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Lowell Week in Review: September 25, 2016

Justice Center groundbreaking

Momentum

In the aftermath of Thursday’s groundbreaking for the Lowell Justice Center, several people commented to me that they felt the city was moving in the right direction. I agree. There are a number of things going on, big and small, that indicate that overall, Lowell is on the upswing.

Lowell Justice Center

Let’s start with the Justice Center (formerly referred to as Judicial Center). This massive building of seven stories and 267,000 square feet of space will contain 17 courtrooms plus offices for the District Attorney, the Law Library, and the Registry of Deeds. It will greatly expand the judicial presence in the city. Right now, only Superior, District, and Juvenile Courts have regular sessions in Lowell. Housing Court shows up once each week, and Probate Court twice each month. The new courthouse will give a large, daily, permanent presence to both Housing and Probate which will be of great convenience to the people of Lowell. The Judicial Center will also draw hundreds of additional people—court employees, jurors, and litigants—into the city each day. Besides the money they spend during the workday, a good impression of the city will bring them back on nights, weekends, and maybe even as residents.

Earlier this year, one of the leaders of Winn Development, the new Master Developer of the Hamilton Canal District (HCD), spoke before the city council. He said that projects that often seem stalled will suddenly speed ahead once construction of the first big building begins. Hopefully that’s the case with the Hamilton Canal District when courthouse construction begins next week. Perhaps the start of court construction will hasten the start of new HCD office buildings contemplated by Watermark and Genesis Healthcare. And we may find out more about what’s going on in HCD this Tuesday night when Winn Development is scheduled to address the city council.

Besides the construction of these major buildings, infrastructure for HCD is moving forward. The city has received state funding for the “Signature Bridge” which will extend Broadway through the District and across the Hamilton Canal (bringing the utilities across the canal is almost as important as bringing cars across). The 900-car city constructed garage for the District should also be moving forward. One impediment to that garage, where to put the tour buses visiting Lowell National Historical Park, was resolved recently when the city gained ownership of several parcels of MBTA-owned land adjacent to the Gallagher Terminal to use for bus parking

Although people may find it hard to believe (or accept), a second parking garage in the HCD, closer to the Justice Center, seems essential. Garages are expensive to build, especially when financed solely with city funds, but the fact is that the new HCD buildings will be filled with people who drive to work and absent any other solution, they will need someplace to put their cars.

Traffic

The same people who observed positive momentum in the city, also remarked that traffic was a growing problem. I agree that traffic is a problem, but I reject the notion that widening roads is the solution.  Every time I hear about a road-widening project, I’m reminded of all the talk of how the widening of Route 3 would be the pathway to economic salvation for Greater Lowell. Well it was widened, and now it seems that the only effect is having three lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic each morning instead of just two. Widening streets just draws more cars to them; it doesn’t improve the flow of traffic.

More streets, narrower and designed in ways that calm traffic, work better. Such streets are more compatible with “mode shifting” which means getting more people to walk, bike, and take public transportation. And mode shifting, is the best long term solution to traffic in Lowell.

Transforming people’s attitudes from what has been accepted to what is possible requires a shared vision of the future, but we don’t have that in Lowell when it comes to mobility. That’s why last week I wrote of the harm caused by ignoring the city’s Sustainable Lowell 2025 master plan. Without a plan that presents a vision for the future, no one can share it, and the conversation is left to the reactionaries who loudly object to change and never offer solutions of their own.

If you are interested in how other cities shift transportation modes, consider coming to the Luna Theater in Mill No. 5 this Monday night at 7 pm for a screening of and discussion about the movie Urbanized, which is a feature-length documentary about innovative design in cities around the world. This free event is part of the Pollard Memorial Library’s Happy City celebration, (and it has the added benefit of providing an excuse for not watching the same evening’s Presidential debate).

UMass Lowell

A big part of the positive momentum in the city is due to UMass Lowell. City-University relations experienced some turbulence earlier this year when UMass Lowell’s purchase of the Perkins Loft shifted the communal debate from how much the city benefits from UMass Lowell to how the university is exempt from paying real estate taxes. (As and aside, I’ve met two separate couples who resided in Perkins who have since purchased condominium units in the nearby Renaissance by the River complex, so they are sticking with the city).

Hopefully a smoother path forward for University-City relations will commence this Tuesday night when the council votes on a ‘Strategic Partnership Master Agreement” between the city and UMass Lowell. The agreement addresses a number of things. In a letter to Mayor Kennedy and city councilors, City Manager Murphy highlights several :

  • The University will contribute $80,000 per year for 20 years towards the cost of repairs to the Lower Locks Garage;
  • The University will contribute $150,000 per year for 20 years towards the repair of six bridges to be obtained by the city from Enel;
  • The University will make a one-time payment of $321,000 to the city “as mitigation” for removing Perkins Lofts Apartments from the city tax base;
  • The University will pay up to $85,000 towards the replacement of the turf on LeLacheur Park;
  • The University will annually present its Master Plan and Strategic Development Vision to the Lowell City Council;
  • The University acknowledges that its need for apartment-style housing has been met with already-acquired properties, and therefore does not intend to acquire any additional apartment buildings during the term of this agreement.

