Lowell Week in Review: December 6, 2015

Underneath the Connector

Early in the week I noticed a mention of an upcoming event of Lowell Parks & Conservation Trust. Here’s what it said:

Take a Tour…Under the Connector?!

When: Saturday, December 5, 2015, 12PM

YES! LP&CT Executive Director Jane Calvin will be leading an exploration under the Lowell Connector, a likely future connection to the Bruce Freeman Trail. She will be joined by aerosol artist Nick Rivera to explore “graffiti” found under the Connector.

I signed up and attended. I’m glad I did. The walk started in the Target parking lot off of Plain Street and then followed an old rail line westward to the rotary on Industrial Ave. One purpose of the walk was to draw attention to LP&CT’s efforts to create a link between the Concord River Greenway terminus near Lowell Cemetery on Lawrence Street to the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail which begins in the Cross Point Parking Lot.

Potential path for new walking trail from Plain St to Industrial Ave

A likely route for the connecting trail would be along River Meadow Brook, also known as Hale’s Brook, which meanders 24 miles from its beginning at O’Brien Farm in Westford to the point at which it flows into the Concord River near Lawrence Street.

River Meadow Brook

LP&CT has a 231-page study about this waterway on its website. Called “Changing Course: A History of River Meadow Brook”, the study was written by Gray Fitzsimons in 2013.

The brook once traced a meandering, never-ending “S” through the meadows and swamps along the southwestern part of Lowell but in the late 1950s, urban planners decided to build the Lowell Connector along the brook’s route. As part of the Connector construction, the brook was rerouted into a more direct channel to the Concord River.

Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust does great work but its determination to create and connect recreational trails in and through Lowell has to be one of its most important accomplishments. Being out there today, on the ground, reinforced how valuable the creation of such a trail will be for city residents. (In other words, please consider becoming a MEMBER).

Outdoor Art Museum

Much to the surprise of the 22 people on yesterday’s tour, the abandoned rail bed that runs underneath the Lowell Connector is also an outdoor art museum. The innards of bridge abutments and a cement retaining wall are filled with “aerosol art.” Some might call it graffiti, but that term is misleading because this stuff truly is art. Below are a few samples. I’ll post more later this week.

Aerosol art expert Nick Rivera explaining meaning of a mural

One of many fascinating murals underneath the Connector bridges

Combined Sewer Overflow

Combined Sewer Overflow (or CSO) is a term that attains prominence in city council debates from time to time. In Lowell, we have a “combined” sewer system which means that waste water from households goes into the same under-the-street pipe as does rain runoff that flows into catch basins. All of it somehow finds its way to the sewer treatment plant on the north bank of the Merrimack River near the Dracut line. However, when it rains heavily, the amount of liquid flowing into the sewers overwhelms the capacity of the system to carry it. Rather than having it back up into the street or your basement, the city has created outlets that discharge this “overflow” directly into waterways. We came upon one yesterday on our Lowell Connector Walk. It’s pictured below. The opening of this big pipe is pinched shut now but it would open in a time of heavy rain and everything from that particular sewer line would just flow directly into River Meadow Brook, eventually finding its way into the Concord River.

Combined Sewer Overflow outlet pipe on River Meadow Brook behind Lowe’s

When the city council finds itself debating the cost of improving the city’s ability to treat all sewerage, there is a certain abstract quality to it. Seeing the overflow pipe and the body of water its contents would flow into makes it more real, more important. I’ll be sure to post this picture again the next time the issue comes before the city council.

[UPDATE: Adam Baacke, the city’s former head of Planning and Development, clarified the purpose of this pipe in a Facebook comment which I include here: “Hi Dick, I believe the pipe in your picture is part of the solution to the CSO problem not a combined sewer outfall. A few years ago, the wastewater utility completed extensive sewer separation work in the areas near the connector. The drainage infrastructure includes outfalls into the river meadow brook after various sumps and filters separate oils and solids from the storm drainage. This system is completely separate from the sanitary sewers that run to the treatment plant. Pulling all of the storm water out of the sanitary system reduces the volume and consequently the likelihood over overflows even in areas where the system is not yet separated.”]

City Council

The City Council cancelled last week’s meeting because the Thanksgiving holiday of the prior week interfered with the preparation of the meeting agenda. Consequently, this week’s meeting has a longer-than-usual agenda. The council will vote to adopt the “minimum residential factor” (which is used to calculate your property taxes) for fiscal year 2016. A memo accompanying the vote states that the minimum residential factor will be .849849. It explains that this new “factor” was the result of the total value of all real estate in the city increasing $350mil and that “all categories of residential property increased by a total of $381mil.”

