Friday, October 8, 2010

Lowell Downtown Evolution Plan - full report

Jeff Speck's full plan is now available here.  It's over 150 pages with over 100 pages not being full of traffic count data.  I read most of it, skimming a few sections (traffic data included in skipped).  While I'd love to recommend you read it, it's pretty long, so I took care of that ;-)

My summary, a few choice excerpts and a few of my thoughts after the jump.

First off, we need to commend Speck on actually "getting" Lowell, or at least, talking to enough people that do get it to be informed.  His closing remarks, which I'll open with, were:
Lowell is remarkable because people stay here. Most subjects interviewed in this study had been born in Lowell, and the majority or them were third generation Lowellians or more. This planning team has never before worked in a place with such a high percentage of family retention. Indeed, it wasn't until arriving in Lowell that we first heard the term “blowins,” let alone its modification “Blowellians.” This continuity of population has its advantages and its disadvantages.
The advantages, which dominate, include a powerful culture of stewardship, reinvestment, and philanthropy. People take better care of places where they plan to stay, and in Lowell that occurs in spades. The principal disadvantage is that the city’s long institutional memory includes some pretty bad experiences, and many Lowellians’ impression of Lowell remains the old Lowell of the seventies and eighties, despite a preponderance of evidence to the contrary. Indeed, there exists a surprising disconnect between the quality of the downtown and locals' opinion of it. Of course, some of the most critical haven’t been downtown in years.   
These critics, some of whom enjoy responding anonymously and bitterly to news articles about downtown, would benefit from more interaction with the tourists who know only the Lowell of today, or the many young families and empty nesters who are choosing to make downtown their home. For them, and for this planning team, Lowell provides most of the advantages of a Boston or Cambridge, at a fraction of the price. 
The more one travels the United States and experiences its gradual transformation into a repetitive collection of nondescript suburban autocentric zones, the more precious Lowell becomes.  With its handsome landscape of mills, main streets, rivers, and canals, the city has already managed to gracefully outlive its original reason for being. Taking further advantage of these assets and others—as outlined in this Plan—will give the city an even greater promise as we enter an era that increasingly values those qualities that make Lowell exceptional.
This is all great news for me.  He hits a bunch of nails squarely on the head.  While I still can't figure out if I'm a "blow-in" or not, I do know that many people that read my blog have as long, or longer, familial histories in Lowell than the 100 years I have, and it's families like that that have kept the city going through the tough times he talks about.  I've also met, and count as readers, plenty of relative newbies, who like Speck, really get Lowell.  These people are generally younger, and like myself (and to paraphrase Speck) grew up with urban ideals, watching Seinfeld and Friends, not the suburban dreams of Happy Days and The Brady Bunch.  These people want ideas like Speck's plan to happen.  I also count in my family people who are of these older generations and of different mindsets, and no longer get the city at all, as he charges.  And I know huge numbers of  people who have heard so much bad about Lowell, or had a few bad experiences, that they will never give it enough of a chance for it to grow on them.  Only continued improvement and word of mouth is going to change this.

Now, to specific points he makes:

Traffic


Much of the report, as expected, focuses on transit and walking.


His analysis on the street system was enlightening on many levels.  First off, he makes an excellent point that many of Lowell's traffic problems are due to bottlenecks, not road capacity.  To that end, he justifies his suggestion that Lowell needs to make many streets two-way again, and on those streets and those that remain one way, we don't need 12-foot expressway lanes - 10 feet with bike lanes, more parking, or wider sidewalks would do fine.  As much as I enjoy bombing down Thorndike, Dutton, and Market, the pedestrian experience would be improved if I couldn't, and the lengthy traffic light phases, and the lack of synchronization between lights that should really work in groups, really is more of a "hurry up and wait" situation than anything else resembling efficient traffic movement.

Here as well, Speck's level of research is heartening:  Aside from his modeling, he knows we did the conversions of Middlesex and Appleton Streets back to two-ways, and he's right, even though I was one of the Doubting Thomases, it seems to have worked.  He doesn't point it out, but Lawrence made Essex Street (their Merrimack Street equivalent) two-way again recently as well.  Additionally, he knows why Father Morrissette Boulevard is an expressway: because of a connection with the Connector and further demolition downtown to make a full loop that never happened.  Because he understands this, he understands the road will never live up to capacity and should be re-thought.

