Lowell Week in Review: January 11, 2015

Boston 2024

Will the Summer Olympics come to Boston nine years from now?  I certainly hope so.  When I first heard of the possibility many months ago I was skeptical but then I spoke with State Senator Eileen Donoghue who convincingly made the case for all the benefits that would accrue to the region AND TO LOWELL if this happens.  So now I’m a believer.

Not everyone is.  With Wednesday evening’s announcement, my Facebook feed lit up with a dream team of naysayers.  People who normally wouldn’t agree on what time of day it was were unified in their opposition.  Hopefully this is one of those all too frequent cases where the critics outshout the supporters but don’t outnumber them.  That will be so if city leaders are forceful and public in making the case for why this is a good thing.

The basis of my opinion that this is all a good idea is that having the Olympics come to the region will serve as a catalyst to do a lot of things like improving our rail service and other aspects of our transportation infrastructure that we should be doing anyway.  Even one of my pet peeves in the city – the pedestrian unfriendliness of Dutton Street – might get a boost from this.  Imagine a trainload of Olympic fans from around the world coming from Boston and bound for the Tsongas Center and the boxing prelims.  They debark from the train at the Gallagher Terminal.  Only half of them fit onto the shuttle buses waiting there.  The rest conclude that the venue is barely two kilometers away so they set out on foot.  Then they turn back because passing under/around/over the Lord Overpass on foot looks too dangerous.  We should fix this as soon as possible otherwise we might get blamed for costing Boston the Olympics.

State Budget Deficit

It’s no secret that I supported Martha Coakley for governor but I do wish Charlie Baker well.  Partisanship is about elections.  Once the voters have spoken, everyone should focus on governing and doing it well (which is not to say that we should remain silent when we disagree with his policies or his rhetoric).

A big issue facing the new governor is the deficit in this fiscal year’s finances.  Baker said in his inaugural address that the cause is a spending problem, a stance previewed by his Lieutenant Governor, Karyn Polito, shortly after the election.  There is little doubt that the state budget this year is in deficit and action must be taken, but the rhetoric of our new administration is a little misleading.

The state budget was set last June and state agencies are spending the amount of money allotted to them at that time for the fiscal year which runs from July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015.  That budget and those agency allocations are based on assumptions about revenue that will be taken in by the state.  For the first six months of the fiscal year, the actual revenues haven’t met the projections.

At the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds, for instance, the number of documents we recorded in 2014 was down 20% from the number recorded in 2013.  Since most of the revenue we take in is in the form of recording fees, fewer documents means less revenue and that has been the case (although we still take in ten times the amount that it costs to operate the office – the rest goes into the state’s general fund to pay for other things).  Revenue is down because the real estate market is sluggish, something that has kept me questioning all the rosy reports on the state of the economy.  Still, just last week we heard city councilors suggesting we should celebrate our recent property tax increase because it’s partly a consequence of rising real estate values.  This seeming contradiction – rising values but a sluggish market – helps illustrate that predicting government revenue is an inexact science.  Take this slowdown in real estate related tax collections and extend it to other areas of revenue generation (other fees, income tax collections, etc) across the rest of the Commonwealth and you have the cause of the current deficit.

When revenues don’t meet projections as is the case now in Massachusetts, it’s critical that government cut back on spending in order to get the budget back in balance.  That means cutting or reducing things like imposing a hiring freeze (which Baker has wisely done), reviewing planned expenditures on capital items, trimming local aid, and maybe even laying off some employees (although layoffs are deceptive because in the year you lay people off, you don’t really save any money since you have to pay almost as much in unemployment as you would in salary.  Layoffs save money in the long run if you don’t recall or replace the employees.  Still, the thought of laying off state employees always delights those who dislike state government so we’ll probably hear a lot of talk about that.

proposed Lowell Judicial Center

One item that might be at risk is the new Lowell Judicial Center.  With a $200 million price tag, it will be a tempting target for cost cutters even though the funding comes from bonds not the current fiscal year’s budget.  Eliminating the Judicial Center would be a devastating blow to the Hamilton Canal District.  Hopefully those in Lowell who have influence on the new administration will prevail on the Governor to stay the course and get the Judicial Center built.

City Council Meeting

The first council meeting of 2015 was quite a contrast to the first meeting of 2014.  A year ago, the meeting began with a divisive debate over the placement of the Christmas Nativity Scene at St. Anne’s Church instead of on City Hall Plaza and ended with Bernie Lynch stunning the city by announcing he would leave the job of city manager in 90 days.  By comparison, this week’s meeting began with an innocuous suggestion by Councilor Leahy that the Broadway detour use Middlesex instead of Pevey Streets and ended with all councilors wishing Mayor Elliott and Councilor Mercier bon voyage on their journey to Cambodia (they left Wednesday for ten days, so both will be absent from this coming Tuesday’s council meeting).

