Tuesday’s Lowell City Council meeting ended in a concise 1 hour, 50 minutes, mostly because there were just two motions on the agenda. It’s true that two Councilors (Wayne Jenness and Kim Scott) were not at the meeting, but such absences have never caused those in attendance to curtail the length of past meetings so something else may have been going on. What that was, I don’t know.
The Council received a comprehensive report on the August 3, 2023, “Homeless Summit” that had been called for by Councilors. The major finding at the Summit was, unsurprisingly, that the high cost and limited availability of housing is the biggest driver of homelessness. Two numbers tell the story: It takes a household income of $86,000 to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Lowell, yet the annual household income of a person working fulltime at a minimum wage job is just $31,000. There were a few other issues raised but it all seems to come back to (1) more money to build more housing; and (2) a public policy and regulatory environment that permits more housing to be constructed.
After viewing presentations from Community Teamwork; Lowell Transitional Living Center; South Middlesex Opportunities Council; the City’s DPD; and Northern Middlesex Council of Governments, attendees at the summit then broke into “facilitated small groups to discuss questions they had about the region’s homelessness and housing instability issues . . .” and other related topics. A common theme that jumped from the reports of those subgroups was frustration with the ineffectualness of government policy.
“A number of participants who work as service providers expressed cynicism that their circumstances, or that of their unhoused clients, would change as a result of the meeting. They expressed that local, state, and federal government agencies have historically provided insufficient support or commitment, and they wondered if everyone is on the same page regarding this complex issue.”
At the Council meeting, City Manager Tom Golden shared a couple of observations. The first was that higher interest rates of today relative to a year or two ago make any development project substantially more expensive and therefore less feasible. It was hard enough to build more housing when interest rates were near zero. Now that they are above five percent, the margin of profitability for a developer (and for the developer’s lenders) is much narrower so fewer projects will be commenced.
The second observation was a critique of the state’s Chapter 40B law. That law was intended to force communities with less than their share of affordable housing to build more of it, but according to Golden, it has not worked as intended since many communities have fulfilled the minimum requirements of the law by constructing housing for the elderly. While many elderly face housing insecurity, they are not a primary driver of the homelessness crisis. Consequently, the state must amend or supplement 40B to allow for meaningful expansion of the number of affordable housing units in communities that lack them while technically being in compliance with the 40B law.
Getting the state to strengthen chapter 40B is easier said than done. While state representatives whose districts lie entirely in a city like Lowell can give full-throated support to such amendments and suffer no negative consequences electorally, others whose districts include cities and suburbs (which includes almost every member of the State Senate) will have split allegiance since constituents from the city will want more affordable housing forced on the suburbs, whereas constituents from the suburbs want the exact opposite. From a political survival perspective, the better course for the elected official is to avoid the issue or, if that fails, fund a study that delays a resolution, or bury it in a committee that never brings it up for a vote.
That said, the situation is not completely hopeless, but it does require a grand strategy at the city level to raise everyone’s consciousness of the problem and the solution. But if the “grand strategy” consists of simply proclaiming at Council meetings that “the state and the suburbs should do more”, then nothing will change.
In the meantime, the city government can’t just walk away from the problem. It’s here and it has to be dealt with.
The Council also discussed (somewhat cryptically) a motion response that answered three separate motions on the status of the Hamilton Canal District. This project launched 17 years ago with the city selecting a master developer for the 15-acre parcel. The vision was to create a mixed use neighborhood (residence, retail, and office space) that better connected Downtown to the Jackson-Appleton-Middlesex (JAM) neighborhood and the Gallagher Transportation Terminal.
In an unfortunate bit of timing, the global economy collapsed just two years later (in 2008) and the project stalled. The first master developer was fired, a new one was hired, but not much progress resulted, so the City took the task of master developer in house.
There have been some successes: the Appleton Mills redevelopment as housing was completed in 2011, the 110 Canal Street building (the UMass Lowell Incubator) was finished the following year. More recently (in 2020), WinnDevelopment finished twin apartment buildings along the Pawtucket Canal, the city opened the HCID Parking Garage, and the Lowell Justice Center opened.
The city also sold five parcels to the Lupoli Companies. On the parcel adjacent to the Justice Center, the Lupoli Companies has built a parking garage that seems close to completion. However, in a land disposition agreement between the City and Lupoli that was executed in December 2020, Lupoli agreed to construct a 12 to 14 story building on three of the lots, and a 50,000 square foot building on a fourth lot. Lupoli also agreed that the property would be devoted “only to the uses specified in the JAM Plan” and “only to the uses specified in the HCID Master Plan.” Construction of one of the two buildings was to have commenced by June 30, 2023, although that has not happened yet.
However, the recent motion response also states that Lupoli has proposed “changes to their plans for [the two buildings] which will require modifications to the existing form-based code.” The memo continues that “DPD staff feel the modifications being requested are reasonable” but it will ultimately be up to the Council to approve them. Lupoli will make a presentation to the Council on the new plan “in the coming months.”
There are six other parcels that remain under City control. The memo states that “a developer interested in the acquisition of parcels 11 and 12 for the development of a mixed-use residential building with outdoor dining and a privately owned public space” has been negotiating with the city for several months and “we expect a presentation with full details to the Council within the next few months.”
In commenting on this motion response, Councilors suggested that they are privy to more information from past Executive Sessions, however, that information cannot yet be made public. Presumably that information will be shared with the rest of us at the forthcoming presentations, whenever they occur.
If you’re reading this early on Sunday, you still have time to join my walking tour of the Hamilton Canal District which begins at 10am from the National Park Visitor Center at 246 Market Street. The tour is mostly about the history of the 15-acre site which extends back beyond Lowell’s founding 200 years ago.
Today’s tour is part of the Lowell City of Learning Festival that goes until next Saturday. The full schedule is here, but I want to highlight a guided walk of the Lowell Sustainability Trail that takes place next Saturday, October 14, 2023, at 10am beginning at UML’s University Crossing Building at 220 Pawtucket Street.
The Pollard Memorial Library semi-annual Lowell Reads celebration this month will feature Legends of Little Canada, the compelling memoir by Charlie Gargiulo that I recently reviewed. More information about Lowell Reads is available on the library’s website.
Also, Charlie and I have just scheduled a walking tour of the former Little Canada neighborhood that will highlight the places that appear in Charlie’s book. The tour will be Saturday, October 28, 2023, at 10am, and will begin outside the Coalition for a Better Acre offices at 517 Moody Street in Lowell.