Lowell Week in Review: August 7, 2016

Despite proclamations that Lowell aspires to become a “college town,” months of criticism of the University by some in the city have damaged the relationship between the two entities. At this coming Tuesday’s city council meeting, both Bill Samaras and Jim Milinazzo have motions about this on the agenda, so the saga continues.

This morning, rather than share my thoughts on the future relations of the city and the University, I’ve decided to review some of the history that has brought us to this point.

In 1894, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts established the Lowell Normal School, a teacher training academy, in Coburn Hall on Broadway Street in Lowell. In 1932, the school was renamed State Teachers College at Lowell. A second college, Lowell Textile School, was founded in 1895 to grant specialized degrees in textile manufacturing. In 1953, that school was renamed Lowell Technological Institute as engineering overtook textiles as the academic focus. In 1975, the two schools merged to create University of Lowell, which became University of Massachusetts Lowell in 1995.

Through all of those years, the relationship between the University and the city was not an especially close one. That seemed to change for the better back in the 1990s with what might be called the New Age of Partnership between the city and the University. The Tsongas Arena and Lelacheur Park are the two biggest examples of that. Without the cooperation and contributions of the University, neither of them would exist today. But there were other examples of the University collaborating with the city. Chancellor Bill Hogan committed the Graduate School of Education, then known as the College of Ed, as a partner with Lowell National Historical Park in the Tsongas Industrial History Center which opened in the Boott Mills in 1992. Similarly, UMass Lowell located its Center for Lowell History research library and archives in the NPS’s Mogan Cultural Center, paying rent to help with the costs of operating that building. Then there was the Center for Field Services, which emerged from the Lowell Model for Excellence school reform project, which made UMass Lowell and strong partner in the Lowell public schools.

The mutually beneficial relationship between the city and the University grew in 2007 when Marty Meehan became Chancellor of UMass Lowell which ushered in an unprecedented UMass Lowell building boom continued, with new buildings rising on all campuses, and the University having already taken ownership of the Tsongas Arena and the one-time Hilton Hotel, which was renamed the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center.

Then two years ago, newly-elected City Manager Kevin Murphy announced that “Making the city of Lowell downtown a college town is my number-one priority,” seeming to tie the city’s future progress to university.  That prompted me to write a blog post on August 10, 2014, commending the manager for this vision but also high lighting some of the challenges to realizing that vision. My final paragraph of that blog post seems particularly relevant now:

What’s critical at this point is to adopt a shared vision of what’s to be done.  Without that, we’ll keep spinning our wheels.  Manager Murphy is in the best position to facilitate this discussion.  The city council has a big role to play (and is perhaps most in need of resolving the very different visions for downtown that exist on this council) but it’s not solely up to the council.  It’s a decision for the community to make collectively so please take advantage of opportunities to make your voice heard.

A few weeks later, on August 31, 2014, I pointed out that without champions on the city council, the city manager’s “college town” initiate was going nowhere. Here is some of what I wrote then:

City Manager Kevin Murphy has floated two strategic initiatives – transitioning downtown into a “college town” and attracting more Southeast Asian businesses and consumers into downtown but not much has been done to implement either of those strategies.  Part of the reason is that no councilor or councilors have emerged as champions of either of these initiatives.  One thing Kevin Murphy made clear when he was interviewing for city manager was that he as manager would work for the council.  Their priorities would be his priorities.  With no one pushing either of these ideas through motions, subcommittee hearings and requests for reports, these plans have been placed in a politically-induced coma. Instead, we get golden oldies like panhandlers and parking every two weeks.  Sure, both of those things are problems but they won’t be solved with the approach currently being pursued by the council.  They will be solved, or more accurately, they’ll take care of themselves, if the council and the city sets its gaze on a big picture strategy for downtown that makes sense and is achievable.

As UML continued acquiring properties, mostly in the Acre and mostly smaller parcels, the chorus of nay-sayers about university expansion grew. That criticism became louder last December when UMass Lowell purchased the Notini property on Aiken Street. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

News of the sale was met with predictable consternation from some about the loss of property tax revenue. Perhaps that is why Chancellor Jacquie Moloney pre-emptively released to the Lowell City Council back in November a report from the UMass Donahue Institute that found an $854 million effect on the Greater Lowell economy by the University.

City Manager Kevin Murphy has made it clear that he sees Lowell’s future as a “college town.” Inherent in that vision is having a thriving college (or two) in the city. Yes, the University does occupy a lot of property that might, if owned privately, pay property taxes to the city. But as the Donahue Institute report quantifies, the city gets substantial benefits from the University. If it came down to having UMass Lowell in Lowell or having the properties occupied by UMass Lowell in private, tax-paying hands, I’d opt for UMass Lowell ownership. There’s no comparison in the benefits the city as a whole derives from that.

