Category Archives: Lowell High School

Move LHS to Cawley and revitalize downtown Lowell

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Children for Cawley hold signs in front of Lowell City Hall

By George DeLuca
June 20, 2017

The following is my speech advocating for the “ideal educational environment” for the students, and, a viable economic development plan to revitalize downtown Lowell:

“You’ll notice that the signs ‘LHS Yes for Cawley’ don’t identify the bearers as parents of children affected by the decision you’re about to make tonight. But that’s who they are … they’re the parents of the affected children and their supporters. I’m one of those supporters. But I’m here tonight to speak to a broader range of issues.

We need a new high school in Lowell and we need a solid vision for economic development. Moving the high school to the Cawley site will allow the city to achieve both objectives, while clearing a major logjam that prevents economic growth.

UMass Lowell abuts the high school at the Tsongas Center. On the other side of the high school is downtown proper, Merrimack St. and Market St. On the other side of downtown proper is the Hamilton Canal Innovation District. These four segments of downtown are shielded from each other and do not interconnect or help each other in any significant way. In effect, they’re isolated operations that stagnate growth in downtown Lowell.

To improve flow and circulation, extract the high school operation from the downtown, and relocate it to the Cawley site. Then expand the Hamilton Canal Innovation District to include the vacated high school property.

UMass Lowell will then have a physical connection to the Hamilton Canal Innovation District at Arcand Drive, facilitating the creation of one unified concept for downtown and solving the incompatibility problem.

This operation will permit a natural flow between UMass Lowell and the expanded enterprise zone that will extend to and include downtown proper via Lucy Larcom Park and then along the Merrimack Canal to Hamilton Canal.

This new flow pattern will lead to the revitalization of the entire downtown, while offering new and expanded amenities for all to enjoy, as we render support for incubating business enterprises and make room for their spin-off manufacturing operations.

I believe the high school should be built at Cawley so downtown Lowell can enter a phase of revitalization and deliver a renewed vitality not experienced in the mill city since the 1960s.

This dynamic change will lead to rising property values across the city, growth of the tax base, and the creation of jobs made possible by the education and training programs offered by MCC and UML. Downtown growth and the proposed revitalization will benefit the entire city.

The new high school at Cawley and the expanded Hamilton Canal Innovation District will fuel these advances and help make Lowell a desired community for workers, visitors, students, residents and business owners.

The high school must be moved to provide the “ideal educational environment” for the students, and, the opportunity to revitalize downtown fueled by an expanded Hamilton Canal Innovation District including the vacated high school property.

We need a new high school. But we also need economic development, rising property values, and a flourishing tax base which will only be possible if we move the high school, expand the Hamilton Canal Innovation District and revitalize downtown.

We have an opportunity to unify the city and we need your leadership to make this happen. Make this decision the beginning of an exciting new era for ALL Lowellians. Thank you.”

Former Mayor Bud Caulfield supports Cawley Campus, delivers sage advice to Lowell City Council

By George DeLuca
June 7, 2017

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Bud Caulfield

 

On June 6, former Lowell Mayor Bud Caulfield expressed his support of Cawley Campus in an interview with 980WCAP radio host Teddy Panos.

Special thanks to Teddy Panos and 980WCAP where “Everybody gets it!”

Here’s Bud:

 

LHS site will feed Hamilton Canal vision

By George DeLuca
March 3, 2017

Last Tuesday, the City Council shortlisted the downtown and Cawley Stadium sites as possible locations for the new Lowell High School. The final selection will be made after completing a series of studies, including an analysis of the economic potential of the downtown site.

If the high school moves, it may be feasible to annex the site to the Hamilton Canal Innovation District increasing the available acreage from fifteen to twenty.

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“It’s not about space, per se, it’s about people.” Steve Tello

Many feel that a new vision is needed with a more Lowell-centric marketing plan bearing a Lowell iHub style brand. “It’s an exciting opportunity. If the decision is made to move to Cawley, the city should be thinking about the property as an extension,” said Steve Tello, UMass Lowell senior associate vice chancellor of entrepreneurship and economic development.

Hamilton Canal adjoins the high school property via a historic walkway along the Merrimack Canal from Market Street to Lucy Larcom Park. “It’s about a nine iron away from the high school property, maybe an eight.” said State Representative Tom Golden.

