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September 24, 2023
The Lowell City Council continues its every-other-week summer meeting schedule, however, the agenda for its regularly scheduled September 12 meeting was so long that the Council, in a rare move, opted to hold a special meeting the following Tuesday (September 19) to complete the items on the agenda. My own schedule prevented me from watching either meeting live, so I caught them both yesterday on the Lowell Telecommunications YouTube channel.
Together, the two meetings lasted six and a half hours. No single issue dominated. Instead, it was a cleanup of lingering items. Many of those involved traffic control and street maintenance, which are the topics this Council collectively seems most enthused about. But a couple of things did stand out.
There was an informational report from the City Solicitor on some Accessory Dwelling Use (ADU) issues. The primary one was the procedure for limiting the amount of rent that can be charged for ADUs to 70 percent of the city’s Fair Market Rent which the Council had voted to include in the still-pending ADU ordinance. According to the City Solicitor, any limitation set by the city on the amount of rent that may be charged runs afoul of the state’s rent control law.
The state law makes imposing any limit on the amount of rent that can be charged very difficult which should not be surprising given that the statute is called the “Massachusetts Rent Control Prohibition Act.” Essentially, if the municipality limits the amount of rent a landlord can charge for a unit, the municipality must pay the landlord an amount equal to the reduction in rent so that the loss is borne by the taxpayers and not the property owner.
The Council has discussed how the city of Salem has limited the amount of rent that can be charged for ADUs. The Solicitor explained that Salem filed and had enacted a Home Rule Petition in the legislature that side-steps the rent control prohibition.
I found it difficult to follow the Council discussion on this issue mostly because it is secondary to the issue of whether ADUs will be allowed or not. I do believe a motion to prepare a Home Rule Petition modeled on Salem’s was defeated, but I’m not sure where the reduced rent requirement stands. However, on the agenda for the upcoming September 26 meeting, Councilor John Leahy has a motion to reconsider the proposal that was defeated last week, so perhaps this forthcoming discussion will shed more light on the matter.
A response to a motion by Councilors Wayne Jenness and Vesna Nuon for an update on the city’s Housing First strategy was extraordinary in its negativity.
“Housing First” is a strategy to reduce homelessness by providing permanent, affordable housing as quickly as possible. The strategy also provides services and community-based supports to help people keep their housing. The Housing First approach proceeds from the assumption that stable housing is a prerequisite for effective psychiatric and substance abuse treatment.
The motion response stated, “Housing First is on hold in Lowell” and that Lowell is “gridlocked into a process that is no longer working due to the barriers listed below,” listing things like lack of staffing, lack of land for new housing, and lack of incentives for developers (none of which are unique to Lowell).
The response went on to state that “solutions are now beyond the scope of the city alone” and said the only way this can move forward is if the federal government, state government, and the surrounding towns step up and do their part.
Councilors Jenness and Nuon pushed back (too gently, in my view) and City Manager Golden, who had initialed the report so had clearly seen it, backpedaled, saying that the program was not on hold.
Other Councilors came to the defense of the report, repeating the “the Federal government, the state and the surrounding towns aren’t doing their share” mantra while adding “if the homeless don’t want to help themselves, there’s nothing we can do for them” line. Not surprisingly, these were the same Councilors who, when the potential use of the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center as a shelter for migrant families was discussed, opposed that on the grounds that the ICC should instead be used to house the city’s homeless population.
Yes, the federal government should do more, state government should do more, and the surrounding towns should do more. The housing crisis we have now is the predictable result of a century of state laws that cede local control of zoning to each municipality with the predictable result that every community that can enact exclusionary laws that keep people out will enact such laws. Of course, the places that can’t enact such laws because their existing housing predates zoning laws are the Commonwealth’s Gateway Cities like Lowell.
Ever since people first clustered together for shelter, cities have been the place where the poorest congregate. It would be nice if that were otherwise but it’s not going to change, so when you govern a city you have to deal with life the way it is, not life the way you’d like it to be.
One of the things that has distinguished Lowell from many other Gateway Cities in Massachusetts over the past half century is the persistence of those in government to keep trying to make things better, and if something fails, to try something else. There have always been those who raise the white flag and say, “there’s nothing we can do about this problem” but they usually remain in the minority and the city has moved forward. The short debate on this Housing First memo made it clear that that struggle continues today.
The Council passed an Erik Gitschier motion to “Look into the feasibility of demolishing the Smith Baker Center” which is probably a timely thing to do. I say that as a proponent of historic preservation, but razing the structure now is the natural and probably consequence of decisions made by the City Council a decade ago.
The building was constructed in the mid-1880s as the First Congregational Church. Although City Hall and the Library had not yet been built – they were completed in 1898 – the area was already fully built out with the lot for the church being a very un-churchlike square rather than a more traditional rectangle. Consequently, the interior of the building has a unique layout with the first floor containing a maze of rooms with ceilings of normal height and the second floor being a magnificent hall with a stage at the center and wraparound stadium-styled seats.
Throughout much of its existence, the pastor of the church was the Reverend Smith Baker who was much liked and respected in Lowell and throughout New England. Rev. Baker died in Lowell in 1917 and is buried in Lowell Cemetery.
The structure continued as a church until 1968 when the First Congregational Church merged with Christ Church United (at East Merrimack and High Street) and vacated the building across from City Hall. The City leased and eventually bought the building and used it as the city’s senior center until April 2003 when the current senior center on Broadway opened. The name “Smith Baker Center” was attached early in the city’s occupancy.
Besides serving as a senior center, the upper hall was used as a performance venue hosting such notables as John Updike, Maya Angelou, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso and others (mostly writers and poets with some musical performances).
At about the time the senior center moved from Smith Baker to Broadway, city planners identified the “creative economy” as an economic development strategy. A catalyst for this was the arrival in Lowell of hundreds of artists who were priced out of quarters in Charlestown and Somerville by soaring prices of that era’s real estate bubble. Lowell wisely altered its zoning code to permit “artist live/workspaces” and the arts community developed considerable momentum. Embracing the concept that culture can drive economic activity, City Planners and related organizations tried to build on that. The Smith Baker Center was seen as a valuable asset with potential as a smaller-sized performance venue in the 600-seat range, something the city lacked. In 2011 and again in 2015, the City issued requests for proposals that sought bids to redevelop the building as a cultural center and a performance venue.
The Coalition for a Better Acre put together a viable proposal that would leverage worldwide interest in Jack Kerouac to fund the building’s redevelopment with community spaces on the first floor and an active performance venue on the second. At the time, the state of repair of the building was such that the needed renovations were feasible and affordable, but that window was closing fast.
However, a snag arose when the city insisted on reversionary conditions in any conveyance to CBA. Here’s what that was about: Marty Meehan had recently become the Chancellor of UMass Lowell and had embarked on a building and expansion boom of the University’s footprint in the city. This involved purchasing quite a few properties from private owners and making them part of the University’s real estate portfolio. Because the Commonwealth does not pay property taxes to the city for state-owned real estate, these parcels were removed from the property tax rolls.
Ignoring all the benefits flowing to the city from having a vibrant University in its midst, reactionaries on the City Council vigorously opposed any further conversion of properties to a non-real estate tax paying status. This not only tainted the city’s relationship with the University, a situation that persists today (witness recent Council comments on the ICC’s potential use for migrant housing), it also stifled development by nonprofits like CBA.
As a result of this mindset, the city insisted that any conveyance to CBA of the Smith Baker Center contain reversionary language that if the property ever ceased being used as a performance venue, ownership would revert to the city. This provision was fatal to CBA’s funding since no lender would finance a project with such an ownership contingency. The city’s insistence on that reversionary clause killed the last hope of saving the Smith Baker Center.
Even then, the outside envelope of the building was failing. Absent immediate and costly repairs, the deterioration would accelerate to the point where there was no scenario in which it made fiscal sense to save the building. There’s a term for this: Demolition by Neglect.
So yes, the building is beyond the point of saving and should be demolished. The more important question is what should take its place. When St. Peter’s Church on Gorham Street – a victim of Demolition by Neglect by the Archdiocese of Boston – was demolished, the CBA eventually stepped in and constructed affordable housing which seems to be doing quite well. Something similar should be done with the Smith Baker lot, however, given the level of “planning” coming from this City Council, my guess is it will be made into a parking lot.
Congratulation to Lowell National Historical Park on yesterday’s grand opening of its new exhibit, “One City, Many Cultures” which is in the Mogan Cultural Center alongside Boarding House Park. Here’s the text at the entrance to the exhibit space:
Cities are cultural crossroads. We come to cities to collaborate and share, to live, to work, and sometimes to begin life again.
This place we now call Lowell has been a crossroads of this human experience for thousands of years, a place where people have brought ways of thinking, being, and living. Sometimes that process has been exciting. Sometimes it has been marked by conflict. Sometimes it has provided opportunities for change.
This exhibit explores the meeting of people and the shared experiences that create the communities that make up Lowell today.
Beginning today, the One City, Many Cultures exhibit is open daily from 11am to 4:30pm.
For those interested in Lowell history, here are some events that may be of interest:
The annual fall walking tours of Lowell Cemetery will occur next weekend. The same tour will be offered twice, once on Saturday, September 30, and again on Sunday, October 1, both at 10am from the Knapp Avenue entrance (77 Knapp Ave on your GPS). The tour takes 90 minutes and involves walking around the cemetery as I tell stories of the people buried there. There will be quite a few new stories on this year’s tour, so even if you’ve come before, please join us again.
On Sunday, October 8 at 10am, I will lead a walking tour of the Hamilton Canal Innovation District. The tour will begin at Lowell National Park Visitor Center at 246 Market Street. It will cover recent developments in the Hamilton Canal District but will emphasize the history of what was there previously. This tour is part of the Lowell City of Learning “Learning Festival ’23.”
On Friday, October 6 at 4:15pm there will be a walking tour of St. Joseph’s Cemetery at 96 Riverneck Road, Chelmsford. This tour will be led by Kurt Phaneuf, a longtime participant in the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival.
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