Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A history of redevelopment in central Lowell

While the discussion at leftinlowell around Dharma Buns and Downtown Lowell in general is still going on, I wanted to take a step back to look at the history of some larger redevelopment projects in Lowell, going back 80 years:

(Click map for big!)

Pink: North Common, 1930s.  One of the first public redevelopment projects in the history of America, The Greek Acre was cleared for housing .  The dilapidated and crowded neighborhood and the residents and businesses in it were replaced with low to mid-rise apartments - and no new storefronts.  Some streets in the area were removed as well, generally replaced with pedestrian ways.

Green: Bishop Markham, etc, 1950s.  There are a few different projects included here.  The cross-shaped buildings along South Common and Gorham Street replaced a neighborhood and de-mapped quite a few streets.  The end of the Connector demolished even more homes and streets.  What little was left of the neighborhood beginning at the intersection of Gorham and Thorndike (Gallagher Square) and continuing up to the northern border of South Common at South Summer Street is often blamed for the death of Saint Peter's parish.  I can't say for sure, but I've heard South Street was closed to traffic for years.

Other projects around this time (or a little later, I'm doing this from memory!) were the Lord Overpass, which split Middlesex Street in half and took the old train station and hotel, and the clearing of the old Middlesex Mills on Warren Street for a parking lot that became the Lower Locks garage and hotel, now the ICC, decades later.  The VFW highway was built this decade, but aside from destroying a few buildings along Bridge Street at Lakeview Ave, this seems like it was fairly unobtrusive, like most of the Lowell Connector was (which was built along River Meadow / Hale's Brook).  I also included the construction of Veteran's Way and the Central Plaza in with this project, but I'm not sure when those happened.  I think Central Plaza was the 1950s, but I believe Veteran's way was decades later.

Yellow: North Canal / Little Canada / Merrimack Manufacturing Company, 1960s.  Apparently intended to be redeveloped along a Lowell Connector that was never completed through and around the downtown, the clearing of the Little Canada neighborhood between the North Canal and the river was done in the 1960s.  This neighborhood was replaced with Father Morissette Boulevard, low-rise industrial concerns with large parking lots like Notini's and a supermarket which was where Lelacheur park stands today.  One business which survived was today's Lowell Provision Company, which moved across the Aiken Street Bridge to West Centralville.  Moody Street was cut off at both ends, disconnecting Merrimack Street from the then Moody Street, now University Ave Bridge (and in my opinion, causing the current plans for a realignment of that bridge to surviving Merrimack Street), and removed a few cross streets that used to connect Merrimack Street to what is now Father Morissette Boulevard.  For example, Suffolk Street, which I didn't color all of.  Somehow, in the middle of all of this, the Wannalancit Mill remains.

The same decade saw the demolition of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company and its boardinghouses, and the construction of Arcand Drive.  The Boardinghouses were replaced in the 1970s with the Lowell High addition, and the rest of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company properties were replaced with a small professional building (behind Cobblestones), a small office building which is now the headquarters for Lowell Five, the much-unloved JFK Civic Center, and Riverplace Towers.  The low industrial buildings which were built at the end of Arcand Drive on land just beyond the Merrimack Manufacturing Company yard were replaced in the 1990s with the Tsongas Arena.

Red: Hale-Howard, 1970s.  This project running along Chelmsford Street and de-mapping large parts of Hale and Howard streets replaced a tenement neighborhood with a few large industrial buildings, the new train station, and its garages.  Part of Hale Street became known as YMCA drive when the new YMCA was built and the bridge over the railroad tracks was removed, making it a dead-end street.  The bridge I believe was re-built in the 1990s.  Howard Street only remains as a small section from Chelmsford to (almost) Middlesex Street, that end being lost to the ramps of the Lord Overpass.  The other end remains where Tanner Street makes a sharp turn at the power plant.  Hale Street's original termination at Lincoln Square where Lincoln, Liberty, Hale, and Chelmsford Streets all meet, was removed at the same time I think.

In the 1980s, all I can think of was the construction of the Sampson Connector, which redirected Thorndike Street to Dutton Street instead of Fletcher Street, and removed parking along Dutton.  We also built many of the garages, although I'm sure some date to the late 1970s.  I think they were all built on already vacant or nearly vacant land, which signifies a positive trend.  Similarly, we built the hotel and the Wang building that is now Middlesex Community College on what used to be surface parking lots.  Also, the later Gateway Center buildings on Warren Street I know used to be empty railyards, but I don't know what was there in between, if anything.  By the 1990s and into the 2000s, we built the ballpark and the arena, and the mill re-purposing instead of demolition that had begun with the creation of the National Park at the end of the 1970s and gaining steam in the 1980s continued.

So, looking at our history, the massive clearance projects that destroyed just about every neighborhood bordering downtown Lowell but not too much of downtown itself (thank God, that was in the works in the 1960s with the Connector extension plans!) have not been any better to Lowell than they were to most other cities.  We've done much better through very careful spot clearing and adaptive re-use.

I'm currently reading Jane Jacob's famous Death and Life of Great American Cities, which, though written in the 1960s as the Renewal Movement in Lowell was in full swing, argued that these projects were supremely misguided, and would make matters far worse.  I plan to write a post about this 400-plus page book as soon as I finish it.

That brings us to a plan that is hopefully going to function as showing we've learnt our lessons and people like Jacobs have been right all along:

Blue: Hamilton Canal District, 2000s-  So far, a few empty warehouses and old industrial buildings that can't be repurposed have been demolished, and the rebuild of what remains is in progress.  This time, what is going in instead of the old buildings includes more, not fewer, streets and an urban-style neighborhood instead of a suburban one.

Fingers crossed.


  1. Hey Corey . . . Death and Life of Great American Cities was our bible when I was in college, what she had to say about creating livable cities has stayed with me more years than I would care to admit to! It's been a lot of years since I read it . . . maybe it is time to read it again!

  2. I'm loving it. It's so well thought out. The cover gives it accolades as being "literature" and I'd agree, 50 years on, it captures many interesting insights of what it must've been like to live in the US in those years. Her footwork and book research is fantastic.

    Of course, not all she says applies directly here to Lowell because, by her definition, Lowell is far from a "great" American city. The great majority of Lowell is actually suburban in character, and as my map points out, much of the city that could be characterized as urban simply got erased by the people and ideas she was complaining about.

    I am nearly done with it (just reached the section about automobiles that is towards the end) and I'll post more when I do finish.

  3. I was in Denver when I read it . . . talk about suburban character. I agree that so much of what was 'urban' in Lowell got erased in the 60's, we are so missing the kind of density that creates walkable interesting streetscapes.