Observers say joining the two sites may also foster direct linkages with UMass Lowell’s Tsongas Center, the Wannalancit Mills Business Center, the Offices at Boott Mills, the entrepreneurial initiatives at UMass Lowell’s East and North campuses, and Middlesex Community College’s workforce development programs.

The concept presents some exciting possibilities, but there are also challenges. “The two sides of the canal are in very different places,” said Adam Baacke, UMass Lowell’s campus planning and development director and the former director of planning and development for the City of Lowell.

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The Kirk Street side has potential for residential with some mixed-use and retention of the Irish Auditorium. Lucy Larcom Park becomes a gateway to the waterfront from one direction, and, to downtown Lowell and Hamilton Canal from the other.

Baacke said he believes there is potential for a residential project on Kirk Street that would generate tax revenue. “I think the market is almost exclusively for housing and residential redevelopment. It is a historical building and therefore eligible for historic tax credits which probably does create a viable redevelopment concept that the market will support,” he said.

A portion of the Kirk Street concept could be mixed-use, and twenty-percent of the units would have to be affordable to qualify a developer for tax credits that would “close the gap between development costs and what the actual market returns would be,” Baacke said.

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The Arcand Drive side presents challenges that will require patience. But a mixed-use commercial and retail development has been discussed with the additional possibility of a municipal component.

However, Baacke said the Arcand Drive side of the high school property is more complex and he stresses the need for patience. “You can’t force market conditions just because you have a vision or a plan, but the absence of a vision or a plan almost guarantees that you’re not going to get anywhere,” he said. “We’d want to help the city make something happen there.”

Most agree that a clearer vision for economic development is needed in Lowell. Golden is currently pursuing $250,000 for planning purposes. But citing an innovative plan that Governor Charlie Baker will support isn’t an easy task. “One of the keys is trying to visualize what tomorrow is going to look like,” he said.

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Catherine Pujols-Baxley, KnipBio, 110 Canal Street

The University of Massachusetts, Lowell is spearheading its own economic development vision, one that has global reach. Since 2008, the university has developed the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center (M2D2), a business incubation research and development initiative located at the Wannalancit Mills Business Center.

M2D2 has recently expanded its operations to 110 Canal Street at Hamilton Canal. “It’s a place where there’s room to grow if we’re successful in attracting start-up companies from different parts of New England to Lowell,” Tello said.

To execute his vision, Tello raised $5.5 million to fit-up two floors at the 110 Canal Street site, allocating one floor to the M2D2 program and another to a new tech initiative called the UMass Lowell iHub. “Once we got it built and operating, we had to recruit the companies, develop the operating model, and make sure there’s a positive cash flow,” he said.

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110 Canal Street at the Hamilton Canal Innovation District

Tello has recruited 20 companies, filling fifty percent of 22,000 square feet of the space. He expects the other half to be occupied within the year. “We’re doing our part to get innovation and industry moving in Lowell,” he said.

Tello, a member of the Hamilton Canal planning committee, said the group wants to create a mini-Kendall Square style concept that he hopes “will attract a mix of tech and commercial companies, with some residential, retail and restaurant activity built-in. That’s why the vision is so important. It’s not about space per se, it’s about people,” he said. “It’s about how many people you have living in an area; what their professional background, educational level, and income bracket is, and what kind of work they want to do. And if we have the right mix of people willing to come into town, then developers will build.”

Lowell City Councilor Jim Leary agrees that there’s room for mixed use at Hamilton Canal including residential. “Lots 8 and 9 next to 110 Canal Street are relatively tiny lots compared to the rest of the development and could be designated residential,” he said. “We need to build what the millennials will care about, those people in their 20s and 30s who have income to spend and want amenities like Mill 5. Later they can move up and buy houses elsewhere in the city.”

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New courthouse construction is well underway at Hamilton Canal.

The new courthouse at Hamilton Canal will bring about 1,500 people a day to the facility, according to Tello. A commercial build-out of the site could bring another 1,500-2,500 people. The high school property could yield up to 400 residents and another 500-1,000 people on the retail/commercial side depending on the configuration. In total, up to 4,500 people per day could be coming to the downtown area within the next 5-8 years.

Eventually, Tello hopes to attract larger companies like M2D2 sponsors Johnson & Johnson and Boston Scientific to the area. “It’s going to be two years before we see another building in the Hamilton Canal area. If we can get someone excited about a new building and get something open in two years, I think the timing could work out for the high school property,” he said.

