Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Master Plan Update Vision Sessions and a crazy idea...

First off, if you've been missing the Vision Sessions at the Senior Center, you're missing out on a great opportunity to help shape Lowell's Master Plan. Details are here: ( Don't miss that the past presentations are posted, along with images of how the community has voted!

So, the last session was on economic development. I personally feel nothing is more important to a city's very existence than its economy, as I discussed here ( and here ( and here ( Lowell, as I mentioned in those past posts, is often blessed and cursed by its proximity to Boston. While it provides a regional economy, it robs us of many of our jobs. While it makes us an attractive cheaper alternative to Boston while still being city living, it robs us of many of our younger best-and-brightest. Like many city issues, feedback loops abound. People want to live and work where the action is...which causes the action to be there.

I've been thinking: what can we do to actively improve our economic situation, when so many issues seem to be regional and national in scope? I seem to end up on the unpopular side of this one a lot, but as I mentioned in the Downtown Evolution Plan post above (and at the transit Vision Session), I think our parking rate structures, especially on weekends when perversely the streets are full and the garages are empty, are completely crazy and outside of the norm for similar sized cities in the region. But that's probably small potatoes.

As one of those Peak Oil people (I discussed this here:, I believe that sustainability - the underlying topic of the Vision Sessions, is intimately tied to, amongst other things, the ability to live with less oil. One great way to do this is to improve mass transit. Even without the sustainability angle, the current reality is gas prices are rising, and many demographic groups, young and old, are more into mass transit than at any time in the past 50 years for various reasons.

I've written before that I'm no fan of the LRTA's service, and I'm just going to let that lay. It's too complex to talk about now and pretty hopeless. I'm more interested in the train. It's often mentioned that the MBTA transit hub is a great asset to Lowell; however, it's undeniable that the station's location well outside of downtown Lowell, away from Merrimack Street, away from the Tsongas Center and the ballpark, is holding us back. Many other cities, like Haverhill, do quite well having their station right downtown. Lowell is discussing an expensive trolley system through the Hamilton Canal District to help alleviate this, as well as re-invigorated plans to help out the Hale/Howard and especially the Tanner Street areas by rebuilding around Transit-Oriented Development (as they basically abut the train station).

To this, people often say, "can Lowell really handle that much pull away from downtown?" I think it's a great question. We need history here. Why is Lowell's main station so far out? Well, I can't find a picture, but Lowell's original station was on the corner of Dutton and Merrimack Streets, dead downtown Lowell. Today, there is only that brick archway that echoes the old building on that site. I can only imagine that as one of the first locomotive lines in America, that the fact that a train that stopped at that depot could be no longer than the distance from Merrimack to Market Street without closing a major street down wasn't an issue. It didn't take long for the "main" station to locate essentially to where the current station is, while the older station did remain open. Also, a competing line with a long barn opened to Central Street, in the building that is slated to be MCC's dance studio. My crazy suggestion is bring the train back to Merrimack Street.

Here is a picture of the train in Wilmington:

And here is that same train superimposed in front of Lowell High School, along the existing old tracks:

Totally fits.

This wouldn't be the only place on the line where gates have to go down across roads temporarily to let a train pass, we'd live. Now, obviously the high school isn't the best location for a train station. However, some people have suggested that the massive Lowell High School be split in two. While I don't think it's the best idea, maybe with something like this added in, it'd become more palatable. The new building to the school would make a great office building. The old building could be turned into almost an indoor mall with an atrium and small shops as well as offices. Maybe residential goes in somewhere as well. There already is a parking garage right there. It's right next to the arena and right on Merrimack Street. Now, ideally, we'd keep the old station open as well because it's far more convenient for car commuters. Maybe only every other train comes all the way downtown or something, especially if the line ever gets extended to Nashua as downtown is no longer "on the way". Maybe in that case, the downtown station gets built in the parking lot of the office building next door and the high school stays put, I don't know.

Just an overly expensive idea that probably makes no real sense. I'd like it, though.

