Lowell Week in Review: May 8, 2016

Mill buildings in Lawrence

Urban Renewal Symposium

Yesterday the Lawrence History Center presented a symposium on Urban Renewal at the Everett Mill in Lawrence. The program title was “Reclaiming Urban Renewal: Community Efforts and Impacts in Lawrence, Massachusetts and other Industrial Cities.” UMass Lowell history professor Bob Forrant, who is on the board of the Lawrence History Center, was one of the organizers and there was a strong Lowell contingent making presentations including Peter Aucella, Fred Faust, Charles Parrott, Paul Marion, Adam Baacke, Craig Thomas, Mehmed Ali, Tony Sampas, and a number of UMass Lowell graduate and undergraduate students. Because Urban Renewal was so central to what has happened in Lowell during the past fifty years, I attended the symposium and took some notes.

The keynote speaker was Lizabeth Cohen, the Dean of the Radcliffe Institute and a Professor of American Studies at Harvard. I will write a separate blog post this week about Dean Cohen’s remarks, but a couple of her main points are worth mentioning here. She said that today many of us fall into the trap of viewing Urban Renewal programs (which began in 1949 and lasted until the early 1970s) through the benefit of hindsight and in doing that, it is easy to condemn historic Urban Renewal plans. Instead, we should “try to get inside the heads” of the decision makers of that time and try to fully understand the reasons they did what they did.

This resonated with me because I once asked my dad, Richard Howe Sr, about some of the votes he made on the Lowell City Council in the 1960s on Urban Renewal programs. He said no one today really understands how desperate the condition of the city was in the 1960s and 1970s and how few choices city leaders seemed to have. Urban Renewal offered a tremendously large source of federal funds. The city had the choice of taking the money and following the guidelines or doing nothing and watching the city continue to decay. In that context, it’s easier to understand why the council and other city leaders of that time acted as they did.

Another point the Dean Cohen emphasized that has particular relevance in Lowell today is the importance of community involvement. She said that the places where community members got the most involved in the process, whether it be through public meetings or public protests, tended to do better under Urban Renewal and the places where the process was left entirely to “urban planning experts” did worse. The point was that public participation and input throughout the process is critical to obtaining the best result for all of the residents of the community.

Cohen is in the midst of writing a book that analyzes Urban Renewal by studying Boston’s lead planner, Ed Logue (who I believe also did consulting work in Lowell and Lawrence). She provided many fascinating insights into Logue’s motives and beliefs. One that really stood out for me was that Logue put a huge emphasis on the quality of a city’s schools. He believed that the key to a successful city was to retain a mix of social classes, especially those from the middle class (what politicians today call “working families”). Logue believed that the main reason middle class families moved to the suburbs was because they had lost faith in urban school systems. He believed good schools were the key to keeping a healthy mix of residents in a city.

Following Cohen’s Keynote Speech, I attended a fascinating breakout session on Urban Renewal in Lowell that featured Peter Aucella, Fred Faust, and Chuck Parrott (the long time architect of the Lowell National Historical Park). This session was moderated by Paul Marion and it presented many insights into the development of Lowell over the past fifty years.

One was a reminder of how central the Lowell Connector plan was to Urban Renewal in Lowell. Anyone who has driven the Lowell Connector inbound already understands this: no one would design a highway that ends in someone’s front yard, which is how the Connector now ends at Gorham Street. Chuck Parrott explained that what we all know as the Lowell Connector was only the first of three distinct sections of the road.

The second section would have continued the current highway straight across Gorham Street and through the Back Central residential neighborhood curving to the left as it went downhill towards the Concord River and replacing Lawrence Street. The highway would have continued across Church Street and through the space now occupied by the Lower Locks (aka Joseph Downes) Parking Garage and the city campus of Middlesex Community College (neither of which existed at the time). The highway would have curved to the west, passing through Kerouac Park. This section was never built because the city council, in a very close vote in the late 1960s, refused to allow the taking by eminent domain and demolition of 400 or so houses in the Back Central neighborhood that this plan would have required. While this seems like the only rational outcome today, back then, the city’s business community was fully in favor of the project and lobbied the council accordingly.

The third section of the Lowell Connector was actually built. We know it as French Street Extension and Father Morissette Boulevard. It was only a few years ago that the city took steps to convert Father Morissette from what was essentially a divided highway into a more pedestrian and bicyclist friendly urban boulevard.

Parrott described the full Lowell Connector as the “spine” that connected all of the Urban Renewal sites in Lowell to the developing interstate highway system represented here by Routes 3 and 495. The Northern Canal Urban Renewal Project extended from Lowell High School to Lelacheur Park, so Father Morissette Blvd reached that. Central Plaza (at Church and Lawrence Streets; what I still call “Zayre’s” for the longtime retailer that anchored that spot) was a second Urban Renewal project. The proposed middle stretch of the Connector (replacing Lawrence Street) would have serviced it. The third Urban Renewal project was Hale-Howard which is where the LRTA bus maintenance facility on Hale Street (aka YMCA Drive) is located. That would be serviced by the Thorndike Street exit from the Lowell Connector. And while not an Urban Renewal project in the sense that it tore down existing neighborhoods, Industrial Ave was swamp land and the City Poor Farm when it was designated for development as a “technology park” at about the same time. That area would be served by the Industrial Ave exit of the Lowell Connector. And if you add in the “Sampson Connector” which really runs from the Tsongas Arena along Arcand Drive, Dutton Street, then Thorndike Steeet, you had another high speed roadway that completed a loop back to the connector.

So as you can see, there was a certain logic to the concept. But a premise can be both logical and wrong as this one was. The flaw was the belief that as residents flocked to the suburbs, they would continue to work and shop in downtown areas. As we learned, when the people left for the suburbs, the jobs and retailers followed. Does that mean that cities are doomed? Only for those who don’t understand history. People have always lived in cities and they always will. Fifty years ago, urban planners and government policy makers became infatuated by the automobile and made motorized mobility the supreme consideration. However, the outcomes brought by those policies are unsatisfactory too many and interest in city living – or at least city-type living, which is characterized by strong neighborhoods of mixed use and mixed population that are walkable and serviced by reliable public transportation – continues to revive. Many of those people, including me, live here in Lowell.

Infrastructure in Lowell

Some items of city infrastructure came up at last Tuesday’s council meeting. First was the FY17 sewer rate. City Manager Murphy explained that it is time to start repaying federal loans obtained for past work on combined sewer overflow so the sewer rate charged users will have to go up. At the manager’s request, the council referred this item to the finance subcommittee where the city administration will present more information on this.

The city’s parking garages also were subject of a council motion. Councilors Belanger and Samaras requested a report on the usage of city parking garages, particularly by entities that have rented bulk spaces in the garages. Between repair work being done on the Lower Locks and Market Street garages which have cut back on the number of usable spaces, and overall increase in use of city garages – the Market Street garage is often full by 8am on weekdays – customers of downtown businesses are having difficulty finding spaces in some of the garages during the day. In some preliminary comments on the motion Tuesday night, Manager Murphy acknowledged that this is a problem and that the city is investigating ways to address it. One thing being contemplated is having employees of the school department’s central office who work in the Bon Marche building or across the street and who now park in the Market Street garage, shift to the Ayotte Garage (next to the Tsongas Arena). That garage is used mainly by Lowell High staff and students and has more availability than Market Street.

Parking will only grow as an issue as the Hamilton Canal Development proceeds. The city already plans to build a 900 space garage on the Market Street side of Hamilton Canal, but another garage could also be needed at the Middlesex Street side, especially to handle the people working and visiting the judicial center. With no appreciable state or federal funding in sight, new parking garages are huge expenses for the city that also take away parcels of land that could be put to more productive use.

