Lowell Week in Review: December 21, 2014

There have been times during the past year when I’ve expressed concern that the current Lowell City Council has been too reactionary and has been lacking in strategic vision.  Over the past two months, however, there have been some motions that could go a long way to remedying that problem.  The motions I speak of, when combined with some existing project plans, combine to create an incredibly exciting, dynamic blueprint for revitalizing a core portion of Lowell, namely the main artery that runs from the corner of Pawtucket and Merrimack Streets all the way to the Gallagher Train Station.  Consider the eleven projects annotated on the map below:

Upper Merrimack – Dutton – Fletcher corridor


  1. University Crossing – UMass Lowell’s student and community center on the banks of the Merrimack on the site of the former St. Joseph’s Hospital.
  2. Upper Merrimack Street corridor – from City Hall to University Crossing, this is prime territory for UMass Lowell expansion and for housing and business development driven by the university, by the ever-resourceful Coalition for a Better Acre, and for the dynamic, innovative Acre Neighborhood group.  Councilor Bill Samaras recently filed a motion to have the city’s Department of Planning and Development brief the council on plans for this stretch.
  3. Smith Baker Center – abandoned for years after most recently serving as the Lowell Council on Aging facility, the Smith Baker Center has the potential to be an amazing performance venue that fits the spectator capacity niche that falls somewhere between the Lowell Memorial Auditorium and the Merrimack Repertory Theatre.  The performance hall on the second floor permits the ground floor to be used for retail or business purposes which would hopefully help with the costs of operating the overall facility.  A few months ago Mayor Rodney Elliot convened a task force to investigate the way forward for this facility.  While nothing official has been announced, multiple sources tell me that many on this task force are optimistic that a viable project will emerge in the near future.
  4. National Park Service parking lot – the Dutton Street parking lot that services the Market Street visitor center.  This space has been one of the major roadblocks holding up the larger Hamilton Canal project.  With the current surface parking lot seen as THE prime private business development space of Hamilton Canal, the city has tried for years to acquire this parcel from the National Park Service.  Back during this summer, City Manager Kevin Murphy finally was able to announce that an understanding had been reached whereby the city would build a new parking garage deeper into the Hamilton District and that the garage would be uniquely designed to permit tour buses to enter and navigate.  Building this garage will be an expensive proposition, but with so much of the larger development turning on this facility, it really has to be done and the sooner the better.
  5. Trolley Line Extension – Just weeks ago the city picked up a $2 million planning grant for the expansion of the existing trolley system the first phase of which would extend the line from the Swamp Locks (on Dutton Street opposite the Textile History Museum) through the Hamilton Canal project, across Middlesex and Appleton Streets then up to and across the South Common to the Gallagher Terminal.  The contemplated expansion would transform the trolley from a novelty ride for tourists to an integral part of a mass transit system.
  6. Judicial Center – Once constructed, this will be one of the most magnificent public buildings in the Commonwealth (I’ve seen the plans).  It will be seven stories tall and will be built in an energy-friendly style with lots of glass and steel that will complement and enhance the neighboring brick mill buildings.  This building will not only consolidate all court operations now in the city (District Court, Juvenile Court, Superior Court and Registry of Deeds), it will also bring substantial court resources from Cambridge and Woburn to Lowell. Half the probate court session in the entire county will sit in Lowell along with nearly half of the Superior Court sessions (there are only two now) and a permanent Housing Court presence.  Once open, this courthouse will draw hundreds of court employees, litigants, jurors and others to the Hamilton Canal district each day.  But that all depends on the building being constructed.  Last I heard, the timetable has it opening in 2018 but with the current budget deficit projects like this are always at risk of being delayed or cut.  Hopefully the Baker administration will see that the benefits of going forward with this project outweigh the budgetary value of any savings gained by killing it.
