Lowell Week in Review: March 26, 2017

State Senators being welcomed to UMass Lowell by Chancellor Jacquie Moloney

This past Tuesday night I attended the Commonwealth Conversations event at UMass Lowell which featured twelve State Senators visiting Lowell to listen to the concerns of area residents. It was an impressive event which I wrote about in a separate post. Please take a look at it if you haven’t already done so.

Lowell City Council meeting: March 21, 2017

Because I had another commitment on Tuesday night, I didn’t get to watch the city council meeting live on cable TV. I did watch the replay yesterday. I didn’t create a full transcript, but there were a few items worth mentioning.

It sounds like the final vote to select the site of the new Lowell High School will come on Tuesday, May 9, 2017 which is just six weeks away. When some councilors expressed concern about the city’s ability to have everything required for that decision in place by then, Manager Murphy explained that the reason May 9 is the target is to have the vote accomplished in time for the state school building authority’s June meeting. But there is another state meeting in August, so if the city needs more time to take the vote, it can be delayed which won’t be fatal to the process.

One of the reasons for concerns over scheduling was because at Tuesday’s meeting, the vote to begin the Article 97 process for removing the use restrictions on the Cawley site was delayed for a week when Councilor Jim Milinazzo objected to the second reading of the vote. Milinazzo later explained that the council has repeatedly said that it wants to receive input from all residents of the city. To that end, informational meeting were scheduled at the Senior Center and the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association on Wednesday and Thursday nights, the night after and two nights after the council meeting. Milinazzo said he thought it was inconsistent for the council to take the Article 97 vote just before those two sessions were held. He added that he does not object to the council voting on Article 97, he just wanted it to be after the two informational sessions.

The council then bundled most of the Cawley-related motions together. Manager Murphy briefed councilors on a meeting he had last week with the State Secretary of Environmental Affairs who advised the city to continue moving forward with the Article 97 process and to work with the state on replicating the Cawley fields that would be displaced by building a new high school there. Councilors asked lots of questions to the City Manager about the reasoning behind the replication requirements and restrictions. By their words and body language, several councilors made it clear that they did not like the answers given to them by the city manager. But in this case, the manager is just relaying to the council the position of the state Environmental Affairs office. If councilors don’t like the response, they always have the option to challenge it in court. But no one on the council will suggest doing that because it would delay the process by years, not by weeks.

In discussing the process of replicating the Cawley space with greenspace elsewhere, Manager Murphy explained that even though the area at Cawley to be taken for school use would be slightly more than 3 acres, the state is requiring Lowell to put forth nearly 22 acres of space in exchange. Murphy explained that the city has identified six different sites that total 22 acres and is now searching the title of each parcel to ensure that none of them carry restrictions of their own.

I’m anxious to learn where these sites are and the city’s plans for their intended use. Quite apart from the whole Lowell High construction issue, the city can always use more greenspace, so perhaps these sites will add to our collective recreational land inventory. That would be an unexpected benefit of this whole debate.

All Lowell High, All the Time

The intensity of the Lowell High siting debate has sucked up all the political oxygen in the city, leaving critically important issues lurking in the shadows. For instance, isn’t the city’s FY18 budget proposal due out soon? I assume people at city hall are working on it, but is it receiving the attention it should from the council and the public, or has the high school project pre-empted that?

A reminder that there’s more going on in the city than constructing a new high school came last Tuesday in the form of a vote on a $1.2 million loan order to pay architectural and design services for the new Hamilton Canal Parking Garage. A few questions were asked by councilors about the garage, but nothing about what’s going on in the Hamilton Canal District, which seems very off the council’s radar these days.

And in comments about the parking garage design loan order, Manager Murphy added that the city will soon conduct a survey on downtown parking needs. He expects that to show that a second garage in the Hamilton Canal District, and another garage for the rest of downtown, will be needed.

Building three new parking garages (two in Hamilton Canal and one somewhere else downtown) exclusively with city funds will be an expensive undertaking. Yet many in the city believe there is too much emphasis on parking garages and not enough attention given to alternative means of transportation. Having a public discussion on that issue as a way of gaining a shared vision of how the city should proceed into the future is critically important, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon due to the new High School issue shoving everything else off stage.