To better understand what that all means, I’m borrowing an explanation that Joe Smith posted yesterday on Facebook’s Lowell Live Feed Forum (which if you’re from Lowell, on Facebook, and interested in city politics and public affairs, is a good group to join):

[from Joe Smith] The next city council meeting will vote on the minimum residential factor in order to set the tax rates for residential and commercial properties in Lowell. The real property evaluation has changed in the past year, with the residential properties increasing in value by $381M, while the commercial/industrial property values have decreased by $31M. That is a net increase of $350M, or about 5.75%. So what will that mean for tax rate changes? The budget anticipated about $1.6M (tax) of new growth,, and about 1.5% increase in the tax levy, together totaling nearly a 3% increase. With valuation increasing by 5.75%, the need for the 3% increase (budget) means the tax rates should drop, maybe as much as 2.75%. But more likely the new residential tax rate won’t be quite that optimistic, so I would guess we will see a FY2016 residential tax rate of about $15.20 per thousand.

Then there’s a seemingly innocuous petition by Comcast that requests “the installation of new vault and conduit at 59 Technology Drive” that might have deeper significance. A couple of weeks ago, Verizon came before the council with a petition to add some retransmitters to some telephone poles, purportedly to improve the wireless service of its cellphone customers. Because Verizon had previously and abruptly shunned the city’s overtures to bring its Fios cable and internet service to Lowell, the council refused to act on this unrelated (except being by the same company) measure. I thought that was a good move by the council which has very few tools at its disposal when it comes to dealing with big communications companies that are well-protected by Congress. I don’t know how the council is feeling about Comcast these days, but if there are any issues, this petition will provide a vehicle for council complaints.

There are also nine council motions, but I’ll leave them until Tuesday night when I report on the council meeting. If you’re interested, the agenda is available online now.

School Committee

The School Committee did meet this week and Amy Bisson once again provides an extensive report about what happened on her blog.

Two of the highlights of the meeting were the hiring of former school committee member Kevin McHugh as the district’s Chief Finance Officer and some further information on the 2-hour delay policy for inclement weather.

The next school committee meeting is Wednesday, December 16, 2015 at 7pm. This meeting will be worth watching live. As the last meeting of 2016, it will be the final meeting for five of the seven current members of the school committee: Dave Conway, Jim Leary, Kristen Ross-Sitcawich, Kim Scott, and Mayor Rodney Elliott (unless he does get selected again by the new council to by mayor for another term). Ross-Sitcawich and Scott did not seek reelection; Conway and Leary ran for the council. Leary won; Conway did not.

Christmas Shopping in Lowell

Both Western Ave and Mill No. 5 were packed yesterday on their traditional first Saturday of the month festival-like days. Both will be open more than usual between now and December 25 as will many of the stores, gift shops, and art galleries in downtown. There are some great, unique gifts available right her in Lowell, so be sure to think locally when it comes to shopping.

Coffee Shops

Some friends introduced me to a new coffee shop in the city this week. Galeria Café is across from City Hall at 366 Merrimack Street. I only had coffee, which was terrific, but there were some great looking pastries filling the display cases. I’m sure many who work in City Hall will become regulars.

To me, coffee shops are vital the having a great city. The more the better and with Galeria Café joining Brewed Awakening, Coffee Mill, Rosie’s, and Coffee and Cotton, we have plenty of choices in downtown Lowell. Who am I missing?

Lowell History Talk Next Saturday

Next Saturday (December 12, 2015) at 2pm at the Pollard Memorial Library’s Community Room, the Lowell Historical Society will present a program called “Lowell History Since WWII: New Words and Pictures.” Paul Marion and I will be the speakers. After our talk, Paul will have copies of his Mill Power book and I will have my Lowell: Images of Modern America book for sale and for signing.

3 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: December 6, 2015

  1. Erika S. says:

    Dick, I just wanted to drop a compliment on here about this blog, which is thorough, interesting, and clear, and something that obviously takes dedication to maintain. Such a local resource. Thanks for putting your time into this public endeavor.

  2. Paige says:

    I went to Open Studios at both Western Ave. and Mill No. 5 yesterday! It was very enjoyable. I got to watch people blowing glass, hammering metal jewelry, and using a printing press. The artists were very friendly and happy to talk extensively about their work. Both facilities were clean and inviting. Western Ave. has an elevator as well as bathrooms and sitting areas on all five floors. There were free treats and drinks in several areas and a cafe with a more extensive menu. I bought an iridescent crystal key pendant on a coppery chain and a magnet with a lovely painting of Lowell on it, and I entered to win a gift certificate. I ate at the Mexican restaurant El Potro, which is always great.

    It’s about time that graffiti artists get the recognition they deserve for their creative and colorful artwork! Cement walls are the perfect places for thoughtfully-made, non-profane murals. Such paintings really brighten up the more drab and neglected corners of the city.