Lowell Week in Review: March 27, 2016

Lord Overpass Public Meeting

Tomorrow night at 6 pm at the Senior Center at 276 Broadway, the city will hold its second public meeting on the Lord Overpass renovation project. Here’s the notice about the meeting from the city’s Department of Planning & Development:

The City of Lowell is planning multi-modal accessibility and mobility improvements to the Lord Overpass and the surrounding area. At the first of 3 planned public meeting held last fall, we heard from many people requesting better pedestrian and bicycle accommodations along the Thorndike Street Corridor. Attendees of the first meeting were asked to complete a paper survey to help the City collect community suggestions and comments; the City then distributed a web link in late January to offer the opportunity for non-attendees to fill out the same survey on-line. Along with engineering and geographic opportunities and constraints, survey results were used to influence and shape Overpass design concepts. As part of the Project’s public outreach program, the City will be holding the 2nd of 3 planned public meetings to update the community on the status of the project design, present the results of the community survey, and present alternative design concepts for the Lord Overpass. The meeting will be held at 6pm on Monday, March 28, 2016 at the Lowell Senior Center.

The first public meeting was back on November 16, 2015. It was very well attended (See my report on the meeting here).

I have frequently written of the importance of the Lord Overpass and the Thorndike-Dutton Corridor to the ultimate success of the Hamilton Canal project and to making Lowell a welcoming 21st century urban center. Back on October 31, 2015, Paul Marion and I led a walk through this area. Please check out the report I wrote about that experience. There are plenty of pictures that give a sense of the challenges that confront pedestrians in the area.

Themeles Square

Themeles Square

Themeles Square sits at the corner of Market and Dummer streets and is part of the Lowell Housing Authority’s North Common Village. The “square” is about 5000 square feet of grass and walkways that was dedicated to the Themeles Brothers in 2000 for their military service during World War Two.

Today, the area is plagued by broken benches, crumbling concrete walkways, a non-functioning public drinking fountain, and other problems that detract from its use as a public space. Thankfully, the LHA is about to renovate the square (bids are due early in April). The project will install historic-style street lights, fencing, benches, some flowering trees, and the water fountain will be repaired.

Themeles Square

In keeping with the project’s embrace of the historic, the LHA is seeking more information about how that area was used in the past, both before it was part of the Housing Authority and after. LHA is particularly interested in the background of the Themeles Square dedication which occurred in 2000, but also the water fountain which was installed in the 1980s. If anyone has any information they’re able to share, please leave a comment or email me at DickHoweJr@gmail.com and I’ll pass the info along to LHA.

FY2017 City Budget

There’s a report on the FY17 city budget in this week’s city council packet. I assume the City Manager and his team will make a presentation at Tuesday night’s council meeting. The report states the target date for delivering the budget proposal to the council is May 17, 2016.

The report also lists seven budgetary challenges facing the city. Here they are:

  • Closing a $16 million gap in departmental budget requests for FY17;
  • A $4.3 million increase in pension assessment over FY16;
  • A potential $1.5 – $2 million increase in salaries from settling collective bargaining agreements;
  • An increased net Charter School expense of approximately $800,000;
  • Continuing to exceed the City’s Net School Spending requirement and increasing the local cash contribution to the schools;
  • An 18.3% increase in electricity rates, resulting in a potential FY17 increased cost of approximately $700,000
  • Increased assessment from the Group Insurance Commission for health insurance of approximately 3-5% or $1 million.

Report on Mack Building

This week the council will receive a report on the status of the Mack Building on Shattuck Street. The building is owned by the Commonwealth and houses the National Streetcar Museum on its first two floors, and the North Region offices of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation on the third and fourth floors. The museum is open on weekends and the state offices are filled through the week. The state official in charge reports there are no plans to vacate the building although the state is contemplating some exterior improvements in the future.

Old Butler School Property

The developer of the old Butler School property recently sold both of the buildings that were constructed on the parcel after the school was demolished. The first one, now known as 169 Newhall St Extension, sold on March 18, 2016 for $2,040,000. The other, 168 Newhall St Extension, sold this past Wednesday, March 23, 2016, for $2,070,000. The city sold the property to the developer in 2013 for $265,500, but the old school had to be demolished, new roads installed, and the two new buildings, one an auto parts store and the other a discount retailer, had to be constructed. So now the builder has transferred the new buildings to those who will be operating them.

Park Avenue East

Last Tuesday the council took up the matter of Park Avenue East which runs parallel to Rogers Street, stretching from Boylston Street in the south to Fort Hill in the north. Along the way, it passes between Shedd Park and Lowell Cemetery, and at its Boylston Street end, the Pyne School. Because of Lowell Cemetery and Fort Hill, there are no thru streets running west (towards Lawrence Street), however, there are at least four residential streets running easterly from Park Ave East to Rogers Street.

