June 24, 2016
Earlier this week, Governor Baker’s $918 million jobs bill passed through the state’s Economic Development and Emerging Technologies Committee. This should be great news for the City of Lowell, a city struggling to come up with a viable economic development strategy for keeping incubating innovations companies in Lowell once they mature.
To ensure their electability, city pols usually vow to work on growing the city’s tax base. They also promise to increase the job count. So what’s holding local officials back from developing an economic development plan that helps emerging companies take full advantage of the governor’s jobs creation initiatives?
Lowell leaders seem unconcerned about jettisoning ripe high-tech companies out of the city and into the open arms of other cities and towns in the Commonwealth. The short answer to the dilemma is the presence of Lowell High School in downtown Lowell.
For several years, everyone in Lowell’s infamous bubble was focused on the promise of development in the Hamilton Canal District. The development stalled, but is now showing signs of resurgence. One can only hope because the lack of a valid master plan dilutes much of the potential for the site.
In the fall of 2010, the now infamous Jeff Speck report determined that Lowell High School’s physical plant is functionally obsolete. By way of a $70,000 contract with the Lowell Plan, much of which was government funding, Speck further advised executive director Jim Cook that the demolition of the buildings on the west side of the canal and along Arcand Drive would be necessary if the plan is to rebuild on-site.
Speck found that a complete reprogramming of the high school was required to fully meet accreditation standards. Cook told Speck to keep his thoughts about the report under his hat, with a specific directive to not discuss his findings with the Lowell public. Speck complied. Cook later announced in the Sun that the high school would stay put in its current location.
Three years later, the School Committee unveiled an architectural and engineering study of the physical plant encompassing all of Lowell’s schools and their respective grounds. The study revealed that Lowell was in dire need of a comprehensive capital improvements program for all of the schools, especially the high school.
Fast forward … On May 16, 2016, Vision Properties of PA presented a plan to build a college dormitory at the Lowell 5 site directly across from the high school and adjacent to River Place off French Street. River Place is owned by Princeton Properties. The dorm project was conceptually approved by Lowell’s Planning Board, Zoning Board, Conservation Commission, and Historic Board.
During a return trip to the planning board on behalf of the developer, lawyer Bill Martin was able to avoid a mandatory PILOT clause that mysteriously appeared in the city’s conditions for approval. Martin objected that a PILOT requirement would hinder his client’s ability to finance the project. The planning board agreed to waive the requirement.
The plot thickened when, on June 3, UMass Lowell announced its intent to purchase Perkins Park. The university plans to convert the property to dorms for honors students, and, residences for master’s candidates, faculty, and some staff.
With permitting approvals in hand, Vision Properties decided to stand pat for a spell because of opposition from River Place. In other words, there’s no projected construction start date at this time. This is a significant decision, because Martin pressed the boards to approve the project without delay so that the dormitory could be completed and open for business by the fall 2017 semester.
As stated at the various city approvals meetings, the opposition from River Place involves parking, traffic, and access. These concerns are legitimate. But, there’s obviously more to the story.
A lawsuit has been initiated by Princeton Properties for the logistical reasons stated above. The dorm project now appears to be dead in the water. Either Vision’s dorm plan is a front, or, the suit is a major stroke of luck. The Perkins Park purchase by UMass Lowell also factors into the equation. Regardless, the Lowell 5 site now features a developer that has gone from “pedal to the metal” to “slow ball.”
Meanwhile, the Lowell 5 site remains in play with Vision Properties not so firmly at the helm. The suit could feed into an alternate plan, if not a more viable strategy for the site.
A successful developer wouldn’t surge forward with a $40 million college dorm project without knowing what the future has in store for Lowell High School.
It’s clear that the high school operation presents major obstacles to revitalizing the Lowell 5 property into a college dorm or anything else. The conflict of having a high school obstructing access to and from downtown on any given school day was one reason for Lowell 5’s decision to move. Princeton Properties has been dealing with the access problem since they took over River Place. They’re essentially living their own complaint and fear an exacerbation of the status quo.
City Manager Kevin Murphy once said, “In Lowell, perception is reality.” Misconceptions have dogged Lowell politics throughout its history. The current quagmire is leading to a tipping point, as the city awaits the completion of a high school feasibility study that could result in the release of over $250 million in state funding.
But the Commonwealth is in tune with the reality of what constitutes the positive transformation of an urban economy. The taxpayers are not going to invest $250 million to tear down and rebuild high school buildings on the current site when its relocation promises a major win-win return on investment and a global showcase for the governor’s efforts.
As Vision Properties President Rick Shaffer said, “This isn’t our first rodeo.” The deal between Lowell 5 and Vision must have been substantiated by a property appraisal that considers the present and future uses of the abutting properties. River Place’s situation is fairly clear cut. This isn’t Princeton Properties “first rodeo” either. The fate of the high school will be the ultimate determinant of the value of the Lowell 5 property. Now ante up and let’s deal the cards.
