Editor’s note: This is a reissue of Lowell2020’s March 17, 2014 post
When it comes to the big picture, the City of Lowell doesn’t realize the value of what it has. Before any major decisions are made that affect Lowell’s future, it’s time for a comprehensive professional review of its potential as a Global City.
The future of economic development in this country is no longer tied to the automobile and the country’s vast network of highways. Advancements in high technology are changing that as we speak. The political dilemmas of stagnation we’re experiencing in Washington and State government are a direct testament to the fact that we’re “doing it wrong”.
The Global Economy is here and the need for a strategy of mass connectivity can no longer be ignored. Mobility via walking, bike lanes, and local transit connecting to regional and national networks are the travel modes of the future. Yes, we’re talking 10-20 years from now. Automobiles are still important, but they’re not always the most efficient or effective choice for getting from one place to another.
A Downeaster style rail option from Concord, NH to Boston has great potential. The current Governor in NH would like to see it happen. The initiative can pick up steam with a determined push towards political unity. The resulting line would include a direct non-stop leg from Lowell to Boston and Boston to Lowell. From the Gallagher Terminal, one could head towards downtown and via trolley, ultimately branching towards UMass Lowell or Middlesex Community College and the ICC.
The Lowell political scene has always plowed ahead in old school fashion. But it’s time to stop and take a hard look at what’s going on in the world, and consider Lowell’s place in the global community. If not, the City may be on the verge of making a tremendous irreversible mistake.
Over the last 4½ years, I’ve produced a multi-media vision for Lowell’s future anchored by the website ComeToLowell.com. The mission hasn’t changed, but it has evolved. I have nothing to gain personally by this study. It’s simply a vision that I’ve been compelled to create, develop and share.
Over the weekend I attended the Hockey East Quarterfinals at the UML Tsongas Arena. Round 1 pit the UML Riverhawks against Vermont. At Game 2 on Saturday, as I entered the arena lobby area, a country style duo, Jilly Martin and Ryan Brooks Kelly were playing some tunes. They were talented, fun and upbeat, so I hung out facing the bank of windows looking outside.
I immersed my thoughts in what I saw: Lowell High School, Arcand Drive and the US Post Office. I once again considered what the Lowell High School property could offer the future of Lowell. If you look up Father Morissette Blvd., you can see UML’s Fox Hall, Wannalancit Mills which contains the UML M2D2 high-tech business incubation program, trolley tracks and bike lanes with UML signage on both sides of the causeway.
Father Morissette Blvd. offers a direct connection to the Wannalancit Mills Business Center. One can easily envision quick and easy transit options to UML East and North campuses via the planned trolley extension, by bike or by walking. Ultimately, the City could develop other options of accessibility as well.
Going in the opposite direction, French St. offers a series of options for connection with Middlesex Community College (MCC) when you consider that the planned trolley extension also forks towards MCC and the UML Inn and Conference Center (ICC).
Anyone who’s been paying attention to Lowell’s progress over the last 5 years knows about:
- The UML Emerging Technology and Innovations Center (ETIC) at the North Campus
- The M2D2 Innovation Hub at Wannalancit Mills (now expanding to 110 Canal St.)
- The new Health & Social Sciences Building on the South Campus
- The new dorms at the North and East Campus
- The Inn and Conference Center in Downtown Lowell
- The new business school on the North Campus (soon to break ground)
- The new student center on Salem St. (now under construction)
- The new gateway bridge that connects downtown with the North Campus via Merrimack St.
- UML’s acceptance by the NCAA as a Division 1 sports school.
- UML’s consistently increasing enrollment
- UML’s growing recognition: locally, regionally, nationally and globally
- MCC’s expansion to include the old Federal Building on East Merrimack St.; and a bookstore, dental school with lab, various offices and a Charter School, all on Middle Street.
Lowell National Historical Park is in the neighborhood with its Boott Mills Museum, executive offices on Kirk Street and Boarding House Park. Boott Mills apartments, condos and business center have also recently expanded. Mass. Mills is planning future growth including converting empty mills into more housing, and, plans are in progress to continue the Riverwalk to the Concord River.
While at the UML Tsongas Center looking out on Friday evening, I envisioned a future involving a relocation of the high school including the LHS Freshman Academy, as well as, the US Post Office, the police department and all offices in the Kennedy Center on Arcand Drive. The LPD is due for a transition to state-of-the-art facilities, equipment and improved logistical access.
