Lowell Week in Review: June 11, 2017

Lowell High vote

This coming Wednesday morning, most people in the city, especially the nine city councilors, will be glad that the vote on the new Lowell High School is over, no matter what the result. In the nearly fifty years that I’ve followed Lowell politics, this is the most divisive issue I can recall. The mid-1990s struggle for the arena and ballpark was a love-in compared to what has taken place over the past six months.

Despite the animosity that has come to permeate the debate on this issue, I don’t think the political implications next November will be all that great. That’s because a majority of the 10,000 people who actually vote in city elections favor Option “I don’t want my taxes to go up,” so if councilors are to be punished at the ballot box, it will fall equally regardless of how they vote on the high school location. (Unless, of course, one or more councilors doesn’t vote for any option, citing the unaffordability of all choices).

Yesterday, Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, UMass President Marty Meehan, and State Senator Eileen Donoghue announced their support for the downtown option. Last night, the Lowell Sun editorialized in favor of Cawley.

As for me, I favor downtown – Option 3, to be exact. My reasons for that haven’t changed much since my Week in Review post way back on January 18, 2015. Here’s some of what I wrote about the location of a new Lowell High School THIRTY MONTHS AGO (emphasis added):

Earlier this week City Manager Murphy relayed information that when the State School Building Assistance Board this March officially releases the names of projects it will undertake, Lowell High School will be on it.  The state board will then descend on the city and conduct an assessment of whether Lowell High should be renovated in place or whether an entirely new high school should be built elsewhere. . . .

. . . The political maneuvering here in Lowell will make this a fascinating process.  The current site is not optimal – it lacks adjacent athletic fields, for example – but it’s been there since 1831.  For everyone who claims that bringing 3000 teenagers into downtown every day is disruptive to business, there’s someone else who says that the students spend substantial sums at downtown businesses and that without the students and staff, downtown would be even more deserted than it sometimes seems now.

A big question that would have to be answered before the high school was to move out of downtown would be where would it go?  When the dozen or so new schools were built back in the early 1990s, a huge challenge was finding places to put them since there’s not that much free space in the city.  Some have mentioned the South Common as a site, but I’m not sure that’s of sufficient size once you factor in parking and athletic fields and facilities.  Plus there would be a huge fight from those who would oppose the loss of such a substantial public green space.

There’s always the area near Cawley Stadium, but would the residents of Belvidere welcome with open arms the same 3000 teenagers who are supposedly so disruptive of downtown commerce into their residential neighborhood?  Because they vote in such substantial numbers (and because so many of their neighbors serve on the council), their opinions will carry more weight than folks who might live on South or Summer Streets. . . .

. . . While I can see benefits that would come from a brand new high school designed from the ground up, a precondition to me supporting any move of LHS would be some concrete proposal for what would take its place.  Fanciful notions of an outlet mall or luxury condos represent the triumph of hope over experience.  It reminds me a little of the mindset that brought us urban renewal back in the 1960s: “Let’s tear down all these mill buildings and replace them with modern new industry.”  Well, most of the urban renewal sites today, 50 years later, remain largely vacant.  We don’t want the same thing to happen between Kirk Street and Arcand Drive.

Lowell has an identity crisis. A lot of people who live here want Lowell to be more like a suburb. But we’re a city and have always been one. We’ll never out-suburb the suburbs. The city succeeds by embracing its identity as a city.

Consider the Hamilton Canal District. Some want it to be “all commercial” with no housing. That perfectly describes a suburban office park. There are plenty of them around with plenty of space. A company that wants that setting has a lot to pick from. If that’s what we’re competing against, the Hamilton Canal District will remain a vacant lot for a long time.

But today, many companies want a city setting because that’s what their employees and potential employees want. They want to work in mixed use neighborhoods where they can work, eat, drink, have fun, and perhaps even live. That’s why it is crucial that the Hamilton Canal District contain residential and retail components along with commercial uses.

In having and keeping the high school downtown, the community makes a strong statement about our identity – that we’re a city, we embrace it, and if you’re a company or a person looking for affordable city living, then Lowell is the place for you.

What Comes Next?

I’m not talking about the high school, but of all the other things that have been neglected for the past several months while the high school debate has raged. What’s going on with the Hamilton Canal District? One of the two anchor tenants, Genesis Health Care, pulled out a few weeks ago and announced it would build a facility in Dracut. (More accurately, Genesis scaled back its proposal from a state of the art research facility in elder care in partnership with UMass Lowell to a nursing home and rehab facility, so the city wisely said “no thanks” to its placement in the Hamilton Canal District; it is just unfortunate that space elsewhere in the city was not found for the project). And what of the other prime private tenant, Watermark? Maybe that project is proceeding steadily, but we don’t know that since it hasn’t been mentioned publicly in months.

