Lowell Week in Review: March 4, 2018

Private Dormitory on Merrimack Street

The private dormitory proposed to be constructed by Union Lowell LLC at the former Jeanne d’Arc Credit Union site on the Merrimack-Cabot-Market streets block will be back before the Planning Board for a public hearing tomorrow night (Monday, March 5, 2018).

This proposal contemplates building a 6-story privately-owned dormitory with 163 units containing 466 bedrooms a few hundred yards down Merrimack Street from UMass Lowell’s University Crossing. The proposal came before the Planning Board last year, but was withdrawn in the face of stiff opposition from neighbors and from UMass Lowell.

The proposal resurfaced last month and went before the Planning Board on February 5, 2018 for a preliminary review. That session was revealing, because the developer and his team laid out their arguments against the various objections raised to the project.

At that session, the developer undercut a big reason for much of the opposition to the project – insufficient parking – by adding a second level of internal parking which raised the number of on-site spaces to 198. The developer has also negotiated an agreement with the nearby Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church for additional leased spaces.

The developer has also pushed back against UMass Lowell’s primary objection which is that the additional dormitory beds are not needed. As evidence of that, UMass Lowell cited rising vacancy rates in its own dorms. The developer disagreed, saying there is a market for additional student housing. As evidence of that, he cited the large number of students who are living in off-campus apartments and suggested that the reason for that is that they cannot afford the room and board rates charged by the University. The developer went on to argue that his space will attract many of those students which will have the collateral benefit of lessening student demand for other rental housing in the Acre which would assist non-student tenants.

Those opposing the project retain concerns about the amount of parking provided. The concern is exacerbated by the already scarce amount of spaces in the Acre. Another concern is that the street level of the building will have a negative impact on the neighborhood. For instance, the two-level, 198 space internal parking facility will have its entrance on one of the already busy streets, presumable on Cabot close to Merrimack, which will further clog that already busy intersection. More significantly, the entire length of the building on Market Street will be a solid wall with no openings for the public. To that, the developer proposes using some “bump-outs” to vary the façade and has promised to display local art along the space, but it will still be a long, solid wall, which is contrary to good urban design practices.

This is a tough one. One the one hand, you have the neighbors who have done such a magnificent job in improving the Acre from what it was a few decades ago and who have been excellent partners with the city (see Decatur Way and the North Common, for example). On that same side, you have UMass Lowell, which is a crucial partner for the city.

On the other hand, you have Jeanne d’Arc Credit Union, which has retained its home in the Acre and done so much to help improve that section of the city (JDCU is a key partner in the Working Cities Grant Program now underway) and you have the union workers who will be hired to work on this project.

This one is too close to call. So if you’re not already heading to the Planning Board for this hearing, tune in on LTC Channel 99 (cable or streaming online) Monday night at 6:30 pm.

Lowell City Council Meeting

Thanks to Mimi for her report on Tuesday’s Lowell City Council meeting. The big item on the agenda was determining the process for selecting a new city manager. The end result seemed to be a modified regional search that will rely primarily on the Massachusetts Municipal Association website to make known the vacancy around the Commonwealth and will forego advertising in newspapers. Here’s the timeline that the council adopted:

  • Two (2) weeks posting.  Post it Feb 28 to March 14.
  • Advertise on City’s website, MMA website, internal distribution
  • Resumes will be distributed to the Council by mail by the weekend following March 14, 2018.
  • By March 20, Councilors will have to give their choices for interviewsMarch 25 to 29 will be the window for interviews
  • Selection made by March 29, 2018, although that date may be adjusted.

Check back here tomorrow morning for Mimi’s “City Council Preview” of this week’s meeting, and again on Tuesday night for my “City Council Meeting” report.

Lowell Women’s Week 2018

An overflow crowd gathered at Lenzi’s Restaurant last Monday for the kickoff breakfast of Lowell Women’s Week. The first speaker was Congresswoman Niki Tsongas who said that there is a long tradition of women in Lowell “breaking the mold,” from the mill girls who came from New England farms to gain a form of economic independence and who then fought for the rights of workers, to Edith Nourse Rogers who represented this district in Congress from 1925 to her death in 1960 and who still holds the record as the longest serving female member of the House of Representatives.

