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.


  1. Crazy ideas are good. I just disagree with your crazy idea. Moving the high school to the outskirts of town or having two high schools is a bad move. I'm so happy Jeff Speck put into words what I knew in my gut would be bad for the city. Unless you went there it's hard to understand. I DO think the "new" building should be demolished and a "newer" building built.
    I thought the Hamilton Canal district was bridging the gap between the downtown and the trainstation? Now that Comfort Furniture has gone bankrupt there could be potential there for more housing or some shops.
    Have you seen the trolley report on the Lowell Plan site?

  2. I would never, ever, get behind a single, suburban high school. As Speck said, "Pulling a Lawrence" isn't correct. While I would prefer the high school stay put, there are compelling arguments to split one of the largest high schools in the state into two regional schools.

    The HCD is supposed to connect the train station to the downtown, but convincing people to take multiple modes of transit can be harder than it seems like it should be. When we're talking about a 30 minute potential ride to Boston from Lowell via an express train with the Manchester expansion (or 45 minutes or so now), waiting an extra 15 for a trolley becomes a bit less appealing.

    I'm not too thrilled with the trolley plan. It's a huge expense, and a lot of the trolley after leaving about the Tsongas Center follows a very slow, roundabout route to the campuses. The fundamental issue with the LRTA isn't where it goes, it's that it doesn't go often enough. Yes, I understand people just like railed transit more than buses for mostly illogical head reasons.

    If we have enough money to lay down track and put in a trolley system with a 10-minute headway and hours which nearly rival the T, we should have enough money to increase the hours and frequency certain LRTA routes run. For example, the downtown shuttle started out running every 10 minutes, but quickly fell to an unacceptable 15, when you consider how much time you need to leave to catch another bus or train somewhere else.

    The train should end in a way that, just like in Boston or many other places, you feel you have "arrived" in Lowell. The current station is basically in a neighborhood on an ugly boulevard, not even within sight of downtown. The HCD work won't really change that.

    Also, I do hold some concern that any commercial work that does go on in the HCD - which remains to be seen - will not be entirely additive to the "core" downtown.

    A redevelopment of the old Comfort Furniture - a horrible loss for the City - could easily have a silver lining. That's a sizable, historic building that could use some TLC and become a great mixed-use facility.

  3. I agree you feel like you've "arrived" when pulling into the North Station but my guess is most riders are then walking 10 minutes or jumping on the green/orange lines to get to their final destinations.
    If good jobs are located in the HCD people WILL walk or take the trolley.

    Why not in Lowell?

  5. Interesting article. This system came up at the sustainability meetings. I thought it was a great idea, but a lot of people didn't see the cost-effectiveness of it. I would argue at $85 a year versus the cost of a decent bike plus maintenance, it's a reasonable deal.

    However, I would need to see a startup costs / fixed costs vs revenue growth by numbers of riders for Lowell before I could say one way or the other. Boston is 10 times the size of Lowell, but its bike-commutability and tourist base is far more than 10 times that of Lowell's. As a far denser city with a working rapid-transit system and better distributed destinations, its far easier to get around than Lowell.

    If Boston gets 2,000 riders per day with 600 bikes and 50 stations, Lowell might get 75 riders with 50 bikes and 10 stations, connecting the University with downtown and Riverwalks and Esplanades. If that makes money, why not?

    Before we do that, though - the city should work on bike lanes and bike racks.