Lowell City Council Meeting: April 29, 2014

[This is not a verbatim transcript, but as close to it as I can produce while watching the meeting[

ABOLISH BIKE LANES

After some citations at the start of the meeting, the motion by Rita Mercier and Rodney Elliott to abolish the bike lanes on Fr. Morisette Blvd is taken out of order. Rita Mercier begins by saying sometimes she makes a motion to shock people to find out if anyone uses a resource. She cites a letter from Police Supt Taylor saying that the markings on the roadway are confusing and give the appearance of two travel lane. She states for the record that she has no problem with bicyclists, that they belong in the city. She says she made a mistake voting for the proposal because of the way it came out. She queries the crowd about who uses the bike lanes. A number raise their hands. She says she never has seen anyone use the lanes. She says she’d like to amend the motion to send it to the City Manager to have DPD look at refiguring the bike lanes so that markings are not so confusing. She says she doesn’t want people on bikes to get hurt. She implies that the motion to abolish the bike lanes was just a pretense to get the bicyclists to show up and identify themselves. She turns it over to Mayor Elliott who relinquishes the chair.

Mayor Elliott says the bike lanes have been in place for 9 months. Says he hasn’t seen one bicyclist using them. He doesn’t oppose bikes but he says people who support him and see him have asked him to do something about the lanes which are underutilized. Says it was a plan that was rolled out poorly; people in the city didn’t expect it. The culture of the city is such that people aren’t accustomed to having bicyclists riding down the middle of the streets. This plan is very confusing. I made the motion to get rid of the bike lanes because they’re confusing, not because I dislike bicyclists. Maybe bike lanes are better in other parts of the country where bikes can be used for more than five months of the year. I’ll support sending it back to the city manager for further study but it’s been studied for nine months and people who drive there every day have a problem with it. I understand the Speck report recommends cycling but what does an urban planner know about the city when he spends less than a month here. We run the city. We listen to the people who live here. Some things work for Cambridge or Somerville but not in Lowell. That doesn’t mean we’re a bad city. The city is run by people who are born, raised and die here. We make progress every day.

Council Samaras says he understands the mayor’s frustration. The markings are confusing. But bike paths are becoming part of the fabric of every city in the country. I do have concerns about the design but we have to look at a master plan for biking. Biking is here. What do we want it to look like in our city. I’m also concerned about pedestrian safety. Asks instead to send it to the council subcommittee on transportation to work with the city manager to develop a strategic master plan for bikes in Lowell.

Councilor Rourke says the design stinks but he agrees there should be a citywide plan in place to encourage cycling.

Councilor Kennedy says the bike lanes were secondary to gaining the parking spaces on Fr Morissette Blvd. Having parking there makes two lanes of traffic too tight. That’s where the bike lanes come from. Some people think the bike lanes are a bad idea. Some people might think the parking spaces are a bad idea. If we’re going to keep the parking, we can’t have two lanes. If we’re going to do away with parking, then we could have two lanes and put the bike lane along the curb instead of the parking. The city manager is now negotiating with UMass Lowell for use of those spaces. If that works out, then we won’t have the ability to have two lanes of traffic. One reason the bike lanes see so large is that no one is yet using the parking spaces. Once the parking spaces are being used, the bike lanes will seem more reasonable.

Council Belanger says he received many emails supporting the bike lanes but he believes the bike lanes have been seriously underutilized. He doesn’t like what he’s seeing both for bikes and parking on that street. I’m seeing a lot more bicyclists on sidewalks downtown – it’s rampant but that’s an issue for another day. He’ll support further study of the bike lanes.

Councilor Milinazzo says he has seen bicyclists using the bike lanes but he’s also seen cars which is dangerous so there should be a reconfiguration.

Councilor Leahy favors giving it more time and concurs the lines might be confusing. He’s also like to see what it’s like during baseball season.

Numerous people speak in opposition to the original motion but in support of the amended motion to make the lanes safer. They included Paul Marion representing UMass Lowell which wants additional study and more time before any decision is made. University Crossing will open in August. University is negotiating for use of some of the spaces. Council’s conversation is going in the direction the University had hoped it would. Offers any assistance from University. David Watson, ED of Mass Bike. Very encouraged by the discussion so far. Councilors understand the issues. Also thanks the citizens who came out to speak. Confident that working together, the council and the residents will find the right solution not only for Fr Morissette but for the citywide bike network. Recommends the creation of a bicycle advisory committee of city departments and bike users. Mentions resources of MassBike which is statewide advocacy group. Patrick Murphy, former mayor, opposes returning Fr Morissette to its highway-like existence. He disagrees that the city should be designed for cars. That’s a mistake that’s been made for the past several decades. It’s been said that treating traffic congestion by adding more traffic lanes is like treating obesity by buying larger pants. Revert streets back to when streets had a human element. Highway like streets have no place in a city. They make the city less safe, cut off neighborhoods, reduce foot traffic that helps businesses. That’s why Jeff Speck calls for a comprehensive “evolution” plan. Bike lanes are only an invitation. When designed better, maybe more people will use them. My message tonight is, plan for cars and you’ll see more cars, plan for people and you’ll get more people.

