Lowell Politics Newsletter: June 2, 2024

A pair of recent Lowell Sun articles on the Lowell Planning Board’s review of the city’s proposed master plan update grabbed my attention so that topic will be the focus of today’s newsletter. (There was a City Council meeting Tuesday night, but it was conveniently uneventful.)

The Lowell Planning Board, the members of which are appointed by the City Manager with the consent of the City Council, consists of chair Thomas Linnehan and members Gerard Frechette, Richard Lockhart, Caleb Cheng, and Daniel Tenczar. Allison Dolan-Wilson is an alternate member.

Massachusetts General Laws chapter 41, section 81D, states in part, “A planning board established in any city or town under section eighty-one A shall make a master plan of such city or town or such part or parts thereof as said board may deem advisable and from time to time may extend or perfect such plan. Such plan shall be a statement, through text, maps, illustrations or other forms of communication that is designed to provide a basis for decision making regarding the long-term physical development of the municipality.” The statute then cites topics such as land use, housing, open space and others that must be addressed in the plan.

At its meeting on Monday, May 6, 2024, the Planning Board received a presentation by city planner Francesca Cigliano on the proposed master plan which is called “Lowell Forward.” A recording of the meeting is available on LTC’s YouTube channel with the presentation beginning about 1 hour, 30 minutes into the meeting (another matter was taken up first) and comments by board members beginning at 1:48.

The headlines of the two Sun articles I mentioned were “Lowell Planning Board debates segregation, substandard housing: Almost 1,000 rental units in Lowell lack plumbing, Census data says” and “The Column: Lowell is still segregated by race; A city built on diversity struggles with its parallel legacy of segregation.” Besides covering concerns raised by the Planning Board, the articles connect the dots between those objections and other controversial topics that have come before city government in recent years including the rejection of a zoning proposal that would have allowed Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs); an attempt to unwind the 1989 consent decree that governs student assignments to Lowell Public Schools; and the declaration from two years ago that racism is a public health crisis.

The Sun’s points are well-taken; if they hadn’t been raised in these articles, I would have made them here. But for now I’ll focus on the Planning Board’s concerns and DPD’s response.

The first thing that grabbed the Planning Board’s attention was the “1,000 rental units without plumbing” figure. Cigliano explained that number came from the American Community Survey which is conducted annually by the U.S. Census Bureau. The results are used to allocate billions of dollars in federal funding each year, and the information is obtained from surveys of residents. She explained that this information was self-reported by individual respondents, so it likely picked up some of the illegal residential units that are unknown to the city and its inspectors. Board members were concerned that left unmodified the statement might suggest the city was aware of and tolerated the illegal units. Cigliano and the Board quickly found satisfactory language to address that concern and moved on.

The second concern raised was a statement about large lot size being an impediment to more equitable housing. Board members pointed out that lot size requirements in Lowell which are at most, 10,000 square feet and more often 5,000 square feet or less, are dwarfed by minimum lot sizes of 2 acres in some nearby communities. In comparison to these other places, Lowell’s minimum lot sizes should not be considered “large.”

While I think the bigger point was that relative to all lot sizes in Lowell, the ones that are 10,000 square feet are an impediment to more equitable housing, in the big picture of the entire report, this was an issue of secondary importance so everyone agreed to remove that statement from the Master Plan.

The third area of concern was a statement in the Master Plan that said “Lowell is segregated by race.” A compromise on this point was more elusive. The most vehement objection to this statement came from Board member Dan Tenczar but others expressed similar concerns.

Because this is such an important issue that transcends the master plan discussion, I’ve tried to capture much of what was said. What follows is not a verbatim transcript although at critical points in the discussion, it is close to that. In other places, I’ve summarized what was said. However, while reading it, remember that the full video recording is freely available on YouTube for anyone who wishes to scrutinize the discussion more closely.

Here are my notes on what was said:

Daniel Tenczar: The part that says Lowell is segregated by race. It sends the wrong message. It is not segregated by race. There may be areas that are more densely populated – but if you go to the Highlands, you’re going to find Cambodians, you’re going to find white Irish, you’re going to find French people. You’re going to find a variety of people. And I think that sends the wrong message and I definitely wouldn’t – if our role is – and that was one of my questions is what is our role in this process. Do we actually get some input at this late date? But I would not want to sign off on saying Lowell is segregated by race. That shows up in The New York Times, Boston Globe – that Lowell is segregated by race and this Planning Board acknowledged that. I think it sends the wrong message.

Are there impacts? Sure. There are a lot of poor people out there who are in densely populated areas. No question about it. But I would not want that language staying if I’m going to vote for this because I think it sends the wrong message about Lowell. Lowell accepts immigrants, accepts all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds.

And the other thing that was noted was, is that we have so many people of such low income. We have so many people who don’t own or are not owner occupied. And that’s because we accept everybody. We have so many people who don’t have much income. So I wouldn’t want that to be stated about my city.