Tsongas also said there is a long tradition of “women who persisted,” which was the theme of this week’s celebration. She recalled the first of these gatherings 23 years ago at the Lafayette Club on Fletcher Street and exulted in how much the event has grown.

In the public realm, according to Tsongas, it is important to hear the voices of all Americans and that when women have a seat at the table, good things happen. She observed that although women make up half the population, they only account for 19% of the House of Representatives, 21% of the US Senate, 25% of state legislators, 10% of governors, and 19% of mayors of major cities. But Tsongas added that this year, there has been an “unprecedented surge of women candidates” and “change is coming.”

Tsongas closed by saying persistence is required when making the case for change, and then she movingly thanked all in attendance for giving her the chance to serve the people of this district.

State Senator Eileen Donoghue spoke next. She said she was conflicted over whether we should celebrate advances or be discouraged that we still have to struggle to pass laws for such “no brainers” as pay equity, fairness for pregnant works, and better insurance-provided contraceptive coverage.

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said that it’s hard to be first, to lead, to be the one to turn the tide. She said you have to have personal resiliency to persist. She said all of the award recipients have faced disappointment and failure at some point in their lives. But what counts, is how you respond to adversity and that you keep pursuing your dreams. She asked everyone to visualize a flock of migrating birds, how one takes the lead and cuts a whole in the air to make the way easier for the others. When that one tires, another seamlessly moves to the front and assumes leadership responsibilities. She said that’s why it’s important for women to gather together like this and support one another.

Keynote speaker Jacquie Moloney, Chancellor of UMass Lowell, said everyone in attendance stood on the shoulders of those who came before them. She said there is much bad news in the world today, but there’s also a lot of good news. She cited the “me too” movement which “has sent shock waves through every field” and “has changed forever our workplaces.” She said the “me too” movement has pulled out of the closet the reality of what women in America have had to face. She added that no woman in America was surprised by any of this.

Moloney shared a personal anecdote about the power of persistence. She said that when she, as a high school student from a blue collar family, expressed an interest in taking college-level courses, her guidance counselor said “girls like you don’t go to college” and put her in the “business” track. Instead of complying, Chancellor Moloney snuck into a college chemistry class and a college writing class, and with the help of supportive teachers, stayed in them and in other courses of that level. Later in life, as she rose through the ranks in the UMass system, she said she frequently found herself the only woman in the room at important meetings. “That can be scary,” she said. But recently at some event, when she found herself, the Chancellor of UMass Lowell, on stage with Congresswomen Niki Tsongas and State Senator Eileen Donoghue, she realized that the dynamic has finally changed and “it’s never going back.”

Moloney said “It’s fun now” because there are so many other women leaders. But she said it can still be intimidating. She added that women “often hold back because of self-doubt” but that it’s important to keep pushing forward. She added that it’s incumbent on the women leaders of today to reach out to young women, to encourage them and help them.

The Chancellor closed by saying we are at a pivotal moment in our history. She said that “women will save the world” and will bring fairness and equality for everyone.

This year’s recipients of the Because of Her Award which recognizes local women who have significantly changed the lives of others were:

  • Dr. Sue J. Kim – UMass Lowell professor and chair of the English Department; also co-director of the Center for Asian American studies;
  • Margaret Martin – Has spent her professional live in the health care field, mainly in Lowell, and has produced the cable TV show, “For the Young at Heart.”
  • Lucille Jerome – Has been a lifelong advocate for social justice and has worked with the elderly for many years. Co-stars in the “For the Young at Heart” television program.
  • Sr. Robin McCarthy, SFCC – Founder of Able to Serve New England, Inc., an organization that assists the poor and needy.