There were a couple of positive things discussed: Mayor Elliott requested a report on the status of the aforementioned Judicial Center; another Mayor Elliott motion was to explore the feasibility of holding an Arts Festival in Lowell (which would be a great adjunct to our Canalway Cultural District), and Council Kennedy requested that Michael Geary be appointed to another three year term as City Clerk (that went by fast).  That was approved unanimously by the council.

One thing that struck an off note for me was Councilor Leahy’s questioning of the feasibility of renovations to the Smith Baker Center without more parking closer to the building.  The DPD Director replied that there were 3000 parking spaces within a quarter mile.  Councilor Leahy replied “people don’t want to walk that far.”  Maybe they don’t want to walk that far because trying to cross or walk along Dutton Street and all its intersections is a terrifying experience.  Make it safer for people to walk west of Dutton and parking for Smith Baker won’t be an issue.

Pedestrian crossing Dutton St

Dutton Street is like Lowell’s own version of the Berlin Wall only the directions are reversed.  In central Europe, those in the west had all the benefits and those in the east were deprived.  In Lowell, those to the east of the Wall – Dutton Street – get all the attention while those to the west are neglected.  As Ronald Reagan once said, “Tear down that wall.”

Social Network Analysis of Lowell

If you haven’t looked at my post from earlier this week called Social Network Analysis of Lowell, please do.  Social network analysis seeks to understand how people and organizations are connected and interact.  It’s a process discussed extensively in the US Army’s latest counterinsurgency field manual which suggests its utility in trying to understand Lowell politics.  Future editions will map out private businesses and will drill down to the individual level, showing the interconnections between people and institutions.  It’s a perfect exercise for crowd sourcing, so please scan the list and offer your suggestions.

11 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: January 11, 2015

  1. Jack Mitchell says:

    The new courthouse may be sabotaged for within Lowell, itself. There are Lowellians that seek to dislodge the Courthouse from that parcel, placing a retail/commercial enterprise in that prime location.

    Thorndike to Dutton is a major gateway, artery to the heart of our commercial district. Examining the “Highest and Best Use” of those plots would be smart. Further, how the proposed improvements to the Lord Overpass will connect Lowellians between the HCD and the blooming Cambodia Town. The 4 lane, asphalt barrier, from Gorham to Arcand, should be bridged with a forward thinking vision.

    Those that seek to replace the Courthouse with something that generates tax revenue (even if TIFFs are used to sweeten the pot) may want to have lunch with Rady Mom. And, I’d say do it quick, as it won’t take long for “Beacon Hill” to envelope him.

  2. DickH says:

    Reducing registry fees would be fine with me. It was Mitt Romney who raised them to their current levels back in 2003. They were intent on increasing revenue but didn’t want to “raise taxes” so they jacked up all the fees.

  3. jlich3 says:

    For what it’s worth, I believe the courthouse is a detriment to the long term development of the JAM district and downtown in general. Hasn’t the city learned that institutional development is nothing more than a band-aid to a larger problem of viability. Whether it’s low income housing, a police training facility, the RMV, or a courthouse these things fill space in the short term but they hamper the long term potential for downtown. At some point at least the low income housing can be converted to market rate, and the RMV can move. A courthouse is permanent. The people that they attract do nothing for the neighborhood except sell a few sandwiches. Lawyers, do not need to be near a courthouse, but people checking in with their parole officer are there regularly. People in disputes are there regularly. Even most of the people that work there are miserable dealing with miserable issues. The land should be sold to a developer who will have retail on the first floor and housing above it. It will generate tax revenue; it will be more attractive; it will bring people who can support businesses in downtown. Just please don’t sell it to a pseudo-political crony. There is very little meat left on the bone in places like Somerville. New market rate investment can be made here.

  4. DickH says:

    Fair point about a private development being preferable to a public use, but who is the developer? Is anyone knocking on the door to build something substantial and better for the area economy than a big courthouse on that site? If not, let’s go with what we’ve got. We don’t want the perfect to prevent us from getting the achievable.

  5. jlich3 says:

    I believe, a vacant lot is better than a courthouse. The downtown would be better served if it were to relocate the LTLC to a bigger, better facility to clear the path for development. [BTW I think the LTLC does critical work and I’m not of the ilk that says it needs to be shut down or something, to the contrary we need to support it more fully as the current facility cannot support the regional need] Another point that seems to be continually missed over the years is that the big developer or development is not going to become our saviour. Small business and nurturing the continuous influx of new ideas and money will bring us to the promised land. Looking to Cummings to bring life sciences is a pipe dream. The big developers like Trinity, and Winn are here for one reason and one reason only– for the guaranteed riskless return on investment guaranteed through historic tax credits, bond financing, and grants. I agree in principle that Lowell should take the incremental steps, when it can, to get the mills rebuilt, they are simply too big and costly in a lackluster local market to justify the risk. However a courthouse, might be a step up, but then it will hold things back especially when the design is so overpowering and brutal to the character of downtown. It just doesn’t belong here in its proposed form.

