness. Commit to funding an HBU for both the current LHS location AND the huge vacant lot of the proposed court house at Hamilton Canal.

    Let the data guide us. The cheerleaders can go flail their pom-poms somewhere else, where much less is at stake.

  14. Joe says:

    It’s hard to argue with your last comment. The people that want to move the high school are leaderless and unprepared. I’m starting to come to the realization that the high school will not be moved and it’s a shame. The only hope is that someone is sitting on a proposal until after the MSBA finalists are announced but I’m not holding my breath.

  15. Brian says:

    The reason the downtown has limped along for the last 50 years has nothing to do with the high school’s location. It has everything to do with the growth of the suburbs and trying to retrofit DTL to accommodate cars. Building wide roads, increasing speeds, adding traffic lights, adding surface parking lots, mispricing on-street and garage parking have made downtown Lowell a meager place to visit ON FOOT. Great college towns, great cities, great places feel good to walk around. Once residents, students, and visitors feel safe, comfortable, and interested while walking around more economic activity will follow. Two-way traffic is a step in the right direction. Right-priced parking rates should be the next issue to tackle.

    It drives me crazy to hear someone say downtown Lowell can never be like Newburyport or can’t attract a Whole Foods. That’s Bull Sh*t!!!

    I prefer “we can be better than Newburyport and Whole Foods can beg us to come to Lowell”.

    Many cities have embraced the ideas of new urbanism with great success. When will Lowell?

  16. Joe says:

    Mr Howe,I know that Williams has an original copy of the Declaration of Independence. Is it on permanent display? And also would you happen to know if this is the only original in the state of Massachusetts ?

  17. DickH says:

    Joe, I had no idea that Williams College possessed an original of the Declaration of Independence. According to the National Archives website, there are 26 original copies with three in Massachusetts. They are owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society, Harvard University, and Williams College. The one at Williams is at Chapin Library. I didn’t go there during my recent trip so I don’t know if it’s on display. I’ll check next time. Great question.

  18. Kate says:

    I realize this is a bit off-topic here, but I’m moving to Lowell soon for school and I’m actually a bit worried about safety. I lived in Boston for my first school stint, so I’m no stranger to cities and I generally enjoy them, but I am a young(er) woman and I’m nervous about living in Lowell for the next 3-4 years. Can anyone offer me some advice, words of comfort? I’ve heard Lowell is “getting better” and is “better” now than it was when some of my friends went there from 2004-2008; is it? Is there any data to back this up? How can I calm my nerves?

    I’m glad I found this site and I appreciate the above conversation. I think embracing Lowell as a college town would be a great idea to revitalize it. How to make that happen, I do not know!