Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Smart Growth

I'm late to the game here and I'm going to keep it short so I can get it out and get to work!  While Jeff Speck, co-author of the very interesting Suburban Nation was giving a presentation in Lowell on his experiences with living in Downtown Lowell for a bit (see city manager's blog here), I was down in the Washington, DC metro area.  What's interesting about this is that the Washington, DC metro area is one of the premier areas of the US where Smart Growth/New Urbanism/Transit-Oriented Development is embraced and heavily implemented.

Before the mid-1970s, Washington and its suburbs had no rapid transit option.  The construction of the Metro, a light-rail system that runs underground through much of the DC area and above ground in a lot of the rest, changed all of this (as an amusing aside, much like in our famous Boston-area song "Charlie and the MTA", the Metro has exit fares, and rates are steep!).  Due to the famous building height regulations in the District, that is, no building can be taller than the Capitol and building heights, like in Paris, are further restricted by the width of the street frontage, there are no high-rises in DC proper.  The construction of the Metro allowed walkable mixed-use urban centers with a vibrant street life to spring up around transit stops in the suburban area.  For example, Rosslyn, in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac from Georgetown, looks like a sizable downtown - of course, it also has excellent highway access, so we can't credit the train entirely.  Similarly, continued congestion on the Beltway and other roads has pushed the DC area to implement further urban villages, for example, the affluent unincorporated area of Bethesda, Maryland, and new growth in Rockville, Maryland and even a new master-plan for suburban-hell Tyson's Corner, Virginia based around the coming Metro stops.  There is even talk about connecting some of the outer stops on the Metro system with each other using a ring line...much like we need between the Harvard Square area and the outer Green Line in Boston.  Some of the complaints, apparently, are focused around this allowing poor people from one outer line to access a wealthier outer area more easily.  Again, sounds familiar.  Furthermore, last year (when I was also visiting DC), Virginia created new connectivity requirements allowing for narrower streets through subdivisions and essentially banning cul-de-sacs: addressing two primary complaints of smart-growth urban planners.

So, what does this have to do with Lowell?  I don't think a whole lot directly, honestly.  We can see some comparisons and contrasts, however with the time I spent in Bethesda in particular.  Draw your own conclusions:

  • Parking in Bethesda is tough, like Lowell.  But none of the streets I saw are one-way.  I was getting very frustrated with finding on-street or surface lot metered parking and was about to push for going somewhere else entirely, but then it turns out the parking garages are ONE-DOLLAR an hour!  Lowell, pay attention here:  People will stop to spend money in your downtown if the parking is cheap. If it's expensive or hard to find, they will leave and go elsewhere.
  • The streets are narrow, like Lowell.  You can't park near intersections and crosswalks have sidewalk bump-outs, like Lowell.  This is a very good thing.  People who complain Lowell is not friendly to pedestrians I feel don't walk much in suburbs.  The crosswalk crossing lights in Bethesda are far superior, however.
  • Bethesda has 60,000 residents and a median family income of $167k.  A house can easily cost three-quarters of a million.  Lowell...yeah, no.  This is a reality Lowell needs to face head-on.  This is not a wealthy city.  There is a delicate balance we are yet to achieve (IMHO) between bringing in people with expendable income who appreciate $5 lattes and organic markets and having a downtown that works for Lowell's famously blue-collar population.
  • Similarly, the average person you see on the street in Bethesda is young and affluent.  Lowell...yeah no.
  • There are a lot more people on the street in Bethesda, and everything is open on Sunday!
  • Bethesda has jobs - a lot of them.  They are in high-rises that don't detract from the cuter and quainter brick-and-storefront look much of the neighborhood has, more like Boston.  There are pedestrian-only areas.  Lowell, while it has some slow-traffic streets like Middle, has no pedestrian malls, few high-rises (none commercial), and very little remaining commercial economy.  A 24/7 city requires not just a "critical mass" of yuppie residents, but a daytime population of workers.  Lowell does a lot of talk on the "creative economy" which includes "knowledge workers" like myself (I'm in software) - but there are precious few opportunities for people like me to work in downtown Lowell.
  • Lowell has housing - a lot of it.  Lowell is very dense.  Yet it is practically a bedroom community.  This is a huge problem.
  • Bethesda is less than 10 miles outside of downtown Washington.  Lowell is over 25 miles from downtown Boston.  Walking a few blocks in Bethesda and getting on the Metro, having a train show in under five minutes, and popping up in either another urban village or downtown DC is a very different experience from hiking up and over the Lord Overpass, waiting 30 minutes, and paying $8 to ride through scenic villages like Wilmington and Anderson RTC on your way to North Station.
  • Bethesda looks almost new - Lowell doesn't need "New Urbanism" because it's a real live city with a lot of character, history, and a fantastic existing built environment.
  • Neither city is overloaded with chain restaurants, etc.  This is awesome.
So...if the likes of Jeff Speck want to help communities the likes of Lowell embrace the functional urbanism a place like Bethesda represents, that's great.  There is just a very, very fine line between having the gall to have a vision and work towards it, and blindness to reality.  I don't know what side of that line we fall on.