  7. Lord Overpass redo – In early November, Governor Patrick came to Lowell with $15 million for the renovation of the Lord Overpass.  My fear has been that state planners will simply upgrade the existing traffic circle and simply ignore the dire need to make the entire corridor more pedestrian friendly.  This past Tuesday, Councilor Bill Martin filed a motion that the DPD do a presentation to the Transportation Subcommittee on the plans for this project.  Everyone in the city who is interested in walking, biking and public transportation should plan to attend this meeting and become vocal advocates for relegating the failed 1960s car-culture era projects like the Sampson Connector to the scrap heap of history and redo the entire Dutton-Lord Overpass-Thorndike stretch into something more walkable and bikeable.
  8. Thorndike Factory Outlet – It was back in 2013 that Sal Lupoli, owner of Sal’s Pizza, acquired this property and appeared before the city council to share his plans for a mixed residential and retail facility that would be directly connected to the Gallagher Terminal by an elevated pedestrian walkway built with state funds obtained by the city’s legislative delegation.  This was most recently in the news when a bolt of lightning fractured the large Hood Medicine smokestack which was damaged beyond repair and was torn down.  The intended facility would be a great addition to the bigger picture of this neighborhood.
  9. South Common – The city has plans to revitalize this important public green space.  A big part of that would be replacing the grass and (mostly) dirt surface of the field in the bowl of the common with artificial turf which would turn the space into an excellent soccer field.  As we saw during last summer’s World Cup, the diversity of Lowell’s residents and the widespread participation of a generation of young people through the Lowell Youth Soccer Association make the city a natural hot bed for soccer.  Although not part of the current plan, a chunk of space on the periphery of the common should be ceded to Mill City Grows for a community garden.
  10. Gallagher Terminal – the rebuild of the parking garage is well underway but much should be done to improve the quality of services offered at the Gallagher Terminal.  Around the world, train stations become regional hubs of activity with retail, dining and other amenities to complement the public transportation.  The Gallagher Terminal does not invite people to linger.  It has a definite get in and get out ambiance.  And getting from the Terminal to downtown Lowell on foot cries out to visitors in a hundred different ways that “you’re not all that welcome here.”
  11. Cambodia Town – The Pailin Plaza section of Cambodia town is densely packed with restaurants, retailers and dozens of other small businesses.  It has huge potential to attract visitors coming by train and those who work and do business at the new courthouse and the Hamilton Canal district which is not that far away.  But like much of the rest of the area, the ability to walk safely and comfortably to this area is an afterthought at best.
  12. Western Avenue Studios – Every time I visit this place there’s another floor or section that’s been opened up.  With more than 200 artists and countless others inhabiting this place, it can be a great complement to Hamilton Canal workers and residents if it was easier for them to get there.  This is an especially tricky problem because not only is WAS walled off by the Sampson Connector, but also by the active train tracks that extend from the Lord Overpass up Middlesex Street through UMass Lowell’s South Campus and into North Chelmsford.  Concerned about liability, the railroad has expressed no interest in finding a safe and convenient way for walkers to get from Hamilton Canal to Western Avenue.  A good little leaguer could throw a baseball from one to the other but to physically get from one to the other you have to get in your car and follow a roundabout journey that is anything but direct.