Downtown Development

On Monday night I attended a meeting of the Downtown Neighborhood Association. The main speaker was Andrew Shapiro, the city’s Director of Economic Development. He cited a first floor vacancy rate in downtown of 5.5% (a figure received with skepticism by some downtown residents in attendance who believe it to be higher). He did say that the former Hypertext Bookstore space at the corner of Merrimack and John streets will soon have a new tenant. While he could not disclose who it would be, he did say it was a food-related business. He also said that Walgreens is moving into 25 Merrimack Street, but with a walk-in pharmacy/urgent care center rather than a full retail store.

Shapiro explained that a recent modification of the city’s zoning code now requires a building owner or tenant to obtain a special permit from the Planning Board before opening anything other than a retail establishment in a first floor downtown space. This is to provide an incentive to move non-retail uses to the upper floors of downtown buildings.

Regarding those upper floors, Shapiro said that their vacancy rate is 11% and that with the layout of most downtown buildings and the trends in site-selection for commercial uses, the best use of the upper floors of downtown buildings is as housing.

As for first floor vacancies, he said one idea being contemplated is to create a “retail incubator” somewhere downtown in a first floor space. This would provide smaller spaces for would-be retailers to try out their ideas and hopefully transition into larger spaces of their own. He cited the Weekend Farmers’ Market at Mill No. 5 as a great example of this. He hopes that some of the vendors who appear there in temporary set-ups will soon want retail space of their own. Shapiro closed his remarks by saying that current national research indicates that downtown retailers tend to be more successful in smaller spaces (600 to 1200 square feet). He thinks this might lead to some downtown building owners seeking to subdivide their first floor spaces from one large space to several independently operating smaller ones.

EforAll pitch contest photo

EforAll Pitch Contest

In my guided tours of downtown, I often call Lowell “the Silicon Valley of 19th Century America” and say that innovation is embedded in the city’s DNA. Nowhere is that more evident than that the “pitch contests” hosted by EforAll (Entrepreneurship for All Lowell & Lawrence). I’ve attended many of these contests in the past and have always walked away with increased optimism for our future economy.

I didn’t make last week’s Pitch Contest, but EforAll executive director Lianna Kushi filled me in. On Thursday, February 22, 2018, nearly 150 people gathered at Mill No. 5’s Coffee and Cotton to witness “pitches” by eight entrepreneur finalists who competed for recognition and generous cash prizes.

The judges of the pitch contest, which was sponsored by Santander Bank, were:

  • Sarah Hand, Managing Director, Mill No. 5
  • Karen Cirillo, City of Lowell, City Councilor
  • Jen Howell, Owner of Sutra Studio & EforAll Alumnae
  • Deep Singh, Vice President of R&D, Operations, and Clinical Deployment at Alcyone Life Sciences
  • Amir Madjlessi, Managing Director, Business Banking at Santander Bank

The winners, and the amounts they received, were:

  • Eva’s Garden – “a local boutique of thoughtfully curated merchandise that connects judicious products.” $1,000 prize;
  • Mill Girls Cutlery & Kitchenware – “a local shop that will offer high quality kitchen products at affordable prices.” $750 prize;
  • Dandelion District – “a shop at Mill No. 5 that spreads a sense of community, self-love and body positivity using the power of sustainable thrift and vintage fashion.” $500 prize.The Chameleon Room – “An ever-changing, educational play space for children.” Voted fan favorite by the audience; $500 prize.


2 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: March 4, 2018

  1. Maxine says:

    The dorm is 7 stories . .. 5 of apartments and 2 of parking with 188 parking spots … 5 of the parking spots are dedicated to car sharing, 3 of which are dedicated for the retail space on Merrimack Street. By proposing to dedicate 5 spaces to car sharing the number of parking spaces required by the city drops by 20 spaces.

    Parking will not be included in the rent, there will be an extra charge for parking and the developer proposes to forbid his tenants from parking on city streets.

  2. Paul Early says:

    I believe that there will still be shops on Merrimack Street, but not necessarily on Cabot nor Market. This make it harder revitalize Market since with no businesses there will be fewer eyes on the street.