Friday, February 25, 2011

Re-imagining the Lowell Connector

Back in December when we did the Blogger's Meetup, I met Allegra Williams who had just joined the DPD. She proposed an idea to me that I admit I found somewhat absurd at face value: Demolish the Lowell Connector.

We often talk about how highways are often a blight to cities, but Lowell's connection to the area super-highway network seems like something we just can't give up. She had mentioned putting a linear park in its place. Linear parks to nowhere and near nowhere are not my favorite idea. Sounds like a way to spend a lot of parks money on something that will only introduce crime, but maybe I misunderstood her (I'll get back to this). I mentioned I would gladly see the Connector lose a lane because it is clear, much like Fr. Morissette Blvd, that it was made wider than it needs to be because it was never completed as planned. The width encourages speeding, and the loss of a lane would slow cars down and improve the ramp geometry. Really, at under 3 miles in length, how much better than 3 minutes at 60 MPH do we need to go? Chelmsford Street, I argued, could not handle the extra traffic the city would face, and the Connector really isn't very disruptive to the city. This isn't the Central Artery (thank God!)

Meanwhile, others have argued that Lowell needs a Daniel Webster style shopping district, or perhaps a business district like we see in the suburbs. Along the Connector, they'd argue, would be perfect. While I remain skeptical that we actually need, want, or could support such a thing, Tanner Street is clearly underutilized.

However, in the last few months, I have heard Adam Baacke over at DPD make a pie-in-the sky proposal that is perhaps what Allegra actually meant: Make the Connector a Boulevard.  Ok, NOW we're talking my language!  This has been done elsewhere. San Francisco boulevardized the Embarcadero Freeway many years ago. My modest proposal tackles many things at once that bother me about Lowell's layout. So, let's do a mental exercise on what we could do here:

Phase 1:
  1. The Connector becomes street level at Howard/Tanner Street at a light, heading inbound. It is two or three lanes in each direction (I imagine three inbound, two out because of the existent Gorham Street bottleneck) with a very small curb-like median. Maybe it's got trees. We allow parking on the side between curb bump-outs near the intersections with Gorham Street and Thorndike Street and the speed limit is 30MPH. The lanes are narrowed to encourage this speed.
  2. A major intersection with a focus on left-turn lanes inbound from the new Boulevard to Thorndike Street. Maybe we make this a two-lane wide traffic circle, but it would probably have to be pretty sizable and the park in the center, while a nice gateway, would likely be a dead zone without a lot of good uses nearby.
  3. Remove the massive offramp from the Connector inbound to Thorndike Street. This would allow us a huge amount of room to redevelop the area around Gallagher Square.
  4. Similarly, the ramp to 3A south being removed and the ramp from Thorndike to the Connector Outbound being removed also opens a lot of space for new construction along Thorndike, The Connector Boulevard, and YMCA Drive.
  5. A shuttle bus could be run out of the train station, down Thorndike, along the new boulevard, and back up YMCA drive to the bus station. Maybe we'd have bike lanes on the roads if they fit. People would want a trolley but I don't see it working right now.
  6. The buildings along this stretch would be mixed-use, and shoot for ground-floor uses when possible. Parking is structured or in the back.
  7. Build a new building with ground-floor retail and structured parking in the parking lot for Comfort Furniture. While one of the MIT plans suggested simply removing the current tenants of that building so that people would walk to retail from the train/bus station, I don't think that's right. There is room for a building right along Thorndike Street there that would encourage people to walk by it and into the new developments further down the road.
  8. This stretch of road is so short that I don't see it having much effect on total travel time from Gorham Street  to Industrial Ave. Besides, once YMCA Drive to Tanner becomes a way to get on the Connector and the ramp near YMCA drive is removed, some traffic will move off of the troublesome YMCA Drive/Thorndike/Connector intersectiony-thing, increasing capacity of the road network.
Phase 2:
  1. The Connector becomes street level at Plain Street.  It is two lanes in each direction and it widens to three for places with intersections to allow for generous turn lanes and curb bump-outs at intersections for pedestrian safety. Travel time from Gorham Street to Industrial Ave goes from three minutes to say, seven or eight, to account for the new lights and halved (ideal) speed. Eating up the two-plus lane wide median, the graded banks, and narrowing the lanes by a foot or so each would allow us to fit narrow but usable buildings along the side of the Connector Boulevard. These buildings, which will lag behind the Connector redesign by many years likely (and some will fall into Phase 3) would likely be a combination of offices and apartment buildings. A linear street like this does not really attract too much pedestrian activity so I'm afraid storefronts would be limited, but keep the buildings on the street and parking access in the rear to allow this to change.
  2. New intersections:
    1. Lincoln Street, which will get a Y in it so it also crosses over River Meadow Brook to connect to say, Factory St by the old RMV as well as Connector Blvd. Or maybe we do W. London to Parker instead.
    2. A reconnected Cambridge Street
    3. Perhaps some of the side-streets off of Hale that dead-end along the Connector are connected to the Connector at stop-signs. Perhaps not.
  3. Remove the ramps from Plain St inbound and Connector to Plain outbound. This opens up a lot of land for some pretty sizable buildings in their place along Manufacturers Street and across the brook from Tanner Street.
OK, so that's Phase Two.  Phase Three after the jump.
Still with me?  Good! Phase Three:

