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November 20, 2022
Tuesday’s council meeting lasted less than two hours which reflects a recent (positive) trend in meeting duration. Hopefully the marathon sessions with chaotic endings that characterized the first half of 2022 are in the past. There’s nothing inherently wrong with long council meetings provided something of substance was accomplished, but that wasn’t always the case earlier.
A contributing factor in those long meetings was a tendency of some councilors to micromanage city operations. That persists, but to a lesser extent. Dictating the minutia of city operations is not the job of councilors. The job of councilors is to hire someone who manages operations (i.e., the city MANAGER). If parts of city government are not functioning properly, then the council’s role is to bring that to the attention of the city manager and ensure the city manager takes corrective action. If the manager fails to do that to the council’s satisfaction, the council’s recourse is to replace the city manager.
Besides hiring the city manager and setting the annual budget and a few other things required by the city charter, a major responsibility of city councilors is to inquire, to ask questions about issues of concern to them. A good example of how this inquiry function is supposed to work took place on Tuesday night while discussing the city manager’s response to a November 1, 2022, motion by Councilor Corey Robinson that called for the city’s parking department to “provide a report on how many incidences of patrons being stuck in parking garages in past year and what corrective measures have been taken.” (The motion response is available here).
The report stated “the city experiences on average one issue per week where multiple customers are stuck at a gate.” It provided no data to support that and was ambiguous in that it referred to “multiple customers” being stuck. What about individual customers? How often do they get stuck?
The response also cast at least some of the blame on the customers: “Issues . . . range from a customer ticket inserted incorrectly, a credit card inserted the wrong way, a ticket not paid for before exiting the facility, mechanical issues with equipment and or other customer related causes.” That sentence contains five possible causes of the problem with four of them attributable to the customer and only one – mechanical issues with the equipment – at fault.
Councilors pushed back on the report, stating the complaints they had received presented a greater problem than depicted by the motion response. My own information corroborates that. Lowell High employees who park in the Ayotte Garage every day, regularly get stuck behind nonfunctioning exit gates and then find that calling the posted phone number for assistance to be an exercise in futility.
On Tuesday night, councilors urged the city manager to start collecting city-generated data on this problem and questioned the reliability of statistics compiled by the company contracted to run the garages. That company is LAZ Parking, which is a national company that owns or manages 3500 parking facilities in 39 states. With that size operation, LAZ certainly has plenty of experience in running a parking garage but perhaps the company devotes insufficient resources to the Lowell job.
Or maybe the equipment in use, which is owned by the city, is obsolete, something the Tuesday report alludes to (“The new equipment will provide a more secure parking experience along with better management of the system.”). The city has also had chronic problems with the kiosks that service on-street parking. Most of them don’t seem to work. There’s a cell phone app named Passport that works very well, but people who only occasionally park downtown are unlikely to download and install that which leaves them to struggle with the kiosks (which are also obsolete and in need of replacement).
In 2004, the city council established a parking enterprise fund. As I understand it, this separated out parking costs and revenue from the overall city budget and made parking a separate account in the hope that it would become financially self-sustaining. Consequently, revenue from parking in garages and on the street must be sufficient to pay the operating expenses of the parking department but also for the equipment used to collect fees, the cost of outside contractors to operate the garages, the cost of renovations to the garages, and the repayment of the bonds that paid for the construction of the garages.
The vast majority of the revenue collected for parking comes from the downtown. Whatever revenue projections were made in the past need to be revisited to account for the major changes in the nature and location of work brought on by the pandemic.
That brings me to another responsibility of the council: To develop a shared vision for the city that forms the basis of a comprehensive master plan adopted by the council. That master plan then serves as a road map for the city manager in setting budget priorities and the utilization of the city’s workforce.
In 2012, the city council adopted a master plan called Sustainable Lowell 2025. It was an excellent plan but the council that adopted it and subsequent councils have never had the discipline to follow it. Ignoring long term planning to deal with whatever crisis of the week gets their attention creates the impression that things are getting done but only ensures that the same problems will arise over and over again.
The city’s Department of Planning and Development has commenced work on a new master plan for the city. In the past, DPD has created exceptional planning documents; the weakness has been in the lack of attention paid to those documents by city councilors after they’ve been created.
To put the importance of planning documents in context, some history might be helpful:
The original master plan for the city of Lowell came from the minds of Patrick Tracey Jackson, Nathan Appleton, and Kirk Boott. They built the Merrimack Manufacturing Company, the first of the great textile mills in Lowell, and then were instrumental in the creation of the other mill complexes that rapidly followed. Everything else about Lowell flowed from that.
By the Civil War, changes in technology, politics, and finance allowed other industrial centers to overtake Lowell and the city’s long, slow decline commenced. There’s a saying that the Great Depression came early and stayed late in Lowell. In the mid-1970s, for instance, Lowell had the highest employment rate of any similar sized city in the entire United States.