Finally, he understands the pain of those of us who deal with downtown with regard to some of the more bizarre traffic flow situations the one-ways downtown cause, drawing graphics of some of the ultra-long trips around the "super-loop" of Market, Central, Merrimack, Shattuck/Dutton.  He points out many of these trips would avoid these notoriously congested intersections all together if only cars could take more direct trips.  He also has a sense here for our self-deprecating sense of humor, and perhaps hints to the badge-of-honor we wear that we understand how downtown streets are laid out at all:
Lowell’s overlay of a one-way system upon a cranky medieval-style street network can objectively be said to have created one of the most disorienting downtowns in America.
He  goes on to say:
On a lighter note, this western stretch [of Market Street, between Shattuck and Dutton] provides some useful experience regarding the performance of a two-way Market Street: local residents inform us that it is already used that way by several lost visitors daily.
Trolley

Lowell's current trolley system is "toy transit" as he calls it for the National Park.  A real trolley would be very nice, but he doesn't outright recommend we do it.  He points out this will be an all-or-nothing proposal.  A trolley that goes nowhere useful and doesn't run often enough is worse than an LRTA bus system that goes useful places, but runs so rarely and in roundabout patterns that nobody would take it by choice.  He recommends that a system that doesn't at least connect downtown to the three ULowell campuses (including East, the dorms), and runs 16 hours a day, is not worth doing.  I agree, but I would like to see the cost figures.  He also recommends we make up our minds on this in under a year.  Commit to it, or table it for a long time.

My feelings are also reserved, but for additional reasons.  To summarize, I feel an honest mass transit system in downtown Lowell is going to be hard to implement, because there is a HUGE disconnect in the types of jobs downtown and the types of jobs people living along the lines can attain.  The jobs, which tends to be white collar, are not filled by many people who live in a place on the planned transit lines, which are decidedly working-class neighborhoods.  Until something about that is done (what?), this line would be nothing but a drunk bus at night (not a bad thing, really), and maybe serve some students during the day.

High School


By his estimates, Lowell High students spend no less than $2/day downtown on average.  Times 3,000 students times the number of days in a school year, it's not exactly no money as is commonly accused.  One of his most pie-in-the-sky ideas - and he freely admits it - is re-building the 80s addition to the high school, taking over the doctor's building on Arcand in the process.  He recommends Dutton be re-extended through to French Street, provided it is only for school use.  I appreciated that even though he wants to pull the school back from the Merrimack Canal, he wants to maintain a massing of the building alongside it, echoing the historic boarding houses that were there before the high school (which, if it did anything right, echoes the boardinghouses as well).  He is against what he says people told him would be "pulling a Lawrence" and moving the school to a suburban location.  In addition to the obvious fast that Lowell's street and bus transit network is not designed to get people from say, Pawtucketville to Rogers Street efficiently, he says many students and former students told him that being downtown both gave them a sense of civic pride (at which point he points out how few people ever actually move out of Lowell), and an ability to excel in urban collegiate environments.

Parking


Here is where we differ.  While he's right that on-street parking is good for both shop visitors and pedestrians who are shielded from traffic by the stopped cars, I'm not as convinced that two-way streets make it easier.  You have twice as many parking opportunities on a one-way street (as it's illegal to cross a double yellow to park a car on the wrong side of the road), and a car backing into a spot doesn't block a lane of traffic executing the maneuver.  However, two way streets make for shorter blocks, which makes it easier to orbit looking for a spot.  I'll trust him on that one.  He makes a mistake I think with the pricing scheme.

His recommendation is that we increase the price of parking in Lowell, gradually.  He at least isn't completely out there - he knows it can't be done all at once.  However, I think this is a deal-breaker for downtown Lowell.  The problem isn't the price of parking is too low, it's the abuses, or that it's too high.  Unlike many cities out in the middle of nowhere, Lowell isn't the only game in town by a long shot, for either suburban or urban destinations.

I can agree with him on-street parking should be more expensive than garaged parking.  I can probably get behind charging for parking on the street later into the night as well, to free up more spaces for bar and restaurant goers, as opposed to residents who are just being lazy.  But, by his own admission, the garages are nearly empty at night.  It simply does not follow that we need to make garages more expensive, at least at night.  Supply and demand would dictate if the prices fell at night and on weekends, more people would park in them.  As someone who lives in a downtown building without guaranteed parking for guests and pays $60/mo to park one car in a garage a block away, I know how frustrating and embarrassing it can be to ask someone to come over for the night and expect them to cough up the $8-$10 it costs to garage a car overnight if we are unable to manage a free space in the one public lot in my neighborhood.

