Looking Ahead: What will 2015 bring?

Day-to-day political events took a break during the holidays so here’s a look at what 2015 might bring in Lowell politics.  With a full work week and a council meeting on Tuesday night, the Week in Review will return next Sunday.  For now, here are some possibilities for the coming year:

Walkability of Dutton Street

If you lived in Boston, were intrigued by some of the favorable publicity Lowell receives in the Boston media (like today’s story in the Globe Travel section), and decided to check the city out, you might hop on a train at North Station and head north.  Arriving at the Gallagher Terminal in Lowell you’re met by – not much.  I’ve been in that facility often enough and can’t ever remember seeing something that points the way to downtown.  Sure you can hope a bus but in my experience people who make journeys of the type I describe prefer walking when the distance is reasonable.  And the distance from the Gallagher terminal to say the National Park Visitor Center is not that far.

So our intrepid traveler works around the nonexistent signs, maps, brochures, guides, ambassadors, and sets out on foot along Thorndike and then Dutton Street.  What does he see?

Dutton St looking towards downtown

Not much that’s conducive to an enjoyable walk.  As the photo above shows, you can stay on the west side of Dutton and be wedged between a big brick building and semi-trailers that come rumbling by.  Or, you can cross to the east side of Dutton and straddle the trolley tracks.  For the pedestrian, the imagery is not inviting.  It shouts out, go back home and if you do come back, drive your own car.  That’s exactly the wrong message for us to be sending in 2015.

Maybe Dutton Street deserves the Fr Morissette Blvd treatment – curbside parking and bike lanes that help calm the traffic and make the area a little more walker friendly.

Bike lanes and curbside parking on Fr Morissette Blvd

In addition to that, we should embrace the canals and the walking paths alongside them.  Lowell can market itself by better presentation of the physical city—-improving the curb appeal, which arises from factors that we can control at the municipal level. Lighting, cleanliness, landscaping, signage–and other elements of city life.  Consider the photo below which shows canal-side walkways running through the Hamilton Canal District towards the intersection of Dutton and Fletcher Streets.

Hamilton Canal District looking towards Fletcher St

These walkways extend all the way to Dutton.  Rather than end there, they should turn left and continue south on Thorndike to the South Common and turn right and continue along the east side of Dutton all the way to Market Street.  Such a walkway would connect the Gallagher Terminal with downtown in an inviting, visually-pleasing way.

Judicial Center

Site of Judicial Center viewed from Dutton St. Mill No. 5 in background

The other day I was looking through some notes at work and came across testimony I gave before the state legislature’s Judiciary Committee when it visited Lowell back in 2008 for a public hearing about the proposed judicial center.  Back then, according to my notes, the Lowell Judicial Center was to have opened in 2014.  It didn’t.  There are many reasons why that timetable slipped, not the least of which was the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression.  But the economy is improving with each passing month and the city should make a real push to get the state to break ground on this building during 2015.  As currently designed, the Judicial Center will more than double the amount of court-related activity that currently takes place within the city.  Much of Middlesex County’s judicial business now conducted in Woburn and Cambridge will come to Lowell.  This could serve as a real catalyst for the Hamilton Canal District and for the entire city.

UMass Lowell

Marty Meehan with Jim Milinazzo and Bernie Lynch

Will he or won’t he?  In other words, will Marty Meehan’s tenure as Chancellor of UMass Lowell come to an end in 2015?  I’m sure UMass Lowell and the city of Lowell would benefit greatly from Meehan becoming the President of the entire UMass system, but it would also alter the warp-speed velocity of innovation, expansion and change that UMass Lowell has undergone since 2007.   While not as monolithic in Lowell as UMass Lowell, Middlesex Community College exerts enormous influence in the city and it too is undergoing a change in leadership.  Hopefully MCC’s focus on Lowell will continue unabated.

New School Superintendent

Last I heard the School Committee had engaged an outside group to recruit and screen candidates for superintendent of schools in Lowell, a position that became prospectively vacant when Jean Franco announced she would not seek an extension of her contract which ends this June.  Franco is the third straight superintendent – Karla Brooks Baehr and Chris Scott – to have left due in part, at least, to some animosity with (some) school committee members.  Who is hired and under what circumstances could be a big factor in this fall’s school committee election.  A selection viewed positively by the bulk of the community would reflect well on school committee incumbents; a selection viewed otherwise could have an opposite result.  For Lowell to move forward as a city, the public perception of the school system must meet the reality.  Turbulence at the top doesn’t help that happen.