Besides, UMass Lowell is a state institution and under our system of federalism, governmental entities don’t pay taxes to subordinate governmental entities. Thus, the federal government doesn’t pay taxes to the states, and states don’t pay taxes to cities. So UMass Lowell (like Middlesex Community College) is in a whole other category. Now if someone wants to look at non-governmental entities that don’t pay property taxes, that’s a discussion worth having.

More recently, when UML announced it was purchasing the Perkins Apartments, there was still more criticism of the University. Here’s what I wrote at that time:

Does Lowell really want to be a college town?

Some history: Back in 1986, Emerson College, a school with an international reputation for excellence in communications and the arts, decided to move from its long-time Back Bay home in Boston to the banks of the Merrimack River in Lawrence. The then mayor of Lawrence (Kevin Sullivan) negotiated an agreement whereby the city would take by eminent domain certain parcels of land along the river and then sell them to Emerson. In turn, the college would build a $85 million, 52-acre campus and move entirely to Lawrence.

The affected landowners, most notably the Lawrence Elks Lodge, preferred to keep their land and filed suit to prevent the taking. While the city’s action was ultimately upheld by both the Superior and Supreme Judicial Courts, the litigation delay, the ill-feelings from the community, and the changing Boston real estate market, caused the deal to fall through and Emerson stayed in Boston.

In a December 10, 1986 article, the Boston Globe’s Peter Sleeper asked “Why doesn’t Lawrence want Emerson?” In his reporting, he found a couple of reasons: “There is no shortage of worry that Emerson will trigger higher property taxes to cover the need for more municipal services” and “Community leaders say the resistance [to Emerson] reflects a deep mistrust of fancy-pants outsiders . . .”

Back to the present day: Whenever I hear that UMass Lowell has acquired a new property in this city, I quietly cheer because economically, UMass Lowell is the best thing this city has going for it and the deeper the University becomes embedded in the fabric of the city, the better. But my cheers are drowned out by a noisy chorus of “but what of the lost property taxes?”

True, UMass Lowell does not pay property taxes on real estate it owns, but as the University repeatedly points out (see “The Economic Effect: How UMass Lowell Benefits the City of Lowell”), other benefits, both tangible and intangible, accrue to the city from the University.

That is not to say that the relationship is perfect. Could the city manager have been brought into the picture on the sale of the Perkins apartments to the University sooner? Probably. Was the de facto treatment of the 2013 agreement on back taxes for the hotel (now the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center) as a confidential document at odds with openness in government? It seems that way. But City Manager Murphy and Chancellor Moloney are both committed to the mutual benefits that flow from a good relationship between the city and the university, and left to them, neither the Perkins sale nor the 2013 tax agreement would cast a long-term chill on an otherwise excellent relationship.

The problem is that many in Lowell seem predisposed to criticize loudly anytime the University does something perceived as subtracting from the community (i.e., reducing property tax collections) but ignore all the good the University does and has done for the city. What would the Inn & Conference Center be today if UMass Lowell hadn’t stepped in? How about affordable housing, because what else would have gone there? Certainly not another hotel. And what about the arena? Imagine the howls at budget time when the annual losses to the city were tallied. How about 110 Canal Place? When the Hamilton Canal District was stagnant, UMass Lowell stepped in and rented that space as the University’s Innovation Center, thereby creating some positive momentum for HCD. What about the takeover of the Enel Bridges? Last I checked, UMass Lowell was contributing $2mil to that venture while the city was chipping in $600,000 (along with $13.4mil from the Feds). Never mind the daily injection of University brain power into the city’s knowledge economy, or the enhanced status Lowell derives from being home to a major University.

Just as the residents of Lawrence in the late 1980s shouted “Hooray, we kept Emerson College out of Lawrence,” too many in Lowell today seem anxious to yell, “Hooray, we kept UMass Lowell from expanding.”

There is a big picture here. Don’t lose sight of it.

In response to the Perkins’ purchase, the city council directed City Manager Murphy to meet with Chancellor Moloney to review the relationship between the city and the University. At the council’s June 28, 2016 meeting, here’s what the city manager reported to the council:

City Manager says they talked about the ICC tax agreement, sharing the cost of renovations to the Lower Locks Garage, and other things. UMass Lowell also presented the City Manager with proposed “master agreement” that addresses all of these issues. Murphy says the city needs time to review the agreement but he said relations between the city and the university are extremely positive now. Murphy says he expects to have a final agreement with the university ready for the council’s review and approval this September.

