Lowell’s Big Plans by James Ostis

Lowell’s Big Plans
By James Ostis

Lowell was the most significant planned industrial city in the early United States. In the 1820s, a group of Boston investors set their sights on the water power potential of the Merrimack River and systematically created a new community based on maximizing the development of the cotton textile industry.  This may have been the first time advanced planning played a role in the Lowell story, but it was far from the last.

Over the course of the past year, the Lowell Heritage Partnership (LHP) and other community partners have collaborated on an ambitious effort to conceptualize new ways to invigorate Lowell’s canals and rivers and associated lands. The result is the Lowell Waterways Vitality Initiative, whose organizers will wrap up a year’s worth of planning meetings, community input sessions, and public demonstrations with a new action plan to be released by the holidays. Interested participants will have another chance to comment on the draft version of the plan this Thursday, October 27, 2016 at the UMass Lowell Innovation Hub, 110 Canal Street, from 6:00 p.m. to 8 p.m.

From day one of the project, stakeholders have looked to the more recent history of Lowell’s comprehensive planning efforts as a resource and an inspiration for this new endeavor. In anticipation of this Thursday’s gathering, here is a short summary of a few of the plans that have helped to shape Lowell’s revitalization. I have included links to digital versions of the plans themselves.

The Brown Book (1976)

Perhaps no plan is more influential in Lowell’s recent history than the Report of the Lowell Historic Canal District Commission, a.k.a. The Brown Book.  The Brown Book, released in 1975, was produced by a federal commission empowered to study the potential of creating a national historical park in Lowell and eventually served as the blueprint for Lowell National Historical Park, established in 1978.  Unlike the other plans highlighted in this piece, the original Brown Book document is not available online, but accounts of its influence can be found in a number of documents, most notably Paul Marion’s Mill Power:  The Origin and Impact of Lowell National Historical Park

Lowell: The Flowering City (1996)

In 1996, the Human Services Corporation convened a citywide community planning conference to identify ways to draw more value from Lowell’s natural assets: rivers, parks, forest, gardens, canal system, and more.  Over one weekend at Lowell High School, some 150 interested community members participated in a charrette entitled Project Anthopolis (the title a neologism coined by HSC president Peter Stamas, merging the Greek words for “Flowering City.”)  The result was Lowell: The Flowering City, A Report from the Project Anthopolis Charrette.  Among the topic areas discussed in the document was a focus on Lowell’s “Blueways” a direct precursor to the current Lowell Waterways Vitality Project.

On The Cultural Road… (2007)

In 2007, the Lowell Plan and Cultural Organization of Lowell (COOL) commissioned On the Cultural Road…: A City of World Culture.  This creative economy plan, crafted by Mt. Auburn Associates, was designed “to utilize and strengthen Lowell’s cultural assets in order to enhance community revitalization and pride, develop leadership and build human capital, (and) create new economic opportunities.”  Although some of the vision has yet to be realized, many of the plan’s suggestions have been enacted or are in the process of being realized, such as the redevelopment of the Smith Baker Center, support for creative entrepreneurs, and enhanced marketing of the city’s cultural assets.

Downtown Lowell Evolution Plan (2010)

Like the “Cultural Road” plan, the sponsors of the Downtown Lowell Evolution Plan enlisted professional expertise  outside the city by tasking nationally recognized urban planner Jeff Speck with a thorough examination of Lowell’s downtown and assets.  Speck not only studied, but also lived in Lowell for several months in 2010.  Among the most visible changes to come from the plan was the reestablishment of two-way traffic in Downtown Lowell. The Speck Plan also recommends bikeways, enhanced pedestrian ways, and identified strategies for activating Lowell’s waterways, with a particular focus on the Lower Locks canal complex near the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center and Carol Cowan Building of Middlesex Community College.

Sustainable Lowell 2025 (2013)

As discussed recently in a RichardHowe.com blog post, Lowell updated its citywide master plan in 2013.  Whereas the Downtown Evolution Plan was prepared by a national consultant, Sustainable Lowell 2025 was the result of a local steering committee headed by Lowell’s Planning and Development Department and incorporated direct input by over one thousand Lowell community members. The end product was “an officially adopted public document that establishes long-term policies and a shared vision for smart, responsible development within the city.” Many of these themes have also been incorporated into the Waterways plan.  Among the listed objectives included: “Promote waterfront access and development downtown…” and the plan also proposed several tasks such as surveying property, evaluating assets and opportunities, identifying potential impediments to redevelopment, and establishing regulations for waterfront businesses.

Lowell Waterways Vitality Action Plan (2016)

We need to acknowledge that there have been many Lowell planning reports, roadmaps, and blueprints of various scales.  These five examples are only a portion of Lowell’s rich planning history. These documents, however, serve to show that Lowell has always recognized the importance of a vision and plan. This Thursday evening, Oct. 27, at 6:00 p.m., you can help to shape Lowell’s newest community initiative.  I hope that you will join us to do so at the UMass Lowell Innovation Hub.

Lowell native James Ostis is a PhD candidate in Public Policy at UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, 2015 Rappaport Policy Fellow, and serves as the vice president of the Lowell Heritage Partnership. 

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