  6. DickH says:

    I can’t resist . . . any suggestions for making Dutton & Thorndike St more pedestrian friendly both to walk along and across? Whatever goes into Hamilton Canal would benefit from people on the other side of those street being comfortable walking across and vice versa.

  7. jlich3 says:

    You already know what Dutton & Thorndike need… massive traffic calming measures, raised crossings, better lighting and an actual sidewalk. We also know why those things won’t happen. The thoroughfare suffers from the overall design of the Lowell Connector, the Lord Overpass and the vehicle dominant culture that we live in. The argument that emergency vehicles cannot deal with raised crossings will arrest the possibility of making real changes. In my opinion, the solution is to find a path to the train station that does not require a pedestrian friendly Dutton & Thorndike. Canal street should be the pedestrian friendly route to the train station. The Jackson Street extension is the place to separate a vehicle dominated thoroughfare to a pedestrian friendly one. It is also the place to make a pedestrian friendly connection towards Western Avenue Studios.

  8. Brian says:

    Great post Dick. Looks like I was wrong about people not thinking about Dutton St. Love the pic of the soldier.

    I too have never been that excited about the courthouse. Single use mega-projects on mega-blocks aren’t good for neighborhoods. They can become desolate and perceived as dangerous at night, causing disinvestment in neighboring parcels. What to do with the current court houses would be our next problem. We don’t need more Smith Baker Centers sitting empty for years.

    We seem to be holding our breath for the courthouse, expecting that everything will fall into place after it’s built. Waiting for a handout from the state isn’t working. Lets take control of our own destiny. We already know what vibrant city streets look like in Middle, Merrimack, and Market Streets(though there is room for improvement). Different type buildings on small to medium size lots with wide sidewalks, skinny streets, and small blocks have worked for thousands of years but it’s hard to imagine what that would look like in the HCD.

    We should build out some of the street infrastructure and divide the land into small developable lots. Mandate mixed use projects with ground floor retail and zero minimum parking requirements(keeps costs down for developers and savings are passed on to leasees, renters, condo owners etc). Set aside surface parking until the land is bought and developed. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. No garage would be needed because of numerous transportation options and its central location to great housing and excess capacity in our under utilized city garages. On-street metered parking would be sufficient. People walk great distances to great places if the walk is comfortable, safe, useful, and interesting.

    Driving in and to the HCD should be an option but also a hassle. “Traffic calming” Thorndike and Dutton Streets is the biggest factor in bettering DTL, the Acre, and Highlands. Only focusing on Jackson St for pedestrian access is too little to improve the whole area. I’m not for the Boston 2024 but lets not let a serious crisis go to waste. Lets leverage the Olympics to infill the Lord overpass and reconfigure the Fletcher-ThornDutton street intersection. Adding on-street parking will pay for itself if priced right. Creating a protected bike network will lessen the need to own a car, reduce traffic, and put more money in people’s pockets to spend downtown.

    Handing the keys of our city over to old-school traffic engineers or emergency vehicles contributed to the situation Lowell is in now. Look to the past and we’ll have a bright future.

  9. Paul Early says:

    Dick, thanks for this article and for the debate that has taken place here. I agree with jlich3 on certain aspects of the courthouse plan. I think that the design is over powering and that such facilities can become quite unfriendly feeling after hours. On the other hand, there is a real need for an update facility and it is my understanding that the state has been trying to centralize courthouses to areas with the most effective public transportation. Courthouses may not always attract the most affluent clientele, but there is a need for one and I am not sure if there is a more suitable location, perhaps the owners of the campus that houses MA-COM could be compelled to give up some of there massive parking lot to house the courthouse, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

    I don’t think making Canal Street into the “pedestrian friendly” access to the train station would be very effective. It seems that a Dutton street solution is needed to at least open up access between the Acre and JAM/Downtown, maybe not to the Highlands, but at least two neighborhoods could become better connected. It seems to me that much of the Torndike/Dutton/Fletcher traffic is on its way to Dracut and/or NH, and they do not have our interests at heart and hopefully the people of Lowell and our City Council will realize this. I also think that we should leverage the Olympics bid to help out here, although I am not so sure that the Lord Overpass will ever be filled in, although I would love to see it happen. Brian, I also agree that developers should be encouraged to build with out adding additional parking spaces. Amherst, MA is currently putting in a new housing development on Triangle Street near their downtown with no parking spaces added. This should help hold down costs and since there is reasonably good transportation their, and the development is within walking distance of downtown, UMass and Amherst College.

  10. Paul Early says:

    If your are interested in changes to the Lord Overpass, there will be a Transportation Subcommittee meeting about the overpass this Tuesday, January 27, 2015 at 5:30PM at City Hall. Hopefully, if there are enough people who attend, we can show the council that pedestrian access is an issue worthy putting into the project. The one item on the agenda is to discuss improvements to the Lord Overpass with the public being invited.