The agreement seems fair to me. Hopefully the council will ratify it so that the productive, mutually beneficial relationship between the University and the city may resume.

Merrimack Canal during Winterfest

Waterways

At Thursday’s Justice Center dedication, Mayor Ed Kennedy in his remarks gave great credit to the Waterways Vitality Project which thus far has illuminated the Merrimack Canal along Lucy Larcom Park and the Swamp Locks. The objective is to draw more attention to the city’s waterways which are valuable but underutilized assets. Last month, in her remarks during the National Park Centennial Celebration, Lowell National Historical Park Superintendent Celeste Bernardo said that expanding the Riverwalk and making better use of the walkways adjacent to the city’s canals and rivers was a major objective of Lowell National Historical Park.

The Riverwalk, the Western Canal Walkway, the Northern Canal Walkway, the Merrimack Canal Walkway, and the Concord River Greenway are all great assets for the city. One challenge is to expand the use of these places. Now, to the extent they are used at all, they are mostly for recreation (walking and jogging) and also as passageways (walking along the Merrimack Canal is safer than walking along Dutton Street, for instance). The city, the National Park, and all the rest of us should make a real effort to expand our use of these waterfront walkways with more cultural and social activities, but also find a way to draw retailers and restaurants (maybe start with food trucks?) onto these waterfront pathways. In the summertime, it seems that many people delight in outdoor dining in downtown Lowell. As nice as that may be, sitting at a café table alongside a peaceful canal might be just as nice as sitting alongside the traffic on a major downtown street.

Other Projects

There are many other projects already underway or close to commencement that add to this feeling that things are moving in a good direction. There is the Thorndike Exchange development on Thorndike  Street; the high rise apartment building on Wellman  Street near Cross Point; the Vision Development privately-owned dormitory at Merrimack Plaza; the re-invention of the Lord Overpass; the addition to Lowell High School; the Markley Group is quietly  becoming one of the most important data centers in New England on Prince Ave; and many more.

It’s not perfection, but at least it’s all moving in the right direction. The question is, how do we make it even better.

Election Season. What’s Going On?

In a democracy, or in our case a democratic republic with people chosen by their peers to represent others in dealing with public matters, the government is the club we grown ups belong to. There are families, churches and temples, parent-teacher associations, bowling leagues, film societies, baseball conferences, chambers of commerce, etc. that help us find our way and make something of our days. But government is our invention to deal with those aspects of life in which we all have a stake and which require a broader means of acting. This is what we have instead of a King or Queen or Dictator. We get to make the decisions. That’s the American way. Government is an expression of our beliefs and values. We agree on rules of the game (no murdering, no monopolies, no discrimination in hiring, and more). We agree to collect money from ourselves to take care of common obligations and needs (roads, armies, schools, and such) and make some decisions directly about where that money goes (town meetings, binding referendum questions).

If we don’t decide these things collectively, then the strongest, richest, meanest person or group gets to decide for us. Self-government is how we try to protect ourselves from abuse by others and create a society that produces healthy results. The challenge is to see the mutual interest in public matters and make time to play a role in those common concerns when taking care of one’s own life, family, and business requires so much effort. Self-government doesn’t work if there is no public involvement time in the schedule. On the “authority” question, we are the authority, we are the governed who must give consent. But giving consent has to be an action verb, so to speak, otherwise authority gets confiscated by the greedy grabby types or defaults to the overly assertive who are glad to make decisions for the rest of the group. We keep control by handing it out a little at a time. Authority is a powerful tool we lend for defined periods of time. We take it back if we don’t like what is happening.

Lowell’s Newest Residents

By Mimi Parseghian

My neighborhood has new tenants.  Canada geese are currently inhabiting the cemeteries along Plain and Gorham Streets.

Every year, I have seen dozens of them stopping by on their migration path.  But this fall, it is different.

There are at least a hundred. Yes, I counted them.  First they invaded Edson, then some moved on to Westlawn I; and this morning a few families moved to St. Patricks.

I see them every morning on my way to work and again on my way home in the evening.  They really like to eat.  And of course, they are leaving behind a mess.  Ask anyone who is trying to visit a grave site.  I read that Canada geese generate ½ pound to 1 ½ pound of droppings per day.  You do the math.

I am not sure if these are migrating geese or if they are permanent residents.  According to the State’s Energy and Environmental Affairs office, there are about 38,000 Canada geese who live year around in Massachusetts.  If they are migrating, I should be hearing or seeing them flying down south pretty soon.  There is not much left to eat.

Crossing Plain St

Well, one benefit that has come from this invasion, cars are slowing down while driving on Plain Street.  You never know when a family decides to take a stroll.

