The agenda for Tuesday’s City Council meeting was light by this Council’s standards with five motion responses, ten new Council motions, and not much else.
Much of the discussion that did take place had the feel of a Level One union grievance hearing as Councilors Erik Gitschier and Corey Robinson dug into (1) who will get paid how much “ARPA Premium Pay” and the procedures used to determine that; and (2) the propriety of some hourly city employees being required to use a time clock to keep track of their attendance while others who are similarly situated do not have a like requirement.
While the particulars of both matters are important to the employees involved, they both also provide further evidence of how difficult it is to manage city operations and the city workforce, something that’s become a recurring theme in these newsletters. As I wrote last week, the solution is not new software, nor is it more thoughtful forms to fill out, or even more equitable pay. It requires a change in culture followed by the effective implementation of better management practices. However, people don’t like change and so trying to implement a new way of doing things causes those affected to become upset. Past Councils have shown more allegiance to those disgruntled by change than they have to the cause of good management and have undercut past City Managers. The lesson learned by City Managers is don’t do anything radical; let the Council take the lead; and so the culture doesn’t change and we get management by motion response. Under the Plan E system, it all goes back to the City Council.
Another motion response provided an update on the Hamilton Canal Innovation District (HCID). The motion in question, by Councilors Wayne Jenness and John Drinkwater on January 17, 2023, asked to consider “targeted mixed-use development” on the remaining city-owned parcels in the HCID.
The report stated that the city retains control of six parcels, two of which are dedicated to green space. The other four parcels are mostly alongside Dutton Street with the largest being the former surface parking lot for the National Park Visitor Center. The next largest is further along Dutton Street. It’s where buses visiting the National Park used to park. Then there’s a small triangle furthest out Dutton Street, about where the trolley stops for people boarding the tour boats at Swamp Locks. The fourth parcel is deeper into the HCID, on the Dutton Street side of the Pawtucket Canal and alongside the city’s new parking garage.
I get the impression that the city is deep in negotiations with someone about developing the three parcels along Dutton Street. Three lines of the three-paragraph memo from DPD Director Yovani Baez-Rose stand out:
“DPD and the City Manager’s office have been in communication with several developers that have expressed a variety of interest in the remaining parcels in the district.”
“Based on the location of the [three Dutton Street] parcels within the district, their size, and the vision in the master plan, DPD still believes there is good potential to see commercial development in these three parcels.”
“DPD welcomes the opportunity to further discuss the potential development of Parcel 11 [the parcel along the Pawtucket Canal and next to the parking garage] as a mixed use building and believe that type of development would greatly compliment the district.”
Councilor Drinkwater, one of the only Councilors to speak on this matter, preceded his brief remarks with a guarded comment that I’ll liberally paraphrase as him having been warned that actual negotiations with developers for the Dutton Street lots are currently in process and Councilors shouldn’t say anything during the public Council meeting that might jeopardize those negotiations. That also made me recall a cryptic comment by another Councilor back at the January 17, 2023, meeting when this motion was made that makes me believe these negotiations were already underway then, although only certain Councilors were aware of it at the time.
Since we’re at the “something is better than nothing” phase of the Hamilton Canal District, any feasible development of these parcels would be good news. However, I do think that mixed use – meaning a blend of commercial, retail, and residential – would be best for this area. A stretch of “all commercial” buildings along Dutton Street will just add to the ghost town vibe at night and on weekends.
Perhaps more importantly, the pandemic has caused a major shift in how work gets done. Traditionalists look askance at “work from home” as a pandemic-caused temporary inconvenience, but that’s not the case. It’s the future of work, especially if you want to attract the brightest, most capable employees. In the late 1990s, Lowell embraced zoning reforms that allowed artists to live and work in the same place. This catapulted the city into the “creative economy” and provided an economic development strategy that guided and informed decisions from City Hall.
With all the current amenities that make Lowell such an interesting place to live and its relatively affordable housing options (affordable compared to Boston and surrounding towns), the city could now market itself as a place conducive to working from home or working in a hybrid arrangement.
Related to the HCID is the ongoing work on the Lord Overpass. The webpage for this project that I found on the city’s website seems a bit out of date since it discusses “spring 2022” in the future tense and still identifies November 2022 as the project’s completion date. I do recall an update at a Council meeting late in the Eileen Donoghue administration that due to pandemic-related delays in acquiring granite curbing, the completion of the project was pushed back to the spring of 2023.