Yesterday’s Lowell Walk on the Western Canal – which drew 150 people – reached the start of the Western Canal at Dutton and Fletcher by walking along the sidewalk from Broadway to Fletcher. The plain cement sidewalk is bordered by the door-less wall of a massive cement building on one side, and four lanes of traffic on the other. It’s one of the most inhospitable places to walk in the city, even though it’s a major gateway into downtown. We might be able to start changing that with the remake of the Lord Overpass. Is that still underway? Will we be able to afford that? Again, we don’t know because it hasn’t been mentioned in months.

What of new and expanded walking trails along the Concord River and River Meadow Brook? After decades of urban design centered around the car, those two projects provide space favorable to walkers and bikers that will be great for recreational purposes, which will also improve transportation. When will people realize that you don’t reduce traffic by widening roads; you reduce it by shifting people to other means of transportation. And while we’re on walkways, let’s not forget about reconnecting Western Ave to downtown.

Speaking of transportation, the future of the eight canal bridges the city is to purchase from Enel and rehabilitate seems murky based on a story in Friday’s Lowell Sun that reported an $11 million cost overrun on the TIGER bridge replacement project which was launched with a $13.4 million Federal transportation grant (with the acronym of TIGER) that the city was awarded in 2015. Where will the additional $11 million come from? This venture was done in partnership with UMass Lowell since several of the bridges are critical to connecting the school’s campuses. But based on the statement from UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney that was included in the Sun article, don’t look to the University for more funding. Here is what Moloney said:

“It is disappointing that the university was not made aware of the significant funding shortfall in the bridges project last fall, as we would have recommended cost reductions around the design and scope of work to help address it. UMass Lowell remains committed to working with the city and Enel on this important project, as demonstrated by providing the largest share of the grant’s matching funds, $3 million including interest, and significant staff support. It would be unfortunate if Lowell loses the federal highway funding for much-needed repairs to bridges that ensure the safety and transportation needs of its residents and visitors.”

That statement is the clearest sign yet that we’re about to start paying the price for the constant bashing of UMass Lowell by Lowell City Councilors over the past few years. UMass Lowell is the best thing this city has going for it by far, yet some councilors treat it as a cancerous growth. The University can do just fine without the city, but the reverse is not true.

Another test of the city and University relationship may soon land before the Planning Board with the proposed reuse of the large parcel that once housed the main branch of the Jeanne d’Arc Credit Union until it moved across the street into newly constructed quarters. As I understand it, JDCU has reached an agreement with a private company that intends to build a 400 bed private dormitory on the site which is at the corner of Merrimack and Cabot streets. The proposal calls for 93 parking spaces for the 400 people who will be sleeping in those beds, and it contains no ground floor retail spaces which urban planners will tell you are critical to creating a vibrant, successful streetscape.

There must be a lot of money to be made in private dormitories because this would be the second one in the city, if it is allowed. The other is on Fr Morrisette Boulevard, across from Lowell High School. It is scheduled to open this fall.

I believe UMass Lowell is opposed to the concept of private dormitories in general and to the upper Merrimack Street proposal in particular. The main grounds for their objection is that it is unwise to put hundreds of 18 to 22 year olds in a big apartment building without adult supervision.

Many of the neighbors in the Acre neighborhood oppose this new project for that same reason, along with the small number of parking spaces that will be connected to the building, and the lack of retail space which will make that large block barren of the type of street level activity that would add to the ongoing improvements to the quality of life of that neighborhood.

Finally, the Globe reported on Friday that a national bond-rating agency has downgraded the credit rating of Massachusetts for the first time in 30 years. There have also been reports that the FY17 state budget, which wraps up at the end of this month, is millions in arrears, and that the FY18 budget, which is still being set by the legislature, may have a deficit built into it from the beginning.

With the Commonwealth’s finances stressed like that, and the uncertainty that now exists in Washington, the chances of the city of Lowell receiving future financial assistance from Beacon Hill or from Congress will be greatly diminished. Once the $150 million that is the city’s share of the new high school, wherever it may be built, is added to our long term indebtedness, plus the bonding of the big new parking garage for the Hamilton Canal District, and the extra cost to repair the canal bridges, plus all the other projects already in our capital plan, the city’s finances will enter a precarious period that will have a limiting effect on our ability to undertake other projects for decades to come.

So, yes, things will be so much better once the High School vote is behind us.

