Inside Stories

Superior Idea or Downtown Destruction?

The motion by City Councilors Erik Gitschier and Corey Robinson to explore the feasibility of using the former Superior Courthouse on Gorham Street to address the mental health, substance use and homeless issues was met in many quarters with the type of reaction you’d expect.

“We don’t need another magnet to draw even more of these people in!”

“You’re going to destroy the neighborhood!”

“You’re in La La land if you think this is going to solve the problem!”

Those were among the arguments used against Councilor Robinson when he called in to defend the idea on my former morning radio stomping grounds. And trust me, I get the knee-jerk reaction to the proposal. It’s born from the same thought processes I have about the issue.

Lowell has done and continues to do more than its fair share. We can’t expect the Mill City to solve problems plaguing the entire state and country, no matter how many taxpayer dollars are dangled in front of us like Swifty, the mechanical rabbit leading the hungry Greyhounds around the track at the old Wonderland Park.

Because as the many Lowellians who spent time at Revere’s dog racing oval could tell you, the pooches never were able to catch Swifty, no matter how many times they chased.

It’s also true our neighborhoods, particularly the Downtown, have reached a saturation point. Which is why the Superior Courthouse idea is worth exploring, not jettisoning like a VeoRide into the canal.

Hear me out for a minute.

There are those, yours truly included, who believe Tewksbury State Hospital is the answer. Or more specifically, the Tewksbury State Hospital model is the answer.

First, what makes anyone think the residents of Tewksbury are going to be any more enthralled with the idea of solving society’s problems within their town borders than the Lowellians upset at the Gitschier/Robinson idea? Not in my backyard is a very human reaction, and sometimes even justified.

But the bigger issue is that even with Tewksbury theoretically returning to full capacity, it’s not enough. Nowhere near enough, in fact, to deal with the mental health and addiction problems exacerbated by the pandemic and the lockdown induced isolation whose full effects have yet to hit us.

“The state should buy property elsewhere and build facilities to house these people,” was also part of the radio back and forth with the Councilor, which completely ignores a simple economic reality. It’s a complete waste of taxpayer money to buy property and facilities when the state already owns vacant ones, like the Superior Courthouse.

“They’re going to start loitering there and that’s the first thing people are going to see when they get off the connector to come downtown.”

This is where the shortsightedness of dismissing the idea without even exploring it really misses the point.

Folks, we’re not breaking any news here. They already do loiter, use drugs, commit crimes, pollute, create a bad first impression of the city, etc.

One peek at South Common or the Jay’s Food Store parking lot just down the street is all you need to understand the problem already exists at an all-too visible level. Are the urine and feces laden downtown sidewalks and alleyways, or the dozen or so business front doors used as makeshift sleeping quarters a better alternative to a facility that might help alleviate the situation?

The vacant courthouse allows you to bring the problems indoors and out of sight, while also offering the potential for substantive services to treat mental illness and addiction for those inclined to accept help. A mini-Tewksbury State Hospital, so to speak.

And here’s the part critics are missing; it provides the City an opportunity to attack the vagrancy issue at the heart of this political battle in a meaningful way.

Provide enough beds to house those seeking services and maybe, just maybe, there’s less outcry from the paid advocates banging the drums every time the issue comes up. Good luck winning the P.R. battle when there are enough beds available, yet you still want to tell us how you care more about the homeless person on the street than the rest of Lowell’s residents and businesses.

Better yet, this proposal if adopted may provide the legal cover necessary to clear out tent cities once and for all because you’ve satisfied the protocols and “housing” requirements. Do not discount that when the same folks who solicited individuals to sue the city over its panhandling ordinance in 2015 inevitably go the legal route, perhaps with the ACLU in their corner once again.

Look, there is no easy solution to these issues, especially if you insist on a hint of humanity in at least attempting to help those seeking help. I won’t pretend Lowell’s abandoned Superior Courthouse will solve the city’s problems, even if it is deemed a feasible idea. But it could very well be part of the solution and perhaps a blueprint for other state properties here and elsewhere.

Don’t fear new ideas. Explore them. If they don’t make sense, toss them aside. If they do, embrace them. You have nothing to lose, Lowell.

Except maybe a vagrancy problem.

8 responses to “Superior Idea or Downtown Destruction?”

  1. Pamela Underwood says:

    Love this idea!

  2. Josh says:

    “It’s a complete waste of taxpayer money to buy property and facilities when the state already owns vacant ones, like the Superior Courthouse.”

    If they can sell the courthouse for a reasonable profit (particularly to a buyer that can add some much-needed market-rate housing there that increases Lowell’s tax base) and use those funds to purchase property/facilities elsewhere, it would not be a waste of taxpayer money. This is particularly true if it would help de-concentrate poverty out of a relatively small geographic area.

  3. Teddy Panos says:

    Josh, are you aware of any developers who would be interested in your idea? Agree that it would be the best case scenario. But we have to be realistic. That building has been vacant for years now….if anyone really wanted it and could make it work financially, don’t you think shovels would already be in the ground?

  4. Ray says:


    The Superior Court Building is 175 years old (c. 1848)… built 22 years after Lowell received it’s charter as a Town, and expanded 50 years later. It was in continuous operation for 172 years

    Until the State declares the property “excess” it will not be available for private development… same for the old District Court on Hurd Street. This process takes time and no shovels will go in the ground until after the state (and all of its agencies) declines any future use.

  5. Teddy Panos says:

    Ray, I may be wrong, but I believe the state may have already declared it “excess” property, which now puts it in the city’s hands to see if they have a desired use for it. Should the city decide it doesn’t, then it goes to private development if there’s any interest. Vaguely remembering either Manager Donoghue or Golden telling me that

  6. Teddy Panos says:

    I stand corrected Ray. The Hurd Street District Court is the one further along in the process. Superior is still being decided on by the state

  7. Skeets says:

    I am a huge supporter of Erik and Corey . However , my students at the STEM are already negatively affected by this way too often . Just Thursday an exit was fully blocked with blankets , spent needles , etc.. the students have to walk around people passed out on benches on way to basketball court . Also, whenever there is police issue at south common , our kids get rushed back inside . We lost field day last year due to a n argument and stabbing between two homeless men . If the city chooses to help these people ( who come from everywhere in mass) over it’s own students and residents , then shame on them .

  8. James Corso says:

    Its Time to put Tewksbury Hospital to work and the property used to take care of the homeless which is already payed for.

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