Lowell politics newsletter: March 10, 2024

What to do with the Smith Baker Center was back before the City Council on Tuesday in the form of a motion response from the city’s Department of Planning and Development. Here are the major points made in that report:

A grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission is not a viable option to help preserve the building so that will not be pursued.

Although the building is boarded up, people from time-to-time trespass inside. As soon as the city learns of this, it secures the building again. As long as the building remains up and unused, it is the city’s responsibility to keep it secured.

When the city purchased the building from Christ Church United in the 1970s, the $85,000 purchase money came from Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) accounts. That was a permissible use of CDBG funds because the building was to be used by the city. However, that meant the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the agency that oversees CDBG funds, retains jurisdiction over the building. Consequently, if a change in use is proposed, the city must hold a public hearing, provide time for public comment, and then submit a formal plan for the building to HUD for its review.

The current DPD report offers two options:  Option A is for the Purchasing Department to publish a Request for Information on the state’s Central Register of Goods and Services, which is the established way for a governmental entity to seek interested parties for a contract or project. This is what some Councilors previously referred to as the “Hail Mary” play. That’s an American football term for a desperation pass at the end of the game that has little chance of success but sometimes works. If this effort succeeds and a developer is identified, if the proposed reuse is something other than affordable housing by a community development organization (think Community Teamwork or Coalition for a Better Acre), then the city must pay HUD the current fair market value of the property to offset the initial Community Development Block Grant. The DPD report suggests that if the proposed developer paid the current fair market value for the property, that money could be turned over to HUD by the city to meet that payback requirement.

The DPD’s Option B is demolition of the building by the city with the subsequent sale of the vacant parcel for affordable housing. Because the city would do the demolition, the Historic Board would not have jurisdiction, however, the project would need the approval of the state-based Massachusetts Historical Commission although that agency’s requirements would likely allow demolition after first taking detailed architectural photos and preserving limited artifacts from within the structure. The same HUD repayment requirement would exist with this option, namely that if the post-demolition vacant lot was sold to a community development organization that built affordable housing, there would be no requirement for the city to repay HUD. But if any other use was made of the parcel, then the city would be on the hook for the repayment to HUD.

The timeline for both options push the timing of the final decision off until mid to late summer, likely later than that.

Councilors who spoke on Tuesday seemed anxious to get the building torn down as quickly as possible and were having a hard time accepting the HUD repayment requirement. City Manager Golden assured Councilors that the city is pursuing both options simultaneously, so making one last pitch for a developer to rescue the structure would not delay the demolition of the building, if that’s what is ultimately decided.


The new parking garage built by the Lupoli Company at 330 Jackson Street finally opened on Monday. The rate card posted at the entrance made it seem reasonably priced. It also said the garage was operated by LAZ Parking, the big national firm that also holds the contract to run the city-owned parking garages in downtown Lowell.

With this new garage being right next to the Lowell Justice Center, it will undoubtedly siphon courthouse parking customers from the two nearby city-owned garages (the Early Garage on Middlesex Street and the new Dutton Street Garage in the Hamilton Canal District). Although the Early Garage is heavily used by patients and staff of the Lowell Community Health Center and staff of the Lowell Community Charter School, the Dutton Street Garage is largely empty and produces little revenue, certainly not enough to cover the repayment of the bonds used to finance its construction. Because that garage is just a ten-minute walk from the Justice Center, a good portion of those with court business would have parked there. However, with the Lupoli Garage now opened, it will take most of the courthouse parking that would otherwise go to the city’s Dutton Street Garage.

If Lupoli had owned that parcel all along and decided to build a parking garage on top of it, well that’s capitalism. But in this case, that lot was owned by the city which voluntarily transferred it to Lupoli for the express purpose of building a garage that would take parking customers away from city garages. The justification for that otherwise irrational move was that Lupoli also agreed to build two buildings across Jackson Street, one a 12 to 14 story building on the surface parking lot across the Hamilton Canal from the Justice Center, and a 50,000 square foot building across Canal Street from that, and maintained that neither of those would be feasible without dedicated parking closer than the less than 10 minutes away city garage. The city assented to that and entered into a comprehensive land disposition agreement with the developer for the garage lot and the two building lots.

