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.
In the opening pages of his 2012 book, The Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, urban planner Jeff Speck cited two cities on either end of the walkability scale. The model of walkability was Rome, Italy. Despite its uneven cobblestones and confusing street grid, Rome was a delight to navigate on foot. At the other end of the spectrum, the city cited by Speck for being least walkable was Lowell, Massachusetts. He used the intersection of Merrimack and Dutton Streets, and Arcand Drive, right in front of City Hall, as evidence of that conclusion.
If Speck were to return to Lowell today – and he probably would not, given the hostile response to his last visit – he would likely say that the city had regressed in its attempts to make things more conducive to walking, bicycling, or using any mode of transport other than a car.
The latest manifestation of anti-pedestrian policy arose at Tuesday’s City Council meeting during the discussion of a report on the new four-way stop signs at the intersection of Aiken Street, Perkins Street, and Pawtucket Street. Earlier this year, a UMass Lowell student was struck by a car while crossing that intersection. UMass Lowell officials met with the city’s traffic engineer and engaged a consulting firm to do a traffic study of the intersection. The resulting recommendation, according to the report presented to the City Council, found that four other students had been struck by cars at the same intersection in the previous four years. It suggested that a traffic light would be the appropriate remedy, but because that would take a long time to erect, the consultant recommended a four-way stop as an interim safety measure.
For context, on the east side of Aiken Street sits the University Suites dormitory which houses hundreds of students. On the west side of Aiken Street near the entrance to LeLacheur Park is the Pawtucket Street sidewalk that leads to the the Howe Bridge and the UML classrooms on North Campus. Consequently, at some point each weekday morning there is a mass exodus of students from the dorm heading to classes. They all have to cross Aiken Street. Unfortunately, this coincides with a mass exodus of drivers from Centralville via the Ouellette Bridge, all heading directly for the students crossing the street. Predictably, the stop sign was disastrous for drivers’ commute times with massive backups of traffic on the north side of the river.
At two nearby intersections where there are large numbers of students crossing busy streets filled with automobiles, traffic lights work pretty well in balancing the flow of cars and pedestrians. These are the intersection of Pawtucket and Merrimack Streets at the southern end of the Howe Bridge, and the intersection of Pawtucket Boulevard and University Ave at the northern end of the Howe Bridge. At those intersections, the steady rotation of pedestrian crossing lights and green vehicle Go lights keep things moving. Everyone would like to proceed more quickly, but at least there’s a rational system in place.
I’m not a traffic engineer, nor do I pretend to be one as some City Councilors regularly do, but anything short of a traffic light at the Aiken-Perkins-Pawtucket intersection will perpetuate safety hazards for the pedestrians or unacceptable frustration for drivers.
But even though the stop signs have already been removed per order of the City Council, the students still have the absolute right of way to cross the street since there’s a crosswalk there. Massachusetts General Laws chapter 89, section 11 is unequivocal about that, whether it’s a single pedestrian or a column of them each approaching the crosswalk at their own pace. Cars must stop or face a fine of $200 and certain civil liability if they strike anyone.
But to hear Councilors on Tuesday night, the fault was entirely with the students. And with the University, of course, for having the audacity to build a dormitory on the other side of Aiken Street. The only solution, according to one Councilor, is for the University to build an elevated pedestrian footbridge above Aiken Street so traffic doesn’t back up. Or maybe dig a tunnel for a pedestrian footpath underneath the street.
Although this Council voted to install the four-way stop at that intersection in August, they’ve seen enough, and the stop signs have come down. Despite it being a city street, it’s the University’s problem. Let the University deal with it.
In last week’s newsletter I described a motion response on the status of the Housing First program in Lowell as “extraordinary in its negativity” and related how a couple of councilors gently pushed back against the response.
In a repeat performance this past Tuesday, Councilors abandoned any gentleness. The response in question was to a pair of motions, one by Councilors Rita Mercier and Mayor Sokhary Chau; the other by Councilors Dan Rourke and Paul Yem, to provide free parking for military veterans. The report from Parking Director Terence Ryan (and initialed by City Manager Tom Golden) concisely explained that this could not be done since even if a car had a veteran’s license plate on it, there was no way to tell if the person driving the car was a veteran.
When several Councilors expressed displeasure with the response, Parking Director Ryan invited Councilors to refer the matter to a subcommittee so Councilors could help work through the concerns he had about enforcement.