So there are twelve projects, all connected geographically, that combine to be a transformative undertaking if we only think big.  Too often over the past year, public policy discussion in the city has been reactionary – responding to complaints about parking, traffic, crime.  To make real improvement, we have to think big, think strategically.  These twelve projects (and others in the same area that elude mention this morning) constitute a major strategic plan.

Consider a piece in Friday’s Boston Globe “Capital” section: five editorial writers offered their suggestions to the incoming Baker Administration on ways to “make Massachusetts more prosperous.”  Here’s the fifth suggestion:

Build rail to the gateway cities

Because of their cheap commercial real estate, cities like Lowell, Lawrence, and New Bedford could be dream locations for tech startups. But it will be tough to persuade Boston-based entrepreneurs — and the venture capitalists who support them — to make the trip out of the Hub or convince their employees to do the same. Improving commuter rail service is key to changing this mentality. Baker should use this as a rationale to push for South Coast Rail, and to improve the service on the Lowell line from North Station. Better transportation could export some of the energy that currently animates the Seaport District to other parts of the state — and grow the economy in cities that could use the boost

MBTA commuter rail Lowell line

We all think of the Lowell Line as a way to get us into Boston (which is how I travel there anytime I have to go).  But what if the Lowell Line brought young high tech workers who are determined to live and recreate in the big city to Lowell each weekday for work in the Hamilton Canal District?  The train station is just a short walk from there (and assuming the current walk is made safer, more inviting, and more pedestrian friendly).  More workers in the Hamilton Canal District will mean more people venturing into the Acre and Lower Highlands for restaurants, shops and eventually housing as rising Boston rents and condo prices make living in Lowell a more attractive option.

Combine with this the momentum of UMass Lowell and you really can remake the city.  The starting point, however, is recognizing that the center of gravity of downtown Lowell must shift from the intersection of Merrimack and Central to Dutton and Fletcher.  That should be ground zero for our attention.  Let good things radiate out from there, not to the neglect of the rest of the city but for the benefit of us all.

There were, of course, other things going on in the city this past week but there’s already enough to think about in this post.  I’ll roll out some other things during the coming week in separate posts.

Merry Christmas to all.

16 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: December 21, 2014

  1. Jack Mitchell says:

    On the Judicial Center, Dick wrote: ” Hopefully the Baker administration will see that the benefits of going forward with this project outweigh the budgetary value of any savings gained by killing it. ”

    Since C.Belanger gave the LG-elect a DT tour, I have yet to hear the “bring home the bacon” organ grinder stop playing. The legacy media and factions within the Bubble have made it clear that the cumulative genuflect of “bipartisanship” will lock down whatever largess, earmarked for Lowell.

    So, when the LG-elect strikes a pose in the media, we Lowellians can quietly snicker, knowing “We are different.” (Link: http://www.masslive.com/politics/index.ssf/2014/12/lt_gov-elect_karyn_polito_spen.html )

    Either that, or the “Burnish Baker Gang” is all hat and no cattle.

    We’ll have to see, if they can actually deliver. Lip service is not highly regarded in Lowell.

  2. Joe Smith says:

    So many projects, so little money. The City will have to plan these as a lego city, building it out block-by-block, but part of a master concept. One big piece of that puzzle will be the Trial Court, so let’s hope that doesn’t slife further as a victim of current budget issues at the State. But the Trial Court begs for better links from the Transportation Center and from the Early Garage. Although a lot a progress has been made on Jackson Street, more needs to be done to make the walk from the Early garage more attractive with a feeling of safety. Hopefully, the link from the Transportation Center will be improved as past of the Lord Overpass project, which is another piece of the planning puzzle. And then there is that paking garage for the Hamilton Canal District. The City should at least start the process to obtain grant funds to help get that constructed, as it would be an excessive bite for the City alone to take on.

  3. W1GFF says:

    I would very much like to see Western Avenue reopened like it was prior to 1960 as a connection from School Street to Dutton and Fletcher (of course with a grade crossing for the occasional train). With as many people living and working on Western Avenue as there is a single access/exit point is very dangerous in my opinion.

  4. Fred Faust says:

    Well said Dick. Now we need to combine these larger and small projects in a coherent way to attract entrepreneurs, especially younger ones to populate the downtown. This will take financial incentives and person to person marketing efforts. There is great potential for Lowell.

  5. Lush Beads Liz (@lushbeads) says:

    Thanks for the props to Western Avenue Studios! Just to clarify: Western Avenue Studios has 245 working artist studios and 50 live/work lofts. We have over 300 artists that work in the building.

    Having a safe and easy way to walk here from downtown and/or the train station would be great. The crossing at Dutton & Fletcher is nonexistent and really dangerous – I cross Dutton at Broadway, which isn’t that great either to be honest. The only place near downtown that feels safe to cross Dutton is at Merrimack. From the train station, you’d have to go up to the overpass and walk down it, which again isn’t terribly pedestrian friendly.

