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.


  1. All good points, but then throw in the question of providing decent housing to folks trapped in older, "inner city" like housing, and yearning to emulate the ideal middle class life and we have an even more complex problem.  The fact that we no longer have life-time jobs means that transportation, usually a car, is critical, or so it seems to me.

    Regards  —  Cliff

  2. You are correct, and there are a few ways to look at this.

    If the political and economic climate were different, more jobs would be concentrated in one place and switching jobs regularly would be less of an issue. There aren't very many good reasons my field, software development, is sprawled for miles all over 128. We don't require loading docks or large manufacturing floors or anything like that - just a nice office with a good internet connection. Why is Downtown Lowell a ghost town instead of the software capital of the Merrimack Valley, to name one industry.

    Also, as someone who got burned in the housing bubble disaster a few years ago, I've come to believe that the American Dream of homeownership for all is a dangerous lie. The middle class should not peg their retirement and their kids' college tuition on ever-increasing home values. As we've seen, it doesn't work out that way. If that mentality changes, and the tax incentives for mortgage and property tax deductions go away (why is the government baiting us with a small amount of cash to give megabanks 300% returns on mortgages?), then a rental culture would arise in its place. Today, rental culture is only popular amongst people in extremely large cities, and is the only option for the poor.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with renting. I wish I had never drank the Kool-Aid and bought a house. Biggest economic mistake I ever made.

  3. Corey,
    Have you thought of opening your own software company in downtown Lowell?

  4. Brian,

    I have. If I was the entrepreneuring type, I might make a go at it.

    The only existing software company down here I know of is what used to be Kadient over in Wannalancit Mills. There are probably very small operations in some of the commercial condos - I know a few existed in the Boott Mills, etc at points in time. Then there is Litle down in CrossPoint, which is now one of Lowell's largest employers at a whopping couple hundred (see my last post on the bike paths), but that's clearly not downtown.

    The local economy has a large number of software professionals and I'm sure the rents are favorable. The downside I've heard is that many of these buildings have wiring far too old to support that much data flying through the tubes. And of course, the bizarre and unenviable hours of software workers makes public transit use or walking from outside of the immediate area / biking just about impossible.

    Also working against us us that it appears that the large-scale software work has retracted a bit from 495/3 and has moved back to 128. It has seemingly abandoned New Hampshire almost entirely. I would guess a lot of this has to do with outsourcing, which makes smaller, fast-moving companies working in newer technologies the ones most likely to keep work in the very expensive Boston market.

    So, in other words, Lowell missed the software boat although it seems like a nice logical fit. I'd almost see myself opening a pet store down here first ;-)

  5. Interesting. Downtown Lowell probably needs a pet store and you could probably make a decent living selling dog food. I don't mean to be presumptuous but I see you doing more important work. You obviously care about Lowell and comment about what needs to change to make Lowell a better place. Change typically happens because of money and/or power. Unless you create a nationwide pet store franchise you won't be able make the changes you rail about on your blog.
    If you have a GREAT idea for a software company don't let the ngeography of Lowell stop you. In today's global economy businesses can thrive pretty much anywhere. And your customers can be anywhere. Kad Barma made a good post about money in Lowell being more wrinkly/crumpled than other places because we just keep passing it back and forth to each other. Nothing wrong with that but I'll take some crisp new Benjamin's if it means more global businesses set up shop in downtown Lowell.

  6. You are 100% right. The issue is I'm not exactly a software "idea man." Often, it's hard to talk the talk and walk the walk.

    I frequently find myself at odds with a lot of eLowellians on what Lowell's economy should be. I'm not a True Believer in UML, or the arts/culture. Not that these things are not valuable to a diverse economy (the only economy worth having, as Lowell has found out the hard way - twice), on the contrary they are instrumental. I just feel that people look at them as almost silver bullets, an ends to themselves, because on the manufacturing fronts, or often even the retail fronts (and currently the hospital front with the mess at Saints), the news is far from rosy. I also question the power and safety of service-based economies as well, and that includes boutiques, like expensive pet stores. I've seen nice ones in places like Amesbury, but that's a very wealthy area, far from malls - it's an un-Lowell.

    That said, if I could tackle any one thing, a seemingly low-hanging fruit, it would be to expand Lowell's economy beyond our immediate borders. I've said it before, but Greater Lowell needs to mean more than it does. This seems to require nothing more than evangelism and marketing.

    Lowell was never a truly independent economy. Lowell is not a suburb of Boston (as Bostonians are fond of claiming) - it's a satellite, a colony of sorts. That relationship hasn't historically always helped us, but we can continue to work it. We can't get away from it, we're too close in.

    So yeah, software works towards that goal. It brings in employees and their money from the immediate area, and it exports nationally, bringing in money from even further out. This is far healthier than any actual good a Target does us.

    Do you have that Kad Barma post? I couldn't find it...

  7. Thanks to Cliff for alerting me to this. If you could offer more hints, I'd be happy to try to dig up the post in question.

    My software career took off in literally the first packaged software company on the planet, McCormack & Dodge, back in Natick back in the 80's. 30+ years later, though there are no independent software companies of note left in this area, (Progress?), there is still a huge portion of the brain power for industry leaders like Oracle and SAP working from home in the Boston area because we all grew up learning from each other back in the day. (My first software job was for a tiny little startup in Gloucester with a future CEO of Lotus among many other luminaries--you just can't place a value on experience like that).

    The challenge to making downtown Lowell a software nexus is its relative lack of truly local software noggins. Software jockies do not like to commute, especially these days in which so many of us are able to work from home, and for any brain-powered enterprise to really get off the ground, it has to put those brains in close enough proximity to start the nuclear-like chain reaction of innovation that's required to succeed. A soccer buddy of mine started what is now known as "Fundly" out of his barn in Westford, but the operation had to be relocated out to Palo Alto in order to really get going. Hard to see that sort of thing being able to prosper here with a potential employee base among the section 8 retirees downtown. CrossPoint's commutability makes it a far better possibility for that.