Here's my recommendation on parking:

  • Charge for on-street parking from 6 AM to 2 AM on weekdays.  From 6 AM to 6 PM, restrict most, if not all street spaces to two or three hours.  Long enough for a doctor's appointment, long enough for a dinner, but not long enough for a resident or an office worker.
  • DO NOT increase the parking rates anywhere, garage or on-street.  In fact, lower garage prices considerably after 6 PM to encourage their use.  Daytime parking rates need to be reasonable to compete at all with suburban locations.  As I said, it's currently a pipe dream to think that many people who can manage to work in downtown Lowell will be living where the transit lines are planned.  And the students don't need the price increases, either.
  • Implement some sort of guest parking for residents.  Perhaps every garage has, I don't know, 50 spaces that can be had for a very low or nothing rate at night, provided someone shows an ID with a downtown address when the car needs to leave.  Bonus points if it can be computerized so that people abusing the system by taking up the guest spaces with their second car get penalized.
  • The NPS lot and other similar lots that get filled by residents who leave their cars there for days to avoid paying for parking should be towed after 7 or 8 AM.
  • The first floor of all garages is to be short-term 3 hour parking (or as much capacity as the garages can allow during the day, some nearly fill), but still cheaper than on  the street.  Some garages do this for a few spots already.  I remember a few years back a motorcycle took up the same full-sized spot in my garage on the first floor all winter long.  That's a valuable spot to visitors during the day, when the garages fill to the roofs.  That's a long drive up and down, and a long walk as well.

Retail/Office


Speck is a realist here again, saying we're not getting big-box retail or anything like that.  There is not the highway access or parking availability for visitors nor the 18-wheelers that make these places run.  He also realizes, contrary to his miss with the parking situation, that Lowell is not a wealthy place and needs to work at attracting some lower-rent entertainment and dining options downtown.  Of course, the realist in me is well aware of the complaints about what types of places the places "those people" tend to attract are.  He never touches on crime, which is a major issue to just about anybody else you talk to.  We need to fund more beat cops or bike cops.  Cruisers are useless for downtown Lowell problems.  The high-density office buildings he's targeted for Cox Circle in front of the Tsongas center seems like a nice idea, and reasonably feasible.  I've said for a while that the Ayotte Garage is underused during the day, on major thoroughfares, and could support more business use.

Housing/new Construction


Speck points out that there are a lot of pocket areas that can likely support more housing, even that with little/no subsidy.  The side effect to this kind of construction, beyond added tax revenues, etc, is some thin housing can block the view of parking lots from the street, while making the street feel better to pedestrians, while not requiring any / much more new parking spaces.  One thing he does not address however is noise.  He wants luxury row-houses across from the Boott Mill driveway from Boarding House Park to hide the parking lot back there.  Those rich people are gonna LOVE concert nights!  This is a major sticking point downtown already - how to make the downtown more "lively" with more residents, while still maintaining some semblance of night-life for everyone else.  His recommendation to put a sizable building at the foot of the Merrimack Canal where the current Lowell Five headquarters is (used to be JDCU, not the one on John St) that would be complete with a "...bandstand barge pulling up to the river's edge to serenade the amphitheatre on a summer night." gave me a rare cringe-worthy moment:  Uh...the rivah is just about dry right heyah buddy.  His pie-in-the-sky re-design of the Monument Square area that would keep the Civic Center as the core of a new building is kinda yawn.  He acknowledges, to paraphrase, "Cambridge types, not Lowellians, are the only people who can appreciate Brutalism" but I feel that his changes would disguise the building to the point where it no longer has any historic context.  I understand it's being renovated and can't be torn down.  While I'm in full support of removing the Hess and Goodyear buildings from that very prominent location, he's 100% right that's just not economically feasible any time soon.

Conclusion


I liked the report and thought that these ideas, along with many others he called laid out, were really interesting.  People are going to complain about the cost of this plan (I don't remember what it was, but it was a lot).  However, I think we have a good chance of getting our money's worth, provided current trends continue.  If the economy improves, and the trend for both younger people and empty-nesters to move to urban places continues, the vibrant community of Lowell, and the "good bones" that make up the physical city, are going to be better-positioned to take advantage of the situation.  While many of Speck's ideas are kind of out there, he at least acknowledges it.

He understands that "Many people who visit Lowell, or who live in Lowell, aren’t the type to set foot in a museum" and "While some people think of Lowell as a suburb of Boston, it feels and functions more like an independent city-state."  Yet, in the same breath that he looks at the provincial, lower-brow city that we really are, he understands there is a potential for Lowell to be a better Lowell, and it's full of people who have proven time and time again they're willing to fight for that.  I was worried this plan might call for the wholesale conversion of our city into a museum or a larger Newburyport or something.  Or it would be so unrealistic and insensitive to the culture here it'd read like one of those MIT neighborhood reports.  I was pleasantly surprised.  While I'm not sure we're the type of city to get behind an saccharine slogan like "Alive, Unique, Inspiring," maybe it's not all hot air, either.  And having vision plans like this one helps direct us towards those goals.

8 comments:

  1. You are a better man than most, as reading through that document (and understanding it as you go) is no small task. Thanks for the summary and your impressions.

    I have only skimmed the document, as I think it requires a good block of time to review with some continuity of thought. But it is an impressive plan, albeit with some concerns as you have stated.