  1. Interesting post. I think that your point about jobs is an excellent one, I know that for me personally the fact that I work downtown has had a huge impact on the amount of time and money I spend here.

    When we first moved to Lowell, my partner and I were living downtown and working in Boston and this was our weekday life: wake up at 5:30 am, get ready and to the train station to catch the 6:50 train, work all day and take either the 5:10 train if we were lucky but it was most likely the one after (5:30, I think), walk in the door at 7:00, eat dinner, watch some television, and go to bed so we could get up and do it again. It was a long day and by the time we got home we didn't want to leave again to go out to eat or do anything here in Lowell. If we were going to go out to dinner or to do something after work, it was much easier to do it in Boston and just take a later train home.

    Now that I live in Pawtucketville and work downtown I spend a lot more time and money here - I'll go out to lunch, meet friends for drinks or dinner after work, pick up things I need at CVS, Market Street Market or Tutto Bene, I'll check out the different cultural events and other activities that happen in the evening, I'm able to volunteer, etc. Freeing up that time spent commuting allowed me to feel much more connected to Lowell and what it has to offer.

    I think this is spot on: "There is just a very, very fine line between having the gall to have a vision and work towards it, and blindness to reality. I don't know what side of that line we fall on." I am very wary of this idea that Lowell needs to become the next wherever. I live in Lowell because I love its Lowell-ness. If I wanted to live in Cambridge, Newburyport, Portsmouth, etc. that's where I would have chosen to live.

  2. Well...isn't it fair to say that Downtown Lowell feels more like a work in progress than someplace that has arrived? While I agree there is an essential Lowellness out there, I'm not sure the current incarnation of downtown or many of the neighborhoods really captures it or should be without a goal/model to follow.

    There are too many vacant and undermaintained buildings, too many empty lots, too many underutilized spaces. Too many rumors of businesses running at a loss and waiting for the money to run out to give up. Too many blow-ins who yes, came here looking for the next good real-estate deal or trendy neighborhood and are now pissed instead of, at a minimum, doing what we're doing and staying informed and talking about it.

    But, underneath all of that, there is the heart and sense of community that makes Lowell a great space. That's a lot of why I'm here - this is MY city. It's been good to my family, we're good back to it. I love cities, always have. Lowell is mine, warts and all.

    While I really appreciate that Lowell doesn't have Newburyport's or Northampton's attitude/lack of grip on reality...we can't just act like nothing is wrong in the city today. What other places do we like visiting, what do we like, and how can we incorporate those ideas here? What do we absolutely not want to see?

  3. I *do* feel like Lowell is a work in progress, but I am also very wary of promises that anything will become the next whatever. I think that is a very slippery slope that is easy to fall down, and I would hate to see Lowell lose the things that make it special in trying to become a Newburyport/Northampton (not that there is anything wrong with either of those places, heck, at one point Northampton was where I thought I would be settling down. Now I think it's a nice place to visit but it's no Lowell.)

    The vacant storefronts downtown are certainly an issue, as is the fact that non-restaurant businesses can't seem to make it here. I love the fact that places like Humanity are downtown, but it just isn't a practical place for me to buy my clothes (certain things, here and there but not a wardrobe.)

