Sunday, September 25, 2011

University Ave Bridge

I've known for years that the University Ave Bridge is coming down. In fact, I wrote about it when I started this bloggy thing back in 2006. I also knew the replacement bridge would be built at the foot of Merrimack Street, taking a few buildings with it.

I didn't know that demolition happened yesterday. I'm a good week behind on the local news!

I learnt about that from Michelle, who also linked to an excellent article about the CMAC building that was one of two structures demolished for this.

As for the current bridge, I've photographed the underside of it in the past, and, well, we all know it is in really rough shape. To the point that it's not safe for cars anymore. Besides, the bizarre double-light intersection it creates at Pawtucket St to the jog at Merrimack Street (being that its original route down Moody St is now a dead end) is not good for cars. A direct connection to Merrimack Street, our main street, and becoming even more important now that UML owns the old St. Joseph's Hospital (now University Crossing) is desirable. Let's put a light at the foot of Fletcher Street - the most direct route to the interstates - while we're at it. With the current configuration, three lights for three T-intersections in a row would be plain crazy. But a T and a four-way? Let's do it!

This leaves one question: what to do with the old bridge? Many Lowellians want to save "Kerouac's Bridge" ... I don't. To understand why, we need to look at the preservation movement as a whole: The goal should be to preserve the character of an area, and preserve the history. Lowell, it has often been said, does pretty well for itself because it cares about local history. However, Lowell is a still-functioning city of over 100,000 residents - it is not a museum. History is made here every day. Things change. Would the loss of this fairly ordinary bridge, with a one paragraph tie to a writer, no matter how great he was, really, truly change the character of Lowell for the worse? Would that outweigh the potential gains we could have by not keeping two bridges there? Can the money we'd be spending to maintain both give us a better single bridge?

I feel that the Lowellian fear of demolition has far more to do with the way we've "renewed" our city in the past, be it individual buildings, or entire neighborhoods. It's been the exception rather than the rule that we've put up something as distinguished as what we tore down...never mind something that was truly an improvement. I read a great piece on the Greek Acre demolition today. Nobody looks kindly on that. Maybe if we hadn't torn down those old flats and there had been large, fatal fires...we'd feel differently. But still, what was built there instead wasn't just safer: it robbed a neighborhood of its feel and its character. Right idea...horrible execution. The city lost something quite tangible. Conversely, nobody would say the new Jeanne D'arc headquarters isn't an improvement over what was there before...that being the charred remnants of an ancient textile mill. And, in that case, we did save the historic turbine pits underneath the new building...like something excavated in ancient Rome.

I guess my overall rule is: if it's going to be a parking lot, or a boulevard, or some So Cal style suburban development...no. If there's a chance for us to improve the built environment in Lowell for future generations, at the expense of something that is no longer working for the modern city...let it go. There are even a few buildings right downtown that I wouldn't weep about if they were replaced with something truly better.

Keeping both bridges would create a very strange, massive-expanse-of-pavement intersection at the University end. Having both bridges would certainly prevent us from building any sort of park, or buildings to replace the ones we just tore down, where the old bridge was. It would also destroy the view from either bridge to the rapids below - because you'd now be looking at just another bridge a few feet away. A bridge that's not too visually captivating at that! Just look at what the temporary Tyngsboro Bridge has done to the feel of the paved-over remnants of Tyngsboro Center.

Instead, let's build something impressive, and built to last. This, after-all, is supposed to be the Textile Memorial Bridge. I've always said, if I do something truly awful in my life, name an overpass after me or something equally mundane. The current University Ave Bridge is frankly, quite dull. Especially given the amount of pedestrian traffic over it the University is generating, with more to come, we should make it a pleasant and informative walk. Where is the information on who or what it is a memorial to?!