    Too often such plans are only visions of the future, with no real action to make things happen. And then as time wastes, eventually a new plan is undertaken. Maybe this time the City and Lowell Plan should initiate some Vision Sessions a la the Hamilton Canal planning phase, and maybe get more citizen buy-in to what will be a challenging process.

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  2. This is good stuff. It's .75 p/hour to park in the Portsmouth garage. Why would anyone want to pay $2.00 for 35 minutes to park in a less desirable downtown Lowell? It's then $1.00 per hour after that. The city should not be using the garages mainly as a revenue stream.
    Portsmouth also charges .75 p/hour for meter parking. Lowell charges $1.00 per hour at the meters.
    I'd be more inclined to park in a downtown garage if I knew I was saving money. Keep the meters at $1.00. I think charging for on-street parking till 9PM is more reasonable than 2AM. This will help decrease traffic because people like me drive around in circles looking for a metered spot to avoid using a garage.

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  3. Thanks for the comments.

    Brian, 9 PM sounds like a pretty decent idea. The reason I went with 2 AM (Speck actually advocates for around-the-clock metering) is because I wanted to get the bar traffic into the garages when possible. This not only would raise revenue for something Lowell does very well (that is, get people drunk) and probably isn't likely to be affected much by fees that are less than a beer, it would encourage carpooling, which reduces drunk driving.

    That said, I understand the point of the flat fee in the garages on Thirsty Thursdays to Saturdays: get the money before it's all spent on liquor and people can't leave, as well as prevent people from leaving inebriated trying to beat the clock. I don't think $5 is unreasonable.

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  4. I think it MAY be possible for the city to get more revenue by lowering the garage fees. For instance if I park at a meter and pay a dollar I have 1 hour to either refeed the meter or leave to avoid getting a ticket. More often than not I'm leaving before the hour is up.
    Now if the garage is only .75 per hour I'll probably be more willing to mill around, pun intended, downtown longer. I'm okay with getting charged another .75 if I stay for an hour and 15 minutes.
    It's a win-win-win situation. The city made $1.50 instead of $1.00, people walk around and shop longer not fearing getting a ticket, and less traffic congestion from fewer people hunting for an open meter.
    Seems like an easy fix.

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  5. Good comments about the relative fees for parking. One issue with extended hour fees will be the enforcement at the meters. More revenue maybe, but also more cost. In any case, the subject deserves some further discussion.

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  6. Thanks for the recap! I skimmed the plan, focusing on the section about bicycle accommodation because that's something I care deeply about.

    I loved that the issue of making downtown Lowell more bike-friendly was addressed but I didn't like that there was no mention of expanding the bicycle accommodations out to the neighborhoods (except to the colleges.) Lowell is a very bikeable city even without any type of bicycle accommodations - it's compact and relatively flat.

    My main for of transportation is my bicycle and I am always amazed at how much faster and easier, not to mention more fun, traveling by bike is, especially during rush hour. My partner and I live in Pawtucketville and both work downtown. She drives, I bike. It takes us exactly the same amount of time to get to work in the morning and I can always get home faster than she can. I am in no way a fast cyclist: I wear my regular work clothes (usually a dress or skirt), ride a heavy Dutch-style commuting bike, and am usually loaded down with stuff – work bag, lunch, computer, etc. – and my average speed is about 8mi./hr. I, however, spend most of my time moving while she spends most of her time stuck in traffic.

    I know that traveling by bike isn’t for everyone (my partner falls into this category) but I think that with the proper infrastructure more people may try it. I also think that the bike routes need to make sense – there can’t just be random loops connecting downtown to itself, people have to be able to get to the places they want and need to go via bike.

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  7. Marianne - the report was (admittedly) focused on downtown. Speck called this focus "urban triage" in his report. While I have really mixed feelings about the fairness of this, it is what it is. Bike lanes as Speck calls out are as free as paint, and the streets downtown can afford to fit them. The wildly hilariously named Broadway, to take a stab at one major Lowell street, can't lose space for a bike lane. But - traffic moves slower and closer to bike speed on this road anyhow. I don't bike myself (although I've considered getting one if work wasn't so far away), but it seems to me that Lowell is not a bad place for cyclists.

    I remember saying on Richard Howe's site years ago: anybody who thinks Lowell is pedestrian and cycle unfriendly has never lived in a Tyngsboro. Then again, compared to say, Cambridge, we have a long way to go. Then again - Cambridge is twice as dense as Lowell and borders many other equally dense, if not more dense, areas.

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  8. I think the hotel at the Lowell hair studio is a good idea. The city is currently more alive and walkable there than down by the arena. My uncle and aunt used to put up with the mismanaged DoubleTree because they loved the view of the locks. I'm no hotel development guru but it doesn't take a genius to figure out that downtown Lowell could support a 150 room 3-4 star hotel.

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