Groundbreaking for Lowell Justice Center

More than 200 people gathered under a large white tent on Jackson Street today for the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Lowell Justice Center, formerly known as the Lowell Judicial Center. The event began with the Trial Court Honor Guard posting the colors and the Lowell High School Show Choir singing the National Anthem.

Massachusetts Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey welcomed the crowd of state and city officials, lawyers, court personnel, and residents of Lowell. She said the building was to be called the Lowell Justice Center because it was to be focused on the needs of the community. She said that through its function and appearance, it would signify to all who came to it that “justice is the cornerstone of a free society.”

Harry Spence, the Trial Court Administrator, served as the Master of Ceremonies. He said this building will replace others (Lowell District and Superior Courthouses) “that exceeded their useful lives decades ago.” This building will allow justice to be delivered “with dignity and speed.” He said that experience has shown that more cases settle in newer buildings than in old and that size of this building reflects a recognition that the population of Middlesex County, once centered in the southern part, is now equally distributed. He also said that the justice center will be an anchor building for the development of this part of Lowell, just as the Moakley Courthouse was in South Boston.

Gov Charlie Baker

Governor Charlie Baker spoke next. He told a story about how, when he was campaigning in Lowell before being elected governor, he was given a tour of the two courthouses to show him in detail their shortcomings. He quoted Renee Zellweger from “Jerry Maguire” when she said, “You had me at hello.” Baker said he could see immediately that the Lowell courts needed replacement.

Baker then shared another story from when he served as Secretary of Administration and Finance. An unnamed community was supposed to get a new courthouse, but the members of the community could not agree on the location or design of the courthouse. They fought about it for so long that the authorization for the bond that was to pay for it expired and the courthouse was not built (although the community learned its lesson and has since gotten its courthouse). The point of the story, Baker said, was that you need a collection of people in the host community who can work together and “get you to yes” for the benefit of the community. In Lowell, he said, “people know how to work together and get stuff done. He said you never would have gotten to this groundbreaking unless the leaders of Lowell had come together like they did.

Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito followed Baker and recalled being invited to Lowell by Dave Nangle who “took her for a walk” after breakfast at the Owl Diner. That walk ended at Lowell District Court. Polito repeated the Governor’s line: “You had me at hello.” She also said that as this building is being constructed, state officials will begin work on the disposition of the courthouses that are to be vacated.

Ralph Gants, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court spoke next. As a Superior Court judge, he spent countless months at Lowell Superior Court and entertained today’s crowd with some of the “challenges” he faced in conducting trials due to the age of that building. Gants said this new court will “make an enormous difference” and will be a place in which “justice can thrive.”

After current Secretary of Administration and Finance Kristen Lepore spoke, Mr. Spence recognized Maurice Finegold, the lead architect of this project. Spence said two of the most difficult structures to design and build were hospitals and courthouses, and that Mr. Finegold was an expert in courthouse design and that we were all fortunate to have him supervising the design of this project.

Next up were are Lowell legislators. State Senator Eileen Donoghue thanked Governor Baker for following through on his promise to build the Lowell court, a project that has been 15 years in the making. She also acknowledged the important roles played by her predecessor, Steve Panagiotakos, and by Kevin Murphy, our current city manager, during his time as a state representative. (Both Panagiotakos and Murphy were present). Donoghue closed by saying this was “a transformative day for justice, law, and the community.”

State Representative Tom Golden thanked Harry Spence and all who were involved in this project. He said over the 15 year trajectory of this project, there were a lot of people to help. He also said he was tempted to call out some of the naysayers who opposed the court, but he said he would leave it at that. Dave Nangle singled out Panagiotakos and Murphy as key contributors. He specifically thanked Panagiotakos “who hired me as his legislative aide 20 years ago—Steve is the one responsible for me being here today.” Rady Mom, who spoke next, said he was honored to have followed Steve Panagiotakos and Kevin Murphy as the representative of the 18th Middlesex District. He said this groundbreaking symbolized the strength of this community and its importance went beyond the building being constructed.

Mayor Ed Kennedy was the final speaker. He said he likes welcoming the governor and lieutenant governor to Lowell, because they usually bring a big check. He considered the $200 million for this building a very big check. Kennedy next talked about the boost to economic development in the Hamilton Canal District that this building and all those who work and do business in in will bring. He then recalled gathering just across the Hamilton Canal on the evening of September 1, 2016, for the Lowell Vitality Project’s lighting demonstration on Swamp Locks. He believes that between the new court and the lighting of the adjacent canals, this will be one of the most vibrant locations in the city. Kennedy closed by making a strong case that the Lowell Judicial Center should be named for the late Cornelius Kiernan, a lifelong resident of Lowell who was a leader in the state legislature, a lawyer, and a judge of the Lowell District Court. Kiernan, Kennedy said, “was very deserving and has been long overlooked.”

With that, the dignitaries moved to a nearby pile of gravel, dug in their gold-colored shovels, and broke ground. If all goes well, they will return in 30 months for the ribbon cutting.

Courthouse construction site

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Courthouses of Lowell

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