Tello said that consolidating the two sites would enhance downtown walkability and facilitate access to the Merrimack River, but he also noted that the city’s biggest amenity is virtually invisible.

Companies want to know “where do my employees live, and where do they work and play? I’m not sure we have that all together yet for them,” Tello said. “It’s all in how you wrap it, how it’s packaged. There needs to be a vision that will attract people to the table. You need attractions and reasons to walk somewhere. We need to leverage our river by showcasing it more.”

Citizens group touts Cawley campus site for Lowell High School

by George DeLuca
February 3, 2017

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“Citizens for Cawley” group members Eric Nelson, Dan Finn, and Marty Tighe

A group of Belvidere parents would like to see a new Lowell High School built at the Cawley Stadium site in Belvidere, and not at the current downtown location. “It’s a misconception that the people of Belvidere don’t want the high school in their neighborhood. The tide is changing. There’s a younger family base in Belvidere and we want the high school at Cawley Stadium,” said Belvidere resident Marty Tighe.

Tighe is a member of “Citizens for Cawley,” an advocacy group formed to spearhead the effort to build the new high school at the Cawley Stadium site. The fledgling organization was formed by Belvidere residents, but the group is working to inform people of all neighborhoods in the city.

The group recently met with Lowell City Councilor Rita Mercier, who was impressed with their passion and willingness to act. “These are the people that are fighting for their neighborhood, saying, ‘this is what we want.’ I admire anybody who comes forward to do this. It isn’t easy to campaign. And these people work and have young children. That’s a lot and I admire that,” she said.

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Lowell City Councilor Rita Mercier at her home in Belvidere

Mercier, a Belvidere resident herself, was surprised by the position and initial findings of the group. “I was under the impression Belvidere people didn’t want it here and that’s just not true. There’s a lot of people that do want it. Don’t tell me and portray a message that nobody wants it in Belvidere. That’s not true,” she said.

When the group approached Mercier, she suggested they circulate a petition to gauge public interest in moving the high school to the Cawley site. Each member is now gathering signatures in neighborhoods throughout the city.

One of the group’s leaders, Eric Nelson is canvassing his neighborhood in Belvidere, but he’s also encouraged by the positive reaction of the people in the other neighborhoods of Lowell. “It’s a weekend effort, so we’ve only gone around a couple of days. We have about 200-300 signatures right now and we’re hearing positive things,” he said.

A cost analysis that breaks down all remaining options has been released to the public. Details will be discussed publically at a special meeting of the City Council School Building Committee on February 7 at 10 a.m. at the mayor’s reception room in City Hall, and again that evening at the City Council meeting. The following night, the results will be discussed at the Belvidere Neighborhood Group meeting at the Sullivan Middle School auditorium at 6:30 p.m.

Mercier is studying all available information about the alternatives including those that impact the students, parents, downtown businesses, the tax base, and city marketing. “I have to balance the pros and cons before I make a final decision,” she said.

The “Citizens for Cawley” feel that the downtown location would not be a feasible site due to ultra-difficult logistics and the high potential for delays and cost overruns.

The most active participants in the group are parents with elementary and middle school age children. Their main concern is that any project on the current site may disrupt and damage their children’s high school experience irreparably.

The three group members interviewed for this story have ten children among them, “and they’re all facing high school age so this issue is at the forefront of our mind. We also all grew up in the city and we decided to stay in Lowell, so for the short term we don’t want our kids in mobile classrooms,” Tighe said.

Lowell City Councilor Dan Rourke has school aged children in the fifth and eighth grades who will be directly affected by the decision. “One day in a modular classroom is one day too many,” he said.

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Ken Delisle (LHS class of ’62) signs petition for Eric Nelson

Nelson is finding that most Lowell residents aren’t aware of the details of the project, the options that are available, and the negative impacts of orchestrating a $330 million (more-or-less) construction project on-site with school in session. “People need to think about the ramifications of putting the kids through a mobile classroom experience over a four to five-year period,” he said.

Belvidere resident Dan Finn agrees. “I have a fourteen-year-old that will be going to the high school next year, and I have a three-year-old that will be going there in ten years. I don’t want either of them to experience high school in a modular building. I do want them to experience high school in a classroom setting most conducive to learning,” he said.

