Hamilton Canal District Update
At both Tuesday’s council meeting and at Thursday’s Lowell Plan breakfast, City Manager Kevin Murphy exuded enthusiasm about recent progress in the Hamilton Canal District. This despite the news that the city received not a single response to its Request For Proposals for a Master Developer for the district, a bid period that closed on August 11, 2017.
Here’s a review of the good news:
Lowell Judicial Center
With its steel skeleton now at its full seven-story height, the massive scale of the Lowell Judicial Center is in full view. At the Lowell Plan breakfast, City Manager Murphy recalled a long ago conversation with former state secretary of economic affairs Jay Ashe who stated that all the Hamilton Canal District needed was for one building to go up and the rest would fall into place. The Manager says the judicial center has played that role, and reminded everyone that between employees, jurors, litigants and others, the judicial center will bring 1200 people into the Hamilton Canal district every day. Last I heard, the building is still slated for a 2020 opening. The speed of the progress made thus far suggests that the projected opening date might be on the conservative side.
A few weeks ago, on September 12, 2017, the city council authorized the city manager to enter into a purchase and sale agreement with Winn Development for parcels 8 and 9, which are sandwiched between Canal Street and the Pawtucket Canal. Winn will construct two seven-story apartment buildings on these parcels containing a total of 135 housing units and 10,000 square feet of ground floor retail space in one of the buildings. Back at the September 12 council meeting, Winn explained that to secure the state funding assistance necessary to make the project feasible, an 80-20 mix of market rate and affordable housing was required. Also, it seemed that Winn was opposed to any commercial space in the project, but the city manager extracted the 10,000 square feet in one building as a concession.
For the entire existence of the Hamilton Canal District concept, these two parcels were designated as residential, mostly because of their tricky location alongside the Pawtucket Canal. Despite that long-standing plan, a number of councilors had previously voiced opposition to any housing in the Hamilton Canal District (with still others voicing opposition to any housing for poor people in the HCD), so to have the council unanimously support this project was both prudent and welcome.
Winn has stated that construction of these buildings will begin in the fall of 2018.
The newest proposal for the Hamilton Canal District comes from Sal Lupoli who is teaming with Dave Heller, the owner of the Lowell Spinners to build at 20-story mixed use structure on a prime parcel across Jackson Street and the Hamilton Canal from the judicial center, a parcel which now serves as a large surface parking lot. The building would be a mix of office, retail, restraurant and residential space. Lupoli, whose Thorndike Exchange mixed use remake of the Thorndike Factory Outlet is just a block away from the Hamilton Canal District, must be pleased with the response to that soon-to-be-opened project to be exploring a new, much larger venture nearby.
S&R Corporation is a longtime Lowell construction/demolition company now headquartered at 706 Broadway in the Acre neighborhood. S&R hopes to build a 40,000 square foot office building on the now vacant lot across Canal Street from 110 Canal Place. The building would house S&R’s corporate headquarters which would fill nearly half the space. The rest would be commercial rental space with ground floor retail and restaurant uses.
Now located in the Wannalancit Mills, Watermark provides architectural, engineering and environmental consulting services. The company plans to build a 70,000 square foot office building on the Dutton Street side of the HCD on a parcel at the split of the Merrimack and Pawtucket Canals. This building would have restaurant and retail space on the ground floor, and office space above.
UMass Lowell Innovation Hub
The building at 110 Canal Street, known as the UMass Lowell Innovation Hub, has been an early highlight of the Hamilton Canal District, promoting a range of startup companies, especially in the medical device field. That building will soon be fully occupied.
Mill No. 5
Whether or not city planning documents acknowledge it, Mill No. 5 is a key component of the Hamilton Canal District. Whenever someone from out-of-town visits, Mill No. 5 is one of the first places I will bring them and everyone walks away stunned with all that’s going on inside. (There are also many from Lowell who have yet to make it to Mill No. 5 – don’t delay in getting there].
Dutton Street Side
All of the projects mentioned above, except for the Watermark proposal, or on the west or Jackson Street side of the Pawtucket Canal. Development on the east side of the Pawtucket Canal, what is commonly called the Dutton Street side of the HCD, has been slower. That area is dominated by Lowell National Historical Park’s surface parking lot. Development in this portion of the HCD is not as advanced as the Jackson Street portion for a number of reasons. First, the prime development spots sit atop the NPS’s parking lot, and that won’t become available to the city until the city’s new 900-space parking garage is constructed deeper into that portion of the HCD. Since that garage is just now in the design phase, building something on the NPS parking lot is still a long way off. Another factor in this timeline is the need for infrastructure installation in that portion of the HCD. You can’t construct a building without roads, water, electricity and sewerage. All of them are in the process of being designed or installed. Finally, while construction occurs on the west side of the HCD, the big parking lots on the east side will be needed for temporary parking and for staging of construction operations and equipment.
At Tuesday’s council meeting, the manager was asked if, given all the progress the city has made on its own, there is even a need for a master developer for the rest of the HCD. He said that there was, citing some of the complications of marketing and then building on the Dutton Street lots. Although the manager didn’t mention it, I believe some of the millions of dollars in state funding the city has obtained for infrastructure improvements to that portion of the HCD are contingent on there being a master developer, so not having one is not an option. Still, as more parcels get committed to individual developments, the remainder of the project may become less attractive to potential master developers. That plus the fact that the city’s relationship with the first two master developers it selected seemed to end badly, or at least unsuccessfully, makes signing up a third master developer a complicated task. But at this point, the lack of a master developer seems to be just a small cloud on an otherwise bright horizon for the Hamilton Canal District.
