Global City: Is Lowell, MA ready for transformation?

George DeLuca
June 17, 2016

This is part 2 in a series about the future of the City of Lowell (see part 1) (see part 3).

What’s remarkable about the Lowell City Council is that each member is an honest person with character beyond reproach. That’s a testament to the voters who consistently get it right. Week after week there are hundreds of pages of information attached to the meeting agendas. This isn’t a one night a week job and the pay isn’t that great.

Tuesday’s meeting was a good night for the council. When the going got tough, they showed some mettle by unexpectedly kicking off a consensus building process mid-session. Can they sustain this level of intensity as they begin to craft a discussion around the future of the city and its partners while charting a harrowing course into the eye of the perfect storm?

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The acquisition of Perkins Park is a bold move by UMass Lowell.

The meeting became a marathon bogged down by seven residents of Perkins Park who received eviction notices spurred by the sale of the property to UMass Lowell. Each councilor was polite and respectful. But the councilors concluded that the issues of the tenants were out of their jurisdiction.

The tenant complaints went on far too long, as there was a litany of items on the agenda that required serious attention and discussion. UMass Lowell treated each tenant most fairly, offering a free last month’s rent and payment for moving expenses.

In essence, each city councilor expressed empathy and dismay that 400 tenants would be displaced and wished all good luck. But several used the tenant’s quandary as a bellwether.

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Lowell City Councilors Jim Milinazzo, Danny Rourke, and Bill Samaras exhibit leadership qualities.

Councilor Danny Rourke consistently exhibits leadership qualities, and on this night he was realistic. This was a landlord/tenant situation. He was empathetic, but he wasn’t sold on the complaints of the tenants.

Councilor Rita Mercier had difficulty getting past her gut reaction reminiscent of the song lyric, “If loving you is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.” City Manager Kevin Murphy summed up that there wasn’t much that could be done legally. Mayor Edward Kennedy concurred, “There probably isn’t a lot the council can do.

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The logical next step for UMass Lowell?

Although the tenants did their best to sway the council, the seven speakers unwittingly set the stage for a riveting session of debate in the chambers, resulting in one of the more productive planning meetings of recent memory.

The agenda was chock full of issues geared towards clarifying the relationship between the city and the university. The commiserations expressed by the Perkins Park tenants seemed to lend an air of pragmatism to the proceedings and the council body rose to the challenge. Galvanized, the councilors took the lemon they were handed and made lemonade.

After dispatching the tenants group, the various UMass Lowell related motions were wisely bundled into one discussion. As a result, the council wrestled with consensus and ultimately directed Murphy to discuss and negotiate several specific issues with UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney. Murphy has a standing quarterly meeting with the chancellor scheduled for June 27.

Councilor Bill Samaras asked a key question: “What kind of people do we want to see come to Lowell?” “We want the city to be successful. We want the university to be successful. We want the citizens who move to Lowell to have success.” Samaras went on to suggest that the city and university start by comparing their master plans and looking for common ground. He also urged the partners to include the interests of the citizens of the city in their discussions.

Murphy should begin his preparations by studying UMass Lowell’s Stategic Plan for 2020. Hopefully, he, his DPD staff, and the city councilors will read the document forthwith. By contrast, the City’s 2012 version of Sustainable Lowell 2025 is outdated.

The council seems ready to sort out and resolve planning issues with the community at large. However, the board has fallen short in this endeavor in the recent past. A sincere approach could open the door to transformation that leads the former mill town towards becoming a global city. State and federal officials want desperately to see this happen.

Meanwhile, Governor Baker is assembling massive amounts of funding to stimulate economic development throughout the Commonwealth. This means jobs.

Former downtown bar owner Councilor Corey Belanger said “These (tenants) are the people who help our downtown economy.  Market rate is the way this city needs to go. We need to raise the bar.” But he got off track when he went on to suggest that Vision Properties apply for a change of use for their dorm project, asking Murphy, “Can they build to suit to accommodate these people?” Belanger continues to disappoint with such pandering.