Also, if you missed the news, the little post office on the corner of Central and Market may be closing due to lack of business and the Postal Service's budgetary issues.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Appleton Mill, July 2011

People are really starting to move into the Appleton Mill project now. It looks like much of the major work is done, so here are a few new pictures, then all the series I've taken:


Appleton Mills - July 2011

And the whole series from


Appleton Mill, November '09-January '10

Appleton Mill, February-March '10

Appleton Mill, April-August 2010

Appleton Mill, September 2010 - December 2010

Appleton Mill, Jan-May 2011

I have some even older ones buried on my old site, for example at

Friday, July 15, 2011


So, earlier in the week I got my invitation to Google+. Always a fan of the mantra "don't fix what isn't broken" I was far from convinced that it had any chance to make any real inroads against Facebook. My impressions so far:


  • Integration with existing Google technologies.
    • I already use PicasaWeb because I use Blogger. I use Blogger and GChat because I use Gmail. It's easy to see integration with Google Calendar and Blogger itself in the pipeline. 
    • Google+ also integrates iGoogle's +1 search functionality, but I don't find it all that interesting. 
    • The iGoogle user bar at the top of the page now directly lists your Google+ updates, etc and has a "share" button that feels half-implemented as you can paste a link into it, but not directly click on a link and share it. 
    • Google Maps is at least somewhat integrated as when you upload a photo via an Android, it tags it with your current location. However, this too, is only half-implemented. If you leave your Android GPS off (as many do since it's a huge battery drain) the photo is tagged based off of cell-tower triangulation. Trying this out tonight, I found that standing on the East Campus end of the University Ave bridge, I was assumed to be somewhere I had never heard of in Dracut. Good rule of thumb: wrong information is worse than no information!
  • Easier security. The lack of a "Wall" allows you to control exactly what people who can see your profile see. The straightforward "Circles" friend-grouping concept makes it easy to limit who gets to see what. This is a must for public, semi-public, teenage, and alcoholic social networking users.
  • No ads. Yet. Very little requests for personal information for your profile.
  • New.
    • It's generating buzz. No pun intended.
    • The years of Facebook "technical debt" doesn't exist in a product that has been just started from scratch. For example, the Facebook Wall concept is outdated. It has become a place for people to post stuff to your profile you don't want your other friends reading (from inappropriate personal information to stupid requests to run chores). However, since Facebook started as a college networking tool well before the Newsfeed was born, the "Wall" concept grew directly out of those whiteboards those of us in the collegiate world had physically hung to our dorm-room doors. Oh, and networks like MySpace worked that way, too. The Newsfeed, in hindsight, was one of the killer apps in Facebook that killed MySpace.
  • Don't be Evil is Google's Mantra. In addition to being a product from a company we already know a lot about and are interested in, Facebook's repeated (and they aren't dumb, this is on purpose) failures to protect our personal information has turned a lot of people off.
    • The best way to protect your own data is to forsake the Cloud and use something like Diaspora
    • For those people who are not technically inclined and interested in running their own server (or dealing with the TOS violations and addressing complexities in running a webserver out of the home), or for those of us who want to talk to people not so inclined, we have to come to accept the Cloud...with as little evil tied in as possible.
  • Nobody is on it. This will likely change, but, for example, I only have a few connections on Google+ that I don't already have on Facebook. Therefore, it is rare that I'll want to go through the trouble of posting something twice for the benefit of a few. Facebook is already one-stop for my photo uploads, link-sharing, etc. So far, my Google+ posts have mostly been about...Google+. Without a mass-migration for reasons I don't see yet, I will still be spending far more time on Facebook than Google+
  • It's in Beta. There are important functions, like event invitations, that Google+ doesn't seem to have yet, even though other Google technologies already support this. The lack of an ability to search Google+ posts from an interface fails to fix a chief complaint I have with Facebook and Google's search is their core business!
  • As nice as it is to have all my Google technologies tied together, there is a downside to this. Like the failure that was Google Buzz, sometimes unexpected things happen. I posted a new PicasaWeb album to "Everyone" for my last post on Wamesit Canal, and the photos went straight to Google+! I don't remember seeing an option to not do that.

Since a chief complaint of Facebook is the lack of ability to control data via Circles, here is how to do it in Facebook. Yes, it's far more complex.

Go to your Friend List.

Click Create a List.

Give it a name, select the relevant people, and save it.

