Lowell Politics Newsletter: Feb 25, 2024

The continued existence of the Smith Baker Center was back before the Lowell City Council on Tuesday night. For several years, the demolition of this former church has seemed inevitable, but the Council struggles with making the formal decision to tear it down.

As I wrote on this same topic back in September 2023, the decision to demolish the Smith Baker Center was made by past City Councils when they insisted on unreasonable conditions in response to the last, best proposal to renovate the building.

Here’s what I wrote about this last September:

[In 2015], The Coalition for a Better Acre put together a viable proposal that would leverage worldwide interest in Jack Kerouac to fund the building’s redevelopment with community spaces on the first floor and an active performance venue on the second. At the time, the state of repair of the building was such that the needed renovations were feasible and affordable, but that window was closing fast.

However, a snag arose when the city insisted on reversionary conditions in any conveyance to CBA. Here’s what that was about: Marty Meehan had recently become the Chancellor of UMass Lowell and had embarked on a building and expansion boom of the University’s footprint in the city. This involved purchasing quite a few properties from private owners and making them part of the University’s real estate portfolio. Because the Commonwealth does not pay property taxes to the city for state-owned real estate, these parcels were removed from the property tax rolls.

Ignoring all the benefits flowing to the city from having a vibrant University in its midst, reactionaries on the City Council vigorously opposed any further conversion of properties to a non-real estate tax paying status. This not only tainted the city’s relationship with the University, a situation that persists today (witness recent Council comments on the ICC’s potential use for migrant housing), it also stifled development by nonprofits like CBA.

As a result of this mindset, the city insisted that any conveyance to CBA of the Smith Baker Center contain reversionary language that if the property ever ceased being used as a performance venue, ownership would revert to the city. This provision was fatal to CBA’s funding since no lender would finance a project with such an ownership contingency. The city’s insistence on that reversionary clause killed the last hope of saving the Smith Baker Center.

For those new to this topic, the Smith Baker Center is the large red brick building located across Merrimack Street from Lowell City Hall. It was constructed in the 1880s as the First Congregational Church. It continued as a church until 1968 when the First Congregational Church merged with Christ Church United and consolidated their congregations in the Christ Church United church at the corner of East Merrimack and High Street.

Soon after that, the city rented the Merrimack Street building for use as its senior center on the first floor with a 600-seat performance venue on the upper floor. It was also renamed the Smith Baker Center after the longtime pastor of the church, the Reverend Smith Baker (1836-1917). In 1975, the church sold the property to the city for $85,000.

The building continued to be used by the Lowell Council on Aging until the current senior center on Broadway opened in 2004. Since then, the Smith Baker Center has been vacant and unused. When the roof began to leak, nothing effective was done about it and the process of demolition by neglect commenced. Nature has done its job and, if the building isn’t intentionally demolished soon, gravity will perform the task.

In many ways, this is a case of history repeating itself. St. Peter’s Church was a magnificent gothic style church constructed in the 1890s on Gorham Street across from Lowell Superior Courthouse. Changing demographics and the construction of the Lowell Connector caused the once-vibrant parish to erode. The Archdiocese of Boston closed the church in 1986.

Like the city of Lowell with the Smith Baker Center, the Archdiocese failed to protect St. Peter’s from the elements. Water leaking through the roof weakened the walls and, in early 1996, a block of granite dropped from the façade into Gorham Street. Public safety concerns cut through historic preservation rules that had delayed the demolition of the building and the church was quickly taken down despite zealous protests from former parishioners.

In 2003, the Archdiocese sold the St. Peter’s parcel and the adjacent rectory building to a private owner. Eventually, a vacant portion of the parcel was conveyed to the Coalition for a Better Acre which constructed a 24-unit affordable housing residential structure in place of the church.

Can something comparable replace the Smith Baker Center? One would hope, especially with the ongoing shortage of housing that plagues this region. Councilors will undoubtedly point to the possibility of new housing to soften the sting of demolishing the building.

But when housing is proposed for that lot, won’t the question of parking arise? Those in the urban planning field now generally agree that in downtown areas especially, parking requirements are an unnecessary obstacle to much-needed housing, but neighbors and planning board members often disagree and burden such projects with costly or unfeasible parking requirements.

A bigger question is, what is the Council’s strategy for downtown Lowell? I’m not sure there is one. This question arose in the discussion about increasing parking rates which also came before the Council on Tuesday night. The owner of Brew’d Awakening Coffeehaus, in speaking against the proposed parking rate increase, said the solution to the deficit in the parking fund is to get more people to come to downtown Lowell, not to increase the cost charged to the ever-diminishing number of people who come to downtown already.

Since 1978, Lowell has used historic preservation as an economic development strategy. It was never about people liking old buildings, it was about leveraging those buildings to distinguish Lowell from all the other fading mid-sized cities in postindustrial America.  In that, Lowell met with huge success.

Lowell National Historical Park was unprecedented. Rather than preserve a battlefield like Gettysburg or a natural wonder like Yellowstone, the Lowell National Park provided federal funds to private property owners to renovate their buildings. In return, the building owners agreed to comply with historic design standards, a legal commitment that is ongoing.

Too often today those leading the city either ignore or are ignorant of that history and that commitment. They also ignore or are ignorant of the need for city government to have a grand strategy for development that goes beyond fixing potholes and ensuring that parks are maintained. In the past, the city has had success with historic preservation, then the creative economy, for a while it was working closely with UMass Lowell, but today, and for at least the past decade, City Councils have failed to share an inspiring vision that all can rally around. That absence of such a vision helps explain why the Smith Baker Center will soon be demolished and invites the question of what will be next.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *