The city’s planning department hit a home run—make that a grand slam—with a radical new concept for the Lord Overpass, unveiled tonight at a public meeting at the Lowell Senior Center. City Manager Kevin Murphy opened the program by saying he felt a little like William Shatner because we were about to “boldly go where no planning department has gone before.” He wasn’t kidding.
City planners and consultants from VHB Engineering then walked the audience through the process that included an earlier public meeting in November, detailed analysis of traffic accidents, an extensive site visit that helped visualize the problems inherent in the current design, and much debate in the drawing room.
Their conclusion: the Lord Overpass should be filled in, with Thorndike Street in both directions rising at the same elevation as the existing up and down ramps to form twin intersections with Middlesex Street and with Chelmsford/Appleton Streets. Coming from downtown, you will be able to turn left or right onto Middlesex Street or go straight ahead. Coming from the Lowell Connector, you will be able to turn right onto Appleton, left onto Chelmsford, or go straight ahead. Most importantly, the safety and convenience of bikers and walkers will be greatly enhanced.
At several points during tonight’s presentation, the 70+ people in attendance broke into spontaneous applause. That’s not the usual response to the rollout of a new traffic pattern. There was applause because those in attendance recognize that this proposal undoes 50 years of failed traffic planning that centered on highways and fast-moving cars at the expense of people and neighborhoods.
I’ve compared the Dutton/Thorndike Street corridor to Lowell’s version of the Berlin Wall. It separates the western half of the city from the eastern half, and attempting to cross it puts your life at risk. This asphalt gash has been a major impediment to economic development for decades.
But with the forthcoming construction in the Hamilton Canal District, the proposal for the Thorndike Factory Outlet, and the tremendous potential for tying that all in to the Gallagher Terminal, the South Common, the lower Highlands, the Acre, and the rest of downtown, an innovative plan for the Lord Overpass that broke from the highway planning mold was desperately needed. Fortunately, the city has leadership courageous enough to take that step. There will be pushback—some people just can’t handle change—but if Lowell follows through on this project, the city’s already superb reputation as a forward-looking leader in post-Industrial urban planning will be considerably enhanced, and we, the residents of the city, will have a strengthened and more livable community to enjoy.