If it’s determined that the high school will remain downtown, then Vision Properties might as well fold and go home. If it’s determined that the high school will move to Cawley Campus, then the developer may be sitting pretty depending upon their agreement with Lowell 5. Shaffer knows this. The Lowell 5 officials know this. Attorney Bill Martin knows this. And Princeton Properties CEO Andrew Chaban knows this. They’ve all been to a rodeo or two.
Then there’s the matter of contingencies in the owner/developer agreement. Vision’s what-if scenario(s) are contained in a proforma, a document developers use to determine, verify, and validate their interest in a property. The offer to purchase is likely contingent upon certain outcomes, and in this case only one outcome makes sense, the one that has Lowell High School moving to Cawley Campus in six years.
Why should the high school remain downtown? Let’s be honest.
First, the Lowell history and heritage arguments for keeping the high school downtown aren’t winnable. For proof, just go down to the river and look at the equipment being set up for the bladder dam installation.
Second, it’s disingenuous to propose that the high school students buoy the downtown economy.
Third, proximity of the high school to the colleges is a non-issue. Cawley Campus is only two miles away. Plus a modern high school can be designed with the colleges in mind. Labs can be built to suit, professor offices included, shuttle transportation arranged, etc.
Fourth, it’s unlikely that the Commonwealth will commit to investing $250 million in a combination demolition, renovation, and new construction project on the high school site when there’s a serious probability that unknown existing conditions will jack the price up astronomically. This boondoggle flies in the face of Baker’s painstaking efforts to set up his urban transformation and jobs development funding programs. A high school isn’t the highest and best use of the property.
In essence, the carelessness of city officials could submarine the promise of Lowell’s transformation to “global city” status.
The confusion created by presenting an invalid proposal to the School Business Assistance Bureau (SBAB) has already delayed the economic development plans of the city. Notice that many of the wags responsible for this untenable brainchild have left their posts, perhaps sensing the futility of their efforts and the inevitable exposure of their collective lack of vision and consideration.
The perfect solution to designing a state-of-the-art educational and recreational high school facility lies in waiting at the Cawley Campus site. So, why are Jim Cook and his followers so adamant about pounding a square peg in a round hole at the current high school site?
Let’s see … could it be Belvidere NIMBYism?
Why did the Lowell Plan support Vision’s plan for a college dorm project directly across from Lowell High School? Lowell’s perennial bird dog recently submitted a Lowell Sun letter to the editor in which he stated: “The proposal by Vision Properties has the potential to bring up to 438 UMass Lowell students to our central commercial district adding vitality and a new customer base.” This is a misstatement, and frankly, it’s not going to happen.
First, the dorm would also be open to MCC and other college students.
Second, predictions that UMass Lowell students will frequent downtown businesses are not only invalid, they reveal a lack of knowledge about the resources offered to university students on campus. The university is self contained. Someone didn’t do their homework.
But the final line in Cook’s letter is most revealing: “The Lowell Plan looks forward to welcoming more students to our downtown and furthering City Manager Kevin Murphy’s efforts to establish Lowell as a ‘College Town.’” Why not just change Lowell’s name to Cookieville or Murphytown?
Is Murphy helping Cook to finally see the light? Either way, Jim Cook’s future with the Lowell Plan appears to hold little promise. City Manager Bernie Lynch was on track with his cooperative approach to helping to make Lowell a so-called “college town.” Lynch continues to be a hard act for Murphy to follow.
It was Lynch who carried on with the painstaking process of advancing the city’s relationships with its colleges.
Lynch was derailed because of a half-baked master plan pushed forward by Cook, who consistently insisted on secrecy and gag orders. In many ways, Cook succeeded in calling the shots of the city administration while leading its future prospects into a death spiral towards the abyss. As a result, the city’s current master plan is impotent. The Cook/Lynch partnership didn’t serve the people of Lowell well. It was a disgrace and a “slap in the face” to Lowell residents and stakeholders.
It’s time to dissolve the Lowell Plan fiefdom, and replace it with a legitimate transformative entity, i.e., along the lines of a Lowell Redevelopment Authority staffed by qualified urban and community planners capable of aligning the city’s economic development goals with those of the Commonwealth. Lowell’s DPD can then answer to leaders who are experienced in urban development.
For the City of Lowell to become a global city, the barriers to making it happen must be removed. This is no time for legacy building and individual retirement strategies.
As directed by City Councilor Rita Mercier in the council chambers on June 14, Kevin Murphy must immediately change his rhetoric. It’s redundant to say that he wants “to establish Lowell as a college town.” UMass Lowell has that mission covered. But Murphy can still HELP the City of Lowell become a “global city.” If he’s concerned about leaving a positive legacy, he must put aside his ego and realign his focus.
But, Murphy’s most difficult challenge may be the Belvidere political machine, not UMass Lowell. This moment in Lowell’s history has been predestined. The city needs a full time director of urban planning and community development who’s qualified take the city to the next level. And time is of the essence.