Councilor Dan Rourke was having none of that. He said that in his ten years as a City Councilor, “this is close to the most ridiculous response I’ve ever received to a motion” and moved that it be sent back for a different answer.
So what’s going on? Are we seeing the city workforce revolt against a City Council that has made more motions than any other in the history of the City of Lowell by a factor of two or greater? Doubtful. Instead, I think we’re seeing the result of a Council that regularly micromanages city operations. The Council’s job is to set policy. That means hiring a City Manager who in turn hires capable managers who then figure out how to implement the policies set by the City Council. This Council regularly dives into the details of tasks that are appropriately the domain of lower level managers. A consequence of this is that lower-level managers, and managers at all levels, now hesitate to do anything without the City Council giving detailed instructions on how things should be done, because that’s what the Council will do anyway.
A front-page story in Thursday’s New York Times caught my attention. “A rare alliance forms to clear homeless camps” explained how political leaders from across the ideological spectrum in the American west have joined in asking the United States Supreme Court to overrule a Federal Appeals Court ruling that prohibited the removal of tent encampments occupied by homeless individuals on public spaces like sidewalks and parks in the states within that Appeals Court district (which doesn’t include Massachusetts).
Although homeless advocates quoted in the story acknowledge that tent encampments are unsafe for their occupants and for the communities around them, they oppose this effort on the grounds that it’s an excuse by elected officials to avoid the obvious which is the need for more housing.
The article explains that 40 percent of the homeless population of the United States is clustered in just nine western states. The issue is an important one here in Lowell but it’s even worse elsewhere.
Speaking of the need for more housing, Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) made a brief appearance on Tuesday on a motion to reconsider a vote from the prior meeting that narrowly rejected a motion to include property tax relief for ADUs in the Lowell ordinance in the same way it’s done in the city of Salem.
In last week’s newsletter, I wrote that I was confused by what exactly the Council voted on last week. I wasn’t the only one which is why a majority of Councilors this Tuesday voted to reconsider and then on the revote of the original motion, passed it by a 7 to 4 margin.
This result showed once again that the pro- and anti-ADU blocks remain intact and are unlikely to change whenever the final vote is taken. The anti-ADU Councilors are not going down quietly. There’s an old saying among lawyers that “when the law is on your side, pound the law; when the facts or on your side, pound the facts; and when neither is on your side, pound the table.” The anti-ADUers took a similar approach except instead of pounding the table they hurled insults and accusations at their pro-ADU colleagues.
One of the reasons there’s a UMass Lowell dormitory on the east side of Aiken Street is that the city of Lowell tore down all of the houses that once stood there. That happened in the 1960s as part of a Federal Urban Renewal project that was intended to “remove slums” and replace them with “new industry.” The “slum” in question was a vibrant French-Canadian neighborhood called Little Canada. One of the people displaced was a young Charlie Gargiulo who has just written a memoir of that experience called Legends of Little Canada. Please check out my review of the book and then buy a copy to learn about this important part of Lowell’s history.
If you’re reading this early, you might still have time to make it to Lowell Cemetery for today’s 10am tour. It starts at the Knapp Avenue entrance which is at 77 Knapp Ave.
Thanks to the 70 people who attended yesterday’s tour. The tour would have been held rain or shine, but the rain held off throughout the tour.
Next Sunday, October 8, 2023, at 10am, I’ll lead a tour of the Hamilton Canal District. The tour will begin at the Lowell National Park visitor center at 246 Market Street and will take about 90 minutes. (Rather, the tour will begin in front of the NPS Visitor Center since that will likely be closed due to the impending government shutdown which I don’t see ending by next weekend). This tour is part of the Lowell City of Learning Festival which has a full schedule of events on its website.
Next weekend is also the 2023 Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival which has a full schedule on its website. While there are many interesting events, I want to call attention to one on Saturday, October 7 at 2pm: a Parker Lecture by Paul Marion on “Jack Kerouac’s evolving position in Lowell, 1950-2023.” This event is at the Middlesex Community College’s Donahue Family Academic Arts Center at 240 Central Street (formerly known as the Rialto Bowling Alley).
Finally, on Sunday, October 15, 2023, at 2pm, the Lowell Historical Society will host a tour of the Hildreth Cemetery which is the burial place of Ben Butler and his many relatives. More information about the tour can be found on the event’s Facebook page.