Lowell Week in Review: May 3, 2016

Middlesex & Central Streets

Marty Meehan to Lead Entire UMass System

In a week filled with major national news, the big story locally was the unanimous selection of UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan to be the President of the entire University of Massachusetts system.  Anyone living in Lowell can attest that many good things have happened at UMass Lowell since Meehan took charge in 2007 and that recognition was shared far beyond Greater Lowell, a key factor in the lack of drama (and the absence of negativity) which surrounded his selection.  The only downside is that Meehan’s attention will no longer be focused exclusively on UMass Lowell.  His interest in what’s happening in the city will never wane, but the demands on his time from other places will be much greater.  Still, one of Marty’s strengths is to build a good team and the great majority of that team will remain right here in Lowell to continue all the good work that is underway.

Statewide Opioid Abuse Strategy

Somewhat drowned out by all the attention understandably given to other big stories this week (Meehan’s selection, the Baltimore protests, and the Supreme Court’s hearing on same sex marriage), was a conference convened on Tuesday by Governor Charlie Baker on statewide opioid abuse.  Baker shared the news that in 2014, there were 1008 deaths statewide cause by opioid abuse, the highest annual death toll ever from that cause.  Baker emphasized that this epidemic cuts across geographic and class boundaries and affects everyone in the Commonwealth.  Middlesex County had the most deaths of any county in the state in 2014 with 212, a 37% increase from the 154 in 2013.

Talking about this epidemic at the gubernatorial level is a good sign that it is being taken seriously.  But it’s an incredibly complex problem that must be addressed at multiple levels.  Locally, it is unfortunate that Frank Singleton, Lowell’s Health Director, recently announced his intent to retire.  Singleton has been a blunt and unspoken voice advocating the difficult things that must be done to get a handle on this crisis and unless the city replaces him with someone equally as passionate in combating the problems that flow from drug addiction, any progress we have made on this front risks being lost.  The good news is that the majority of the city council has adopted a realistic view of what is needed and the quarterly reports that body receives on overdoses in the city is an important means of keeping this issue in the public eye.

Smith Baker Center

The Coalition for a Better Acre convened an important meeting on the future of the Smith Baker Center.  The city of Lowell has issued a request for proposals (RFP) for the reuse of that building, formerly used as the Lowell Senior Center and before that, the First Congregational Church.  Yun-Ju Choi, the Executive Director of the CBA explained that the CBA is contemplating submitting a response to the RFP and that this meeting was an opportunity for members of the public to share their vision for the future of the space.

I wrote a blog post with more details about the meeting but mention it here again because the importance of this building not only as a part of the city’s history but also as an important link in a chain of sites that have the potential to greatly enliven downtown Lowell.

Yes, I’m talking about the Dutton Street–Thorndike Street corridor.  The links I speak of are places like the Pollard Memorial Library, the Smith Baker Center, the Gates Block/Arts League of Lowell, the National Park Visitor Center, the Whistler House, the Hamilton Canal District, the American Textile History Museum, Western Avenue Studios, the Cambodian businesses near Pailin Plaza on Middlesex Street, Mill No. 5, the South Common and the Gallagher Terminal.  With the development of the Hamilton Canal District, I see the center of gravity of downtown Lowell shifting from Kearney Square to the Thorndike/Dutton/Jackson/Fletcher intersection IF – and it’s a big IF – the city can figure out a way for people to safely walk and bike back and forth among all of these venues.

More on Walkability

Tuesday’s city council meeting (which I watched days later streaming from LTC’s website) was only 37 minutes long so there wasn’t much to report.  One thing I found encouraging, though, was a motion by Rita Mercier seeking to improve the safety of pedestrians crossing streets in downtown Lowell.  The particular situation of concern to Councilor Mercier is the case where a pedestrian crossing a street in accordance with a white crossing signal comes into conflict with a motor vehicle on the intersecting street with a green light making a turn onto the street being crossed by the pedestrian.

With the nicer weather I’ve been out walking around downtown much more frequently and this is a huge problem but only because drivers are totally oblivious to the rights of pedestrians.  It’s one thing when a pedestrian is jaywalking, but quite another when a pedestrian is legally crossing a street but is nearly run down by a car which assumes it has the right of way to turn at an intersection.