According to that agreement, construction of at least one of the two buildings was to have commenced no later than June 30, 2023. Now, more than eight months after that deadline, there is no apparent activity on either of those parcels. Last fall, Councilors began asking about the lack of progress. City Manager Golden said the Lupoli Company was “in negotiations” with DPD about amending the land disposition agreement that covered all of this and that the Council could expect a report in February. When newly elected Councilor John Descoteaux resurfaced this issue not long ago, he received the same “negotiations are ongoing” reply although there was no mention of a February presentation.


Lowell-based architect Jay Mason ended his long tenure as chair of the Lowell Sustainability Council on Tuesday night. In brief remarks to Councilors, he said between the newly created Sustainability Director position and those dedicated individuals who would continue serving on the Sustainability Council, the city would be in good hands in this important area. Jay moved to Lowell in the early 1990s, established his architectural business here, and became deeply involved in the community, especially on the issue of sustainability. The countless hours he devoted to the city were entirely unpaid and yielded important results. All Lowell residents owe him a debt of gratitude for his service.


Here are the Lowell results of last Tuesday’s Presidential Primary:

Democratic Presidential Preference – 7589 votes cast

  • Joseph Biden – 4167
  • Dean Phillips – 394
  • Marianne Williamson – 239
  • No preference – 526
  • Unresolved write-in – 144

Republican Presidential Preference – 3881 votes cast

  • Donald Trump – 2631
  • Nikki Haley – 1126
  • Chris Christie – 27
  • Ron Desantis – 18
  • Vivek Ramaswamy – 11
  • Ryan Binkley – 5
  • Asa Hutchinson 5
  • No preference 32
  • Unresolved write-in – 9

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Tuesday’s election was the relatively high number of people who voted given that the outcome was never in doubt for either party. With 7589 casting Democratic ballots and 3881 casting Republican ballots, that makes a total of 11,470 people participating in the election. Compare that to last November’s city election in which just 7516 people showed up to choose who would be on the City Council and who would be on the School Committee. Tuesday’s turnout provides more evidence that when it comes to getting more people involved in deciding who governs the city, the new district system has been a disappointment thus far.


The office of register of deeds will be on this fall’s state election ballot. With me not running for reelection, there is increased interest in the office this year.

Earlier this week, I received an email asking why the Northern Middlesex Registry of Deeds district consists of just 10 communities whereas the Southern District has 44. I posted my answer on richardhowe.com but decided to repeat it here for those who haven’t seen it.

The Northern Middlesex Registry of Deeds District consists of ten communities: Billerica, Carlisle, Chelmsford, Dracut, Dunstable, Lowell, Tewksbury, Tyngsborough, Westford and Wilmington. The other 44 cities and town of Middlesex County make up the Southern District in Cambridge.

I don’t have an exact reason why the split is asymmetrical, but here’s my best guess:

Lowell burst on the scene in 1826 and quickly became the second biggest city in Massachusetts. That generated a lot of legal activity. In 1848, the county built the Superior Courthouse on Gorham Street and in 1855, the legislature established the new registry district.

I believe that two things, both technological, help explain why only ten communities ended up in the Northern District.

The first was that all the records for these ten towns that had been recorded previously were in Cambridge. For the new registry to function effectively, copies of all the prior records for the ten communities would have to be available at the new registry in Lowell. That required going through the existing record books and hand copying all that involved land located in one of the ten Northern District communities. I suspect that if more towns had been included, copying the additional records would have made the task insurmountable.

The other factor was the railroad. Geography suggests that towns in northwestern Middlesex County, like Groton or Pepperell, should be included in a “northern district,” but given the reality of transportation in 1855, the Boston to Fitchburg railroad line made it was easier to get to Cambridge from places like Concord and Ayer (which used to be part of Groton) than it was to get to Lowell. Consequently, Middlesex County towns west of Dunstable, Westford and Carlisle were placed in the Southern District Registry.

Additionally, just as the MBTA Lowell line commuter rail today links Boston to Lowell, Billerica and Wilmington, so did the same rail line in 1855. I suspect that was the main reason that Wilmington made it into the Northern District.

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