    I walk across the railroad tracks behind the Dunkin Donuts to get to the building, which isn’t entirely safe and is quite possibly illegal, not to mention that trains have been know to sit there and idle for hours, blocking access for walkers. Correct me if I am wrong, but it is my understanding that the railroad has the air rights to the space over the tracks, so the likelihood of a pedestrian walkway being built is close to nil, as is the likelihood of reopening Western Avenue to Dutton St and putting a gate crossing at the tracks.

  6. Brian says:

    Excellent post. Tying in the importance of mobility throughout these projects is the real takeaway for me. Upgrading the Gallagher terminal is a great idea.

    The concern I have is with the proposed parking garage. I don’t understand why it has to be retrofitted to handle buses and don’t know why the Early garage wouldn’t be sufficient as is. It clearly has a ton of excess capacity. Sounds like it will have to take up a lot of precious space since buses have wide turning radiuses. Wide turning radiuses means wide lanes and wide streets-not good. How many buses do we expect on a daily basis? A few? Since the HCD is basically land locked, has great proximity to the train station, and has a planned trolley stops within it, auto use should be discouraged not encouraged.

    Parking within the HCD should be on-street metered only and priced accordingly. Some curbside space, like load zones in DTL, could be set aside for LNHP buses. 1960’s planners thought we *needed* to build the Sampson Connector. We know how that turned out.

    Tech companies and young adults don’t move to cities because of the parking. See today’s NYTimes article “Riders like Mr. Needham get a lot of value from public transportation, as do people in many other cities where investment in transit is leading to record-high ridership rates and persuading more people to leave their cars at home despite the latest plunge in gasoline prices.”

    The developable land in the HDC is much too valuable for the city to waste on a parking garage. Lessening the supply of parking will increase the demand for multi-modal transportation and increase the chances of the HCD actually becoming a success. I hope we can grasp this concept before it’s too late.

  7. DickH says:

    Thanks for all the great comments. Brian, the new garage of which I speak is necessary to obtain the current National Park Service surface parking lot on Dutton St. The NPS owns that and for the city to obtain it, something equivalent must be traded. That would be a parking garage that services visitors to the National Park which includes tour buses. I don’t know how many, but hopefully an increasing number. I’d rather have the big buses in an enclosed facility than circling downtown streets waiting for their passengers to finish a park tour and lunch. Last month I went to NYC by bus and ended up in the Port Authority Bus Terminal which is in Times Square. It was amazing how many big buses could fit effectively into such a small space. As for the Early Garage, my reports are that it is filled to capacity with staff and visitors to the Lowell Community Health Center, the charter school and other businesses and entities already in the neighborhood. The new courthouse will be massive and will bring nearly 400 employees and at least that many litigants and jurors each day. Hopefully many will come by bus, train, bike and on foot, but there will be plenty of cars and they’ll need to park somewhere for all day so curbside parking wouldn’t be a good option for them. Still, struggling to find parking is a good thing; it will mean people are coming to Lowell.

  8. DickH says:

    Liz, regarding crossings of the train tracks from Western Ave to Dutton St for pedestrians and vehicles, I think some efforts have been made but the railroad has rebuffed them, probably for cost and liability reasons. As a residue of 19th and early 20th century political juice, there are probably plenty of railroad-friendly laws on the books, but they can be changed. All’s that needed is the political will to do so.

  9. Brian says:

    If a garage must be built it should strategically be on a smaller scale.This can help keep costs down. Garage parking can be an option but shouldn’t be the *best* option. Ground floor retail should also be a component of the garage. Too much parking will doom the usefulness of the proposed trolley.

    I went on a reconnaissance mission to the Early garage at 10:30am today. The first 3 floors were filled and the 4th had some cars near the elevator. The 5th was empty besides 25 cars housed there from the 495 Jeep dealership. While I assume this is a revenue stream for the city the JAM area would be better served by actual people/customers parking on those floors.

