Lowell Week in Review: June 28, 2015

Downtown Lowell: still hazardous for walkers

Two weeks ago saw three different million dollar plus real estate deals in Lowell (Markley Group/Prince Spaghetti; Lowell Community Charter Public School/Mill No. 5; UTEC/Central, Prescott & Warren Streets).  This week there was one deal of that scale: an apartment building at the corner of Stevens Street and Princeton Boulevard sold for $3,7 million.  Although that was the only million dollar Lowell sale, there was a pickup in real estate activity which does typically happen at the end of June.

Downtown Walkability

With the good weather pretty steadily upon us, I find myself walking around downtown Lowell more often which means that I’m continuously reminded of how “road improvement projects” from years past make walking so complicated and hazardous.  The intent of these widened roads and intersections was to speed traffic through the city but try driving down Central Street at 4 pm some afternoon.  The backed up traffic demonstrates that those road improvement projects don’t work as intended.

My past choice of worst intersection to cross in downtown Lowell was Middlesex Street at Central, right alongside the Washington Savings Bank.  The biggest problem with that spot is that the pedestrian crossing light does not work.  Press the button to call for the white “safe to cross” light and it never comes on.  So to get across, you have to try to figure out the sequence of the lights and scoot across between a gap in the traffic.

Car making left turn onto Prescott despite pedestrian trying to cross with white walk light

I now have a new nominee for the worst intersection to cross: Prescott at Central and Market.  Years ago when I never paid attention to the crossing lights at that intersection, it didn’t seem so dangerous to get across.  Now, when I wait patiently for the white pedestrian crossing light to turn on, I almost get run over.  That’s because the cars coming inbound on Central intending to bear right onto Prescott get a green light at the same time pedestrians crossing Central get the white light.  Given the attitude of the average Lowell driver when it comes to yielding to pedestrians, that intersection presents an extreme threat to life and limb.

At the city council meeting this past Tuesday (which I didn’t get to watch until Thursday on video), Manager Murphy said essentially the same thing.  He added that the city’s traffic engineer is developing a new light sequence at several downtown intersections that should make it safer for pedestrians.

While it’s commendable for the city to react, I fear that merely rearranging the lights will just lead to everyone – pedestrians and drivers – having to wait longer to get where they are going.  I think the present design is as it should be; it’s just that drivers pay no heed to pedestrian safety.  A few weeks of strict enforcement of the existing laws might be the best way to change driver behavior and thereby make it safer for pedestrians.

Jackson Street and the New Courthouse

Paul Early, who frequently comments on this site and is very active in Lowell, attended this past Wednesday’s Conservation Commission to see the discussion about the extension of Jackson Street and then shared with me some of the discussion that took place at that meeting.  It seems that work will soon start on the Jackson St paving project with the intent of extending Jackson Street up to Dutton but not yet breaking through and forming an intersection.  The immediate purpose of this project is to allow construction trucks to have access to the site of the new courthouse.

Speaking of the new courthouse, in last week’s Week in Review column, I raised questions about the meaning of the $5.9 million of funding for the courthouse that was contained in Governor Baker’s FY16-FY20 Bond Bill.  With $5.9mil spread over five years, I didn’t see how the courthouse could be built prior to FY20.

This week, I received a couple of indicators that suggest just the opposite; that the court is moving forward at a good pace.  One person who would know and whose information I trust assured me that the actual ground-breaking will happen next year.  The second indicator was Paul’s report from the Conservation Commission.  He got the clear impression that the state was pushing the matter because the extension of Jackson Street is a pre-condition to beginning construction of the courthouse.  Then at work, I got a call from someone working on the design of the new courthouse who asked me some very detailed questions about the registry of deeds (which is to be a tenant in the new building).  These things taken together make me feel pretty good about the future of the new Lowell Court.

Downtown Was Busy This Week

There was a lot going on in downtown Lowell towards the end of this week.  Wednesday night traffic in the city came to a standstill due mostly to an event at the Tsongas Center (formerly Tsongas Arena) hosted by the “future doctors and scientists of America.”  That conference goes through to today.  At the same time at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center, an academic conference of community psychologists.  Talking to some downtown business owners on Saturday, they reported greatly increased sales that were driven by attendees at both conferences.

“Literary Lowell” Lowell Walk inside Pollard Memorial Library

The reason I was downtown on Saturday was to attend the latest installation of Lowell Walks.  This week was Literary Lowell which was led by Sean Thibodeau, the Coordinator of Community Planning at the Pollard Memorial Library.  There were a variety of stops at which Sean shared fascinating stories about Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, Lucy Larcom, Jack Kerouac and many others.  My first count had 76 people on the tour but a few others jumped in along the way, making the total closer to 80.  That’s consistent with our weekly attendance thus far.