    My family is of the dual-income, no kids variety and I would love to be able to spend more of my disposable income downtown rather than having to trek out to the mall, into Boston or way out west to someplace like Northampton. The things that I can buy here, I do - dinner, coffee, drinks, books, yarn, gifts, art... but I'd also love to be able to get clothes, shoes, kitchen stuff, furniture, a computer, etc.

    I think a lot of this is tied to jobs - if it's convenient, people who work in a place will spend money there (please don't ask me how much I spent buying books, yarn, manicures, coffee, snacks, shoes, clothes, and who knows what else in Boston on various lunch hours and breaks!)

  4. A little off topic but...The GREATEST assets in Lowell are it's people. I love reading the obits about the accomplishments of it's natives. I'm amazed almost on a daily basis of what people have gone on to do all across the world. I sometimes wonder why more of these natural-born world-shakers haven't used their power and influence to help Lowell. I get frustrated about people that ran this co. or started that co. and didn't open a branch/division in Lowell. I know it can't happen every time but I think it should happen more than it does.
    People drive an hour-plus to work all over the map so don't tell me people won't drive to downtown Lowell for a good job. If we build it they will come.

  5. Agreed. Like I said a few weeks ago, I truely believe that the reason Lowell is not Lawrence is because of the citizens and their rabid faith in and love for this place. It's a great definition of community right there.

    However: If we build it, will they come? I walked around my suburban office park today in Bedford, and it must be 50% empty. It is hyper-modern office space, right off a major highway, fifteen miles from Downtown Boston, with free parking, greenery, and no sleezeballs breaking into your car (as often :-P). Things are just as bad up and down Route 3. A lot of it is the recession. Now, how does an old downtown with its numerous inconveniences compete against that sort of space? Price (is that even feasible)? Convenience (nope - not for most people who need a car to get to downtown Lowell)? Character?

    I once read an interesting article that software types need a relaxing, high-touch environment to work. A place to walk in the grass and turn off for a bit to avoid mental exhaustion. My own polling has revealed this to not be true of my organization - a lot of us are city people. But - nobody but me lives in Lowell or even in a neighboring community.

    Obviously, software isn't the only career out there, but it is big business in Massachusetts and doesn't require a lot of office space or manufacturing space or loading docks - something downtown Lowell has huge disadvantages in that we can't overcome without rebuilding half the city, killing a lot of the city's essence. These disadvantages are why we'll never have a large grocer, retail store, or manufacturing plant (again). Perhaps the Hamilton Canal District development will alleviate some of those issues.

  6. Marianne - I don't know what your tastes in furniture are but I love Comfort down on Thorndike. While technically outside of downtown, it is walkable. The last furniture store on Merrimack Street closed due to lack of business, lack of foot traffic, and issues with loading docks. This was a company that survives in other old downtowns, and Lowell didn't cut it.

    Clothes and shoes are totally feasible, IMHO. There are plenty of such stores down here, but they target a different audience than you or I I'm sure. This is something that should change (and I mean options should expand, I wish no ill will on Giovanni's Trends and Kenner) and might be a great way to get people down here. A handful of boutiques are worth paying to park for.

    Computers is not going to happen, and it isn't Lowell's fault, it's the Merrimack Valley's. Being five miles from a place where computers are 6.25% less is killer. They are easy to bring across state lines, unlike appliances and furniture, which does survive even with the tax. Plus, a lot of the computer business has gone mail-order like Dell, worsening the situation. Same with music stores, book stores, and other smaller items. We did have a computer store on Market Street until recently (it moved to Broadway and Willie) that I bought some stuff at once, but the selection wasn't great.

  7. The Hamilton Canal District is our last chance to become a legit modern city. Is it fare to say a couple thousand people work at Cross Point? The HCD is only a couple miles down the connector to Thorndike Street. I know there are plans for a 10 story office tower in the HCD but I don't think that's big enough. It should at least be 15 stories. Something iconic like the Hancock or Prudential but scaled down for Lowell. There are a lot of egos in this city but no commercial real estate that says "my prick is bigger than yours". We've got the train station, the university, the housing stock, and the people. If we build it they will come.