Councilor Jim Leary said, “We all want market rate housing. It’s the tax base.” But with regards to the city’s relationship with UMass Lowell, he stressed the need for forward thinking by reiterating a comment he made on 980WCAP last week, “We need to take the long view to make sure the relationship is reciprocal.”

Leary also expressed optimism that Lowell is in a position to reinvent itself as an innovation center. He and Samaras showed game changing leadership this night. Milinazzo, Mercier, and Rourke aren’t far behind.

Councilor Rodney Elliot chose to use the issue of the tenants as a soap box. Perhaps he’s just trying to save face on the transgender bathroom debacle of a few weeks ago. If he keeps choosing the wrong horse in serious debates, he’s going to find himself polarizing his colleagues in a bad way. Don’t count him out of the discussion of Lowell’s future as a city. His heart is in the right place. His head just needs to catch up.

Mayor Edward Kennedy is on the cusp. Kennedy said, “We’re interested in expanding the tax base and economic development. We have to be careful as to how UMass Lowell growth occurs.” He showed concern that other properties that contribute tax revenue to the city may be “gobbled up” by the university. This hypothesis is a tad short sighted.

Consider the potential for jobs creation. UMass Lowell is leading the way with programs that foster innovations, company growth, participation in the global economy, advancements in research & development … all while providing a world class education to its student population which is fast approaching 18,000. Kennedy talks the talk. But can he walk the walk?

Councilor Mercier made it clear to the city manager that “I want you to fight for the city as hard as Marty Meehan is fighting for the university. I want you to fight for the taxpayers.” She noted the $77k loss of revenue stemming from UMass Lowell’s acquisition of Notini’s Distribution Center. She’s watching the store, and the eventuality of losing another $321k in revenue isn’t going down easy. If Mercier continues to keep her eye on the ball AND build up a resistance to NIMBY agendas she can emerge as an astute leader in this discussion.

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City Councilors Rita Mercier and Jim Milinazzo. “Can’t we just get along.”

Councilor Jim Milinazzo chided Mercier that the city’s path of communication is through Chancellor Moloney’s office and not UMass President Meehan’s. This point wasn’t well taken, but Mercier should reconsider her posture and take Milinazzo’s castor oil for the team … this time.

Mercier is on the money by directing Murphy to present a solid professional front with the current chancellor. UMass Lowell is far superior to the city in its prowess for planning and development. There are plenty of flies in the ointment, but not enough to derail the UML Riverhawk machine. City officials should sit up, take notice, watch, and learn. In fact, the hiring of a master’s or doctoral level urban planner is long overdue. It’s a big hole in the city’s planning and development operation which at times appears rudderless.

The city and the university are in a cooperative relationship. Both need to be strong, visionary, and resolute about serving the interests of their respective constituents. This is how synergy happens. This is how the rising tide will raise all boats.

For Lowell to become more of a “college town,” there must be a vision for a mutually beneficial end game. UMass Lowell wants to increase the graduation rate. This requires a transition from commuter school to a school whose students live on campus, or at least within the city.

University officials and faculty encourage students to participate in civic programs in the Lowell community. Chancellor Moloney wants graduates to stay in Lowell after commencement. The success of this rhetorical strategy requires a unified front with city officials and a spirit of working together.

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Welcome to the neighborhood … again.

UMass Lowell is a research and development institution. It’s one thing for budding companies to form and grow here. But what happens when they’re ready to spin off into $100-$500 million dollar corporations?  The city is in jeopardy of losing these companies to other communities who are ready to embrace and accommodate them with office, manufacturing, and living space, and, city/town services.

Going forward, the university, the city, and the incubating companies must develop a game plan for achieving a mutually beneficial strategy for fueling Lowell’s transformation to “global city” status.

Councilor Samaras stunned his colleagues when he asked the brilliant question “Why should someone come to Lowell?” Any vision for the future of the city must start with the question “Why?”

This is part 2 in a series about the future of the City of Lowell (see part 1) (see part 3).

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