Lowell National Historical Park
Next year will be the 40th anniversary of the founding of Lowell National Historical Park. This past Thursday at the Lowell Plan breakfast, Park Superintendent Celeste Bernardo shared her vision of the park at age 40 and beyond. Celeste said, “In life when you’re 40, you still look good but you have to take care of yourself.” The same is true for a national park. Consequently, upgrading and maintaining facilities will get a lot of attention next year and beyond. “Backlog maintenance” is a top priority of the National Park Service across the country.
Another priority of Lowell NHP is increasing access to waterways. That is already a big part of the Lowell park, with the Riverwalk, the Western Canal walkway, and others, but even more is planned. Right now, when you go out the back of the Boott Mills to the Merrimack River, you can only turn left on the Riverwalk and head towards the Tsongas Arena and Lelacheur Field. Soon, the Riverwalk will extend eastward, following the Merrimack all the way to the Lowell Memorial Auditorium. This extension will pass under Bridge Street, behind the Massachusetts Mills and over the Concord River on a new footbridge.
A Pawtucket Canal walkway is now in the planning stages. This would run from the Merrimack River near the UMass Lowell South Campus, through much of the Acre and along the Pawtucket Canal just across from the back of Western Avenue Studios, pass under the previously unpassable railroad tracks (see photo above), and end at the Lord Overpass (or whatever that becomes once it is filled in).
This would also present the best hope of connecting Western Avenue Studios to the Hamilton Canal District. Granted, this new canal walk would be across the Pawtucket Canal from Western Ave Studios, but just as the National Park has found an affordable way to place a pedestrian bridge across the Concord River to extend the Riverwalk, so might the National Park or the city or some other entity find the funds necessary to build such a bridge over the Pawtucket Canal at Western Avenue Studios. While the National Park’s walkway is admittedly just in the planning stages, perhaps the city and the Commonwealth can incorporate a Western Ave to Lord Overpass portion of this trail into the Lord Overpass remake.
The final priority of the park is to help fulfill what in Pat Mogan’s view was a core mission of the National Park: to be a platform for the people of Lowell to do their own programing. Celeste cited support given to Lowell Walks, DIY Lowell, Lowell Heritage Partnership’s Waterways Vitality Project and others as ways in which the park is already performing this mission. She hopes that such collaborative efforts not only continue, but continue to expand.
Lowell Plan Breakfast
One of my highlights of recent Lowell Plan breakfasts is hearing from graduates of the Public Matters leadership training program. This year, Christine Bruins, the Planning and Grant Program Manager of Lowell National Historical Park, and Joey Banh, Program Manager of Entrepreneurship for All and co-owner of Sizzling Kitchen Restaurant were the two Public Matters representatives.
Clad in her National Park Service uniform, Bruins spoke of growing up in Minnesota and then finding a home with the National Park Service in Denver. Then one day out of the blue she got a call from the Lowell Park Superintendent inviting her to come here for a temporary assignment. Bruins confessed that her response was to ask if she call the Superintendent right back. This gave her time to Google “Lowell” to figure out where and what it was. Whatever the internet told her was good enough to bring her here from Denver. The temporary appointment became permanent. In her comments at the breakfast, Bruins assured the crowd that Lowell’s story of rise and decline and revival is one that resonates with people across the country who themselves are struggling with the effects of de-industrialization. She added that Lowell’s periods of vibrancy “did not happen by chance; they were the product of plans that were already in place that were broadly supported by the community and the city’s political leadership” when the right circumstances arose.
Beside all of his other accomplishments, Joey Banh, a Vietnamese immigrant, is also a co-founder of the FreeVerse! spoken word poetry organization. He used that technique to tell his own very personal and poignant story of arriving and growing up in Lowell. His remarks earned a standing ovation – the only one of the morning – from the 400 people in attendance.
Also speaking at the breakfast were Mayor Ed Kennedy, Middlesex Community College President Jim Mabry, and Katie Stebbins, the Vice President of Economic Development at the University of Massachusetts. Highlighting the morning’s theme of Civic Engagement, Kennedy cited the countless volunteers who help make big Lowell events like the Folk Festival and the Kinetic Sculpture Race great successes. He even sees the passionate fight over the location of Lowell High as evidence of strong public participation in the city.
MCC President Mabry used his time at the podium to urge support for the “Lowell Promise Plan” which is an effort to prepare the workforce of the future and to overcome inequality by increasing educational opportunities throughout the community. The effort is a partnership of Middlesex Community College, Project Learn, UMass Lowell, the Lowell Public Schools, and many other agencies. Mabry said that in Lowell today, only 22 percent of the workforce holds a college degree. To attract employers, you need more college graduates in the workforce. Statistics show that workers with that credential earn more, pay more in taxes, are more civilly engaged, and are healthier than those without a degree.
Katie Stebbins of UMass, who was introduced by State Senator Eileen Donoghue, previously was an economic development official in the administration of Government Baker, and before that, a city planner in Springfield, Mass. Stebbins said that in today’s world, economic development has “morphed into a community development model.” She added, “It’s all about the people; it’s not just bricks and mortar.” Stebbins said leaders should strive to instill an entrepreneurial ethos throughout the community, not just in the sense of starting businesses, but in the sense of getting things done, all kinds of things. She closed with a story about her practice of riding the bus to work while employed by the city of Springfield. She said on those bus rides, the passenger conversations she overheard were crucial to her ability to understand how the community actually worked. Listening to ordinary people, it turns out, is a critically important part of economic and community development.