We have a chance to maybe put aside a piece of the modular old bridge on dry land as some sort of monument to Kerouac if we so choose, or some other art installation purpose...or maybe put part of it over a brook or something. The underside of it is kinda cool. The new bridge could have an impressive superstructure and broad sidewalks and bike lanes on both sides. I'm thinking something like the beautiful lampposts on the French King Bridge and/or the interesting carvings on the Calvin Coolidge Bridge - both Massachusetts bridges from the Depression over the Connecticut River. We could have plaques at different lengths along it talking about the history of the University, that being the North Campus, as Lowell Textile Institute. We could talk about Pawtucketville, and Little Canada...and why French-Canadian Kerouac was there to see that man with the watermelon in the first place.

We can't - and shouldn't try - to save everything. Sometimes, doing so can get in the way of us moving forward.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Where do we go from here?

Things are not OK in the world right now.

The economy is in shambles. Governments at all levels are cutting back services. Vast numbers of people are out of work, and industries are dying. Energy prices are rising; investments and retirements are going sour. Credit is hard to come by. The income gap is widening and the population is aging rapidly. The housing market collapse is causing people to lose their homes, or preventing them from selling, and speculative development is at a near-halt. Young people are graduating college - the price of which is rising far faster than any inflation we might be seeing - with crippling loan debt and poor job prospects. There are major concerns about the environment.

And these are national or even international problems. What does a small "Gateway City" like Lowell, where many people are socioeconomically quite vulnerable, do to keep moving forward?

I've been meeting up with quite a few people over the past few months, trading ideas and identifying problems here at home. How do these huge questions affect our small corner of the world? I've been asked a few times, "what is it I think we should do"?

Well...I don't know. Too open-ended; that's not how I think. I read a book, Being Geek, about a year ago, which is subtitled "The Software Developer's Career Handbook". While it's a trove of interesting anecdotes and all-around good ideas, one section stuck with me: Engineers love puzzles and games. They'll go after a challenge when they understand the rules - that is, when they can define a space around a problem. So, before I can offer any Big Ideas on how to keep the momentum here in Lowell going, I need to understand the problem. It's been said that cities are the most complex machines man builds, and I'd tend to agree.

So, let's break it down:

Good:

  • There has been a lot of momentum with residential and retail development downtown. Even today, new places to live and new retail/restaurant establishments are opening with reasonable regularity.
  • Today's youth is more environmentally conscious and interested in urban areas than at any time in decades.
  • We have a University and a Community College looking to expand, especially in directions that seem to be part of the "New Economy".
  • We have a huge chunk of the regional cultural institutions, and quite a few people who are part of the related (but larger than just arts) "Creative Economy".
  • Lowell's classical strength in well-connected, concerned, and engaged residents is still there. Our strong neighborhoods are reasonably stable.
Bad:
  • Demographically, we're in a position where economic challenges will be strongly felt. Foreclosure, unemployment, crime, etc are bigger concerns here than in many suburban communities.
  • Our educational system has a lot of room for improvement. Again, this is a demographic-based reality. However, a major reason for people to move to a community is the quality of the school system.
  • What is the New Economy, and what will it mean in a time of prolonged economic retraction? Lowell's traditional manufacturing base is still long gone. I would argue the service and retail industries are not good bets right now. Large, private industries in Lowell are not nearly as common as they once were.
  • We lose a lot of our best and brightest to the cultural and employment magnet that is Boston, or places outside of New England that often have a much lower cost of living.
  • Even after decades of investment and re-invigoration, we still have a stigma to overcome in the eyes of many.
Well, that's ten bullets. It'd be fairly trivial to come up with quite a few more or subdivide and elaborate on these. That doesn't answer the fundamental question: what does it mean and how do we act?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Tanner Street Urban Renewal

The City Manager's blog put up a post about the planning process for Tanner Street today. This is a great opportunity to increase our share of the regional (automotive-based) economy while leaving much of the "old" Lowell intact:

http://lowellma.wordpress.com/2011/09/13/urban-renewal-next-stop-tanner-street/