City Election

November will bring the biennial city election with all nine seats on the city council and six on the school committee on the ballot.  Since the field won’t be set until mid-summer, we have a while to wait to know for sure who will or will not be running.  Notwithstanding the buzz about the recent property tax increase and the continuing violence of last summer, I don’t sense any widespread discontent with the direction of the city which bodes well for incumbents seeking re-election.  Still, it all depends on who votes.  In the past few city elections, an average of about 10,500 of the city’s 54,000 registered voters participate.  If that number goes up appreciably there could be a different result but that’s also a factor of who else is running.  In any case, elected officials pay the closest attention to those who vote and if the look of the participating electorate were to change, so might some of the city’s priorities.

6 Responses to Looking Ahead: What will 2015 bring?

  1. Joe Smith says:

    Apparently the Transportation subcommittee discussion of the Thorndike Street/Lord Overpass reconstruction is yet to be scheduled. But even when it is scheduled, the format of subcommittee meetings is not very conducive to interactive discussion of alternatives. That will likely lead to continued inertia for automobile focused design as it would be the least change to what is already there, and probably the lowest cost when just considering the redevelopment. A longer sighted approach may consider the economic impact to the Acre and Western Avenue, and even the Downtown.

  2. Jack Moynihan says:

    Excellent post Dick! Walkabilty is a crucial issue. Hopefully, city leaders and others involved with the marketing plan will read this and the GLOBE article. Thanks.

  3. Brian says:

    The two biggest opportunities to fix “ThornDutton St” are the Lord Overpass and the intersection of Fletcher, Thorndike, and Dutton St.

    The Lord Overpass stinks because it’s grade separated. Meaning it’s separated or optimized for auto use only, other modes of transportation be damned. I wouldn’t walk across it. Those who do are either desperate or daring. But I don’t think blowing it up and infilling Thorndike St is in the cards…right now.

    The ThornDutton intersection seems more apt for a conversion. The way the road curves on the inbound lane to DTL of Thorndike St is very highway-like and induces speeding which is bad for pedestrians and businesses alike. If the intersection were a right angle and a roundabout is added traffic would slow down. Inbound drivers would be able to go straight up Fletcher St and traffic would still move freely ,albeit slower, because there would be no need for a traffic light.

    Think about how well the “roundabout” works where Back Central St meet Wamesit St in Hosford Square. It’s very orderly and rarely does it get backed up. Cars move slowly but flow freely so if there is a crash or a pedestrian is hit the damage is minimal or non life-threatening. There are lot of small businesses in Hosford Square. Fletcher St and Dutton both show signs of a thriving past life. I’d like to see it again.

  4. Paul Early says:

    Dick thank you for this piece. I agree with you that walkability and curb appeal are crucial to getting local tourists into downtown from the train. While I like your suggestion of giving Dutton a “Fr Morissette Blvd treatment,” but Dutton is a much busier street. I personally would love to see such a treatment done on Dutton.

    Joe, I also see your concern about the format of subcommittees and how it would effect the dialogue on a Dutton St remodel. Are there any other options? I believe that there is supposed to be a public outreach component to state funded highway projects, but it seems that only lip service is given to this. Perhaps the Transportation Subcommittee would be the place where it is made clear that we pedestrians of Lowell need to have constructive and heeded input on the project.

    Brian, I agree that Hosford Square is very nice. I used to leave not far and I thought then and still do that that part of the city is overlooked. I also agree with your assessment about the traffic there and as a pedestrian there I felt comfortable with the traffic, but that is Back Central where the pedestrian is not facing all those commuters trying to get back home to Dracutt, Pawtucketville, Centralville or NH who have just come off the connector and have been backed up by numerous traffic lights to deal with. My brother-in-law sent we a link to the following video of a solution to a horrible traffic problem in the UK:


    The video is entitled “Poynton Regenerated.”

  5. Paul Belley says:

    Thanks Dick for posting my campaign Ad from 2009. I remember at the time you thought it was the most creative Ad you had seen but did get some grief from than candidate Patrick Murphy about my Ad during debates. I like Patrick but he had no sense of humor at the time….LoL

  6. Brian says:

    Paul E.,
    Great video. I watched it a few months ago when you posted it. What people need to understand is that fast travel speeds don’t always mean lower travel times. You can drive 50mph on ThornDutton St but go ZERO mph while waiting at a red light. Fast MPH zones are great for connecting two great places to one another but not for passing through a great place. If our streets were such that drivers only felt comfortable driving 20-25mph but traffic flow were constant, travel times would stay the same or go down. Adding roundabouts or variations like in Poynton and replacing traffic lights with 4 way stop signs will keep traffic moving, provide a safe environment for pedestrians, and make areas attractive for business.

    More business in DTL will be good for the people of Centralville or Pawtucketville because is will keep residential taxes low and provide jobs. The people from Dracut and NH can go around or move back to Lowell.