  8. That was bizarre...I had a long reply and Blogger crapped out and lost it. Fantabulous.

    Let's try two parts. I'm playing Devil's Advocate here to an extent, but I do have real concerns as well. I feel that Lowell has made a lot of attempts in the past to reinvigorate the economy and few have succeeded. The things that are being described as the economic engine this time are not actually all there. At least not yet.

    I do agree that the HCD needs to happen as it is a good opportunity for Lowell, I'm just not convinced it will actually happen or work.

    The train station does exactly what good? It's still far from the HCD, it's expensive, it goes very few places, and nobody lives right along the line between here and Boston. People would still rather drive. Same with the LRTA. It takes me less time to drive to work than it usually takes to wait for the bus to even show up. Lowell doesn't have the kind of pull that it would need to convince people to deal with that sort of inconvenience - only Boston has that today, and only the industries that require that Boston address and must be physically near each other or other resources in Boston deal with it. If prestige played into downtown Lowell construction, the monumental and centrally located Sun Building would be an office tower still and not crumbling (literally) elderly housing. Hale-Howard, right next to the train station and right off Thorndike Street, would've attracted a lot more construction than MA/COM. Without mass transit, Thorndike Street can't handle many more cars, and the whole thing falls apart. CrossPoint, of course, practically has its own highway exit. Downtown Lowell does not. It's far off the highway, with a lot of lights, and a lot of cross-town traffic, etc. Part of the HCD plan was to eliminate even more on-street parking (and half the Lord Overpass) to help with this, but the local businesses (understandably) fought that.

    The University...ULowell is not MIT. They don't have the money or the prestige to pull off the incubators that MIT has pulled off in Cambridge...nor does Lowell have the pull Cambridge does. I went to RPI and they've been trying the same thing for years, and it's not working in Troy. At all. Lowell is better located than Troy, so maybe that's not a perfect indicator, but still. It's not a sure thing. ULowell has had a fantastic plastics program for a very long time, how much has that helped Lowell's economy? How about the well respected music program? I've heard there is now a studio in Western Ave, which is great news. Even better if they weren't from Lowell, went to ULowell, and set up shop because of their education. Because that's the model we're looking for, but I don't know if that's what happened.

  9. The housing stock. You mean the firetrap tenements with no yards and no parking, or the mills downtown, largely low-income housing, that can never attract families and today are largely filled with people that aren't factored into the HCD plans? People in Lowell in general...this is a blue collar town with a very low number of college graduates. Downtown office buildings are largely white collar...yet the people who live the closest to them, many of those in the neighborhood (yes, this is changing) and those in the immediate surrounding neighborhoods, are often unemployable or quite unskilled and don't have the disposable income that is being targeted for sidewalk cafes, etc. They often barely speak English. Anybody further out, be it Belvidere or Chelmsford, has much more convenient employment options along the highways.

    That brings me to my last point: In my opinion, we don't do enough to sell Lowell to anybody other than those where it is preaching to the choir. It amazes me how many people don't know we have a Target and a Lowe's now, or how many great places to eat there are downtown, or the whitewater rafting trips, or the canal boats, or the festivals, or whatever.

    Cities are about people (and like you said, many Lowellians are unusually civic-minded), and a lot of my complaints are rooted in a perception that Lowell is under-respected as a legitimate urban center and a place for business and entertainment and therefore not worth the trouble. That is, I worry these plans won't work because they require a shift in the way people act and live and that Lowell can't affect that change because it doesn't have the pull. I worry that Lowell is thought of as a dangerous place where we hide all the poor people (and you need to admit there's some truth to that!) instead of being "alive. unique. inspiring." or whatever the slogan is now. This means that people would rather avoid the hassles and go with the easy-but-dull suburban model that has dominated the US for the last 50 years. I hope I'm wrong, but somebody needs to complain for the sake of complaining, we can't leave all that fun for the Lowell Sun Topix forums ;-)