Recently during his farewell tour around the City, the City Manager told Ted Panos on 980WCAP that someone suggested the high school complex could be a retail center. I first heard this stated by UML History Professor Robert Forrant. To whoever believes the high school property should be a retail center, this idea exemplifies Lowell’s constant wrong headed approach to urban planning. I’d rather see it remain a high school.
Listen to the business leaders of Lowell, who have unanimously recommended that the high school be moved to another location in the City, and listen to their reasoning.
My vision is for a mixed-use treatment of the property involving a comprehensive re-evaluation of the adjacent and surrounding area including downtown and the Hamilton Canal District, towards developing an easily accessible, viable, efficient and expanded concept for Downtown Lowell. Initially, this could include UML M2D2 medical devices, biotech, nano-tech, robotics and plastics incubation and support space for start-up business concepts that are getting ready to go public. It would also add market rate housing, arts facilities and yes, some retail.
An anchor store should be considered, such as a high end Market Basket, like the stores in Dracut, Chelmsford or Tewksbury. The Kirk Street buildings could accommodate market rate housing, maintaining the enclosed walkways over the Merrimack Canal. Another enclosed walkway could be created to connect the new development with the Ayotte parking garage. The theaters in the high school and Freshman Academy could remain as performing arts and film centers.
In essence, downtown Lowell would expand seamlessly and functionally from Hamilton Canal to the Riverfront; to UML East and North, and to MCC. Downtown Lowell would then become a true hub for the neighborhoods, and, a business and urban mecca in transformation. In effect, the City of Lowell would become as an esteemed regional player on its way to becoming a credible partner in the national and Global Economy.
A Citywide commitment to redevelop the properties above would signal Lowell’s official emergence into the Global Economy and firmly establish Lowell’s intent to be a Global City. Once a decision is made to move Lowell High School, the City could immediately begin a world wide social media campaign enticing businesses, residents, students, visitors & tourists to ComeToLowell.
LRTA bus lines would once again run directly downtown. The trolley would transport residents, visitors and commuters to and from Gallagher Terminal. The downtown parking “enterprise” would be restructured to be more user-friendly and less costly, especially to downtown residents and visitors.
Commercial tax base incentives or reductions could be considered, based on financial projections determined to be favorable for such actions.
An approach like this would create jobs for residents of Lowell, and opportunities for businesses that consider coming to Lowell. Lowell would become a truly walkable city that’s not only a Global City, but a modern urban phenomena on its way to World City status. The tax base it generates would pay for a new high school elsewhere in the City.
It’s important to note that the expanded trolley program must offer 2 lanes of service from the Gallagher Terminal to/from UML East & North campuses, not 1 as has been proposed. Use the entire $65 million budget towards this eventually. This service MUST have two tracks. Most important, hire a professional engineering team with strong experience in designing local transit systems to complete a planning study.
ELIMINATE the proposed leg of trolley service from UML East to Fletcher Street to Broadway, on its way to UML South. If a study validates the consideration of a future expansion from UML East to UML South, consider alternative solutions such as an above ground mono-rail system along the Merrimack River that connects UML North & East Campuses to UML South. This initiative could be a continuously running one lane service.
Tom Moses and Sheryl Wright showed us what could be done to manage the finances in Lowell, but the City clearly needs to take those advances to a higher level, as Lowell truly seeks to operate in a more business like fashion.
The difference is that a Global City as applied to Lowell is strictly a concept of optimizing the City’s economic development strategy. Lowell as a World City exploits its amenities such as a UMass Lowell, Middlesex Community College, Lowell National Historical Park, the canals, the trolleys, Boarding House Park, LeLacheur Baseball Park, and, UML Tsongas Arena (with adjacent land that could become a site for a new hotel), the Riverwalk, and frontage property that can offer opportunities for further expansion and development.
The planned expansion of the UML Tsongas Arena Complex could become part of the overall urban development plan and programmed into the mixed use concept envisioned for the redeveloped high school property.
This doesn’t mean the City should put all its eggs in UML and MCC baskets relative to the future uses of the properties. This simply establishes a foundation for an urban planning and development concept that major businesses from anywhere in the world would seek to be part of.
