Thursday, March 31, 2011

Perverting environmental terminology

"Green" is a big buzzword right now, and it's being misused and abused.  Soon, it will have no meaning anymore, and environmentalists will have lost a powerful tool.

I work down off of Route 62 in Bedford, by the Middlesex Turnpike.  I have taken the turnpike a few times in the past few days, and like some scene out of a kid's environmentalism movie, I'm horrified at all the trees we have lost, seemingly overnight.  Sure, the traffic down there is bad, and for economic reasons, it's likely necessary to finally widen the 200-year-old turnpike.  However, it is disingenuous at best to call this sprawl-enhancing cluster**** a "Green Road" or a "Smart Parkway" or "Smart Growth" as it is being advertised:  Sidewalks, bike lanes, and buses, oh my!  And a "hydrogen fueling station."  Great.

So, let's look at sidewalks.  Unfortunately, the five-minute walk rule (people are willing to walk 5-10 minutes, a quarter to half mile, before driving) breaks down horribly in the land of office parks set way back from the street by "driveways" and surface parking lots.  Where are you going to walk from anywhere on Middlesex Turnpike to any other kind of use in 5-10 minutes? Here is the part of the Turnpike in Billerica that Millipore, a centerpiece of the project, is part of, on Suburban Park Drive, courtesy of Google Maps.

You see three types of uses here: A lot of job sites, some houses, and a few restaurants.  Technically four uses if you want to count the Vining School.  So, what is five minutes from another use here? This map is .8 miles across, as the crow flies.  Well, the big office parks just down the road from the 99s (which contains Millipore) are a five to 10 minute walk from it, although some of them up by Linnel Circle, due to poor road connectivity, are twice as far from the restaurant by road as they are by air. Similarly, much of Manning Rd and Fortune Drive are walking distance from what is labeled Dunkin' Donuts (the map is screwed up, that's actually a Subway and Dunkin' Donuts is off the map to the north).  OK, so these low-rise office parks are generally under half a mile, or 10 minutes, from a restaurant on the Turnpike by foot.  Notice we didn't actually walk on the Turnpike to get anywhere, because there are no groupings of restaurants, so the "improvments" to the Turnpike didn't do anything for us here.

Largely restaurants are on the main road - and nearly exclusively office parks on the side streets.  Not walker friendly.  And the houses?  Can anybody in the surrounding low-density residential area walk to work? Look close and pan around this area on Google Maps.  You'll notice something interesting: the residential streets, even when houses back office buildings, don't actually connect through to the main road.  Without jumping fences or walking through the woods, you can get from very few houses to office buildings in a reasonable period of time.  Some "adjacent" houses are at least a mile away from ways to legally get there.  Similarly, neither Manning Road or Lexington Road interchange with Route 3 on the left-hand side of the map. In fact, Manning Road is a half-long dead end.  The definition of a car-only area.

The "Smart Growth" housing projects they mention in some of the articles that should increase the number of walkers in the area similarly don't actually exist on the Turnpike, but are off in pods in the woods...just like any other cluster-zoned mid-density auto-suburb housing project.  To be fair, they're not a far walk.  but they still don't really feature anything you would consider "urban" or "smart" like new through-streets or very much retail of use.

So, by similar logic, the bike lanes are only a little more useful.  How much further people tend to bike than walk, I don't know.  But they get to take fewer shortcuts across grass and ducking under fences than people, so the purpose-built poor connectivity in this area hinders biking as well.  With so few places to live along the Turnpike and so few minor residential streets connecting to it, bikers in the area are forced to ride on other major, high-speed roads to be able to get to the Turnpike.  For example, Lexington Road.  Somebody living on Elizabeth Drive has to bike for 1.6 miles, much of it down bike-unfriendly Lexington Rd, to get to an office building that is really only a quarter mile away from their house.

Transit has all the same problems:  Too few people live along the transit route and work along it as well because the density is too low and the single-use zoned areas too large.  Too many of the house and office buildings are set far too far back from the main road (or along a pedestrian friendly and well connected side street) for people to walk to or from a bus stop.  And, too few buses run this route with any regularity.  The LRTA from downtown Lowell comes by once an hour, and it's an hour trip (and a 15 minute drive in a private car).