  10. Corey,
    You make some great points that are very sobering. I guess I'm just more of an optimist when it comes to Lowell. Isn't there plans in the works to create a safe walkway from the train station to the HCD? I could see people from West Medford, Winchester, and Woburn taking the train to Lowell for a good white collar job. A trolley line would really help cut down commute time.
    I sort of envision Lowell like Montreal with old and new sections. The present downtown would have restaurants, shops, boutique hotels, artists, festivals etc. The HCD would be corporate Lowell with franchises, high tech, big business etc.
    UML is no MIT but you can't deny the fact that the Univeristy has become more prestigious since Marty came on board. More and more students will be dorming in the city and hopefully will make more of a connection with Lowell. More would permanently stay if there's a place for them to work.
    Yes the housing stock is dense but isn't it also in Southie and Brighton? What's nice about Lowell is you have options like Belvidere, Christian Hill, Pawtucketville, and the Upper Highlands if you don't want to live in a highly congested neighborhood.
    If gentrification happens then so be it.

  11. Brian,

    Yes, there is a trolley line in the works. In the last week or so, a new city blog @ has popped up and posted the latest South Common revitalization plan. As someone who lives very near South Common and the HCD, this is great news:

    Yes, the changes at UML are positive and promising. It's an improvement over what we've had, and UML has always had some great programs (although it's largely been a commuter school). I'm just hoping the students make positive change in the city. Like I said, my point of reference is RPI. RPI is a good school that makes up 10% of the population of a beautiful but deteriorating Victorian city (Troy, NY)...and it's not getting any better. The university just keeps buying up buildings, and tuition keeps rising. And it's a private college, so it can do that as much as the market will bear.

    As for the housing stock, I agree - we have a lot of options in Lowell, which is great for diversity, and gentrification is not a huge concern of mine. I don't see it being like New York where people are pushed out of their family neighborhoods. Lowell is a LONG way to a single floor in a triple-decker selling for what they are worth in Davis Square. What I was getting at is Belvidere, Pawtucketville, etc are car-oriented sections when it comes to downtown, and without a vastly improved LRTA and a huge change in public perception of buses, those people are still, by and large, going to shun downtown without good reason to come. It's just not worth the trouble to them. We need that good reason, and maybe it will be jobs. Maybe it'll be more diverse retail options.

    One thing that I do find highly encouraging is that there is a change in perception of cities for those of us in our 20s and 30s (I have no idea who you are so I don't know where you fall in all this :-P). We grew up in the 'burbs, and they're boring to us. Cities are exciting because they're different. The problems that pushed our parents out don't matter so much to us because we grew up with a different set of problems. For example, Kadient ( is a software firm that moved to the Wannalancit building in Lowell from Nashua recently, because it's easier to convince 20somethings to come to Lowell than it is to get them to go up to New Hampshire. It's just much more exciting down here and noticeably closer to all the world-class action in Boston. As my generation matures, we will either change our minds, or there will be a revitalization of urban areas. It's also possible a deepening energy crisis and the environmentalism-as-gospel we've been taught from a young age will push things towards more sustainable living as well.

  12. Great discussion. For my two cents, it would be wrong to try to make Lowell emulate some other successful community. As pointed out, the link to anything (primarily Boston) via rail is somewhat tortuous, but still of value. Improving it by making better connections to the terminal would relieve some of the negatives.

    Getting wealth-producing jobs in the City is a steep hill to climb, but essential to really improve the City. Software jobs are nice, as they are both creative, and usually depend on revenue from outside the area. Additional potential should be explored from UML. Although late in the build-out cycle of the HCD, there are 2 or 3 substantial commercial/research buildings in the plan, partly due to the urging of local residents who see job growth as an important factor in the City's future. Making it happen will not be easy, but that is not unlike any important achievement.

  13. Glad to hear that there will be some type of commercial/research aspect to the HCD.

    I'm in agreement with everyone who feels like we don't *need* a bunch more condos and restaurants as much as we do jobs.

    Joe Mendonca talked a lot about this in the last CC race -- Lowell needs to be more hub, less spoke.

    Also, Corey great point about our generation not idealizing suburban living. Maybe there's an aspect of that with prior generations too, but we're unlike the boomers in that we're not necessarily trying to do everything bigger and grander than it was before.