    Downtown's "critical mass", despite Corey's pessimism, is far more likely to be among the artistically-oriented. The music scene has been invigoratd by the Back Page, and rumors have it that the abandoned church over in the Acre is being renovated and re-opened as a community performance space. Once the Hamilton Canal developments link Western Avenue's hundreds of artisans and artists within walking distance of downtown, there will likely be a boost from that, too.

    To me, the key will be filling the hundreds of empty condos downtown here with folks with disposable incomes and the inclination to dispose of them. They'll come for the arts and the restaurants, if we build them the right environment in which to patronize. It's why I'm here...

  8. 3/19 post. Where old bills go to die

  9. Thanks, Brian for the hint. Here's the URL:

  10. Thanks for digging up that post - great imagery and an astute observation.

    As for the software thing - like I said, it would've had to have happened by now if it was going to happen. You're right - downtown Lowell is a further drive off of the major highways than we like to admit, and the local captive "talent" isn't exactly a critical mass or a brain trust. However, looking at the demographics of my company, as we've moved from being a Cambridge start-up to a Bedford mid-size, our employees are now more likely to live in Groton or Chelmsford than Back Bay and Somerville.

    Yes, a Progress or a Cronos (the old Apollo plant in Chelmsford) are not good fits here, and the culture for software startups is also not here any more than it is in a garage in Westford.

    Downtown Lowell seems like it could support one or two 100 person companies in some fairly mature industry. That might even be enough to get a few starting people to come to the neighborhood to work on foot (however, as my company has matured and we've drawn more engineers from the suburbs, we've gotten older, more established people as a rule). When Kadient first moved here from Nashua, I got an email asking me about the history of the neighborhood, from someone who worked there. Nobody's going to ask a local what the story behind Network Drive is. So, there is at last some sort of draw.

    So, you end up seeing bits and pieces of what the end game is with all the work down here coming together: the whole "creative economy" angle everyone talks about. Artists come for cheap rent on a lot of space. They bring along some stores and restaurants, do some beautification, etc. Then, the young professionals like myself in heady trades that are looking for a high-touch environment see a place that is affordable, funky, and a little gritty (and in my case, also essentially home), and they move in. Throw some weight in behind the schools, have them focus on the downtown, mix in a little economic realities and sociology, and the next result should be as Radiohead would put it, "yuppies networking." Add in some synergism and a few other buzzwords, and from there, new industries should emerge.

    My pessimism comes from that last step: until we get there, a lot of the energy downtown is as you called it, one of disposable income. Downtown Lowell is fundamentally different than a lot of similar-feeling old main street areas in that it is the downtown of a not-well-to-do city of 100,000. Concord isn't our model, the South End is. My primary worry is that we need to know when the engine down here switches from arts and culture to some sort of goods-based industry that will affect more of the city. While you and I might be here for what amounts to scene-based reasons (I need to get that Onion doormat "sometimes I feel like I'm the only one trying to gentrify this neighborhood"), If we don't get there, I'm afraid the whole thing will sputter out.

  11. I'm less pessimistic, even if only because I'm a value investor at heart, and being one means never worrying about short-term market fluctuations. Lowell is well-situated along a beautiful waterway with well-preserved, historic buildings and a remarkable and vibrant mix of cultures. Nowhere else within 150 miles can you find as diverse a selection of neighborhoods, restaurants and people. (Seriously--I was out for top-notch Lao food on Saturday night, and as you can see from this thread on Chowhound, you can't even do that in New York City: My fear is for the inevitable change to come too rapidly.

  12. I too am optimistic. Someone once said Lowell has good bones. Jeff Speck said we have missing teeth in Downtown that should be filled with store fronts on lower levels and condos up top. Maybe we just need to floss.

  13. Brian, Lowell has fantastic bones. And as Kad says, we also have a lot of ethnic vibrancy and a remarkable variance of neighborhoods. All of that stuff, that's 100% pure, unadulterated Lowell. You can't reproduce it in the suburbs, or even other small cities - it grows organically over a very long time. It's a core asset here, up there with the canals. I've heard Phien's is excellent by the way but I'm yet to make it out there. I also haven't gotten to Tepthida Khmer.

    What we need to watch out for is an amusement-park-like economy. Sometimes I feel that's what people are shooting for - my mind always goes to Newburyport. We're too big of a city to operate in that mode. Eternal subsidizations for arts and culture that leaves us groveling at the government's feet leaves you very vulnerable during downturns where people are looking to cut costs from things that don't turn a clear profit. High-end retail expansion in a downturn, during explosive growth of internet retail, in an area with a low median income, can also signal problems.

    We certainly have the infrastructure to support more condos downtown, if the market supports it. That will also bring in more of the types of stores and entertainment options that will make the neighborhood more vibrant and more self-sufficient.

    I feel like I'm drawing very fine lines here, but my ultimate concern is we have a sustainable downtown with more built-in recession-proofing via a greater diversity of uses, especially those that are more practical than funky. I also want it to become, over time, a place that brings more money into the city and regional economy by having exports of some kind. I understand that baby steps are needed, and some subsidizations are needed here, but I don't want us to endlessly depend on them, because they can be pulled at any time.

    We're cheering UML buying up a friggin' hospital without booing them for closing the only bookstore downtown in the process. We want to save the Smith Baker Center and people are already talking about yet another Arts Center at Ste. Jeanne Baptiste, but who are the patrons of these projects, and who is paying for the work?!