One of the reasons I’m such an advocate of making the city more walkable is that our traffic and parking problems will persist until we are able to shift more people away from cars as their sole means of transportation. I’m reminded of this need any time I drive down Route 3 on a weekday morning. Not too long ago, “widening Route 3” was the rallying cry of business organizations and much of the media. Expanding the road from two lanes to three would yield a transportation nirvana and an economic boom. Well the economy along Route 3 seems to be doing OK but I think that is in spite of the highway, not because of it. From my experience, widening the road from just means that you now are stuck in three lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic rather than two. That shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. It’s pretty well known in contemporary (as opposed to still-embraced-by-some 1960s-era) traffic planning circles that widening a road just means more cars will use it with no appreciable decrease in wait times, something we can all watch happen on Nesmith Street once that road’s widening project is complete.

Unfortunately, for nearly a half century, city infrastructure has been designed almost exclusively for cars and people driving them to the detriment of anyone trying to walk safely. The best way to undo that mindset is to get the city’s decision makers out from behind the wheels of their cars and walking on the streets. They will very quickly see how dangerous that is, partly because so many drivers are oblivious to the rights of pedestrians but also due to the design of the city’s streets.

There was a good example of this “walking as a way of opening one’s eyes” approach at the council meeting. Councilor Jim Leary filed a motion (jointly with Councilor Leahy) that the city develop a comprehensive plan to improve traffic and pedestrian patterns on Chelmsford Street. Leary explained that he was motivated to make this motion after accompanying a constituent on a walk along the almost the entire Lowell length of Chelmsford Street (from Viola St to the Gallagher Terminal). Seeing the road and all of its elements and phases from the perspective of the sidewalk provides much greater insight into how everything interacts along the road than does traversing it in a car.

Hopefully the report requested by Leary and Leahy will incorporate the principals of the Complete Streets Program which was unanimously adopted by the city council last year. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) administers the Complete Streets program which is described on the MassDOT website as follows:

A Complete Street is one that provides safe and accessible options for all travel modes – walking, biking, transit and vehicles – for people of all ages and abilities. Designing streets with these principles contributes toward the safety, health, economic viability and quality of life in a community by improving the pedestrian and vehicular environments. Providing safer, more accessible and comfortable means of travel between home, school, work, recreation and retail destinations helps promote more livable communities. As designers, planners, public officials and advocates, we have a responsibility to promote and improve public health, reduce traffic congestion, make places safer and more livable, and reduce environmental impacts.

The city has been aggressively pursuing Complete Streets opportunities which are organized in three tiers. Tier 1 required the city to adopt an acceptable Complete Streets program and to have certain employees receive Complete Streets training.  On this week’s Council agenda is an announcement that DPD has advanced to Tier 2 which requires the creation of a multiyear master list of projects that will be ranked based on “safety, mobility, and system continuity criteria.” Once that plan is created and approved by MassDOT, the city will advance to Tier 3 which allows Lowell to apply for up to $400,000 in state funding for up to five different projects. This is on a tight timeline because all of the projects for which money is to be awarded must be completed no later than June 30, 2017. Hopefully the city will continue its practice of soliciting public input for projects of this type as has been the case with the Lord Overpass.

Hamilton Canal District News

Not long ago I mentioned that with such smooth sailing at city council meetings (at least until the FY17 budget hearings begin), the most interesting action in the city is on its land use boards. For example, the agenda for this Wednesday’s meeting of the Conservation Commission contains this item:

Request for Determination of Applicability by Watermark Environmental Inc. for the construction of a five to seven story commercial building at 221.4 Jackson Street.

This is one of the prime parcels in the Hamilton Canal District and Watermark is a Lowell company (currently at 175 Cabot Street). Having the process of constructing this new building in the HCD get underway is great news.

