The following was distributed earlier today as my weekly Substack newsletter on Lowell politics. If you’d like to receive this weekly update by email in the future, sign up here.
With no Lowell City Council meeting last Tuesday due to the every-other-week summer schedule, there’s not much new to report this Sunday. When the Council returns to action this coming Tuesday, it will resume the public hearing on Accessory Dwelling Units that was continued when the 10pm meeting deadline was reached two weeks ago.
Here’s where things stand:
The portion of the public hearing in which the public can make comments was completed, and Councilors were debating the proposed ordinance. Councilor Vesna Nuon had proposed four amendments which all passed so they will be part of the ordinance if it ultimately passes. Here are the four amendments:
Require a special permit for any detached structure that was to become an ADU.
Cap the number of ADUs per City Council District at five per year.
Limit the number of bedrooms in an ADU to two.
Prohibit ADUs being used as “short term rentals” and have DPD define short term rental for purposes of this ordinance.
Voting YES on the Nuon amendments were Councilors Drinkwater, Jenness, Leahy, Nuon, Rourke, Yem, and Chau.
Voting NO on the Nuon amendments were Councilors Gitschier, Mercier, Robinson, and Scott.
Councilor Kim Scott then proposed several amendments. The first would require that there be at least one off street parking space for each bedroom in the ADU. This amendment passed with nine Councilors voting YES and just Gitschier and Jenness voting NO.
Scott then moved to require any ADU with two bedrooms to undergo site plan review by the Planning Board. This amendment failed with four voting for it (Gitschier, Mercier, Robinson, and Scott) and the other seven voting against it.
Scott then proposed as her third amendment that an ADU could not be constructed on a “non-conforming lot.” This amendment failed by the same four YES, seven NO, result as the prior roll call.
At this point 10pm had arrived. A motion to waive the 10pm rule failed, so the public hearing was continued to this coming Tuesday night when it and the rest of last Tuesday’s agenda will be taken up as part of the new August 8, 2023, meeting agenda which, as you might imagine, is long.
Of all the complaints made about the ADU proposal, I think concerns about parking is one that has some merit, at least in neighborhoods like Centralville and South Lowell that were mostly built to their current configuration before automobiles became widely available. Back then, putting houses close together was a practical necessity since most people had to walk to work in the mills. The closer they were to downtown, the less time it took to walk back and forth. Those neighborhoods were constructed with absolutely no consideration for parking automobiles. Since we now live in a time where every American adult seemingly has their own car, parking is already a near crisis in those neighborhoods even before the snow starts falling. Increasing the density of residences in those places by adding ADUs without having an effective strategy for dealing with the motor vehicles of residents seems a valid cause of complaint.
However, in other sections of the city in which houses are more spread out, yards are larger, and streets are wider, complaints about the parking consequences of ADUs don’t seem as valid. Of course, nothing happens in isolation. If the ADU ordinance requires additional off-street parking, will it also require the use of pervious materials that allow rain and snow melt to drain into the ground, or will we just get more blacktop in place of grass which will increase the water flow into our sewer system and absorb more heat in our already too-warm city?
Getting back to the “no place to park” situation, the city’s last master plan, Sustainable Lowell 2025, which was drafted when Patrick Murphy was Mayor and Bernie Lynch was City Manager, had sound strategies for shifting people from cars to buses, bikes and walkways for some of their transportation needs. Unfortunately, Lowell has a longstanding tradition of a planning department that develops excellent, cutting-edge plans, and Councils that never even read the plans never mind commit to following them. Politics in Lowell is too reactionary. Had subsequent Councils pursued the goals of Sustainable Lowell 2025 more diligently, the neighborhood parking crisis I describe above could have been reduced which in turn could have made ADUs more tolerable in those neighborhoods.
Regardless of the outcome of the ADU vote, the city needs more housing. So does everywhere else in Massachusetts. People are leaving the state for places like South Carolina and Florida, not because the taxes here are too high, but because housing is too expensive. And with interest rates now at 6%, housing is much more expensive than it was 18 months ago when a mortgage could be had for 3%.
A state-level measure that’s supposed to create more housing is the MBTA Communities Act, a law passed in 2021 that requires local governments in any community served by the MBTA to provide zoning for more multifamily housing. A proposed amendment to the Lowell Zoning Code to implement this law here was on the agenda last week and should be taken up this Tuesday. I suspect the Council will refer it to a subcommittee, so we’ll learn more about it there.
Still, I’m not sure how big an impact the MBTA Communities Act will have on Lowell. My sense is that it’s targeted at suburban communities that have steadfastly prevented multifamily housing from being built within their boundaries. The Boston Globe recently reported that a Worcester-based housing advocacy group has sued the town of Holden, Massachusetts, for failing to comply with the MBTA Communities Act. Holden officials have been critical of the law, saying it will disrupt the single-family-home “character” of the town which has very little multifamily housing.
I assume this case or others like it will make its way to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The principal challenged is the continued validity of local control over zoning which is probably the biggest driver of the high cost of housing in Massachusetts. The MBTA Communities Act is a baby step by the legislature to take on that issue so it will be interesting to see if the SJC upholds the law and thereby opens the door to further diluting local control over housing.
Housing also contributes to homelessness (obviously). Even if new housing isn’t specifically intended for currently unhoused people, all housing is connected. Whatever type of housing is constructed frees up the units formerly occupied by the new residents for someone else.
There seems to be a new proposal from CTI to operate a substantial number of units in downtown Lowell in the Edge Merrimack River private dormitory which is just across French Street from Lowell High School. The Edge project came on the scene in 2016 when an outfit from Pennsylvania purchased the Lowell Five Cent Savings Bank headquarters at 1 Merrimack Plaza (the former Fred C. Church Insurance Company headquarters) for $3,275,000. The initial proposal was to build a five-story structure with more than 400 units that would be a “private dormitory” for college and graduate student housing. I’m not sure how many units were actually constructed, but it’s a big building.
Besides being a big building, it has a big mortgage that’s held by Northern Bank and Trust which has commenced foreclosure proceedings. However, it appears that CTI is in negotiations with Northern Bank to do some kind of deal that will leave CTI as the owner of the building. Presumably CTI would convert it to another type of housing.
This news was contained in last week’s Council packet in the form of a proposed vote by the City Council that would authorize City Manager Tom Golden to commit $2.5 million in city ARPA funds to this CTI project. The Council should vote on this proposal Tuesday night.
Thanks to all those who joined the North Common and Acre Lowell Walk yesterday. The weather was beautiful and the 50 people who attended showed great interest in the history of the neighborhood. Although nothing is scheduled yet, I hope to hold more of these neighborhood-centric walks this fall and next spring.