Upcoming Council Meeting

This Tuesday night, the Council will take the vote to file special legislation granting permission to utilize Cawley Land in accordance with Article 97 of Massachusetts Constitution. There are also twelve motions on the agenda. Here they are:

COUNCILOR Milinazzo – Request City Manager provide a report to the City Council regarding trash fines collected over the last 12 months per the City ordinance.

COUNCILOR Elliott – Request City Manager provide a list of vacancies on Boards and Commissions.

COUNCILOR Elliott – Request City Manager provide a report regarding “change for change” initiative relative to panhandling.

COUNCILOR Elliott/COUNCILOR Leahy – Req. City Council vote to lift parking restrictions in downtown on weekends.

COUNCILOR Samaras/COUNCILOR Leahy/COUNCILOR Leary – Request City Manager have proper department repair potholes on June Street, in addition provide time line for repaving of June Street going towards Robinson School.

COUNCILOR Leary – Request City Manager provide City Council with the 2017/2018 budget presentation timeline.

COUNCILOR Leary – Request City Manager review the use of cameras at City park locations.

COUNCILOR Belanger – Request City Manager update City Council regarding City’s financial outlook after approval of bonding for the Lowell High School project.

MAYOR Kennedy – Request City Manager have the proper department install a street light in the vicinity of 5 W Tenth Street.

MAYOR Kennedy Request City Manager consider providing municipal funding for the Jack Kerouac Festival in October.

MAYOR Kennedy – Request City Manager consider establishing a translation bureau in the lobby of City Hall on Tuesdays, in order to provide interpreters in Spanish, Khmer, Portuguese and any other relevant languages.

MAYOR Kennedy – Request City Manager consider and report to the Council on the feasibility of having the City of Lowell participate in the Clean River Project.

Business Improvement District on Hold

For nearly a year, there has been talk of establishing a Business Improvement District in downtown Lowell. Generally, a Business Improvement District (BID) is a designated area in which businesses are assessed a fee that is pooled to fund projects within the BID’s boundaries. This week, the City Manager has provided the council with a report on that initiative. Here’s the key paragraph:

“After significant efforts by both the private sector leaders and the City working together to educated the property owners, it was mutually agreed upon during a meeting last Friday to postpone the process for establishing a BID until 2018. While the idea of creating this district is very positive and has shown good results in other communities, it was felt that the timing of bringing this new district forward would be better accomplished at a later time.”

Louis Cyr: L’Homme le Plus Fort du Monde

On Monday, April 3, 2017 at 7:35 pm, the Lowell Historical Society and Jeanne d’Arc Credit Union will present a free screening of Louis Cyr: The Strongest Man in the World at Luna Theater, Mill No. 5, 250 Jackson Street in Lowell.

In my Legendary Locals of Lowell book, I wrote this about Cyr:

“Born in Quebec as Cyprien-Noe Cyr (1863-1912), he came to Lowell with his family at age 15, changed his name to Louis, and began entering strongman competitions.  His many feats – lifting 500 pounds with three fingers and carrying 4,337 pounds on his back – suggest Cyr was the strongest man who ever lived.  Eventually he left Lowell to work as a police officer in Montreal while continuing to entertain as a strongman.”

Please check out the movie trailer which features scenes from 19th century Lowell.

5 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: March 26, 2017

  1. Brian says:

    It’s incredible that c. Elliott and Leahy would propose removing parking restrictions on the weekends. They’ve heard from countless parking professionals on the benefits of more enforcement and how it helps small business.

    If anything we need later and Sunday enforcement so 9-5ers have an opportunity to get a good parking spot and spend money at the shops. For example Hypertext Books closes at 6pm. They used to stay open later but business was slow. All the good spots were taken by downtown residents or bar and restaurant patrons from 6pm till the next morning. Shoppers have to settle for the garages AND have to pay. Why bother when Target parking if free and plentiful?