Cambodian Statue

A few weeks ago, hundreds of member of Lowell’s Cambodian community turned out at a city council meeting to protest a planned meeting of city officials and Hun Manet, a general in the Cambodian Army and son of the country’s prime minister. Although the majority of those at the meeting were opposed to the visit, some spoke in favor of it. Still, the city council voted overwhelmingly to cancel the meeting. Not long after that Hun Manet did visit Lowell. Among other things, he attended a reception at a function hall at Pailin Plaza on Branch Street. The evening of that event, my Facebook feed was filled with separate streams of photos: one stream featured many familiar faces from the city’s Cambodian community, standing across Branch Street from the Plaza, protesting Hun Manet’s visit. But the second photo stream featured an almost equal number of familiar Cambodian faces, posing for photos with Hun Manet at the reception. This all provided some insight into the deep divisions in Lowell’s Cambodian community caused by contemporary politics in Cambodia.

At most times, that division bubbles beneath the surface of official Lowell. The Hun Manet visit brought it into plain sight but it has since receded. However, plans to install a Cambodian statue at the corner of Branch and Middlesex Streets, across from Clemente Park and from Pailin Plaza, threatens to reinvigorate the conflict.

This coming Tuesday, the city council will receive a report on plans of the Cambodian business community to erect a statue at Branch and Middlesex Streets. The report says that the statue, which weighs 9 tons and is 12 feet high will arrive in Boston by ship in mid-May. The report also says that the statue was purchased with private funds and will be erected on private property. However, the city is providing guidance so that the installation of the statue is done safely and legally.

Some who protested Hun Manet’s visit have previously alleged that this statue is being funded by the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and due to that connection, the statue was unwelcome by many in the Lowell Cambodian community. Hopefully everyone will be satisfied with the city’s statement that it is privately funded so that this addition to the city’s outdoor art collection can take its place without further controversy.

4 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: May 8, 2016

  1. Brian says:

    Existing parking can be better managed through dynamic pricing. Parking 101 states that high demand curbside parking should be priced higher than garage parking. Lowell is getting this wrong. Pricing can be adjusted based on demand with technology.
    If the Market St garage is filling up quickly it’s a sign that pricing should be higher(during peak usage).

    Mandating parking requirements for new development kills projects before they start. All surface parking lots could be developed downtown if the requirements were eliminated Don’t we need tax revenue to pay teachers, firemen, police, etc?

    Why aren’t these proven initiatives even being discussed?

  2. Joe S says:

    I’d like to see the City extend the car sharing concept in place at UML garages to the City garages and by LRTA to the Transportation Center garage. This may relax the zoning requirements of parking spaces per unit (or worse, per bedroom) that restrict development while promoting more cars.

  3. Gail says:

    The reason that the Market St. garage is currently filling up so quickly is not all of it is available. Some of it is closed for repairs. If you make it too expensive or difficult to park, people will opt for jobs elsewhere –or teleworking more.. I think there are more downtown residences than jobs in the downtown. The model of the downtown parking garages is that residents, pay $48/ month ($26 if 62+) for parking and most of them will leave during the day and a certain percentage will be filled by those paying $64/ month to park and the rest by those paying day or hourly rates. The greatest number of hourly rate parkers, are MCC students. It is my understanding that there are more residents downtown than jobs, and that most people who live downtown do not work downtown. As a result, most downtown residents use their car, to commute to work. It isn’t a case that they only need a car for a couple of hours a week or a couple of times a month. If a couple lives in a one-bedroom unit downtown, they probably have and need two cars.

  4. Brian says:

    Raising the rate for the Market St or John St garages will not deter people from working in downtown as long as there are cheaper options available, which would be the less than full garages.

    Daily parkers will figure this out quickly and make the adjustment based on cost and convenience. Some might forego driving and walk, bike, or take the bus. What we don’t want is visitors and shoppers unable to find an open spot in the core downtown, circling the block, causing unnecessary congestion, and cursing that Lowell doesn’t have “enough” parking.

    Lowell has too much parking. We just don’t price it correctly to ensure availability in the high demand areas.