The “agreement” between the city and UMass Lowell was not on the agenda for the council’s July 26, 2016 meeting, but as that meeting came to a close, this happened:

Councilor Elliott asks for a suspension of rules to ask the City Manager about the agreement he is negotiating with UMass Lowell. (Councilors have a copy of a document but it wasn’t/isn’t available to the public). Moves that this matter be sent to a subcommittee. Mayor Kennedy recommends it be a joint subcommittee (finance and educational partnerships).

A few days later, on Friday, July 29, 2016, the Sun’s Chris Scott, armed with a copy of the agreement given to councilors (but not to the public), wrote a blog post entitled “City, UML working to smooth relations.”  Scott enumerated the various ways in which the University would pay more to the city pursuant to the “draft” agreement.

Then on Monday (August 1), Scott had another blog post: “Meehan blasts proposed partnership agreement,” which quoted UMass President Marty Meehan (who was also Moloney’s predecessor as Chancellor at UMass Lowell) as saying the city’s proposed agreement was “dead on arrival” and that city officials had a “stunning lack of appreciation” for the University.

The next day, Lowell Mayor Ed Kennedy issued a Press Release titled “Mayor Responds to President Meehan’s Remarks” Here’s what it said:

When the City Council consented to allow the City Manager’s communication regarding the proposed UMass/City Agreement to be brought up under suspension of the rules at last Tuesday’s City Council meeting, I believe that most of the City Councilors were under the impression that the proposed agreement was a draft of an accord that had been reached between the two parties. Shortly after the meeting, it was clarified that the City Manager’s communication was a draft of the city’s proposal to the university rather than a draft of an agreement reached by both sides. In retrospect, it was premature and inappropriate to discuss the draft of the city’s proposal at the City Council meeting or to refer the draft to two City Council Sub Committees. The City Council realizes that the university is one of the city’s important attributes and provides additional incentive to developers and businesses looking to expand or relocate. As such, the university plays a positive role in the city’s never-ending quest to promote economic development in Lowell. The City Manager and the university administration have had a healthy, long-term relationship. Given an appropriate period of time, I am confident that the City Manager and the University of Massachusetts will arrive at an agreement that is acceptable to both sides.

And then yesterday, Scott had an article in the Sun in which he wrote:

UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney thought the university and the city were indeed making progress toward a partnership agreement – until she saw City Manager Kevin Murphy’s draft of an accord he shared with city councilors late last month. Moloney said . . . that Murphy’s draft . . . was starkly different from the previously discussed blueprint.

So that’s where it stands now. As I said earlier, there are two motions related to city-University relations on this Tuesday’s council agenda, so the saga will continue. Check back Tuesday night for my report on the meeting. I’ll hold off on any further comment until after the council meeting, but please pay attention to this issue. It represents a major fork in the road for the future of the city.

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

  1. Kathleen Flhnn says:

    Thanks for this clear assessment. Hopefully all come to appreciate the importance of UML on our city.

  2. hhammermill says:


    Excellent write-up. I ended up in Lowell because of a combination of UML and NPS.

    When I was in 10th grade my school visited the national park in Lowell. At the very end in the Boott Cotton Mills there was an advertisement for the engineering program at UML.

    Lowell was a pleasant surprise. Rather then being a “scary place” that films like “High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell” presented it as, I found when visiting it had both charm and aspirations. I put UML on my college list. I visited a number of schools including WPI, RPI, Umass Amherst, etc and the teachers at UML won me over.

    When I graduated I liked the city so much I bought a house, got married and have two children in the Lowell public school system now. UML and NPS are no doubt a net positive impact to the city.

    I think the main issue is that UML exists within the city but was not a part of the city. I remember when I was there they tried very hard to isolate us from the city. That seems to be pervasive throughout the UML mentality; a classic example is they operate an entire public transit system disparate from the LRTA but actually overlaps some LRTA routes!

    I suspect that might the the case with UML planning also; for example I wonder if the lost tax revenue would have been an issue if the city knew UML’s plans and could account for it in the budget?

    So like most issues I suspect this is a case of coordination, communication and integration; but as the years have progressed I think the situation has been moving in a positive direction; as Dick pointed out UML moving into the downtown, taking over the Tsongas arena, taking part in the bridge re-building and acquiring more diverse property the school is slowly becoming more of a part of the city rather then existing within it.

    Let’s not let arguments over the small stuff hurt that progress. Coming closer together in both communication and planning is the solution.

  3. Szifra Birke says:

    I hope more Lowellians get behind UMass Lowell’s progress and expansion – as it makes our city a much more interesting and vital place to live.

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