Council sends it back to the City Manager for review. Council Mercier interjects that if the motion had been just to send it back to the Manager, no one would have paid attention to it. But by making it a shocking motion, it got everyone here so I think it was a great motion.

PUBLIC HEARINGS

Tanner Street Urban Renewal Plan presented by Craig Thomas of DPD. Several people speak in favor of it. Two residents have concerns that the plan will prompt large trucks to use residential streets leading from Gorham Street to Tanner. City Manager will meet with those residents to address their concerns while council decides to forward the plan to the state for its review.

FY14 and FY15 BUDGET UPDATE

City Manager Murphy says much of his time has been spent on the FY14 budget that will conclude at the end of June. He praises Bob Healy for his work. FY14 will end in balance except for the snow and ice account which will have a $1.6mil deficit which can roll over to the FY15 budget so that already has a $500K deficit in it. Expect a FEMA grant for snow and ice so that reduces that deficit.
FY15 will be very tight. Still have to resolve net school spending issues. Anticipate submitting proposed budget to council by beginning of June.

603 CHELMSFORD ST

Declared surplus, authorize city manager to seek bids. Passes unanimously.

SUBCOMMITTEE REPORTS

Councilor Belanger gives report of Economic Development Subcommittee. Parking ordinance was discussed. Current ordinance is 8am until 6pm, Monday through Saturday but it’s only enforced until 4pm and not at all on Saturday. Business owners are concerned the ordinance will be enforced fully which Belanger says “will be a disaster” because “you can go to the Pheasant Lane Mall and park for free. We’re trying to make the city parking friendly. They recognize that enforcement is required because otherwise residents and employees will fill up all the spaces. Councilor Leahy asks how much will it cost to enforce a “two hour free parking” policy [Ed. Note which is exactly the question that must be addressed but is being steadfastly avoided by everyone else].

HOTEL IN DOWNTOWN LOWELL

Motions by Councilors Mercier and Belanger requesting City Manager to attract a hotel to downtown Lowell. Councilor Mercier says she read a “beautiful article by Jim Campanini” that was “spot on” about the need for a hotel in Lowell. I know UMass Lowell has a dormitory/hotel at the ICC but I don’t know who would want to stay in a hotel that was also a dormitory. I don’t want to be putting down the Chancellor. I know he has representatives here who will report back to him. Mayor Elliott says “he’s watching” to which Mercier says “No he’s not; he lives in Andover.” I know when we sold the arena to the University there was a promise that there would be a hotel on that site. I’m not saying the promise hasn’t been kept but it hasn’t been done. I’ve already received a call from a developer who has already bought the old Chevy’s on East Merrimack Street saying it would be a great site for a hotel [Ed. Note: That would be Dave Daly]. This is a good idea to develop a nice hotel with parking in the back at the Davidson Street Lot. It’s something to look at. If we don’t dream and we don’t ask then nothing will happen. This is economic development at its best. Council Belanger says there is a tremendous need for a hotel. This city has missed conventions and events because we don’t have a hotel. It’s frustrating that we lose tourist dollars because of this. We’re a laughing stock because we call ourselves a destination city but we don’t have a hotel. We had a hotel but that was always a loss leader. It was far too large a hotel for the city’s needs. The ICC has about 30 rooms which is far too small to host any events. This is not the university’s problem; it’s our problem. It’s up to us. We owe it to the businesses and the residents and the visitors who want to come into town and have nowhere to stay. I received a transmission from the same developer [Daly] who’s interested in building the hotel. I think we should offer him a tax break. This is an extremely important piece. It’s a priority. I put it on the manager to work with the University. I think we should offer a TIFF [tax break] to make this happen. No further discussion. Motion passes unanimously.

Council adjourns at 9:35 pm

8 Responses to Lowell City Council Meeting: April 29, 2014

  1. LowellMillGal says:

    So we need the Goldilocks hotel…not too big, not too small, just right? And if we’ve missed “conventions” that’s a much larger issue than a block of hotel rooms. But, you know, let’s give Dave Daly some money even though he’s currently suing the city.

  2. Brian says:

    Great night for cyclists and putting a spotlight on complete streets. I thought the speaker who said bikers from Chelmsford would bike to downtown if they felt safer on Lowell’s streets made an interesting point.

    Patrick Murphy’s speech was outstanding. The bike path needs to be extended to be more useful and get more usage. The Dutton St ground floor storefronts have so much potential but are choked off by too many,too wide lanes. Reduce the driving lanes, add metered parking and a bike lane, and that side of downtown will take off. Cities can be great at being car friendly or pedestrian friendly but can’t be both at the same time.

    C. Belanger is dangerous when it comes to parking policy. Maybe he “can’t see the forest for the trees”. Even Andy Jacobson of Brewd doesn’t get it. Why do they feel that on-street parking needs to be regulated during the day but not after 4pm or weekends? If Andy knows parking turnover is good for his business during the day why wouldn’t he want the same benefit to be had by Majors at night?