Lowell is completely missing the boat with its current social media strategy. Frankly, a productive approach is non-existent. In fact, the current approach hurts the City in many ways. The City of Lowell’s official social media enterprise should be a virtual lighthouse designed to engage people, businesses, other higher education institutions, new residents, stakeholders, visitors and tourists under one banner. That was the original idea behind ComeToLowell.com.
The ComeToLowell.com program is in the 5th and final year of its phase 1 rollout. The process to decide what phase 2 will entail has begun, assuming the initiative will continue. This blog is part of ComeToLowell.com. Radio segments, TV programs, social media outlets and newspaper articles have all been part of the multi-media effort to explore Lowell’s optimum potential as a City which services and benefits current and future generations.
So what needs to be done? The City should:
- cut ties with the Lowell Plan.
- hire an urban planner to replace Adam Baacke
- hire an urban planning firm to do an independent study of downtown Lowell.
- hire a top shelf architectural firm (like Flansburgh Architects), with a solid track record in planning & designing high schools. Flansburgh Architects designed the new Lawrence High School and Lowell’s new Morey School.
- consider forming a Lowell Redevelopment Authority, or similar quasi-public agency, that works with the City Manager and reports directly to the City Council.
Once the new City Manager is on board, he should be directed to hire an urban planner with the proper credentials to fill Adam Baacke’s open position in the Lowell Dept. of Planning and Development.
The City Council’s policy regarding its connection with the Lowell Plan also must be clarified at this juncture, and prior to any further official dealings between the two entities. The Lowell Plan is a private group that’s become obsolete and outdated, having failed to sustain qualified leadership. What worked in the 1970s no longer adds benefit to the City, and frankly, the Lowell Plan has become a significant liability to Lowell’s progress. It’s code of secrecy serves only to expose a lack of capability in most of what it sets out to accomplish.
Once the new in-house urban planner is on board and working for the City, the Lowell Planning and Development office should solicit an independent urban planning firm to study the future economic potential of the City of Lowell, especially downtown. Input from commercial firms like Farley & White, Cummings and successful business enterprises like Sal Lupoli should be recruited as part of the process to ensure an impartial and apolitical result. Lowell residents and stakeholders must also be consulted (and listened to).
The City should hire another firm, like Flansburgh Architects, to study all options for the future of Lowell High School, using the OMR Architects report to the Lowell School Committee as a starting point. The City should spare no expense in these endeavors.
Had the City done this in the 1980s, Lowell wouldn’t be suffering the adverse financial impact and embarrassment of realizing the high school buildings along Arcand Drive are functionally and conditionally obsolete. Deferred maintenance has also resulted in the Freshman Academy and Kirk Street Buildings’ need for comprehensive renovation. The path we are currently on condemns the City to repeat its mistakes of the ‘80s and beyond.
To date, only one suitable location for the high school has been discussed publicly, the Cawley site in Belvidere (zoom into google satellite map), with its stadium, softball, baseball, soccer fields and ice skating facility; offers a quiet campus style setting conducive to high level student learning. The only way to arrive at a final determination of the site’s suitability is for an Architect and Engineering planning team to do a proper study. This has not been performed by OMR Architects. You need land availability, footprint evaluation, traffic impact and environmental studies to take place before a proper analysis can start.
Last election, it was made clear by currently sitting City Councilor’s (then candidates) that consideration of the Cawley site would be volatile if not dangerous politically. There are currently 7 City Councilors from Belvidere. If the Cawley site is indeed given to professional study; and it’s determined to be the best setting for a high school education, would such an outcome continue to be considered a political liability by City Councilors who are Belvidere residents? As the future of Lowell High School is considered, this City Council may be facing the most important decisions in the history of the City.
The City of Lowell may be at the most crucial juncture in its history since Nathan Appleton, Patrick Tracy Jackson, and Paul Moody looked out at the thunderous, cascading water from the banks of the Merrimack River; an experience so powerful it filled all of their senses. Jack Kerouac compared the sensation of the river to 1,000 thundering horses.
Before the ComeToLowell.com initiative continues on to Phase 2, the City of Lowell must declare which path the City will take as we arrive at this “fork in the road”.
updated March 20, 2014, 1:03pm
A Redevelopment Concept for Lowell High School