The list will now show up in the left-hand pane of your Edit Friends page where it can be edited. Whenever you add new friends, you can add that person to one or many lists, directly from the accept friend request interface.

Now, back on the main page, we'll post some content. Note the pad-lock button.

You'll see you can make posts visible to friends, friends of friends, the obsolete "Networks" concept from the college-only days, and "customize." Click that.

You'll get the following page, where in addition to excluding certain people or lists of people, you can include certain people or groups:

This concept extends beyond the newsfeed, once you have your friends lists set up. Let's do our profile. Click "Privacy Settings":

Click "Custom"

From here, you can do things like prevent anybody (not people or lists) from posting on your wall or from Friends or Friend Lists being able to see photos others tagged you in:

Finally, when you add photo albums, you can include and exclude certain groups from seeing it.

So yeah, more work, but doable!

I guess in closing, I don't dislike Google+, but I also don't see it taking off without some sort of "killer app" Facebook doesn't have. Facebook tends to move quickly with features, which in this case, may be a good thing. It's often a bad thing because over the years, it's required people to learn how to use an increasingly complex system piece-by-piece as new features come out and old ones get deprecated.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Wamesit Canal / River Meadow Brook

I've been delaying finishing this one for months, so here it goes...

During Doors Open Lowell weekend, I went with fellow Lowell Historical Society board member Gray Fitzsimons down to the Wamesit Canal / River Meadow Brook area. He has been doing research on the district, in part with Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust due to its association with the Concord River Greenway. History of industrial operations along the Concord River are here: One of the reasons it took me so long to get this post up is I needed to take time to research the history of this area, which is as old as the rest of Lowell, although it is in some ways it is only tangentially connected to downtown's history.

I have a hard time knowing what to call this section of the city, honestly. The Wamesit canal runs from a dam on the Concord River just below Lawrence Street in South Lowell to the end of River Meadow Brook in a section of town that may be partially in either or all of South Lowell, or Sacred Heart, or the Bleachery, or The Flats, or even the beginnings of Back Central - depending on who you ask, where they grew up, and when they lived there. I would love to know what people consider what down here. All I know is the street patterns around this final stretch of River Meadow Brook (beyond where it turns away from where it is channelized along the Connector), the various waterways themselves, and the huge industrial complexes (I'd imagine other than downtown, this is Lowell's largest single concentration of red brick) divide this area into a series of subsections that seem hardly related and frequently off the beaten path.

I guess the real answer is this section of town is everywhere and nowhere all at once. It's a border, not a center. For that reason, and the historical value this part of town contains, an extension along the greenway, linking these little pockets by the waterways they owe their existences to, would be pretty cool.

Before we go any further, here is an areal screenshot, courtesy of, and a map from 1924. If you're a Google Maps user and haven't checked out the 3/4 view areals that Microsoft has put up on Bing, you're really missing out. Without this, I would've never been able to re-associate the photos I took with here I took them!

Area today

Same area, 1924. Note that the canal, and the number of factories along it, used to be far more extensive.

History (Briefly)

In the 1790s, the same decade that the Pawtucket Canal was dug and 30 years before the first large textile mills went up downtown, Moses Hale bought land and water rights to River Meadow Brook. For this reason, it is alternatively known as Hale's Brook. On this stream, he built a fulling and carding mill. Depending on the source, he later built a sawmill, and/or then, where the old Prince Spaghetti plant now stands, he built a grist mill. The 1897 Illustrated History of Lowell also credits him with building the cartridge factory usually credited to its later owner, his son-in-law, Oliver Whipple. Charles Cowley places Hale's fulling mill along the brook, near Gorham Street.

Over the years, many other operations were built near here, leasing power from the Wamesit Power Company. The Lowell Bleachery, US Bunting Company, the Sterling Mills, etc. Generally speaking, these were people not connected to the Boston-based manufactories running off the canal system owned by Locks and Canals. Even today, there are generally many small, seemingly local operations running out of these buildings, as opposed to the condo developments downtown.


Well...overall, I was unhappy with the photographs I took, and I don't know as much as I would like to about the area, so I'm going to defer back to the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust website link I posted earlier. There is a great series of PDFs about these buildings, but the link can be hard to find, so I'll supply it directly here:

My photos:

Wamesit Canal