Allison Dolan-Wilson: I’m wondering if any of that is backed up by data as opposed to making a general statement. I’m a data person. I assume it was written because of data?

Francesca Cigliano [addressing Tenczar]: I completely understand where you’re coming from. I do think that Lowell is much more of an inclusive, culturally diverse place when compared to a lot of communities, even in Massachusetts. But in the country, Lowell is like the 31st most diverse city in the United States. That’s really impressive and something that we love about Lowell, but, to Allison’s point, it was not included in this presentation, but in the Lowell Today report, which I’m happy to provide to the board, there is actual data and spatial analysis that was conducted that shows that Lowell is segregated by race, essentially. And that isn’t necessarily due to any specific policy. It’s just the way – certain cultural groups and racial groups tend to cluster in the city. There are maps that show that. So that’s where that comes from. It wasn’t a statement based on qualitative research even. This isn’t rooted in word of mouth. This is based on census data, where people are reporting what their race and ethnicity is, and looking at it on a map by color. That map shows that certain races tend to live in certain sections of the city and it’s segregated by race.

Gerard Frechette: I’m on the Housing Committee and I’ve seen the map. But the map follows the income level [turning to Tenczar] but I understand your concern. Maybe there’s a different way to phrase it.

Tenczar: It’s the intent. Look, if we decide that there’s a certain point that we want to put out there, there’s data that backs up that point. There is. I get what you’re saying. But this almost makes it sound like Lowell does it on purpose, Lowell segregates by race. That’s bizarre. I won’t vote for this plan if that stays in there. I’m just telling you, I think it sends the wrong message to the citizens of Lowell and the public at large.

Thomas Linnehan [to Cigliano]: Would you have any suggestion about how to rephrase that to make it a little softer? I’m just thinking out loud here. Like Danny says, just those five words.

Cigliano: I’m not sure how else you can say it. And I would say that definitely the administration of the city of Lowell is doing all of these DEI initiatives. The segregation that exists is not purposeful currently, but, and [addressing Tenczar] we did do a training before you were on the board about fair housing laws and the practice of red lining. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the practice, but basically, in the post war era, when the federal government created programs for favorable mortgages, the federal government would not allow people of color to get these mortgages, and so what we see today, where single family neighborhoods tend to have more white residents and multifamily neighborhoods tend to have more people of color, it is a remnant of that era where particularly Black people were not allowed to buy. They did not have access to favorable loans to buy a single family home. So what we’re seeing today, the segregation, is a remnant of this practice that was real and took place like 80 years ago. So personally, my planner opinion, is that it’s OK to keep this. And throughout the rest of the plan, it’s very clear that the city of Lowell’s current values are diversity, equity, and inclusion. That we are so proud of how multicultural a city we are. We are celebrating it constantly as a city. And I think in the rest of the plan, our values as a city are so clear that I think it’s OK to acknowledge that the segregation is a symptom of this practice that took place in the mid-20th century. I just think it’s OK to state things as they are, they are segregated is not a word we want to associate with this city, and it’s not what the current administration or the city of Lowell stands for, but saying that is the reality and that we want to be even more of an integrated and inclusive place, I think that’s just being honest in the plan. So that’s my professional planner opinion but I’m not voting on the plan so it’s up to the board.

Caleb Cheng: This sounds like by keeping single family lots we’re perpetuating segregation so we want to take that out. I understand that this is the trend from past practices. But it’s just not a race issue. Clearly it’s an income and affordability issue. [the following summarizes Cheng’s remaining remarks here] Different groups by race and by other features have different economic characteristics. That’s just how it aligns. What I read here is if we make everywhere have multifamily then that will even things out. There is some reason to that but you also lose a lot. There are other tradeoffs. [ He relates this to the ADU discussion.]

Cigliano: Large lots are discriminatory. Gerry’s point is that Lowell’s minimum lot size is reasonable in many cases. [She suggests eliminating the language on “large lots” but recommends keeping in the acknowledgement about segregation]. Look at where young people are living; look at where people of color are living and plotting that on a map. When you do that they’re not all blending together to form a single shade of gray. There’s concentrations of colors. Saying it’s segregated by race – even though it’s not intentional – is reflecting that data. [She cites the fair housing law which is part of the civil rights act]. We have to do more than avoid intentional discrimination such as whether zoning results in discriminatory results. But slashing the lot size line is fair given that that’s not the issue in Lowell. There are no lots larger than 10,000 square feet left in Lowell. This is an important document that will guide the administration. All the urban planners in DPD who are trained in that field agree with me.

Allison Dolan-Wilson: Agrees that’s what the data shows. It’s “currently” segregated by race with the aspiration to change that.

Linnehan: Can we put in the word “unintentional?”

Cigliano: It was intentional. That was in the past but this is the consequence of it.

Linnehan: If you see the rest of the plan, you see how we celebrate diversity in the city.

Tenczar: You guys are talking history, 80 years ago. Why don’t we write that down?

Cigliano: Because it’s currently segregated. The segregation as an action happened in the past but the racial groups are segregated today. I could pull up the graph that shows it.

Tenczar: Lowell is segregated by income, not by race. That just happens to be a by-product. It’s income. Everything is income based. Everything in your report says low income, no owner occupied. It sends absolutely the wrong message and I’m not voting for it.

Frechette: We are going to tie it in to red lining. That goes back to the Depression. We had a lot of banks fail. Then we had FDIC and other things. So for the safety and soundness of the banks they had red lining areas that said these are the higher risk loans because of the defaults that took place during the Depression. But if we’re making that statement, did we research to say “these are the areas in Lowell during the time when bank regulators were red lining areas that were high risk for losses that these are the areas, this is a result of it decades later? That’s a broad statement.

Cigliano: Did we do a deep dive into red lining in Lowell? No. But did we know it happened? Yes, because federal loans were not accessible to people of color so inevitably it happened in Lowell because if you were a person of color you couldn’t get a federal loan to buy a beautiful house in the post war era, the beautiful new cape or ranch. You couldn’t live there because you were not allowed to get a loan.

Dolan-Wilson: The data is the data. Socio-economic status and race are not mutually exclusive.

Cheng: Segregated is a strong word. Is there any improvement? I wouldn’t rule out what’s happened in the past is still affecting us today. We need to recognize that the past is still affecting us in this passage but maybe we add more about what we’re doing to rectify that.

Cigliano: [She says that is in other parts of the plan and keeps going back to last fall’s training on the fair housing act].

Richard Lockhart: I think the word segregation should be eliminated totally. In today’s world, the word segregation has negative connotations. Take it out totally. I have a book in my library that approaches this whole subject from a historical standpoint and within that book there are maps of the different ethnic neighborhoods in Lowell. And how they present them is not a negative thing at all. It’s a positive approach to such activity when you have the French in Pawtucketville. When the French moved into the city they gravitate to that part of the city . . . It’s a positive thing that the city has created that kind of atmosphere . . . In short, I think that word should not be part of the plan.

Dolan-Wilson: I’d hate for us to appear tone deaf. . . Of course, no one is intending to be like that. But it’s disingenuous for us to try to tip toe around the facts. If you want to say by race and economic status but if you look at the data, guess what, one indicates the other. If that makes people feel better to say that . . .

Cigliano: I think if you say by race and socio-economic status, I think that’s fair. Lowell is currently segregated by race and socio-economic status.

Tenczar: I hate the word. I hate the word. We have history. We have slavery, all sorts of things, but when it’s in Lowell, it comes down to economics. It comes down to the fact that we don’t have enough good jobs for a lot of people in Lowell and as a result they’re paying far too much of their income for housing. That’s what it comes down to. I appreciate the efforts and I appreciate the adverse opinions of Ms. Cigliano and Allison but I disagree.


With that, Board Chair Linnehan called a voice vote on the plan as amended by saying, “All those in favor indicate by saying Aye” to which a number of voices responded. Linnehan then said, “All those opposed” to which Dan Tenczar said, “Nay.” By a majority vote, the Planning Board accepted the master plan as amended.

But there was one final twist. To whoever was taking the official minutes of the meeting, Linnehan said, “Allison’s vote doesn’t count; she’s the alternate and all five members are present.”

Although procedurally correct, I found that jarring. Seven people participated in the debate. When it came time for the votes to be counted, the two whose comments made the most sense – the two women – did not have votes. The five guys decided the outcome.


Red lining was a thing in Lowell. There’s a report dated January 31, 1936, prepared for the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation that “grades” different areas of the city on the desirability of making federally-backed mortgages to homeowners and potential homeowners in those areas. The report is accompanied by a color-coded map. Areas colored green are “best”; blue are “still desirable”; yellow are “definitely declining” and red are “hazardous”. It is from those neighborhoods in red on this map and on similar maps for the rest of the country that the term “red lining” was born. People who lived within those red areas didn’t get loans. To no one’s surprise, the Belvidere neighborhood is colored green (“best”) while the Acre, Little Canada, downtown; and lower Centralville are all colored red (“hazardous”). Space does not permit further discussion of red lining in Lowell, however, I’ll revisit the topic in a future blog post on richardhowe.com and link to it in a future newsletter.


At some point, the Master Plan, as amended by the Planning Board, will come before the City Council for its determination. Whenever that happens, it should be a very interesting meeting.


Speaking of Little Canada (one of Lowell’s red lined neighborhoods), on Saturday, June 29, 2024, Charlie Gargiulo and I will lead a free walking tour of the Little Canada neighborhood. The tour will begin at 10am from the Coalition for a Better Acre headquarters at 517 Moody Street.

The Little Canada neighborhood was demolished in the 1960s as part of an Urban Renewal Plan. Charlie and his family were displaced by the demolition and he’s recently written a memoir, Legends of Little Canada, which recounts that experience. Our tour will cover that and the broader history of that part of the city.

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