It's almost like linear development, by definition, is car-centric development, as opposed to a well-connected, more circular, city center.  And it's almost like car-centric developments are inherently un-green because of pollution, fossil fuel use, and tree clearing, etc.  So it's almost like when our politicians get behind "green" projects like this one, the oxymoronic "green smart parkway road", that they are really going to sink large amounts of our money building just more sprawl.  So, we should make them admit what they're really doing and not resort to outright lying or delirium via buzzwords, diluting the meanings of important concepts.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Why rail trails are depressing

I walked part of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail yesterday. While it was a nice walk (I made it from CrossPoint to Chelmsford Center), there was an unpleasant feeling upon me the whole way. This pathway, now an asphalt multi-purpose exercise trail, used to form an industrial link between Lowell and Framingham. There are still some old cinder block factories that back onto the old line, some abandoned. Decayed railroad signal equipment hangs from the concrete walls that raise 495 over the right-of-way, and occasionally you'll see an old spike driven into a tree. What was bothering me was that in a day and age of $3.50 gas and staggering unemployment, there is something perverse about converting a railway into a jogging trail. Why can't we manufacture along the line? Why can't passengers commute efficiently along it? Clearly, this is just another attempt at "adaptive re-use" in the age of post-industrialism: an additional expense for area communities already facing budget struggles along something that used to generate business.

The list of manufacturers that left Lowell during my lifetime has a few notable entries in it: Wang and Prince Spaghetti come to mind.  In my parent's lifetime, the list gets fairly depressing. In my grandparent's lifetime, it's mind-boggling. The list of major employers in Lowell today is heavily focused on the services, education, and retail segment, and the number employed by these companies are tiny.  By the time we get to all employers over 100 employees, we've employed a whopping 11,000 people (the City of Lowell itself doesn't show up on the list, but it's one of the largest employers).

For comparison, a great link was posted on last week: The Courier-Citizen Centennial newspaper from 1936. Here, in the midst of the Great Depression, the list of long-time, well-established, large, local companies, who were willing to advertise in the paper and be part of the community, was far more impressive than anything we could muster today. We've fallen to the point we get excited about this ( this morning linking to the New York Times):  Food manufacturing and boutique, enviro-feelgood bags. Similarly, Lowell touts Moms and Jobs, while, a great idea, is not going to ever provide a large number of jobs for the local workforce - not unless we are willing to admit there is a social cost to buying Chinese-made mittens for $10 at Wal-Mart instead of $40 locally-made mittens.

Eventually, something will have to give. Healthcare is breaking down as it has become far too expensive. The education bubble is going to burst as people are getting crushed under student loans and poor job prospects. How long can we cheer the bargain shopping and "job creation" provided by big-box retail moving into town? Outside tax revenue and paying the small, largely unskilled workforce, do these superstores do anything other than suck money out of our communities? When the government is forced to scale down the DOD, what happens to all those politically valuable Military Industrial Complex companies that employ so many regionally today?  How much free income for fancy restaurants and art does the average Lowellian actually have? How about five years from now, as gas prices continue to rise, bringing everything else up along with it? Once the cornerstones of our so-called "modern economy" give away, maybe we will revert to smaller scale, locally-made, more expensive "boutique" manufacturing. Necessity -also known as reality- will force it to lose its stigma as feel-good products for the overpaid and overeducated.

Maybe we'll start converting jogging trails into railways.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Merrimack River, beginning to end

In the past few months, I happened to be in Franklin, New Hampshire where the Pemigewasset River meets the Winnipesaukee River and forms the Merrimack.  I also was in Newburyport, Massachusetts, where the Merrimack ends at the Atlantic Ocean.  Excuse the cameraphone snapshots.

Franklin, NH. The Winnipesaukee River (foreground) meeting the Pemigewasset (Background)

The mouth of the Merrimack, between Newburyport and Salisbury, Massachusetts

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Twelve Foot lane

This kind of ties back to my post on Boulevardizing the Lowell Connector.

