Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Lowell's Walk Score

I finally got around to seeing The Fighter, and was impressed to see some very nice sections of town far off of the main streets I know.  Many of them appear to be in the Outer Highlands on streets you're not going to find by accident.  A conversation with my girlfriend on the way home brought up where we'd like to live someday, and I would love to stay in Lowell.  However, there is a complex cross between her desires for a little more space and greenery and my desires to have interesting places to walk to.  So, into this equation comes is a site that you can give your address to and it uses I believe Google to figure out how many different amenities are within walking distance of your house.  They have full gradient maps of some of the larger towns, and Lowell is fortunate enough to be included:

Sadly, it is clear from the map that Upper Belvidere, the Outer Highlands, and West Pawtucketville are all bright, bright red, meaning very little is available on foot.  Dowtown, Back Central, parts of the Acre, Lower Belvidere, and Lower Centralville are all the most green.  But of course, those are Lowell's only real urban sections.

What do people think?  Is this tool fair?  It doesn't take into consideration deep parking lots and wide roads that impede foot traffic like exist on Rogers Street.  The method the map uses to find businesses is actually a little too liberal as well, as it only looks for certain words.  For example, it identifies some home-based business with the word "market" in it on Lincoln Parkway as a grocery store, when clearly it is not.  Personally, I am looking for a place that is about a 10 minute walk or less, on safe sidewalks through safe neighborhoods, from a cup of coffee, a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk, and an active-use park.  Where are Lowell's best options for this?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Last part of Gateway Cities series

This Sunday was the last of I believe six Boston Globe editorials on the Commonwealth's Gateway Cities - or the economically disadvantaged cities in the state that are still, decades after losing their economic reason for existing, struggling to find footing (article).

This one focuses a bit on Haverhill, a city I've come to know fairly well, and compares it to Lowell, which it says is looked at as a model city for the others in the group.

If you missed the rest of the series, I'd recommend trying to find it.  I believe "gateway cities" appears in every article in the series.  There was great information on the economic and social issues that confront our older and poorer cities, and ideas for how to take advantage of their remaining strengths.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Lowell Junction

Brian asked what I thought about the Lowell Junction project over in the Gateway Cities post.  My answer is over 4096 characters, so I'll just put it up here:

I've been pretty indifferent to it.  Other than at a very high level, I actually knew very little about what it was.  I've now read this

and this

The area that is being talked about is here:

While it'd be nice to see the development in Lowell instead, I think the scale and type of businesses they're talking about here isn't really feasible for us right now.  I don't think this really negatively impacts Lowell because I can't imagine us doing any of the retrofitting for tractor trailers necessary to get a Lowell Junction company like Gillette to locate here, especially downtown.  The train system in the US is a mess, and we'd need to fix that if we ever wanted to consider bringing large-scale manufacturing back to Lowell - and that's a bigger issue than we should be tackling now, IMHO.  Besides, in a pretend world where people lived and worked in more centralized places, Lowell and Lowell junction are pretty far apart.  The name must come from the fact that the rail line that used to begin at the old train station on Central Street intersects the B&M mainline there.

So as to the project itself...

As you can see from the maps, the gap in interchanges between Dascomb Rd and Ballardvale Street is significant.  The length of Ballardvale Street is full of industries, including the Gillette plant.  All of these companies generate car traffic, and many of them freight.  Coming from the south, you get off on 125, then take Ballardvale St.  Coming from the North (as people going in the direction of morning rush-hour traffic jams are, making them less keen to drive an extra ramp south to come back north), you're going through a residential neighborhood on River St.  I can see how this would be a problem, plus there's the orphaned slice of Tewksbury on the other side of I-93 off of South Street which contains the Rocco's superfund site, the notorious stinking pig farm (for and against), and the abandoned plans for a shopping mall.

So, it's clear that there's a big hole in the road network here, just like you'd see if you look for roads that connect Middlesex Turnpike to 3A in Billerica (, or connect Middlesex Turnpike over Route 3 to Springs Rd in Bedford.  They're been working on and will continue working on tearing down a bunch of trees right now to widen Middlesex Turnpike from Exit 27 to the south, but if there was just another exit further down the road where the office parks on Manning Rd dead-end against the highway, things would be much simpler.  The land is pretty close to maxed out for zoning, so it's not as likely to encourage much more sprawl in the way that building through greenfields does.  Which, of course, is why they don't do anything about it.  It simply wouldn't open enough land up to new development or reduce commute times enough to matter.  The PDF document I posted here about "Phase III" of the widening is amusing.  Bike lanes and a bus connection to the North Billerica train station for a suburban office park 4 miles away...right.