    One of Lowell’s greatest strengths is its compactness. It’s estimated that we spend 8-10k per year on each of our cars. This includes payments, gas, repairs, and insurance. Imagine if a few hundred families in Lowell downsized from two to one car households. They would be able to spend some of the savings on DTL retail, dining, and entertainment. Some could be spent on home improvements. But it won’t happen unless there are better transportation options. This is how you create jobs and wealth IN Lowell. Not by planning for cars.

  10. DickH says:

    Brian, I completely agree with your sentiments about de-emphasizing cars. I think this Lord Overpass redo has outsized importance because if that’s not done in a pedestrian-friendly way, the city will be stuck with it for another half century. The first opportunity to speak out on this will be the Transportation Subcommittee meeting that will be held in response to Bill Martin’s motion at last week’s meeting. We’ll need a big turn out at that one.

  11. Paul Early says:

    Dick, Thank you very much for this piece. It has clearly stimulated some discussion. It is also nice to see all of these projects on a map. I understand Joe’s concerns about financing, but we cannot get financing if we don’t have a plan to begin with. If the city is not ready to present a plan, we won’t get any funding.

    Does Pan Am, own the tracks or is it the MBTA? I remember in a recent City Council meeting that Rita Mercier was upset because Lowell needed to pay the MBTA a fee in order to update the sewer service on Marginal St because it needed to run under the tracks. I believe that the MBTA owns the track from North Station to the NH state line. With that being said, I am sure that Pan Am Railways has something to say about traffic crossing the tracks. Hopefully, it would be easier to get the MBTA on board than Pan Am.

    Do you know what the date of the Transportation Subcommittee will be? It would be helpful if you post it on your calendar or “Upcoming Events” section.

  12. Paul Belley says:

    Great post Dick. The motion to extend the historic look and clean up upper Merrimack St. to University Crossing will tie in East Pawtucketville nicely. I would also like to see Appleton and East Merrimack St. also be tied to the downtown….All good stuff.

  13. DickH says:

    I think many individuals, organizations and businesses will be very interested in that Transportation Subcommittee meeting so as soon as it’s scheduled, I’ll publicize it as much as possible.

  14. Brian says:

    3 things that need more attention that seem to be flying under the radar a bit.

    LGH Saints campus- Does LGH not consider this to be prime property? Are there plans to sell the campus to UML or other interested parties? They don’t seem to be putting money into the buildings like they are on Varnum Ave. Instead we see money pouring into Westford, where all the doctors live. News alert: the children of those docs don’t want to live in Westford when they grow up. They want to live in cities. Can we make Lowell attractive enough so that people with choice choose Lowell to live? The opportunity is there for the taking. Given its proximity to downtown Saints LGH could eventually become the more important location, aka money maker.

    Lowell 5 planning new headquarters- Of the BIG 3 banks in Lowell(Enterprise, Jeanne D’arc, and Lowell 5) Lowell 5 seems to understand urbanism and its benefits to DTL the least. Between Bob Caruso advocating for the removal of LHS from downtown and the subtle threats that they could locate outside city limits I’m not hopeful that this will be done in a way that benefits both the Lowell 5 and DTL as a whole. It stinks that a CITY bank with so much history and power has such a suburban mentality. I believe I heard Bob Caruso say he’s from Somerville on the radio. He could stand to learn from what they’re doing right down there.

    New or renovated police headquarters- This did get some attention in the paper the other day. What a waste of space the JFK Civic Center is. Open space for the sake of open space isn’t always a good thing. Maybe Moody Street could be reconnected to Arcand Dr? Jeff Speck put together some plans for reshaping the police station. See page 112.

  15. Chris says:

    Hi, Dick and all,

    I just got around to reading this post and its comments in detail and love it. I’d love to talk to you more about your thoughts–or others you’ve heard–about transforming the Lord Overpass to make it more pedestrian friendly. Except for a very ambitious proposal from Patrick Murphy to totally re-envision the area by splitting the Overpass into two smaller parallel arterials and pay for it by opening up development space between those, I haven’t actually heard or thought of viable alternatives. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, just that it’s an amazingly geographically challenging area for a real estate market that is nowhere near as tight (and therefore, able to generate revenue to pay for infrastructure) as places in the hub.