Lowell City Council Meeting: September 27, 2016
Presentation on Lowell High renovations
Manager Murphy explains we’re now in the feasibility stage which will decide the location. Representatives for Skanska (engineers) and Perkins/Eastman (architects) speak to the council. Now, they are documenting the building as it is, while looking at options for future sites. Manager Murphy interjects that a community-wide vision for LHS is very important. Invites audience members who are interested to call his office and he’ll put them on the visioning committee. Planners also plan to go to neighborhood meetings. They haven’t identified the number of locations to be considered. That will come out of the study they are doing now. Councilor Mercier says she thinks the high school should stay where it is, but there is a suggestion that the high school should expand to include the dentist office. She can’t see displacing those dentists who have been there for 30 years. She compares it to UMass Lowell buying the Perkins Apartments and displacing existing tenants. She declares she will not support moving those dentists out of there in order to expand the high school. The engineer rep says that suggestion was in a prior study that had nothing to do with these companies and that’s not the direction we’re now looking at. Manager Murphy says the timeline is to have three options available this winter and then to select one of them in the spring. He says the Mass School Building Authority makes those decisions.
Presentation by Winn Companies on Master Development of Hamilton Canal District
Larry Curtis, president of Winn, addresses the council. Winn has been around since 1971 and has done all types of developments. They are a very large company in many states, but Lowell has become the centerpiece of their operations. Their headquarters is now in Boott Mills. Many of their projects in Lowell “have been started by others who couldn’t get them over the finish line.” They are proud to serve that role. They pay $1mil in property taxes to the city. As for Hamilton Canal, there is a high cost of development in Mass Gateway Cities, and then there are lease and rent rate realities that effect what is feasible. All construction will be ground-up. Cites 2008 master plan for HCD. He commends the city for the infrastructure improvements, for the courthouse groundbreaking, for the Signature Bridge, and for the city parking garage. He says this all “sets the table for long term success” of HCD. Says they will work closely with Watermark and Genesis. Winn sees their work as coming in two phases. Their experience here in Lowell and market realities have convinced them that on the lots alongside Appleton Mills and Pawtucket Canals, there have always been envisioned as residential space. They plan to make these market rate apartments. Also sees street level retail as part of this. On another parcel, they see a 40,000 square foot commercial development that will complement the new courthouse, but building such a structure requires them to first find a tenant: you don’t build such a building “on spec.” Future development will be north of Pawtucket Canal (closer to Market Mills). Challenges: Labor rates are high. Lease rates aren’t. There is a funding gap of 30% between what it will cost to build and what can be obtained thru rents with new construction of both residential and commercial ground-up construction. They do ask that an independent source be hired by Winn to conduct an updated feasibility study since the one now in existence is based on 2008 factors.
Council Comments – Councilor Belanger begins. Asks why there’s a 6 to 10 year timeline for bringing in companies. Winn says they’ll be soliciting companies immediately and if they find one, they’ll speed up that timetable. Reiterates the enormity of an entirely new, ground-up building. He refers to Boston’s efforts in bringing GE to Boston and says that’s the kind of collaboration they anticipate here. Winn reminds them that with no building to renovate, there’s no availability of historic tax credits. As for low income tax credits, he says a new state program provides 80% market/20% low income which is still for people making $40,000 per year so it’s more accurately called “work force housing” than low income housing. Belanger asks if considering condominiums. Winn says they are open minded; they’ll look to the feasibility study.
Other issues raised: Councilor Leary asks about the timetable for the Lord Overpass. Manager Murphy says 2020-21. He said there should be another public meeting coming up on that. Leary asks about the parking garage. Murphy says the council has already appropriated $1.2mil for design which should be done in spring 2017 and construction will continue. Murphy says the judicial center needs 300 parking spaces; Lowell Community Health needs another 150. So the city may have to build a second garage in HCD, closer to the courthouse.
A succession of councilors say they want market rate housing filled with people with disposable income.
Councilor Mercier asks about the “funding gap.” Winn says even with $2000 per month rent for market rate housing, you still need subsidies to be able to construct the property. Winn also cautions city councilors to refrain from saying “we don’t want any housing” because in the competitive environment for subsidies. Councilor Mercier asks why could Perkins get $6mil in historic credits and this project can’t get any. Winn explains that Perkins was renovating a historic building; this project is building brand new buildings which don’t qualify for historic credits.
Councilor Milinazzo says this is a reality check for the city council. We have one of the best developers in the country telling us there’s a funding gap that can be bridged by 80/20 mix of market rate/work force housing. If we don’t get real and recognize this is the only way this is going to be built, we aren’t going to be having any ribbon cuttings. Councilors can’t be afraid of the term “work force housing.”
Steven Panagiotakos speaks next. He says “work force housing is the people we represent.” He says it’s young people just starting out. We should want that; we shouldn’t be afraid of that. We want those people to stay here. Councilor Leahy thanks Panagiotakos “for the great explanation; that’s what we needed to hear.”
Ordinance amending the ordinance for salaries of councilors and school committee members (council from $15K to $20K; Mayor from $20K to $30K; School Committee from $7500 to $15K. No members of the public speak. Councilor Rourke moves to approve. No debate. Passes 8-1 (Elliott voting no).
Ordinance to petition legislature to raise signature requirement from 50 to 150 to be nominated to run for city council. No members of the public speak. Councilor Mercier says she proposed this to weed out non-serious candidates. She moves to approve. Rourke seconds. Elliott says every other community requires only 50 signatures. Says he thinks the solution is to increase the number of candidates needed to have a preliminary. Says he’s not going to support this. Passes 8-1 (Elliott opposed).