To break out of that economic malaise, city leaders in the 1960s embraced Urban Renewal, a federally funded program that allowed cities to demolish “slums” and replace them with “something better.” In retrospect, Urban Renewal was an ill-advised program that destroyed long-established neighborhoods and disproportionately displaced people of color and poor people in general without adequate measures to provide replacement housing.
As implemented in Lowell, Urban Renewal demolished neighborhoods known as Little Canada, Hale Howard, and several others in the hope that “new industry” would fill the space vacated when homes were razed. At the same time, urban planners recognized that widespread ownership of cars would allow people to move from inner city housing to homes in the suburbs. To accommodate this, planners built high speed roadways linking the suburbs to the inner city so that workers could rapidly drive from their suburban homes to their downtown jobs (think the Lowell Connector). To give them some place to park, downtown buildings were demolished and replaced with parking lots.
What city planners got wrong was the assumption that business and industry would stay in downtown. When people moved to the suburbs, their jobs soon followed, leaving downtowns hollowed out and in search of a purpose.
In Lowell, a reaction to the destruction of neighborhoods and older mill buildings in the name of progress gave birth to the historic preservation movement in the city which culminated in the creation of Lowell Urban National Historic Park in 1978. While most of us think of the National Park as the Market Street Visitor Center and the Boott Cotton Mill Museum, the larger impact of the park came in the form of the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission which oversaw a pool of millions of dollars of low interest loans granted to downtown building owners on the condition that they rehabilitate their structures in compliance with historic preservation design standards. As a result, the architectural fabric of downtown was transformed which created a valuable asset for the city.
By the early 1980s, developers began converting downtown office and mill buildings into residences, Wang built its worldwide training center on the Rex Parking lot on East Merrimack Street, and Arthur Robbins built the Hilton Hotel on the Smith Parking lot on Warren Street. The foreclosure crisis of the early 1990s caused several Lowell banks to fail (Lowell Institution for Savings, Central Savings Bank, Commercial Bank & Trust, and COMFED) which led to several more downtown office buildings being converted to residences. Shortly after that, Wang’s bankruptcy left its downtown building vacant and also caused occupancy rates at the hotel to plummet.
In the early 2000s, a zoning change allowed artists to live and run businesses in downtown residences. This coincided with a spike in real estate values that made Greater Boston unaffordable to many artists who then flocked to Lowell where downtown housing was more affordable. The city took advantage of this influx by embracing the “creative economy” a larger trend in America that saw great economic value in the creativity of artists, photographers, writers, architects, game designers, and many others who used their creative imagination to generate a living.
The collapse of the housing bubble in 2008 hit Lowell hard but emerging from that, the city latched onto UMass Lowell and Middlesex Community College as vehicles for driving the local economy. (Coincidentally, the previous foreclosure crisis had elevated both colleges with MCC taking over the failed Wang Training Center as the center of its downtown campus and UML purchasing the failed hotel as its Inn & Conference Center). That worked pretty well until a number of city councilors grew hostile to UMass Lowell for reasons I still don’t understand. Nevertheless, that hostility fractured the city’s relations with the University. While the city and the University have an apparently cordial relationship now, the two operate in their own orbits and lack the deep, committed partnership that once existed.
Since the falling out with UMass Lowell, the city has not had a clear economic development strategy, or hasn’t had one that a majority of city councils have gotten behind. Much of the city’s efforts since then have gone towards neighborhood issues which is fine but providing equitable quality of life services to residents is really the baseline of what city government is supposed to do. To move forward, there has to be a larger strategy that guides day-to-day operations, expenditures, and decision making.
One “big picture” item that should be explored is the changing nature of work in America today. Covid-19 shutdowns were a public health necessity early in the pandemic, but they also opened people’s eyes to the potential of remote work. While many jobs cannot be done remotely, quite a few can. That disconnects work from geography. Many people who before the pandemic had to travel every day to Boston or to some office park off of Route 128 can now live anywhere and work remotely. Is there something that Lowell can do to attract such people? Perhaps all the things that led us to the “creative economy” and then to higher education as the city’s future can be repurposed to make Lowell an attractive place to live for those who can now work from home.
Lowell has a long history of trying something, seeing it fail, but then trying something else that then meets with success. Back in 2014, there was a TEDx event in Lowell and I was one of the presenters. The title of my talk was “Failure as Opportunity: The History of Lowell, Massachusetts” in which I explored that Lowell phenomenon. It’s available on YouTube.
Congratulations to everyone affiliated with Lowell City of Learning on the publication of Atlantic Currents II which was edited by Paul Marion and John Wooding. I just finished reading the book and posted a review on Richardhowe.com which I urge you to check out.