I confess to having missed the last couple of council meetings and I was late tuning in last night, but when I did, I caught a portion of the debate about adding traffic and parking along Fr. Morissette Boulevard. Whenever I hear the council debating the merits of on-street parking I reminisce about Dick O’Malley. He bounced on and off the council in the 1980s and as an incumbent campaigning for re-election in 1993 advocated the removal of all parking meters from downtown. He finished 20th that year (that’s right, there once was a time when more than 18 people ran for the city council). But I digress.
Today it’s widely accepted that the demolition of mills, row houses and neighborhoods such as Little Canada were bad outcomes of 1960s Urban Renewal. Another bad result from that era was the installation of multi-lane high speed roads that quarantine downtowns from surrounding neighborhoods. Fr. Morissette Blvd is a prime example of this as is Dutton Street. America’s embrace of the car culture of the 1960s envisioned everyone living on a half acre lot in the suburbs and then zooming to work on a network of high speed approaches into central business districts. The idea that anyone would want to live in the downtown and move around on foot or by bicycle seemed so 19th century-ish.
All of that has changed. Downtown Lowell is now a neighborhood as much as it’s a central business district. The city has made great strides in developing areas that once seemed peripheral to downtown, a ring of no-man’s-land that separated residential from work neighborhoods. Here I’m thinking of the Jackson-Appleton Street development, the planned revival of the South Common, the revival of the area between Fr. Morissette Blvd and the river (think Arena, ballpark, Wannalancit Mills and all the other things going on there). Areas like this are helping downtown Lowell expand, creating a larger, more vibrant area that will benefit everyone in the city.
But roads such as Dutton/Thorndike and Fr. Morissette are significant obstacles to this growth. Urban planners of today, in my mind correctly, advocate breaching these obstacles with planning strategies that include fewer and narrower travel lanes, on-street parking, bicycle lanes, designated pedestrian lanes and trees and other plantings all of which “calm traffic” and make walking and bicycling safer and more attractive. These theories will never work if they are not implemented or worse, implemented by half measures. People have an innate aversion to change but when good change is forced upon them, they quickly realize the new way is the better way. The role of a leader is to push forward with good new ideas and help bring everyone else along. Anything that slows traffic and makes it safer and more desirable to walk or bicycle benefits the city in the long run and should be supported.