  1. The removal of the ramps from Plain Street would allow us to shift the Connector Blvd away from Tanner Street, making it possible to add a sensible set of lights there.
  2. Tanner Street is widened to two lanes in each direction, looking much like the Connector Blvd.
  3. There is a massive amount of hard to access and underutilized land along Tanner Street - add streets here and new car-oriented businesses and apartment buildings. This area is about the size of Lowell's current core downtown - let's not get too greedy pretending that this area is going to look like the Hamilton Canal District. Besides, we want to keep many of the existing companies down there, including the NIMBY L'Energia power plant. However, put the parking lots in back and use garages when practical and affordable.
  4. One of those streets should be a continuation of Cambridge Street over to Gorham, probably coming out near the Mobil. This would require a large bridge over the rail-yard, but so be it. Another option would be to have it come out closer to Moore St.
  5. Perhaps some of the large new buildings on Tanner Street cross over River Meadow Brook like the mill buildings are perched over the canals or like Providence-Place Mall - this would allow large buildings to front the Connector as well.
  6. However, they would have room for a walkway underneath them with access into the buildings.  The buildings that do not cross the brook would also have back entrances along the brook, where we would put a walkway with frequent pedestrian bridges over to the Connector.
  7. Do something to make the brook not the ugly drainage ditch it has become.
  8. Having a more used Tanner Street with frequent street tie-ins to the Connector would allow people to drive one or the other depending on the traffic. Today, Tanner Street is very underutilized.
Phase Four:
  1. Extend Tanner Street down along the parking lot for the Target to Industrial Ave East. Let's not pretend this will be for anything but cars, but it will improve connectivity. The rail line separating the two streets is long dead and can be built over.
  2. Narrow the remaining freeway part of the Connector, or at least fix the outbound weave situation from Industrial Ave to Route 3 South some other way.
  3. Build a bridge over the brook and over the Connector to connect this area to Chelmsford Street by Lowe's. Perhaps we actually put a stoplight on the Connector instead of building a bridge over it. However, this step is probably not worth the trouble. This will remain an area for cars and trucks, and the current street network around here seems to work fine.
  4. Build the long-ago planned ramp from Gorham Street to 495. It is far too hard to cross the Concord River down there by trekking up to Lawrence Street or over through the Cemeteries to Industrial Ave.

Crazy? Probably. Also unaffordable and likely oversized to meet the current demand. But interesting to think about.


  1. From Gray Fitzsimons:

    "Thanks for the well done and informative post. You make some good points about the purposes of eliminating the Lowell Connector and you highlight important ideas to consider in looking at various alternatives. I support the idea of its transformation into a boulevard, with multi-transport uses (bikes, autos, pedestrian), along with recreational and commercial sections, which might even lead to small-scale but valuable residential developments in adjacent areas. For many of the reasons that you and some of the creative staff in the planning department note, in the long term the benefits of getting rid of the Lowell Connector outweigh the short-term costs. Historically (since the 1850s), this area of Lowell has been treated by developers and industrialists as a wasteland. The urban redevelopment plan, which included low-income housing, was cast aside in favor of the Hale-Howard redevelopment, which also had mixed results. This was probably a fortunate turn of events, since the Ayer's City plan would have likely contributed little to solutions posed by the problems of the Connector.