  14. Corey,

    We've talked about this before (Bringing Job's to Lowell). I still think it outrageous that a community 30 ticks from Boston, about a 9-iron from 93,495,3, with public transportation and rail options to boston, convenient access to two full scale airports....and yet we can't attract top notch employers. (see fidelity operations moving to Smithfield RI)

    Yes, I realize the infrastructure limitations that currently exist downtown, and know first hand the devastation of Wang's demise (our old "big fish), but this doesn't necessairly seem like it shoould be hard sell. We can repackage a whole neighborhood for courthouses and artist lofts but can't package space for companies in need of 200-500 cubicles?

    Do I need to take the rose colored glasses off, or should I just round up my own sales squad?

  15. I think you should do both. If Lowell was attractive to the business community, it would not have gotten into this situation. But that doesn't mean that things wouldn't improve if we all rounded up our own sales to speak. But it is a tough sell, in my opinion.

    People keep mentioning Wang/Crosspoint as a success story: My understanding is CrossPoint has not been a hard sell for a while. It's a monumental building in a great suburban location that happens to be in Lowell by a matter of inches. That implies to me that Lowell does not have a poor business climate, inherently. It isn't our high commercial tax rate or anything like that. It isn't our labor pool or our location. I think downtown is a hard sell due to the aforementioned infrastructure issues. Try selling this:

    "Cramped office space in renovated 125 year old brick building one slow-going mile off three mile long dead-end highway with no visibility from any arterials. Parking rate of $50/mo per employee in city garage not included. Limited parking spaces available. Please don't have deliveries as there is nowhere to put the UPS truck. Other successful neighborhood businesses include Lowell Transitional Living Center, a gym, and a hot dog shack"

    Compare that to the Fidelity plant in Smithfield. I had to look it up, but that looks to me like a greenfield development 1.5 miles down a street with few cross-streets (so I'm guessing few lights) off of I-295 in a huge suburban office park. This is what sells. And we have plenty of that sort of space available in Chelmsford, Billerica, Bedford, Tewksbury, etc already...and it's under-occupied due to the recession.

    Now, courthouses tend to locate in population centers, near other governmental office kind of things and cause lawyers to set up shop nearby as well. And residential space, especially artists lofts, are well positioned in a funky old downtown.

    Jeanne D'arc would've been great downtown-downtown, but they were going to build a new building with a large surface parking lot where exactly? The Sun could've stuck around downtown as well but chose not to for whatever reason.

    I'm not sure what it would take to get the mythical "anchor tenant" we've been waiting for, be it retail or office space, downtown...but we're not primed for it to happen yet I don't think.

    In the 1960s, Portland OR., like many other cities throughout the U.S., was threatened by loss of residents, businesses and capital. Suburban housing developments, shopping areas, and business parks were draining the vitality from the city center.

    Today, however, Portland’s central city is one of the most admired in North America. Many things contributed to this turnaround, but one key factor was an emphasis on transit and cooperative planning for transportation and land uses. Some examples of changes in the 60s and 70s that led to Portland’s status as a highly livable city are:

    •Establishment of TriMet, a public regional transit agency with new buses and a 12-block downtown transit mall
    •Elimination of a freeway along the Willamette River where a popular public park now sits
    •A decision not to build a freeway that would have destroyed housing in established Portland neighborhoods, and
    •State and local support for MAX, the regional light rail service which now links suburban communities more than 33 miles apart to each other as well as to downtown Portland. A 5.5-mile spur to the Portland International Airport opened in fall of 2001 and a 5.8-mile spur opened north to EXPO in May 2004..
    The Portland Streetcar system is one more important transportation decision that has enhanced Portland’s vitality while helping the city accommodate new residential and business growth.

  17. Thanks for the link, Brian.

    Portland (along with much more of the Pacific Northwest, frankly...) is on my short list of places to visit in the next couple years. I have heard very mixed things about how the plans there have actually worked (although they have been generally positive), so it's something I'd have to see for myself. For example, they are on a fairly short list of cities in the US that implemented a "green belt" to control growth over the next X years.

    Continuing with my Devil's Advocate position here, here is a paper by Randal O'Toole, who writes for the Cato Institute. If you are familiar with this Libertarian think-tank, you know precisely how this'll go:

    Of course, it's equally as easy to find rebuttals, obviously focusing on his cherry-picking of data to prove his point. Still, worth reading just to look at all sides of the argument.