While this situation described above is a real problem, there are two other situations I’ve repeatedly observed that present even greater peril to pedestrians.  The first is right turns at stop signs and red lights.  Next time you’re out walking around with a few minutes to spare, position yourself to the right of a stop sign or a red light and watch the cars that pull up to it.  As they approach the intersection, the drivers have their eyes locked to the left, searching for oncoming cars that would prevent them from zipping into their right turn.  They are totally oblivious to the possibility that someone on foot might be approaching from the right.  If the pedestrian did not refrain from stepping into the street – which he is legally entitled to do because at a stop sign or red light, the pedestrian absolutely has the right of way – the pedestrian would be run down by the car because the driver never even looks in that direction.

The second situation is people who text while driving.  Stand on the street near a red light and watch the people rolling to a stop.  Count how many of them are glancing back and forth from the road in front of them to the phone in their hand.  By my count it’s easily one out of ten.  It they’re doing it as they roll to a stop, they are doing it at other times while behind the wheel.  Nothing good can come of this but there’s not a lot being done to change such behavior.

At a recent council meeting Chief Bill Taylor said that the new police academy class starts sometime this month so that all the city’s new officers can be on the street by Thanksgiving.  I know the focus has been on violence prevention, but maybe some additional resources for traffic enforcement can be found, too.

Vibrant Retail Districts

Yesterday morning this year’s Public Matters class went on their Lowell neighborhood tours.  For several years, I’ve been the Highlands neighborhood tour guide.  Everyone gathers at Cavaleiro’s on Lawrence Street at 9am and then heads out, three Public Matters participants to each guide, to an assigned neighborhood on a three hour tour (conducted from the car and on foot).  Among the many places my group stopped were Cupples Square and Pailin Plaza (across from Clemente Field on Middlesex Street).  Both places are filled with Cambodian-owned businesses and both places were booming on this Saturday morning.  I’ve been to both places many times but yesterday I saw them through the eyes of my companions who were struck by the vibrancy and the authenticity of all the activity.  This wasn’t retail activity artificially manufactured in pursuit of some theoretical economic development strategy.  This was real people buying things they needed and desired from small businesses located in the midst of their neighborhoods.  There were plenty of customers coming and going in cars but there were also plenty of people and foot and the cars and the pedestrians peacefully coexisted which is as it should be.  If the city were able to clone this level of economic activity on Merrimack Street and Central Street, we could stop worrying about vacant storefronts in downtown.

Attorney General Maura Healey coming to Lowell on Friday

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey will be in Lowell this coming Friday night (May 8) as the special guest speaker at the KhmerPost USA Media & Community Gala at the Pailin Restaurant, 6 Branch Street.  The event begins at 6:30 pm and tickets are available online from MKtix.com for just $35.

In addition to Attorney General Healey, the keynote speaker at the event will be the Honorable Meng H. Lim, a Justice of the Tallapoosa County Superior Court in Georgia.  Judge Lim is the first Cambodian-American Superior Court judge in America.

Lowell Votes

The Lowell Votes group (of which I am a member) has another public meeting this coming Monday night (May 4) at 6:30 pm at the Pollard Memorial Library community room.  The meeting is open to the public.  The Lowell Votes group hopes to increase voter turnout in city elections, especially in neighborhoods and among groups that have faced barriers to voting in the past.  If you are unable to attend the meeting, please join the Lowell Votes facebook group for future news and updates.


7 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: May 3, 2016

  1. Concerned says:

    I sincerely hope that retail will rise in Downtown, but I have my doubts. Other than online sales and malls, I think the reasons are:

    #1 IMO is decades of neglect by property owners. We looked into a shop on Merrimack, but it couldn’t happen because the building was not up to code. We didn’t have the money to do renovations ourselves. We just heard that a recently-closed restaurant on Central St. is to become offices. It would IMO do great as a restaurant again, but presumably the landlord doesn’t want to spend the money to get it up to code. Presumably neither do the potential new tenants, even though they would probably do very well on that corner given the huge influx of residents within walking distance. And so the cycle of disinvestment and non-investment continues…

    #2 Reason is short-term profit horizon of landlords. If landlords are just out to make money, given existing long-term disinvestment and neglect, you will get…what we have. Compare and contrast with Mill No. 5. (Should add creative leasing here. Successful retail will only come about by lots of attempts, many of which will fail. Right now the cost of failure is huge for retail. So no one enters. Again, compare and contrast will Mill 5)

    #3 Reason is walk-ability, glad you keep on addressing it

    #4 No one other than Mill No. 5 is pushing retail downtown. From what I can gather, the city isn’t. They see that restaurants want to move in, and help them.

    Success in retail is going to require a strategy, and an entity that can begin to alter some of the conditions above. Don’t see either on the horizon IMO.

