Sunday, February 28, 2010

A tale of two mill cities: Lawrence and Lowell ... and zoning.

Today, on there has been discussion on what makes Lowell not Lawrence.  I had touched on this myself in 2008 in this post:, lamenting the hard fall of Lawrence.  The discussion on richardhowe is focusing on the geography of the two cities

I'm going to be long-winded and preachy here, so bear with me ;-)

I was going to do a longer post with maps, etc here about the topic, but I found myself making up answers based on basic statistics that might be flawed.  Here's a couple of simple numbers I pulled out from and

Lowell's population (2008 est) and land area: 103,615 on 13.8 sq miles

Lawrence's population (2008 est) and land area: 70,014 on 6.96 sq miles

Percent of residents below the poverty line in Lowell and Lawrence: 16.1%, 23.6%.

The quoted median household incomes for 2008 ($53k, $33k) don't sit right with me as being too much of a jump in eight years.  I'm more likely to believe the 2000 census numbers with a lesser upward trend to today:  $39k and $28k.  This year's census will help us see where we really are, especially in light of the economic downturn (unemployment and foreclosures), which hit lower income municipalities especially hard.

Simple math: residents below poverty line: 16,682 in Lowell and 16,523 in Lawrence.  Not all that different.  But where is the poverty exactly?

If you want to see this as a visual, go to and zoom in until you get breakdown by smaller geographic areas than towns.  You'll see, say, for the income map or the educational attainment maps, that the "inner city" sections of Lowell don't fare much better than the entirety of Lawrence...which is basically only inner city.  As a whole, by massstats' data, Lowell is in much better shape than Lawrence on indicators of poverty, but not by a whole lot...until you pass that first two miles or so outside of downtown...which in Lawrence becomes outside the city borders...and at which point things improve drastically.  As nice as Belvidere is, it's no Andover.

I think it's fair to say without being overly politically correct that the majority of people that become politicians, etc have a tendency to be middle class or higher, and not be living below the poverty line or in tenement housing.  I mean, if that wasn't a fair thing to say, the sections of Lowell that are nearly universally unwealthy (Back Central, The Acre, Downtown - you can check neighborhood income and population for 2000 here: would be producing a lot more city councilors than they do.  Like Dick said, Belvidere, Pawtucketville, and the Upper Highlands are called The Andovers in Lawrence.  And those people can't run for Lawrence City Council.  Of course, this is also used as an argument against at-large councilors in our Plan E system here in Lowell.  Why is Patrick Murphy the only councilor I'm aware of that's from a "lesser" section of the city?  And to his credit as being a councilor that fights for these sections, Sacred Heart / The Grove isn't the neighborhood it was when I was a Sacred Heart parishioner in the 80s and 90s.  At the same time, in many ways, downtown is much improved.  This topic came up on The New Englander's (Greg) blog last week:  I touched on a related point there as well that I'll get to.

Wikipedia has a great article (of value that is often questioned...look at all the complaining tags) about the fight that kept Brookline from becoming part of Boston in 1873.  They, 140 years later, have accomplished their goal:  Brookline is an extremely expensive, exclusive, and desirable little city - almost entirely an enclave inside Boston.  In 1873, Lowell was about to annex Middlesex Village, the upper sections of Bridge Street, important parts of Belvidere, and Pawtucketville.  After this, the only neighborhoods to join Lowell were the far side of Belvidere and South Lowell, all before 1910.  Had the Brookline "we aren't becoming the next Dorchester" momentum hit Lowell a little earlier, we might look a lot more like Lawrence.  Looks like the annexation map at the Center for Lowell History's website is down this weekend, so again, I'll defer to an old post on for the data (I need to start saving these public domain maps locally...I'm paranoid about these resources never coming back).  Without these annexations, Lowell would not have its more affluent sections and would be 4,000 acres smaller - or nearly half the city - the extra 6 and change square miles Lowell has over Lawrence.

Discussion on zoning after the jump.