    It will be interesting to see if the City of Lowell pushes the idea of getting rid of the Connector and creating a culturally, economically, and environmentally valuable set of resources for the this part of the region. The study of River Meadow Brook that I'm currently working on sheds light on how people have reshaped this area up to the present time. There's quite a bit to overcome, given this history, if this part of Lowell is to be remade into an ecologically and culturally healthy place where people and nature might flourish."

  2. Thanks for the comment: I have never heard of an Ayer's City redevelopment plan - do you have a resource describing that? It doesn't surprise me at all that it was proposed...

    I think we have to be very cautious about further construction of formal, landscaped parks in Lowell. This area is not far from the severely underutilized South Common. I'm glad work is being done to reconnect South Common to the other side of Thorndike Street and Downtown. More family-oriented housing around Gallagher Square would likely also increase usage of the park.

    Bike lanes worry me a bit as well - is there room for, say, four 10 foot lanes (narrow by boulevard standards), two four or five foot bike lanes, two seven foot parking lanes, and generous sidewalks as well?

  3. The Connector width is not only the exposed roadway, but also the embankments on either side. If reduced to ground level, there should be quite a bit of width available.

  4. In many places, the width of the Connector plus embankments - that is, the distance from the nearest street to the brook, is about the width of the block between Market Street and Middle Street, plus maybe Middle Street (I'm taking rough measurements from Google Maps). Not much room to build between Lincoln St and Howard St for example. Certainly not enough room to build an office building without building over the brook (which is why I proposed doing exactly that in places).

  5. Hi Corey,
    I heard this story on the radio yesterday and it reminded me of this post.

  6. Great article! Yes, as I mentioned, this is not a pioneering idea for the City of Lowell. It's not something that's likely to be high on our agenda - but it is worth thinking about. Most interesting in that article is the number of cities that are doing this for money reasons.

  7. Jamaica Plain in Boston is considering taking down an overpass on rt 203 for similar reasons. The surrounding neighborhood is very concerned about what will happen to all the traffic flowing through the local streets during rush hour. It's an opportunity, but it's also a huge disruption.

  8. Yes, a day late and a dollar short—probably something like a hundred million dollars short.

    I think we need something like "The Connector" running from off River Road (Andover or Tewksbury), across the Merrimack River, and then up deep into Dracut.  I would give it more capacity than River Road currently has, because it will prove popular and someone who decide to four lane River Road.

    Lack of highway capacity is a tax on poor people and the lower middle class.  The rich folks get to live inside the 95 Freeway.

    But, then, I am from Southern California, not the Bay Area.

    Regards  —  Cliff

  9. Yeah, definitely not exactly an easy budgetable item.

    As for River Road, this is similar to plans to improve highway access to Dracut from Drum Hill over where the Rourke Bridge is. Studies are being done on that right now. I've said many times before that I have no desire to live on the north bank of the Merrimack because I don't want to deal with the traffic. There is definitely a balance between lack of road access causing a lack of "good" economic development and an increase in property values to artificial levels and an overabundance of road access causing an increase in sprawl and an unfair burden on taxpayers to pay for roads that they don't use. Whenever you see transit infrastructure running only one way at particular times of the day, something is being done inefficiently. What makes the North bank issue worse still is that Dracut is a mere three or four miles deep, then it's New Hampshire. We don't owe them expressway access to Boston through our towns and cities when they don't stop and provide us economic benefit.

  10. Ah, the problem of the free riders.  There are no easy answers, but when I cruise around Northern Virginia, as I have the last two weekends (first an Internment at Arlington and then a Baptism in the Centreville area), I know we can do better for our citizens.

    Regarding the idea of pushing through Drum Hill, I fear they will give us a new (and permanent) two lane bridge.  That would not be a solution.

    Regards  —  Cliff