Friday, February 25, 2011

Re-imagining the Lowell Connector

Back in December when we did the Blogger's Meetup, I met Allegra Williams who had just joined the DPD. She proposed an idea to me that I admit I found somewhat absurd at face value: Demolish the Lowell Connector.

We often talk about how highways are often a blight to cities, but Lowell's connection to the area super-highway network seems like something we just can't give up. She had mentioned putting a linear park in its place. Linear parks to nowhere and near nowhere are not my favorite idea. Sounds like a way to spend a lot of parks money on something that will only introduce crime, but maybe I misunderstood her (I'll get back to this). I mentioned I would gladly see the Connector lose a lane because it is clear, much like Fr. Morissette Blvd, that it was made wider than it needs to be because it was never completed as planned. The width encourages speeding, and the loss of a lane would slow cars down and improve the ramp geometry. Really, at under 3 miles in length, how much better than 3 minutes at 60 MPH do we need to go? Chelmsford Street, I argued, could not handle the extra traffic the city would face, and the Connector really isn't very disruptive to the city. This isn't the Central Artery (thank God!)

Meanwhile, others have argued that Lowell needs a Daniel Webster style shopping district, or perhaps a business district like we see in the suburbs. Along the Connector, they'd argue, would be perfect. While I remain skeptical that we actually need, want, or could support such a thing, Tanner Street is clearly underutilized.

However, in the last few months, I have heard Adam Baacke over at DPD make a pie-in-the sky proposal that is perhaps what Allegra actually meant: Make the Connector a Boulevard.  Ok, NOW we're talking my language!  This has been done elsewhere. San Francisco boulevardized the Embarcadero Freeway many years ago. My modest proposal tackles many things at once that bother me about Lowell's layout. So, let's do a mental exercise on what we could do here:

Phase 1:
  1. The Connector becomes street level at Howard/Tanner Street at a light, heading inbound. It is two or three lanes in each direction (I imagine three inbound, two out because of the existent Gorham Street bottleneck) with a very small curb-like median. Maybe it's got trees. We allow parking on the side between curb bump-outs near the intersections with Gorham Street and Thorndike Street and the speed limit is 30MPH. The lanes are narrowed to encourage this speed.
  2. A major intersection with a focus on left-turn lanes inbound from the new Boulevard to Thorndike Street. Maybe we make this a two-lane wide traffic circle, but it would probably have to be pretty sizable and the park in the center, while a nice gateway, would likely be a dead zone without a lot of good uses nearby.
  3. Remove the massive offramp from the Connector inbound to Thorndike Street. This would allow us a huge amount of room to redevelop the area around Gallagher Square.
  4. Similarly, the ramp to 3A south being removed and the ramp from Thorndike to the Connector Outbound being removed also opens a lot of space for new construction along Thorndike, The Connector Boulevard, and YMCA Drive.
  5. A shuttle bus could be run out of the train station, down Thorndike, along the new boulevard, and back up YMCA drive to the bus station. Maybe we'd have bike lanes on the roads if they fit. People would want a trolley but I don't see it working right now.
  6. The buildings along this stretch would be mixed-use, and shoot for ground-floor uses when possible. Parking is structured or in the back.
  7. Build a new building with ground-floor retail and structured parking in the parking lot for Comfort Furniture. While one of the MIT plans suggested simply removing the current tenants of that building so that people would walk to retail from the train/bus station, I don't think that's right. There is room for a building right along Thorndike Street there that would encourage people to walk by it and into the new developments further down the road.
  8. This stretch of road is so short that I don't see it having much effect on total travel time from Gorham Street  to Industrial Ave. Besides, once YMCA Drive to Tanner becomes a way to get on the Connector and the ramp near YMCA drive is removed, some traffic will move off of the troublesome YMCA Drive/Thorndike/Connector intersectiony-thing, increasing capacity of the road network.
Phase 2:
  1. The Connector becomes street level at Plain Street.  It is two lanes in each direction and it widens to three for places with intersections to allow for generous turn lanes and curb bump-outs at intersections for pedestrian safety. Travel time from Gorham Street to Industrial Ave goes from three minutes to say, seven or eight, to account for the new lights and halved (ideal) speed. Eating up the two-plus lane wide median, the graded banks, and narrowing the lanes by a foot or so each would allow us to fit narrow but usable buildings along the side of the Connector Boulevard. These buildings, which will lag behind the Connector redesign by many years likely (and some will fall into Phase 3) would likely be a combination of offices and apartment buildings. A linear street like this does not really attract too much pedestrian activity so I'm afraid storefronts would be limited, but keep the buildings on the street and parking access in the rear to allow this to change.
  2. New intersections:
    1. Lincoln Street, which will get a Y in it so it also crosses over River Meadow Brook to connect to say, Factory St by the old RMV as well as Connector Blvd. Or maybe we do W. London to Parker instead.
    2. A reconnected Cambridge Street
    3. Perhaps some of the side-streets off of Hale that dead-end along the Connector are connected to the Connector at stop-signs. Perhaps not.
  3. Remove the ramps from Plain St inbound and Connector to Plain outbound. This opens up a lot of land for some pretty sizable buildings in their place along Manufacturers Street and across the brook from Tanner Street.
OK, so that's Phase Two.  Phase Three after the jump.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Information Overload! High Volume, Low Quality

I've always felt I was born at a particularly interesting time to comment on the Information Revolution, because the core changes happened just as I was growing up. I'm about the youngest you'll get that remembers life before all these changes and about the oldest you'll get that will spend their whole adult life trying to figure out how to function with them.