Vote to authorize City Manager to enter into Strategic Partnership Agreement with UMass Lowell and UMass Building Authority. After a few questions and comments, council votes 9-0 to authorize agreement.
Councilor Mercier, request city manager provide a report regarding structural integrity of the balcony at Lowell Memorial Auditorium as well as a report regarding the access available into the building from the loading docks for equipment used by the performers. Balcony has been tested by structural engineer; no problems with it. Regarding the doors, some acts can’t come here because they can’t fit equipment through the doors. CM Murphy says Auditorium capital plan calls for fixing bathrooms and these doors.
Councilor Samaras, request city manager have proper department repair sidewalks by St. George’s Church at corner of Bower and Fletcher Streets in anticipation of the 100 year anniversary of the church.
Councilors Leary & Samaras, request city manager work with the police department to monitor and to change the pattern of speeding and aggressive driving on Princeton Blvd.
Councilor Belanger, request city manager issue a report relative to the city’s authority over naming rights of city owned parcels like LeLacheur Park and Cawley Stadium.
Councilor Belanger, request city manager work with DPD on a new marketing strategy for the Hamilton Canal District now that the Judicial Center construction has begun.
Councilor Belanger, request city manager work with traffic engineer on reducing or eliminating on-street parking at night on lower Bridge Street to improve inbound morning traffic flow.
Mayor Kennedy and Councilors Leahy, Leary, and Samaras, request city manager take proper steps to install a traffic crossing light along Andover Street in the vicinity of Douglas and Arbor Roads.
Mayor Kennedy, request city auditor provide city council with an analysis of the financial impact the Charter Schools have on the city.
3 Responses to Lowell City Council Meeting: September 27, 2016
It’s great that the Hamilton Canal District finally has some positive momentum. The focus now should be on making it as successful as possible. One demand that the city should make of Winn is ground floor retail or restaurant in all new buildings. The paper shows only the office building as having ground floor shops. The residential building should also include shops. This will give more people reasons to visit the HCD. It will create more foot traffic or as Jane Jacobs said “eyes on the street”, making it safer. Perhaps most importantly it will create more jobs and increase commercial tax revenue for the city.
This is getting into the weeds but the shops should be small to reduce risk of closures. Stadium Plaza looks pretty bad with Staples and Kmart gone but you barely notice when Merrimack St has 2 empty storefronts. This will also enable local businesses to hang a shingle in the HCD. People like to visit Portsmouth or the North End because there’s lots of choices to eat or shop. Less people will have a reason or want to come if it’s all CVS’s and Bank of America’s.
Trying to predict the amount of parking needed is an unfortunate exercise. Why does the judicial center need 300 spaces and not 286 or 309? It’s a crapshoot. Some parking is needed but is anyone factoring in all the on-street parking that will be created? I haven’t heard one estimate of the number of metered spaces that will be created.
What happens when driverless cars don’t need to park in the gargage? What happens when a future council makes walking, biking, and transit a viable transportation option and less parking is needed? Parking demand will go down but our parking garage debts will still need to be paid.
If the place is amazing but parking is scarce people will still come in droves. If the place has an abundance of parking it will never be amazing and not worthy of peoples time and money.
Brian, thank you. I agree completely with your assessment about parking. We should see how matters play out before determining that we need need to build a seventh city owned and maintained parking garage in downtown Lowell. This is assuming that a sixth parking garage, as I count them, will automatically be built.
I also agree that we should not ignore that the neighborhood will naturally provide much parking on street or by other means. This city could do much worse than having a parking shortage. I see that it would be better to have a parking shortage than enough or too much parking with no places for people to go or visit. Remember that parking garages provide no property taxes. I am not saying that we should not have parking garages or that the city gets no financial gain from garages, but that they are a means to an end, and should be only one of many means, like bicycling, waling, busing, mass transit, etc.
We should also consider that by providing more parking we are in fact encouraging more people to drive instead of choosing an alternate mode of transportation. Fewer cars in Lowell would hopefully mean less greenhouse gases. I say that Wynn seems to be a very successful developer and that if they think that the market will support the Hamilton Canal District without two extra parking garages, we should let them do it. Amherst, MA has done this in a downtown development on Triangle Street.
I am not sure about driverless cars? Won’t they need parking too? Or am I missing something here. I confess that the idea of driverless cars has never appealed to me. I have always wanted to be able to curse the driver that almost hits me or ignores me in the crosswalk, unless i have a small child with me.
I’m not sure how I feel about driverless cars but I do think they’re coming sooner than later. They won’t need to park in the garages during the day because they will be optimized to always be occupied, with multiple passengers to bring down costs. If dozens of people utilize the same car throughout the day, car ownership and car sales will plummet.
Housing driverless car fleets at night will be cheaper on half-empty or defunct car dealership lots than in expensive city garages. This is bad new for municipal parking revenue and our inability to pay off garage debt could devastate the budget.
The good news is a lot of land in downtown could be developed if off-street parking becomes unnecessary. Many purposeful cities have already reduced or eliminated minimum parking requirements in traditional downtowns to induce new development. Last week the POTUS came out with a report recommending just that.
To be sure suburban and rural folks will depend on driverless cars to get around. City folk won’t need to rely on driverless cars if more space is devoted to walking, biking, and busing. All Lowell’s problems won’t go away, and regulation is a must, but this scenario seems possible.
Or we can ignore all the signals and build two garages in the Hamilton Canal District.