From what I can see as I drive through the area, the biggest piece remaining is to open up the Jackson Street/Fletcher Street interchange. That will allow motorists to do many things that they cannot do now such as:
Emerging from Jackson Street and going straight across Thorndike/Dutton onto Fletcher
Emerging from Jackson Street and turning left onto Thorndike to go outbound towards the Connector
Coming outbound on Dutton, turning left onto Jackson Street
Coming inbound on Thorndike, turning left onto Fletcher (as you could do before this project started, only now there will be two turn lanes, not one).
Coming inbound on Fletcher and turning left onto Dutton
Coming inbound on Fletcher and going straight onto Jackson Street
Pedestrians will be able to (legally and hopefully safely) cross Dutton at Jackson/Fletcher, something you were not able to do before.
The other big piece remaining is to open up the bus lanes on Thorndike Street. These are in the center island and will allow both outbound and inbound buses to bypass some of the traffic backups that exist. For buses coming outbound on Dutton, just after they cross the Fletcher/Jackson Street intersection they will be able to shift into the center bus lane which will then continue all the way to the entrance of the Gallagher Terminal. Inbound, buses can enter the bus lane at the Gallagher Terminal and stay in it to the Jackson Street intersection. This will help buses bypass traffic, but it should also improve the traffic flow for everyone else once the relatively large buses are taken out of the spaces where everyone else waits for traffic lights to change. The bus lanes will also be used by emergency vehicles which pass through this area frequently.
Councilor Rita Mercier gave a detailed report on the prior evening’s Neighborhood Subcommittee meeting which was held “on the road” in conjunction with the Centralville neighborhood group meeting. It sounds like Councilors got an earful of criticism from at least one person in attendance, but Mercier and other Councilors who attended identified a couple of issues of potential citywide import that were discussed.
One of these was the number of variances being granted by the Zoning Board of Appeals – there are too many, according to neighbors. The other involved negative consequences that result from the popularity of the city’s parks. Specifically, as more parks are used for big tournaments (I assume mostly baseball and soccer), neighbors find life disrupted by traffic, unruly parking, accumulated trash, and other problems.
This subcommittee recently held a meeting in conjunction with the Upper Highlands group and intends to continue with more such meetings outside City Hall. If these same issues are identified elsewhere, look for Council actions to try to address them.
Councilors also engaged in a lengthy discussion over a Mayor Sokhary Chau motion to “explore the benefits of combining the Opioid Task Force and the Homeless Task Force.” Two residents spoke against the motion, stating that combining the two would unfairly suggest that all people who are homeless are also involved in opioid abuse. However, former Councilor Corey Belanger, who remains the chair of the Opioid Task Force, spoke in favor of the motion as a way to bring more collaboration to the city’s efforts in both areas.
Councilors were mostly opposed to doing this, however, a majority were willing to have the City Manager’s office consider it and report back to the Council on the pros and cons of such a merger. In the end, three councilors (Gitschier, Drinkwater, and Leahy) voted against the motion.
The Pollard Memorial Library Foundation is again offering the Elinor Lipman Award for writing. A prize of $1,000 will be awarded for a work of fiction or creative non-fiction written by a Lowell-based author (i.e., an adult who is either a current resident of Lowell or a student at UML or MCC). The deadline for submissions is May 19, 2023. Details about eligibility and the submission process are available on the library website.
The judges will again include THE Elinor Lipman, a prolific author who was born and raised in Lowell, and Pilar Garcia-Brown, an editor at publishing imprint Dutton. Joining them this year will be Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, a professor at Northeastern and Lowell resident who won the Award in 2022.
Today is Jack Kerouac’s birthday. He was born in Lowell on March 12, 1922. In honor of this anniversary, Paul Marion has written a short blog post on richardhowe.com describing a story from Simon Warner, a scholar of rock-and-roll and Beat literature, on the influence of Kerouac and his contemporaries on the Beatles. The blog post contains a link to the story which resides on the website of San Francisco’s Beat Museum.
Also this week on richardhowe.com, inspired by the great performance of the 2022-23 Boston Bruins, Dracut-native Rick Harvey recalls how an earlier Bruins team inspired a passion for street hockey among his cohort of friends.
“Work from home” should consider “Work near home” as a complementary lifestyle, particularly when specialized equipment or security issues are required by work. The Hamilton Canal District is sufficiently compact to accommodate mixed use in separate buildings, while adding “play” to the “live” and “work” elements.