Lowell Politics newsletter: March 24, 2024

A small spurt of drama arose at an otherwise straightforward Lowell City Council meeting Tuesday night. It came from something that wasn’t even on the agenda, the status of the Lupoli Companies project in the Hamilton Canal District.

About 90 minutes into the 105-minute meeting, Councilor John Descoteaux spoke up and made a motion to suspend the rules. Another Councilor quickly seconded it. Descoteaux began to speak but Mayor Rourke (understandably) interrupted to ask what it was about.

Descoteaux answered, “to inquire into the Lupoli project and the report we’re supposed to get at the end of February.”

Turning to Assistant City Manager/DPD Director Yovanni Baez-Rose, Descoteaux asked “where are we at with the Lupoli Companies and the lack of activity over the past nine months?”

Assistant CM Baez-Rose replied, “We met with the Lupoli Companies and told them to be prepared to be invited in for an Economic Development Subcommittee. So we’re waiting for that to be scheduled.”

Silence. The camera stayed on Descoteaux who eventually asked, “And who’s on that subcommittee?”

[According to the city’s website, the Economic/Downtown Development Subcommittee is chaired by Councilor Wayne Jenness with Councilors Vesna Nuon and John Leahy as members.]

More silence, although Descoteaux then looked to his left, as if someone off camera had said something. Presumably that was Councilor Jenness who sits two seats to that side, but the microphone didn’t pick up who spoke or what was said.

Councilor Descoteaux (to Asst CM Baez-Rose): “When did you speak with Mr. Lupoli on this? Because I’m sure Councilor Jenness would have set up a meeting by now.”

Another silence, longer and more awkward than the first.

Mayor Rourke interjected, asking Councilor Descoteaux: “Do you want to make a motion to send this to the Economic Affairs Subcommittee?”

Councilor Descoteaux: “I think that would be the way to go. So we could get an update.”

Mayor Rourke: “Motion by Councilor Descoteaux to refer this to the Economic Affairs Subcommittee, seconded by Councilor Jenness. All those in favor. So moved.”

There was something odd about this exchange, but we’ll have to wait for the subcommittee meeting to find out what’s going on. If you want to watch the exchange described above, it begins at 1:29 of the YouTube recording of the Council meeting.


We’ll also have to wait a while to get more information on the future of the Lowell Senior Center. As I’ve written about previously, the agreement between the city and the owner of the property was executed 20 years ago. It provided that after 20 years, the building would be turned over to the city at no cost.

But a motion on Tuesday’s agenda suggests it’s not that simple. Jointly filed by Councilors Vesna Nuon and Erik Gitschier, the motion requested the City Manager “work with City Barns LLC [the owner of the property] to negotiate terms regarding transfer of ownership or a continuation of the lease for the Senior Center. Include in negotiations improvements to schedule maintenance of the building, maintaining the land, upgrading walkways and lots as part of any potential successor lease agreement or before transfer of ownership; updates of negotiations to be provided to Council in Executive Session.”

The Council voted to take up this matter in executive session next week.

As City Council motions go, this one was unusually detailed and specific, so I’m guessing there’s a lot more going on than the public knows about. The executive session means we’ll have to wait longer to learn more.


The Smith Baker Center otherwise dominated discussion at Tuesday’s Council meeting. Councilor Paul Yem placed a motion on the agenda asking that the City Manager “have the appropriate department provide a structural engineer report on the Smith Baker Center to the Council.”

Several members of the public spoke in favor of the motion and Councilors engaged in lengthy discussions on the potential cost of such a study, the length of time it might take, and the feasibility of housing on the site, either in a refurbished building or in new construction after demolition.

Because of uncertainty over the cost and timing of a comprehensive structural report, Councilors voted for a substitute motion by Councilor Erik Gitschier that asked the City Manager to provide that information to Councilors as soon as possible, and deferred the decision on whether to go forward with such a report until cost and timing information was received.

Assuming the cost and timing are reasonable, Councilors seemed inclined to obtain a report of this type. Council Kim Scott may have expressed the prevailing sentiment when she said that while she wasn’t optimistic about the fate of the building, “once it’s gone, it’s gone” and given the importance of historic preservation in Lowell, it was worth making one more effort to find a way to salvage the building.


A disheartening element of this Smith Baker discussion was the close-mindedness some Councilors displayed about the potential for housing on the Smith Baker site, either in a renovated structure or in new construction. Why so negative? Because “there’s no parking.”

The surest way to improve the quality of life of the average Lowell resident is to create more housing which in turn would make housing more affordable. The shortage of housing has driven rents to heights that create enormous financial stress on individuals and families. This adds to housing churn and homelessness with negative consequences extending to health and education.

One way to create more housing is to allow accessory dwelling units (ADUs), but the Council has already rejected that.

Another approach is to convert unused or underused downtown office buildings into housing. That’s not easy to do, and the high cost of conversion from office to residential has in the past led developers to create “luxury” units with above-market prices.

There are ways for city government to make such conversions easier and more affordable. Equally important is adopting policies and programs that make living in downtown Lowell more attractive. Those efforts require much more than just making it easier to get a building permit. They require a comprehensive strategy, something that’s been very elusive for recent City Councils given their reactionary approach to governance. Some things that could help might include: are the parking garages that already exist well run, safe, and accessible? Is it easy and convenient to get from downtown to the Gallagher Terminal? If a quart of milk is needed, can I get it without retrieving my car from the parking garage?

Today, more cities than ever are facing this same challenge. Places like Boston that had thriving downtown office sectors before the pandemic face an existential crisis in the post-pandemic world as more and more white-collar businesses realized they can make do with far less super-expensive downtown office space. These big cities are racing to convert office buildings to residences which in turn means much of the momentum in urban planning is now focused on office conversions. Is Lowell embracing this societal trend and all the attention and funding that it brings? No, we’re not interested because “there’s no parking.” It’s a very close-minded approach.

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