In late 2010, the Boston Globe published a series of editorials which reflect on the Gateway Cities in Massachusetts. These mid-sized cities are so named because they have long been points of entry for newcomers and places where innovative entrepreneurial ideas can germinate into economic successes. The Globe series generally held Lowell to be a model of success among the Gateway Cities, while acknowledging as we do that there remain many challenges even in Lowell that cannot be adequately solved without assistance from the state and other partners, particularly in the areas of infrastructure construction and development finance. The Globe also asserts fairly that Gateway Cities must take initiative to combat their own problems rather than expecting to rely solely on outside help. Those that demonstrate professional and responsible progressive internal actions are those that deserve assistance to help close remaining gaps which may be beyond local control.
All of these themes resonate clearly in conjunction with the ongoing efforts of the City of Lowell’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) to create, preserve, and enhance the City as a great place to live, work, and play. Lowell has been recognized as a leader among the Gateway Cities for its redevelopment efforts over the past several decades, including the revitalization of over 2.6 million square feet of mills and other downtown buildings that were vacant in 2000, its development as a regional center for arts and culture, its status as a progressive leader in cultivating “green” economic development, and its ongoing welcoming of immigrants and their entrepreneurial ideas into the community.
Despite a particularly tough economic climate, 2010 has seen the continuation of many of these successes, highlighted by the opening of Lowe’s, significant construction progress with both the first building and the infrastructure serving the Hamilton Canal District, groundbreakings for major construction projects at UMass Lowell and Lowell General Hospital, and the growth of several unique business ventures. These include Telles’s development of bio-sourced plastics, Xenith’s efforts to reduce concussions among football players through new helmet designs, and Moms & Jobs’s efforts to combine business success with social values by training and employing low-income single mothers. Lowell also looks forward to starting 2011 by welcoming new businesses in medical records technology and solar energy engineering to the City.
Like all Gateway Cities, Lowell still faces many challenges, which DPD is proud to have a role in combating. These include:
- Unacceptable unemployment rates which are impacting households and communities with a host of related problems. Fortunately, Lowell has maintained its employment base during the recession more successfully than most of the surrounding suburban communities, but suffers from higher unemployment among its residents, many of whom formerly worked in neighboring towns. DPD staff continues to work hard to retain major employers like Cobham, while helping businesses like Nobis and Unwrapped expand, and new ventures like Cristek and DiagnosisOne relocate to Lowell. We are also working to support institutions like Lowell General Hospital, UMass Lowell, Middlesex Community College, and Lowell Community Health Center grow, creating additional new jobs in the City. DPD is also working to advance projects like the Hamilton Canal District and Tanner Street Initiative which will create the sites to accommodate the next generation of economic development and job creation.
- Disproportionate rates of residential mortgage foreclosures are impacting Lowell’s housing stock and neighborhoods. DPD’s Development Services group has launched a multi-faceted effort including proactive inspections, aggressive enforcement of the vacant and foreclosing property ordinance, fining of non-compliant lenders, and development of a receivership program to mitigate this problem in the City.
- Energy price instability, resource supplies, and global climate change issues have caused everyone to need to recognize that sustainability must become a core value and guiding principle as opposed to a luxury of those communities with access to greater resources. In 2010, DPD staff have led efforts to implement a $21 million energy services contract to improve the energy efficiency of City buildings, help the City adopt the stretch energy code and obtain designation as a Green Community, and received a highly-competitive $5 million federal grant to launch a program to retrofit historic downtown buildings for energy conservation. Next year, DPD looks forward to continuing these efforts and managing the public process to update our comprehensive master plan with an overall emphasis on economic, social, and environmental sustainability.
- Gateway City downtowns that once were the shopping and commercial centers of their regions have had to reinvent themselves as active mixed-use neighborhoods. Lowell continues to lead in this regard, with the successful occupancy of the Lofts at Perkins Place in 2010. Two major downtown planning projects are expected to extend into 2011. Provided funding can be secured, DPD hopes to begin implementing the transportation recommendations of the Downtown Evolution Plan in the Spring, including restoration of two-way traffic on several streets and the introduction of bicycle lanes serving Downtown and the City’s two higher education institutions. DPD is also part of a coalition that is continuing to explore the expansion of Lowell’s streetcar system from a National Park visitor amenity into a public transit service.
- Professional and progressive municipal management is also an essential component of future success for Gateway Cities. As a key part of the City Administration’s ongoing efforts to improve the efficiency and performance of municipal government, DPD was part of a major reorganization in 2010. This effort consolidated Lowell’s permitting, code enforcement, and project review functions into DPD’s new Division of Development Services which is already making strides to improve customer services, internal coordination, and consistency of permitting and code enforcement functions with planning efforts.
There are also several trends which suggest that 2011 will see incremental improvements. Housing prices appear to have stabilized and new petitions for foreclosures declined significantly at the end of 2010. Unemployment rates are down and hiring is increasing slowly both nationally and locally. Lowell also was able to retain its employment base throughout the recession to a greater degree than most of its peer communities or suburban neighbors, which should position the City well as the economy recovers.
Longer term trends in sustainability, demographics, and market preferences continue to point to demand for urban development which will benefit well-managed, well-planned, and attractive cities nationwide that enjoy positive reputations highlighted by quality of life amenities and authentic character. Lowell and other Gateway Cities in Massachusetts can take advantage of these trends with the added benefit of real estate prices that are considerably more affordable than the region in general. Neither Lowell nor its peers can succeed without partnerships with our private sector businesses, institutional leaders, and the state government. Fortunately, Lowell has always thrived on these partnerships and DPD will continue to work to cultivate and strengthen them in 2011.