Mercier recognizes that a four to five-year building project at the current location may have a negative impact on a student’s education experience. “It may affect their ability to learn and it’s a lot of stress on people. I don’t know about all this disruption,” she said.

On the other hand, group members are excited about the benefits of having recreation and sports grounds and fields right on campus. Mercier shares their enthusiasm. “Isn’t it amazing that all the athletic fields are right there? There are many students that would like to take part in sports, but they don’t have a way to get out there. That may keep kids occupied after school and there may be a greater emphasis on sports,” she said.

The “Citizens for Cawley” are hoping that the city council will approve a modern, efficient, integrated academic and athletic campus style experience. “What’s best for the whole city is a brand-new state-of-the-art self-contained campus project at Cawley where there’s access from every corner of the City,” Nelson said.

Rourke remains open minded about the ultimate location of the high school, but he clearly wants a new facility. “This is our last chance for the next fifty to seventy-five years. While people differ on location, the overwhelming sentiment of the public is we need a brand new state-of-the-art high school,” he said. “The Cawley option is intriguing because it offers a campus lifestyle for all students.”

One issue drawing heated discussion throughout the city is the need for a traffic study and remediation plan, regardless of the chosen location.

“Obviously, the city would have to work with the neighborhoods with respect to traffic to alleviate any concerns,” Rourke said.

Mercier is aware that a new high school at the Cawley site poses traffic issues, but she’s confident they can be worked out. As a member of the decision-making team, she wants to hear from people of all neighborhoods so that she can take a position that best benefits the entire city.

“When people consider moving to the City of Lowell, the very first question they ask is ‘how’s your educational system?’ That’s their number one factor for moving here,” Mercier said. “It’s not about the quality of life of the people of Belvidere. I don’t know any neighborhood that hasn’t been inconvenienced by traffic. That’s part of life. This is about what’s good for the city as a whole.”

The Lowell High School property is ground zero in the battle for the future of Lowell

George DeLuca
June 24, 2016

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

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Mayor Kennedy: increase the tax base … but how?

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.

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UMass Lowell advances its innovations strategy with the purchase of Perkins Park.

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.

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Easy peasey … turnabout is fair play.

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.”

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Vision Properties to Princeton Properties … Won’t you be my neighbor?

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.

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Is that Lowell High School over there? We better rethink this dorm thing.

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.

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City Manager Kevin Murphy and staff. Is the honeymoon coming to an end?

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.

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Parking spaces have been granted for dorm residents. The UMass Lowell bus picks students up at the end of this way, so most won’t really need to use their car.

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.

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Dream until your dream comes true.

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.

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3,000 high school students with disposable income are located right across the street. Wait … what?

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.

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“Mr. Manager, I want you to work as hard for the city as Marty Meehan worked for UMass Lowell!” City Councilor Rita Mercier

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.

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

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).

UMass Lowell goes global … buys Perkins Park

George DeLuca
June 10, 2016

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

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Perkins Park will become housing for UMass Lowell honors and grad students, faculty, and staff.

Lowell City Manager Kevin Murphy wasn’t pleased with the news that UMass Lowell is buying Perkins Park for $61.5 million, a stunning move that will extend the East Campus from LeLacheur Park to the UML Tsongas Center. Murphy and some city councilors assumed the pending sale meant the loss of $321,000 in tax revenue in the coming fiscal year because non-profits are exempt from paying property taxes.

Murphy cast a pall over the city’s relationship with the university by questioning UMass Lowell’s commitment to the partnership. The city manager considered the move a “slap in the face” after a recent statewide report about non-profit tax immunity left city officials in the lurch and feeling somewhat embarrassed.

UMass Lowell quickly clarified that the university would pay the taxes on the property for the first year of transition from market rate apartment complex to residential dorm facility. In fairness, the notion that UMass Lowell intended to circumvent the payment was premature and perhaps misconceived.

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Perkins Park: Not your average student housing concept

The Perkins Park purchase, scheduled to close in July, has created a sense of urgency around the need to clarify the “partnership.” City Councilor Jim Leahy said, “We need to take the long view to make sure the relationship is reciprocal.” UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney encourages continued discussions about the university’s role as a partner and stakeholder.

A recent study completed by the UMass Donahue Institute reveals that UMass Lowell impacts the local and regional economy by over $920 million per year. This includes the creation of 6,127 jobs, many of which are external but within the city and local region.