That’s the geography. Got it?

The issue is whether the portion of Park Ave East running from Boylston Street to Knapp Ave and the entrance to Lowell Cemetery, should be made one way heading towards Fort Hill and if it is, whether it should be permanently one way or just at designated times.

As I understand it, the principal of the Pyne School wants it one way all the time for safety reasons. While most of the students arrive during a 90 minute morning window and are dismissed during a 90 minute afternoon window, there are other students, like pre-K and kindergarten, who leave at various times through the day.

The neighbors feel differently. While they respect the safety and traffic concerns while buses are dropping off and picking up students and are amenable to having it one way for say 8am to 930am and from 230pm to 4pm, they strongly oppose making it permanently one way or one way throughout the day. Because traffic on Rogers Street is so heavy and prone to getting backed up, the most practical way for people on the connecting streets to exit the neighborhood is to drive down Park Avenue East to Boylston Street and leave the area from there.

This past Tuesday, the council put on a case study in confusion. I watched the meeting intently but was left with no idea of what the council had done (a state at least a few councilors shared, I suspect). Whatever the council did on Tuesday, there’s supposed to be a public hearing on a new ordinance – what it says, I’m not sure – on the one way issue at the April 5, 2016 city council meeting.

4 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: March 27, 2016

  1. Nancy Pitkin says:

    Thank you for all the updates. It is so great that you provide information on what is really happening in the city.

  2. Brian says:

    One of the most important reasons for improving the Lord Overpass is improving pedestrian and bike access to and from the Gallagher terminal. Now that Sal is planning on rehabbing the Hood mill building focus should be put on adding curbside metered parking on both sides of Thorndike St.

    There is no better way to make that walk safer for pedestrians, while also helping the businesses that Sal hopes to attract. Long term parking would be in the garage. We all realize crossing 2 lanes of traffic is much safer than 4 lanes but everyone is afraid of traffic. You can’t have it both ways. Either we have a great place or a place you can drive through quickly.

    Sal was on WCAP yesterday. Here’s what he had to say about traffic.

    “Do you think for every apartment in downtown Boston there’s a spot? People figure it out, they adjust, they have car sharing, they take public transportation. The more people that take public transportation the better off the city is, so you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Get people walking, get people using public transportation, but most of all realize you’re in an urban environment not in Chelmsford”

    He gets it! People that cut through DTL to get to Dracut and NH will adjust. They’ll go around. Lowellians that drive to the train station will walk or bike instead. Commuters from down the Lowell line will safely walk to the Hamilton Canal District for work. The South Common will get more use. Families with 2 cars might only need 1 if Lowell can get this right. The savings could be spent locally.

    The problem is Lowell has suburban rules, regulations, and statutes that are holding us back. Mandating minimum parking requirements has got to go. Sal, or any developer, shouldn’t have to ask for a variance because there isn’t “enough” parking. The city should be encouraging development with little or no off-street parking so precious land can also be developed. Either we do it proactively or financial realities will force our hand.

  3. Gail says:

    I agree that Lowell needs to be some place where people stop and not just drive through, but unless the rail line is extended, many patrons are going to drive in from surrounding communities and NH. A piece of having fewer cars in the downtown, and for rail commuters, needs to be LRTA increasing its bus schedule. Many bus routes stop before 7 pm during the week and before 6 on Saturdays. Many routes do not start early enough. There is no buses on Sunday. As far as cars in the vicinity go, do not forget that the court house will only have parking for judges, police, and defendants transported by law enforcement.

  4. George Proakis says:

    Hi Dick,

    It’s so great to see such amazing progress on the Lord Overpass. Thanks for continuing to post updates. It sounds like the city is moving quickly to balance the needs of pedestrian and bike traffic with all the cars driving through the city. Also good to hear Sal reiterating this point. The UMU zoning that we did in 2003/2004 has parking requirements that are way too high for such proximity to transit. The downtown district does better, and the Hamilton Canal code also reflects the need for more walkable urban parking requirements. But, we missed it with the UMU district that’s over by Sal’s place, and I hope they can work out what they need.

    I wanted to provide a quick bit of feedback about Themeles Brothers Square. This is also exciting news. My mother’s family have told me that they recently gave the LHA all the info that they had collected from the dedication of the square (which is named for my grandfather Gregory Themeles and his three brothers). While I have not seen it, I understand that it includes information about the brothers and their history in Lowell and in World War II. While we don’t have info on the earlier history of that intersection, I hope that the LHA can get that info from sources around the city. And, I’m looking forward to a rededication sometime in the future.

    George Proakis