Maybe that's just me thinking I'm special because I'm part of "Generation Me" or the Millennials, or Gen Y or whatever we are this week. I was born in 1983, so that means that I'm near the older end of where people are drawing the line between Generations X and Y. When I think about how learning, playing, and interacting with the world was done when I was growing up (let's say 1995) versus when my late Boomer parents were growing up (say 1970), what was different? I had video games and VHS. I guess by the time I was 12 we had cable TV, but we didn't when I was real young. Computers hadn't trickled down to really affect kids beyond being another way to play video games yet (I saw the internet for the first time in 1994, I remember sending my first email maybe in 1996 and posted in newsgroups by 1997). Beyond that, TV, radio, telephone, long-playing recorded music (LPs and CDs aren't all that different in terms of functionality), encyclopedias, newspapers, magazines, hell going to the library...all pretty much the same between the first ten or so years of my life and my parents.

When it comes to how we communicate and how we consume media, there is a far, far larger gap between me and someone maybe even ten years younger than I am, never mind what 25 years will look like. If you were born in 1993, by the time you were twelve, there was a mature broadband internet with things like a young Facebook and iTunes and the dawn of YouTube, dirt cheap powerful computers, cell phones, mp3 players, etc. And 12-year olds use these things! Sure, there were cell phones in 1995, but no kids had them.  I don't remember anybody in high school sending text messages. YouTube didn't exist until I was basically out of college.

I remember being disconnected and unreachable...having to plan your day in advance (ok, another difference between my parents childhood and mine: answering machines). I remember what it was like to not know the answer to something and to either have to ask somebody or find a book and hope the answer was available, and not just have Wikipedia on an iPhone to go to.

So, for better or for worse - and I'm far, far, far from the first person to comment on this - the world has changed in fundamental ways...and quickly. Too quickly for society to have understood and adjusted to. What does it mean? Over the past few years, there has been a lot of discussion over what all this technology is doing to our brains:  Email makes you dumber than smoking marijuana (2005). Those under 30 are the 'Dumbest Generation.' (2008)  Kids spend every waking minute they are not in school plugged in (2010). Of course, there has been backlash:  One mom recently unplugged her family for six months.

There are certainly benefits to the always-on and on-demand information revolution. For example, I'm writing a blog entry (that people I've never met are going to read) on a wireless-broadband laptop with a multi-hour battery charge from bed and I found all four of the stories I posted in the last paragraph in under five minutes on Google. However, it took me fifteen minutes to get my concentration together to actually start writing because I got distracted by a huge volume of information as soon as I logged in. So, I wonder what is going on with how people think, learn, and participate in society. Now that we do have these amazing and convenient technologies, what did we lose?

I'm not sure we'll know for sure until those ten, fifteen, twenty years younger than me enter the workforce starting in another four years or so. Because, as I said, unlike myself on the generational cusp, these kids will never know any different.

More after the jump.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Wouldn't it be nice...

This past Friday I went to a Young Professionals of Greater Lowell event at the Tsongas Center.  This was my first YPGL event and also my first time to the Arena since it became a Center.  I have to say that I'm impressed with what they've done with the place!

The new club areas look great.  The YPGL meeting was in one of the clubs, the Talon Club.  Although I decided against introducing myself to Chancellor Meehan (this was a dual-function meet with UML alumni), I did have a good, long conversation with somebody I met who works over at the Department of Planning and Development.  Go networking.

Having only a passing interest in hockey (it was UML versus Northeastern, Northeastern won in OT), I spent much of the game studying the crowd. Total seats sold? About 50%  UML student count? Very low. Commuter school, Friday night...not too surprised. Is it always like this? Northeastern fans? Surpisingly high.  How many are current and how many are locals who went there years earlier, I don't know. UML fans from the community, many with children? Probably the largest demographic, and a pleasant surprise after the loss of our AHL team. Watching the scoreboard list off organizations that were there, a surprising number of companies and schools were at the game for a Friday night hours after work closes.

After the game, my friend and I walked back to my house, down Arcand Drive and then along Dutton Street. As we were walking on sheer ice and knee-deep snow along high-speed roads and by one parking lot after another, it occurred to me that we had just watched an audience of I guess around 3,000 people just outside of downtown Lowell nearly all pile into their cars and wait to get out of that garage. My guess is most were headed directly home. Anybody coming from Northeastern by public transit would've found they took the green line from school to North Station to get a commuter train to Lowell to...have to walk down Dutton Street's narrow sidewalks in the dark to get to the game, never really passing down a single major or attractive commercial street on the way?  Not a good selling point.  Now...what if the pie-in-the-sky plans to add some sort of commercial spaces along Arcand Drive and Cox Circle materialize?  There would be a few nights during hockey season that they'd get extra business from the game alone.  People going to Spinners games would drive past on their way to the ballpark, and maybe they'd stop, too.  Is it enough of a draw to cause the buildings to get built?  Alone?  No way.  Yet, look at the restaurant and bar density near the Garden or Fenway. Lowell is no Boston, but I bet we can do better than we are (look at the Kearney Square crowds when something is up at the Auditorium), and I know it's being discussed.

Happy Birthday Blog!

So, my blog has made it one year...actually it made it a little over a week ago. As expected, the main topic has been Lowell, and particularly urbanism. What does year two bring? Maybe I'll go take some more pictures as the weather warms up and the snow melts but before the trees come in. I'm sure there will be things in the news worth talking about. Beyond that, I don't know.

I've enjoyed blogging because beyond the standard knowledge-sharing bit, it has allowed me to meet with and bounce ideas off quite a few people virtually and in person. Besides, I write largely to organize and challenge my own thoughts. However, I don't like to be a broken record and at times I feel like I'm getting to that territory.  Sometimes, I also feel maybe I should name my blog :-)