Moloney promised to provide more details about how the university stimulates Lowell’s economy. She has reason to do so. With the A. H. Notini & Sons property in hand and the Perkins Park deal in their grasp, suddenly, UMass Lowell is knocking on the door to downtown Lowell.

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Neighboring Wannalancit Mills houses the UML M2D2 program.

Nearby Wannalancit Mills houses several UMass Lowell operations including the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center (M2D2). The future of this research and development juggernaut is central to the ever-evolving relationship between the university and the city. As fledgling medical devices and other high tech businesses spin off, they will need to find ample space to expand operations.

The M2D2 program’s perennial waiting list resulted in the need for a relief valve. At a ribbon cutting ceremony in October 2015, UMass Lowell officially occupied an additional 22,000 SF of space at the new 110 Canal Street building in the Hamilton Canal District.

With M2D2 and Innovation Hub startups maturing into companies projecting sales revenues of over $500 million, the unanswered question persists as to whether Lowell has the ability and necessary resolve to accommodate the anticipated need for suitable space. But there are barriers to progress which need to be overcome. Success will depend upon a cooperative planning process spearheaded by city and university officials.

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Perkins Park extends the East Campus to the UML Tsongas Center

UMass Lowell’s Perkins Park is a virtual turnkey operation that won’t require major renovation. Expected to open in the fall of 2017, this sprawling residential complex won’t be like other dormitories.

UMass Lowell knows it can bridge their innovations programs by housing honors students, grad students, faculty, and staff. The housing plan complements nearby research and development programs like medical device development, nanotechnology, the biotech fields, robotics, and plastics engineering. University officials also know that a holistic strategy is conducive to keeping UMass Lowell students and spin-off businesses in the city over the long haul.

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Gone but not forgotten …

Remember the UMass Lowell tag line “Learning with Purpose” with the themes “Work Ready … Life Ready … World Ready?” Notice that the banners no longer adorn Father Morissette Boulevard and the various campuses. As UMass Lowell undergoes a subtle realignment of its messaging, the institution is settling into its role as a sophisticated global university.

UMass Lowell no longer needs to use its campuses as billboards to attract students. Instead, simple beautification projects like the quad expansion at the South campus create a more student centered atmosphere. But even without the banners, the institution’s message of student readiness is even more relevant today than when first unveiled.

UMass President Marty Meehan’s vision of transitioning UMass Lowell to world class university status is fast becoming a reality. Murphy is not going to make the city a “college town.” Former UMass Lowell Chancellor Meehan and former Middlesex Community College President Carole Cowan achieved that goal. But Meehan, Moloney, and incoming MCC President James Mabry know that mutual success requires that all community leaders row in the same direction.

Moloney is forging on seamlessly from where Meehan left off. Note the mission in UMass Lowell’s Strategic Plan for 2020: “to educate, research, and serve the community.” The plan calls for the continuation of the dynamic capital improvements program that has transformed the physical plant and visage of the university. Enrollment will continue to rise. Graduation percentages will improve.

Moloney is steadfast about nurturing the research and development capabilities of the university, thereby setting the stage for the City of Lowell’s emergence as a global city. Those who tune-in can witness the mesmerizing plan as it unfolds.

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Trolley enters Vision Properties site … LHS next?

Last Monday, the Lowell Planning Board approved the construction of a new $40 million private dorm on French Street across from Lowell High School. This new concept by master developer Vision Properties of Pennsylvania is also scheduled to open in the fall of 2017. The dormitory will be open to UMass Lowell and Middlesex Community College students.

Lowell High School is now virtually surrounded. The site is fast becoming the most valuable property in city, and a pivotal piece of the “let’s make Lowell a ‘college town’ AND revitalize downtown AND provide the best educational and recreational situation for Lowell’s high school students” puzzle. Before you say “PILOT,” remember, the city owns and controls the property. The key that unlocks the door to global city status is the Cawley Campus site.

In-keeping with the legacy passed down by the city’s forefathers, Lowell exemplifies the term “Gateway City” in Massachusetts. City officials seem stunned as they begin to realize the value of what they have. It’s time for local officials to rise to a new level of leadership with a new vision of Lowell’s place in the global economy. Destiny is calling and the perfect storm is brewing.

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