The Boston/Brookline annexation debate came up over dinner at Cobblestones last night with a lawyer friend who almost went into municipal law.  He's from New York (lives in Greater Boston now), and has had a feeling that things aren't quite right here in Massachusetts.  He feels laws, taxes, and development here are often more reactive than proactive - short sighted at best.  I strongly agree - refer back to my post on Greg's's about the same topic.  The Home Rule sentiment that has allowed the venerable New England Town Meeting to continue into the 21st century and has prevented further annexations or regionalizations, I feel has also concentrated poverty into a few small areas of the state.  Lowell, and the State Aid and household income maps etc on MassStats backs this up, is essentially being paid to keep all of the region's problems concentrated in Lowell.  Yet we don't get the jobs here these people work.  Those stay out in the suburbs where there is still land along highways to gobble up with more and more highly-taxable Wal-Marts and massive surface parking lots.  Lowell, according to, loses 45,000 residents daily to jobs elsewhere (typically suburban).  How does the fourth (or fifth...Cambridge and Lowell are nearly neck-and-neck) largest city in the state turn into a bedroom community for a disproportionately poor community?  If the nation has determined that low-income housing projects were a mistake for concentrating poverty, why can it still happen on a municipal scale?

When every fifteen square miles of Massachusetts sets its own rules on what can be built there, distortions in the market occur.  If you're a town like Tyngsboro, you are maintaining strict laws against houses on lots under I believe an acre.  You don't provide gas, septic, or municipal water - requirements for density yet unaffordable to small towns due to economies of scale.  You make it very hard to build a multi-family structure, and certainly no mixed-use structures are allowed.  You're prohibiting development over a certain number of floors high.  If you're a town like Bedford, you're maintaining that office space can't have any more square feet on all floors than a certain percentage of the total lot, a certain amount of parking must be provided per square foot of office space, a certain amount of your lot must be green, etc.  While these rules might strive to "preserve the character" of a community and maintain public safety regarding the abilities of the town's fire apparatus,*  you are also destroying the environment with sprawl, destroying the character with increased traffic (as nothing is walkable under these laws), while working the laws of supply and demand towards guaranteed affluency:  restrict construction in your community where these is high demand for new construction, and values will go up.  Look at Dunstable - it's impossible to build there and it has become an extremely wealthy and well-administered town (it has a microscopic budget) that has largely maintained its rural character.  Lowell, on the other hand, has a varied set of zoning regulations that is applied on a street-by-street basis.  Pawtucketville will remain Pawtucketville under this plan, and The Acre stays The Acre.  Mixed use and denser zoning allows for people to walk places - it's the basis of real neighborhoods.  The complaint in Lowell is largely focused on variances or changes to the zoning regulations - chopping up a house into apartments in a single-family neighborhood.

*The wood-and brick and 90 year old Academy of Notre Dame in Tyngsboro is too tall for any of Tyngsboro's all-volunteer ladder trucks and tankers to fight fires in...this might've changed in the last 15 years or so as the school's water supply became polluted from a dump and Lowell public water was piped in, but it was a huge concern when I went there.  There were similar concerns with the construction of the Westford Regency if I remember correctly.

Now, sure - people should be allowed to choose the type of community they live in, provided they understand what they are doing.  It's certainly safer to raise your family on a big lot in Chelmsford, and the schools are better than Lowell's as a whole.  I might have just said Tyngsboro might have become a much more expensive town since the early 1980s due to a restriction on construction, but few people who have ever lived there would argue that Tyngsboro is underbuilt.  Instead, it's the poster-child for exurban sprawl.  Too far out and too underpopulated to even be called suburban...yet somehow there is very little undeveloped land left.  Seems a new McMansion with two or three Mercedes in the garage is being constructed every day.  At 17 square miles, it is physically larger than the city of Lowell with 1/10th of the population (11,000 or so).  30 years ago, it had half that number or fewer.  While some parts of town have since been hooked into Lowell's water system and some traffic lights have gone up, much of the town has seen little improvement in the way of street widening, sidewalk construction, etc.  Result: the rural feel is gone, the environment has been severely degraded, but none of the town-like amenities people want have been brought in.  You are now trapped on your own property without a car as walking on a street (as if there is anywhere to go due to strict segregation of zoning) is a great way to get run over.  The only other people you see are just like you.  The cow-path roads are dangerous to drive on as they have become higher speed while remaining just as narrow without any improvements to sight lines.  And as you're maintaining a large number of streets supported by a small amount of taxable property on said streets, they are in awful condition, and alternative paths to places are non-existant, snarling traffic.  The weakly connected electrical grid fails constantly - devastating in the year 2010, especially when even your cold water pump depends on electricity.