    For some reason C Belanger doesn’t understand that you don’t give away the best spots(on street) for free! If monthly passholders got home from work at 5-8pm and meter maids were still ticketing they would park in the garages and the best on-street spots would more likely be open for paying customers/diners. C Kennedy mentioned the first hour being free in the garages. Great idea!!! This takes care of Belanger’s mall/Applebee argument.

    But you can’t do both. Either free parking in the garages for the first hour or free parking after 4pm and weekends.
    Burlington VT chose the former. I’d rather steal their good ideas than follow C Belanger to downtown’s slow death.

    Note: chalking tires is very controversial and would be a TOTAL cluster F*ck.

  3. DickH says:

    Brian, good synopsis of the downtown parking debate. I still don’t see how enforcing the kiosk ordinance until 6pm and all day on Saturday would be “devastating” to businesses. Parking at a kiosk costs $2 for 2 hours; what’s wrong with that? Are the complainers part of the “I’ll never pay for parking” crowd? If that’s the case, city policy shouldn’t be stood on its head to satisfy some irrational individuals who don’t live in the real world. My own experience parking downtown has been this: From 8am to 4pm when the kiosk ordinance is enforced, I have no trouble finding an on-street parking spot. From 4pm on and all day Saturday and Sunday, I have to park in the garage (which I don’t mind doing) because all the on street spaces are taken. I’m guessing they are taken by downtown residents and employees who would otherwise be parking in the garages if the ordinance were being enforced. Surprisingly it was John Leahy who posed the proper question last night: how do you ensure space turnover when you don’t charge for parking? Like Brian, I don’t think it can be done, but the councilors and the downtown business owners who advocate this should just come forward with their proposal on how to do it rather than just talk incessantly about it.

  4. Joe S. says:

    Councilor Belanger’s thrust to reduce parking revenue, with the hope to “make it up on the other end” (presumably from increased meals tax revenue) doesn’t consider the impending costs to the parking enterprise fund, including repair of the existing garages and the building of a new garage in the Hamilton Canal District. If, as he supposes, that free parking will increase the restaurant business, then it should be considered a conflict of interest that he boosts his private business by taking from the general fund revenue. But that conflict will never really occur, as he will only hurt his, and other, businesses with his misguided plans.

  5. Gail says:

    I love the Goldilocks hotel! The only complaint that I have heard about the ICC was when people stayed there during the winter of 2010/2011 and did not want to go out to get something to eat in a blizzard. People from my organization who have stayed there more recently have had not complaints. It isn’t a 5 star hotel, but neither is it priced as one.

  6. Brian says:

    Just found a good example of smart parking policy AND a downtown high school in Bethesda-Chevy Chase MD.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethesda-Chevy_Chase_High_School
    “Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School (B-CC) is a Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, public school named for two of the towns it serves along with Kensington and Silver Spring, Maryland. It is located at 4301 East-West Highway, in Bethesda. In May 2012, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School was ranked #6 in the state of Maryland, and #151 in the nation.”

    METERED PARKING
    http://www.bethesda.org/bethesda/street-parking
    “On-street meters have parking that is available Monday through Saturday from 9am – 10pm for $2.00 per hour. These short-term spaces are for downtown Bethesda customers who are planning to be in Bethesda for only one or two hours since the meters at these spaces are one and two hour meters. On-street parking is free on Sundays and Montgomery County holidays.

    Feeding the meter beyond posted times is prohibited by Montgomery County. Please read and heed all on-street parking meters and signs.

    *For longer term parking, please consider using one of Bethesda’s many garages and surface lots.*”

    GARAGE PARKING
    http://www.bethesda.org/bethesda/garage-parking
    “Garage and surface lot parking is available and payment is required Monday – Friday from 7am – 10pm. Payment is $1.25 per hour in short-term parking (four hours hours or less) and $.80 per hour in long term parking (more than four hours). Beginning July 1, 2013, surface lot parking will be $1.25 per hour and garage parking will be $0.80 per hour.

    Parking is free in Montgomery County parking garages and surface lots on Saturdays, Sundays and County holidays.”

    The fundamental takeaway for Lowell is that metered parking should be enforced WAY past 4pm and on Saturdays to free up spots for short term paying customers. And that garage parking should ALWAYS be cheaper than on-street parking so more people use the garages.

  7. Joe S. says:

    As for extended time parking, Hampton Beach requires payment up to midnight during the transition and peak seasons.
    http://www.hamptonbeach.com/parking-directions/

    It would take some analysis by the parking director, but some form of charging similar to the example Brian provided would likely be best for Lowell – it would better manage parking while providing the necessary revenue to the parking enterprise fund. I think Lowell would also require a reduced rate option for monthly contracts, rather than just a lower rate for long term parking.

  8. Jack Mitchell says:

    Did mayor Elliott really compare his tribulations in his quest for anointed ceremonial office to the inspiring journey of the visiting Ambassador? Because, to Rodney, having his wrist slapped by his peer group is comparable to surviving a genocide?

    I wasn’t there. But, there is a buzz going around the bubble.

    Also, I heard the Ambassador, alone, drew a one or two electeds to the gala. Y’know, because the event would have just been an ‘also ran,’ otherwise. How clueless can some folks be?

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