In both of these places, Lowell Junction and Middlesex Turnpike, construction along land that's already been turned over to office park use is being underused because of the China-wall a limited access highway creates (or a purposefully disconnected street network creates, I'll get back to that).

Lowell Junction is closer to the Lowell area than 128, which, while not Lowell itself and still requires a car, is still a more attractive option than many other places.  Lowell Junction has the additional feature of being right along the Haverhill commuter rail line (although to be fair the LRTA covers Middlesex a snail's pace).  While the rail service means absolutely nothing right now (much like the Lowell line Mishawum station in Woburn probably gets very few people to work in that massive office park), it might help things later if the plan develops into an edge city - or a retrofitted office park that is now mixed use and develops along transit lines.  They're talking about building Lowell Junction in that context already (and again to be fair, the office parks down by the Burlington Mall, yet there is no rail service there), which makes me think of some reasonably interesting places in the Washington DC metro area.

However - and this is a big however - the issue still remains there is not a critical mass of mass transit for that to mean much at all.  You won't even be able to get from Lowell to Lowell junction by rail unless they introduce commuter service along either the old B&M Lowell spur or in the reverse direction along the so-called Wildcat Branch that allows the Haverhill trains to run down the Lowell line south of Wilmington.

So...I guess ultimately I'm skeptical of the plan, but not against it.  I will say I'm against towns with no commercial tax base.  I'm against widening 93 to get it done as well because I think that's simply a sprawl-inducing boon to New Hampshire.  One of the biggest reasons I'm skeptical of the project being anything other than another office park development in a region of underutilized office parks is the buzzword bingo going on in those planning documents about transit-oriented "mixed-use", "sustainable" office parks.  Office parks are not sustainable.  They are not mixed use.  At least not the way they are built today.  I'd assume they meant well and were just using the wrong terms, but when you see Tewksbury saying they don't want this development connected to South Street whatsoever - in other words, making people have to drive further to get to the place so that cars stay off residential (but public!) streets - it seems like business as usual.

This is the same issue that occurs in Billerica with the traffic on the Middlesex Turnpike.  Street network connectivity is a good thing.  If the cars are driving too fast for the neighborhood, don't cut off the street and disconnect the network lengthening commutes and endangering emergency vehicles, narrow the road.  Towns are starting to get this.  There was an article in the paper recently that the Pelham fire department was pretty close to getting that town to connect a few streets to provide alternate routes around Bridge Street.  Jeff Speck talked about narrowing lanes in Lowell to slow traffic.  Things are changing.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The End of an Era - Chicago's Notorious Cabrini Greene

In all the talk today about arsenic-friendly life being announced, a smaller - but interesting - story got buried:  Cabrini-Green, the infamous failed housing project in Chicago's Near North Side, had its final residents ordered out.

In a time before I was born, in fact, when my parents were quite young (and sometimes, my grandparents!), public housing projects were going to solve the issues of housing the poor in America.  Cabrini-Green, with its plethora of problems, were the poster-child of how high-density, single-income housing just didn't work.  It lead to disinventment and crime: warehousing of the poor as one article mentioned.  We've seen these same sorts of projects, on a much smaller scale, fail here in Lowell.  While it sounds like not everyone will be successfully relocated, this is still a large step forward in undoing the damage done to America's cities in the post-war era.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Gateway Cities

Thanks once again to for tipping me in on a series The Globe will be running on Sundays about Massachusetts' Gateway Cities.  The first article is up already here.

While it's nice to see the article's photo be of Lowell and to hear us mentioned as a "more successful" city, the article's point is clear:  The state's smaller cities (as in, not Boston), have been left behind by the capital and the suburbs in the new economy, and much of it was deliberate, or full of good intentions gone wrong.  Some of the more interesting points made in the article or the comments ask why these cities must take on the brunt of their regional problems via government housing and welfare programs instead of "right-sizing" themselves in relationship to their lost industrial advantages.  Others talk about NIMBYism (Not in my backyard!) and the advantages the wealthier suburbs and cities have with regard to it - not needing government carrots to stay solvent.  Others talk about the hard do-not-cross line drawn between the suburbs and the cities.

As for solutions... If I had my way?  Organizations like the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments would have some teeth.  In most of the US, government bodies much larger than New England towns have the real power.  It's not uncommon in the US or other parts of the world for cities to merge with growing suburbs (look at London!).  The fact that this practice began stopping in the United States in the late 19th century (and in Lowell around 1910), I feel has added to the issues we see today by creating an Us and Them mentality between cities and outlying areas.