  2. Brian says:


    What online sales lack is a sensory experience. What malls lack is uniqueness. Lowell has both;our great strengths.

    I agree that the way we tax property owners is self defeating. We penalize property owners, with higher taxes, that improve their buildings. A DOWNTOWN ONLY land value tax(LVT) could remedy the problem. The city would instead only tax the land and not the buildings. Property owners would be incentivized to remodel or update their buildings to attract tenants without the risk of their taxes skyrocketing. The only “losers” in the LVT model would be owners of parking lots because that land would now be taxed at a much higher rate. This would motivate property owners to either build on the parking lots to generate revenue to pay for the increased tax or to sell the parking lot to a developer who would. A more developed DTL, like in the 1920’s, would mean a critical mass of people able to support good retail. Even on Sunday. But….

    There should be an ordinance in DTL that no ground-floor space be anything other than retail or restaurant space. Housing and office space at street-level in DTL kills the likelihood of a successful downtown. There’s nothing interesting or useful about walking by an office at ground level, unless you work there. Would a mall want their advertising or payroll department in one of their units? Of course not, we never see them! We need to be as smart as the malls to beat the malls.

    Walkability is king if you want retail to work in DTL. It’s going to mean changes like narrowing streets, curb extensions, less one-ways, removing traffic lights and adding stop signs, more bike lanes, and more on-street parking for retail to come back.

    I believe most of this stuff will happen. The question is how soon. Sounds like you can’t afford to wait. I’m with you.

  3. Jay says:

    Way too much focus on Downtown. What we need is for thru streets that run from one neighborhood to another to be narrowed and tree lined ( i.e. Wesford, Pine, Moore, W sixth, Rogers, Nesmith). If you slow the cars down 7-8 mph then you can ride a bike in traffic. That’s the end game.
    DT will never again be a regional retail HUB – and it doesn’t need to be.

    If you look at the recent repaving of Westford st you can see that the thinking hasn’t changed. IT’s Wider than before ? No trees ? Cupples square to the train station is .7 miles! We have the density required to make the city more walkable and bike friendly but the planning isn’t there. Not even close.

  4. Concerned says:

    Jay, why can’t DTL be a regional retail hub again? I’m not talking about trying to get Macy’s downtown, or adding strip malls, but getting a much larger number of shops with things people want, and will make short trips (5-10 min) to visit. If we keep on thinking and acting like it will never happen, it won’t, and the city will be a lot less attractive to residents and businesses alike than it could be. And a more walkable and bike-friendly city would be a boon to retail.

  5. Paul Early says:

    Jay, I agree 100% that we need to narrow down the thru streets like West 6th, Westford, Moore and Pine. This is why we need to contact city councilors and attend city council meetings. Another possibility for some streets is to allow parking on one side of the streets and to encourage this by adding bump outs at intersections. The city could include rain gardens in the bump outs so as to ease our storm water run off. This would not just slow down traffic, but it would increase or non permeable surface area in Lowell. This should then ease or sewage processing. I am sure that there should be grant money available to add in rain gardens. Philadelphia has been working on these. Here is a link:


    I do not think that parking need be added everywhere, but certainly on Westford St, especially from Pine street (Tyler Park area) to Chelmsford St. From watching Zoning Board meetings, it seems that parking is also tight in the Moore St. area. What is important here is that the city planning people and the DPW consider each paving job as an opportunity to improve the environment for ALL residents, not just make the streets smoother so that cars can drive faster. If all we are interested is resurfacing, I would vote to keep the potholes. They tend to slow the cars down.

    I urge you all to contact city council and DPD, DPW and the City Engineers. Don’t let up on them. We need to be as relentless as the cars speeding through our neighborhoods.

  6. Paul Early says:

    I meant to also mention what I saw in this weeks City Council meeting about pedestrians. It did not seem promising. the new Transportation Engineer was discussing a pedestrian crossing downtown (I believe the Merrimack and Prescott/Bridge Street intersection). He sounded to be in favor of converting that light over to an exclusive pedestrian system in which all motorized traffic is stopped. This is a step backwards. Pedestrians should not have to press a button in order to be permitted to cross the street. We should be allowed to cross when cars are allowed to go. What is needed is better street design which slows the cars down and better enforcement/education. Intersections should not be designed to encourage drivers to go fast but rather to slow down. We should not have big sweeping vistas with no markings or guidance for drivers. Leave the big vistas for Montana and big sky country.

    I apologize about going on about this issue, but I believe that it is too important to leg go.

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