Furthermore, what happens in these towns when they hit build-out (as Chelmsford has, but at a higher density than a Tyngsboro?) or a downturn in the housing market?  Entire Sunbelt cities are hard-up right now as construction was the main industry - at least it's not that bad here.  If towns, like Tewksbury or Tyngsboro, are fighting for state funds and pushing through Prop 2 1/2 overrides to build new schools for the new young residents, or to replace obsolete facilities (Tewksbury is no longer growing all that fast, as opposed to Tyngsboro), what happens to these schools when there is no new construction and the empty-nesters don't move on?  How much worse is it if the building happened in booms and large portions of the population have kids and retire at the same time?  What happens when kids that went to the town schools find themselves unable to afford to raise their own family in their hometown due to escalating prices?  40B, a program that incentivizes communities to keep a certain percentage of housing "affordable" was designed to solve this sort of problem, and it is fought tooth-and-nail in many communities as a way for developers to get rich while degrading a community.  It's not as if it's designed for putting welfare recipients in 10-story towers in Westford ... I think 40B projects are designed for people at around the Median community income, and taxes are rising anyhow.

A growing number of Senior Citizens in retirement (a rising group as a whole as America's birth rate falls and the population greys), are fighting for improved Senior Centers while fighting any other town improvements that raise taxes as they are unable to afford their own homes in their own town already.  They are also still forced to drive as the communities are unwalkable, or they rely on expensive paratransit or neighbors or lose their independence to their children...or simply become prisoners in their own homes.  Check the median ages and households with children for communities on MassStats.  This is happening!  Greying populations are a problem in Europe on a continental scale, it's a growing problem in the US as a whole, and it's happening faster in some of our communities than others due to a degree when they had construction booms as well as the age one must have achieved to afford a home in some of these more homogeneous and pricy communities.  Lowell, an immigrant city that hit build-out decades ago, has a constant and healthy flow of new residents.  Lowell High is graduating about as many students now as it did 40 years ago.  The average resident age in Tyngsboro is extremely young, but that won't be true in 20 years.  Chelmsford is already aging rapidly.  At least some of these towns are looking at school regionalization.  Before 1960, Tyngsboro kids went to Lowell high.

In the face of these sorts of issues, Proponents of New Urbanism say that the Suburban Dream, a product of the car-culture born in the young and affluent nation we were post World War II, becomes an unsustainable nightmare.  Just wait for gas prices to start spiking again.  People can't take much more, but we've largely done it to ourselves - by being convinced the only way to raise a family is to disinvest in more compact and self-sustaining communities in exchange for, as I worded it at dinner last night, puking ourselves all over the suburbs.  Oversuburbanized and traffic-choked Virginia has banned the cul-de-sac and is questioning the post-war street-hierarchy (minor streets empty into just one major street which empties into superblocks of arterials) and strict segregation of zoning uses system as unsustainable, unaffordable, unlivable, and damaging.  They are re-imagining communities based around density, mixed use, and mass transit.  Check out Tyson's Corner VA, or Rockville, MD.  Unlike much of Virginia, we have wonderful urban areas in New England like Boston or even Lowell...or even Lawrence or little Ayer.  We don't have to re-create these character-rich communities because we have the real thing - if only we can get the disinvestment to stop by getting people to realize suburbia isn't all it's cracked up to be...and is at least partially responsible for many of the very real and unattractive poverty-related issues we see in cities today.


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  2. Sorry I wanted to repost with an addition.

    As we further segregate families that live under the poverty level with zoning, one of my issues is the city then dealing with gang problems.

    When you read in some inner city communities unemployment rates (especially for minority men) can be upwards of 50%, what else are they going to do except to crime, drugs, and gangs. They need more then a safe place to hang out, these young men and women need job/skill training. The state funded United Teen Equality Center making anti-violence Youtube videos as paid community organizers doesn't cut it. (Yes, I realize that is a harsh criticism)

    Everyone should have some skill outside the basic educational literacy of high school, but not everyone has the intellectual abilities for college or post grad. Do some of these jobs really require the credential of a four year degree that hold people back from obtain quality employment?

    Of course how these young people even with the skills get to work without reliable transportation, when work is off an highway exit 15-20 miles away.