6 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: June 11, 2017

  1. Paul Early says:

    Wow! Dick thank you for this update. I have been thinking about the Hamilton Canal District lately. It seems to me that a major snag has been the lack of utilities in the area. Might this have been an issue for Trinity in their initial attempts to build out the HCD? As I recall the problem with the development started when communication broke down between the city and Trinity. If there is a lack of effective communication, then real problems get swept aside or ignored, especially if egos have been slighted.

    Communication and perception is very important for community building and completion of projects. I had thought that Lowell had done this well, but this seems to have broken down lately. There are certainly signs of some formal civility, like expressing thanks for service, but this seems to be just a facade, when there are a barrage of disparaging comments about UMass Lowell, Trinity, the Lowell High School project.

    I see this as a fundamental problem of not communicating face to face. It all seems like a slew of screeds coming from the White House on Twitter, and an attempt to undermine standing or importance of individuals or positions. To me this problem started back when Bernie Lynch was City Manager and the City Council was divided in their support for him.

    I had hoped that this problem would have been resolved when Mr Murphy took over, but I see that the underlying problem of communication and trust was never resolved. I do see that efforts have been made to work together, in particular William Samaras has made great efforts. But, textual communication has severe limitations, in both electronic and handwritten forms. One cannot read a face nor body language in text. It is a fine form for passing along non personal information, but it is all to easy to include snarky or snide personal animosity without ever seeing the effect.

    Personal confrontation is to be preferred over simmering text feuds. If there are differences, they should be aired out face to face; sometimes the sausage making should be done behind the scenes, but it still needs to be done face to face.

  2. joan mckniff says:

    Thank you. I wish I were a better writer and could explain how strongly I, LHS 59, feel about my/that school/that location, even though I only lived in Lowell for one year, after UMass Amherst and Peace Corps service. I can see my senior year home room window, where I looked over and thought about Lucy Larcom and the mill girls, after my father like so many others had lost his job in the mills. But this school, where my mother had attended when Ray Riddick was a fellow student and a winning coach when I was there, was my path to something beyond factory work, thanks to the decades of work and history made it what it was. From a Middlesex Village School 6th grade of 9 students to this downtown, public bus, with kids from throughout the city, and a big school, was a perfect preparation for a big, no hand holding school like UMass Amherst in those days of no cars on campus, dorm living days. See also: the world! Decades later I found myself on a Univ campus in Madrid, a US Diplomat, talking about women’s history in USA, example Lowell Mill Girls. Good thing I had a home room window aisle seat.

  3. George DeLuca says:

    Thanks for your work on this. A Request for Expressions of Interest (REOI) can be issued by the city at any time to gauge interest in developing the high school property. Deputy Director of Lowell DPD Kevin Coughlin produced a report based on input from five developers that says there is a market for the Kirk Street property and outlook is good overall at the total site. See the city’s website for that report.

    I posted an article on my blog on March 3 that aligns with Coughlin’s report. As some involved in developing the vision have suggested, the high school property would be welcome as an extension of the Hamilton Canal Innovation District. This move could lead to a revitalization of the city with a renewed vitality that spurs additions to the tax base, rising property values, training programs and jobs.

    I’ve been studying the possibilities for over 7 years and have extensive urban planning and community development experience with hands on management of public and private sector public facilities, capital improvements, and real estate development projects from conception through post-construction including marketing.

    The amenity of having the new high school campus in Belvidere will add to the desirability of Lowell and add fuel to the city-wide revitalization.

    Here’s an article that I wrote in March that outlines the possibilities: https://lowell2020.wordpress.com/2017/03/03/hamilton-canal-link-to-lhs-site-could-spark-revitalization/

    I’m working on a follow-up story now.

  4. Brian says:

    I’d make a deal with Jeanne​ d’Arc. Waive the parking requirement if they build small ground floor shops on Merrimack, Cabot, and Market St.

    Surface parking lots are as bad as door-less walls for streetscapes.

    It would reduce costs for the developer and create jobs for Acre residents. The trade-off is more units but don’t we need more people with disposable income.

    Buildings with a firm edge against the sidewalk enable active and lively streetscapes.

    A dorm that close to UML doesn’t​ need parking. They need shuttles and access to Zipcar.

    Thanks for supporting Option #3.

  5. Brian says:

    We also have to consider that the Jeanne d’Arc dorm will empty out every summer sucking the life out of that block. And if the high end dorm market crashes it will turn into apartments. Dare I say low-income rentals. Having ground floor shops lining Merrimack, Cabot, and Market hedges against future crisis and will be better for the neighborhood.

  6. Joe Boyle says:

    All are welcome to comment at Planning Board public hearings. Monday at 6:30.

    Joan McKniff, you could not possibly be a better writer. Thank you, that was beautiful and meaningful.