    The only way to compete with Target is to have later meter enforcement AND free short term parking in the garages. This frees up the best spots for diners, drinkers, and shoppers that want to park right outside the front of a store, bar, or restaurant. It also attracts people who want free parking but are willing to walk a little.

    I’m sure restaurateurs get this with table turnover. More turnover equals more revenue so they train waitstaff to skillfully move people along. Enforcement is more heavy handed but offering free short term parking in the garages helps to allay fears and complaints.

    Why wouldn’t they want increased turnover on the other side of the glass so more folks have the opportunity to buy a book or a pizza?

  2. Brian says:

    I should add it’s motions like this that hurt downtown businesses but when people look to find cause or blame for business failings they bring up the high school. LHS contributed to the vibrant downtown back in the day and it contributes to our struggling downtown today. But LHS doesn’t cause businesses to close. Students and teachers don’t park at meters all day and don’t prevent more customers from downtown.

    Businesses close for many reasons. But even if you have a good business model at a good location not enough customers will kill it. Misinformed parking policy, a generational problem in downtown, doesn’t help.

    LHS didn’t decide to demolish Little Canada. LHS didn’t cause the Mills to go South or Wang to go bankrupt. LHS doesn’t enforce arbitrary parking minimums on new development so our development pattern becomes disjointed and driving the dominant way to get around–causing congestion and our streets to be widened, cutting off our walkable neighborhoods from easy and useful downtown shopping.

    LHS is just a scapegoat for poor governance. It’s a shame it’s being used as an argument to move it to the Tewksbury line.

  3. Brian says:

    Moving LHS to Cawley adds a layer of transportation complexity that most students will have to deal with for four years and the taxpayer in perpetuity. It takes a current problem that exists for a couple hundred athletes and foists it on the rest. For example: A kid from Wood St could take a bus to Cawley, then take a bus downtown to UTEC or Girls Inc or to work, then have to take a bus back home. It’s absurd to think kids are going to adjust to this without some negative outcomes.

    LHS transportation needs improvement but can be done easier and cheaper with a central location. Waltham, Boston, and Quincy subsidize transportation for high school kids who live more than 2 miles from school. Lawrence only buses high school kids that live north of the Merrimack. Lowell could follow the greater-than-2-mile model using existing LRTA bus routes.

    Most kids live within 2 miles of downtown so the subsidy would be manageable. Most streets within 2 miles of downtown were built before cars so they have sidewalks and are designed at a human scale. Not so around Cawley. Many Belvidere streets lack sidewalks and are wider so cars go faster.

    Many people on both sides of the debate are using active shooter scenarios to advance their arguments. I prefer to focus on something statistically more likely to happen. Car crashes. In 2014 2,270 teens were killed and 221k injured in crashes. There is a critical difference between a crash at 25 mgp vs 40mph. Cars go faster in Belvidere than in our older more dense neighborhoods. I predict many kids won’t take the bus because of long commutes. Teenager drivers take the most risks so a Cawley LHS should correlate to more and worse crashes than we see now.

    Lastly I’ll say earlier start times is not the answer. See http://www.startschoollater.net/why-change.html

  4. joe from Lowell says:

    Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap.

    “LHS didn’t decide to demolish Little Canada. LHS didn’t cause the Mills to go South or Wang to go bankrupt.”

    Preach, Brother Brian!

    “LHS doesn’t enforce arbitrary parking minimums on new development so our development pattern becomes disjointed and driving the dominant way to get around–causing congestion and our streets to be widened, cutting off our walkable neighborhoods from easy and useful downtown shopping.”

    Preach! LHS didn’t build a divided highway between Centralville and Downtown, now did it?

    “LHS is just a scapegoat for poor governance.”

    PREACH! Has anyone else noticed that the retail centers in the neighborhoods where those high school kids live are all booming?

    “It’s a shame it’s being used as an argument to move it to the Tewksbury line.”

  5. Paul Early says:

    Thanks Brian, your comments are very thoughtful and appropriate. I hope that you email them to our city councilors so that they can know that there are alternate perspectives on parking and LHS’s role in downtown. I happen to agree with your comments, but you should pass them on to city council as well.