My office park recently sent a scolding email to its residents for walking from the parking lot, over the driveway, up a bankon, and over a fence and into the building.  Aside from us trampling flowers to save 30 seconds on our way into the office, they were worried we were going to get run over in the driveway.

Yes, there is a less than ideal curve and grade in the roadway right before where we cross.  However, this seems silly to me: why are cars going so fast in a driveway, they risk running over adults merely crossing the street?  A car going 20 MPH stops in 20 feet, including reaction time.  That's not much more than a car length.  If a road is so curvy you can't see a car length in front of you - you should be going slower than 20 MPH, and this office park driveway isn't that bad.

My argument was that the road is simply too wide.  That it has lanes the size of an interstate yet is merely a driveway in theory.  People didn't believe me so I broke out the tape measurer:  Yup, twelve-foot lanes.  And then some. Crazy, I said.  Dangerous.

This is the required lane size for an interstate!  Before you say, "hey!  The lanes on an interstate don't seem that wide to me!" Think about this:  The twelve-foot-wide lane can keep your below-average driver in your below-average car within its boundaries at 75 miles per hour.  At 75 mph, any deviation from straight is going to get you in real trouble, real fast.  If the road is narrower, to keep in our lane, we reflexively drive slower.

How wide is your average car?  My Altima isn't even six feet wide.  An F-150 is about 8 feet wide, and a semi might run 9 feet.  While a re-engineered Connector couldn't ban Semis, we also do not want to encourage 75 mph driving, we want to encourage 30 MPH driving.  So the lanes should be narrower by a foot or two a piece.  Added benefit is less road noise and more room for people, bikes, and parking.  The Jeff Speck Report gave the same suggestion for Market Street and other downtown roads for the same reason.

Remember kids, just say no to Twelve-foot lanes on secondary roads.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The "Haverhill Renaissance"

I keep meaning to get a good-sized post going on Haverhill, but seem to never get around to it.

However, the progress being made on revitalizing Haverhill's downtown is being covered on Chronicle in about three weeks.  Preview:

If you haven't been, aside from the sad fact that a huge part of Downtown Haverhill was demolished for Urban Renewal in the 1960s, what remains has some really nice streets with some pretty decent restaurants.  Some of the surrounding neighborhoods are nice as well, and the city has a lot more greenspace than Lowell (it's also much smaller and further from major job centers).

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Mary Ann McNamara - Lowell's Acre: Irish History Tour; March 12, 2011

This Thursday, as I'm sure you all know, is Saint Patrick's Day.  Like a huge number of people in the most Irish of American counties (Middlesex), I too claim Irish ancestry.  However, I missed out on Irish Cultural Week.

Fellow Lowell history buff Mary Ann McNamara, did not.  Mary Ann found me on Facebook a few months ago, and since then, we've shared a few stories and photos about the city with each other.   Being an earlier weekend riser than I dare to be, she went on a walking tour this past Saturday with St. Patrick's Church Parish Historian/ Archivist Dave McKeanand and shared the photos she took there.

I have received a lot of requests over the years to go into churches in Lowell and photograph them.  I've always felt strange about as much as trying, and the one time I did try to go into Immaculate (an easy walk from my house and a beautiful church inside), the doors were locked.  Mary Ann has, in addition to neighborhood photos, added a few pictures of the inside of Saint Patrick's Church in here.  Although I knew it was a Patrick Keely church, I was surprised to see that such a simple-looking church was so detailed inside.  The murals are a great detail.  She's very knowledgeable about the neighborhood and the parish, so go check it out!

Mary Ann McNamara - Lowell's Acre: Irish History Tour; March 12, 2011

Bill Walsh

Fellow Lowell Historical Society board member Gray Fitzsimons sent me a series of photos taken by Bill Walsh from 1959 to 1961.  The focus is on industrial concerns along the Concord River / River Meadow (Hales) Brook.  I did my best to place these on the maps from the photos themselves, Lowell Firefighting (in the case of American Hide and Leather, which burnt in the late 1970s), or from stories I've heard over the years.

Any other help identifying where these pictures are or more information about the companies or buildings would be much appreciated!

Bill Walsh