Lowell Walks will take a week off because next Saturday is the 4th of July but will resume in two weeks on July 11, 2015 with the Irish in the Acre tour which will be led by one of the city’s foremost experts on the Irish in Lowell, Dave McKean.  The tour will begin at the National Park Visitor Center at 10 am.

So the look of downtown Lowell over the past few days with visitors and residents roaming the streets, lounging in restaurants, and shopping in stores, is pretty close to what many had hoped could happen in the city.  It was a glimpse into the future and it looked pretty good.  There is no guarantee, however, so please do your part and visit downtown Lowell sometime soon.

Violence in the City

Last year at this time the city seemed awash in gunfire.  This week that didn’t seem to be the case quite so much although that might not be the case for those living in Centralville which saw a shooting at a playground and a violent fight that left one man in critical condition.  In both cases, the perpetrator was arrested fairly soon after the violent act.  Other incidents that drew a police response were more unusual: a mentally-ill, knife-wielding man on Market Street in the middle of the day; the SWAT team responding to Fruit Street and the state police bomb squad to Butterfield Street on Thursday and Barasford Ave on Friday.  Those latter three incidents seemed to end quietly.

Overall, this week seems to be a quieter, less violent start to summer than was the case last year.  If the opposite was true, we would be laying the blame at the feet of the city council and the city administration.  When things are quiet, they also deserve some of the credit.  Still, this is all somewhat random.  One or two wrong-doers with guns, whether motivated by drug profit or domestic issues, could shatter the peaceful enjoyment of the city for all of the rest of us.

The same might be said for the continued reduction in fire department coverage.  It seems that two fire units per shift are shut down for budgetary reasons.  That is supposed to change with the start of the new fiscal year on July 1 as more funding comes available.  Without a major fire, no one seems to notice this reduced coverage.  With a major fire, everyone will be outraged.  My point is two-fold: we have to encourage the city council and city administration to pursue a rational, evidence-based, comprehensive approach to public safety and support them when they do that; we also have to guard against being entirely reactionary when a fire or shooting does occur as they inevitably will.  The measure should be the long term wisdom of the policy and not the immediate, short-term outcome.

6 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: June 28, 2015

  1. Diane Eno says:

    I agree with you on the lights at Central, Prescott and Market, I will now use the crosswalk at Brewd awakening instead. I also find Central and Merrimack to be nerve Wracking as well. On a positive note I was amazed at all the pedestrian traffic Wednesday night, it was great to see so many people waiting to get into our local restaurants, We need more conventions in town to help our businesses.

  2. Brian says:

    Thank you for your continued focus on walkability. Resynchronization of lights, better signage, or stricter enforcement in the end will be insufficient in making DTL more walkable. The trick is in redesigning the sidewalks. See how rounded the corner is at the post office? Revert it back to a right angle but keep the crosswalk where it is. This will shorten the distance for pedestrians to cross the street. It will also slow down the cars making it safer.
    Extending the sidewalk into Precott St would do the trick as well. Some temporary plastic bollards could be put up to test it out.
    The businesses in the area would love it.

  3. Jim says:

    Brian – great idea.

    There were a lot people walking downtown all week, lots of good events. Seemed like a great week to own a business downtown.

    Personally, I think the worst intersection around is VFW and Bridge St., but apparently the city can’t do anything to that intersection since it is 2 state highways. I think that is a shame.

  4. Kevin Fahy says:

    It’s great that the City is working on the light cycles downtown. They need to get the choke points over the bridges included. Start enforcing the law regarding the blocking of intersections. I have been stuck in buses through multiple cycles of lights. Because of people pulling into intersections. With no way to get through because of backed up traffic.
    I see the bike and Segway officers downtown during slow traffic volume. Yet none around when it’s all screwed up. I shudder to think of the volume of money the city coffers would swell by. If the powers to be chose to focus on this along with failure to yield to pedestrians.

  5. Joe S says:

    I believe the reduced fire coverage will continue after July 1st and last through the summer vacation period.

  6. Jason says:

    I believe the current policy of closing two fire companies will be in effect until the end of summer, when the busiest vacation period is over. The FY 16 overtime budget line item is not significantly higher than was budgeted last fiscal year. In fact the salaries and wages line item, where the overtime transfer that caused the uproar came from (money not spent due to unfilled positions) is lower this year. The hiring freeze left unfilled positions for too long and it continues into the coming year. There are about eight vacancies.

    Anyone who claims the budget was sufficient for closing only one company per day last year is neither rational, comprehensive or evidence based. There was over a million dollar overtime budget for LFD back in the 1980’s with roughly 250 firefighters, prior to closing three stations permanently. Even if that amount was considered very high, why are people surprised it approaches that much in 2015 with less than 200 firefighters and the dramatic changes in incomes over the past thirty years? New hires are expected in the next fiscal year, but will not complete the academy until fall. By that time we could have a few more retirements.

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