Lowell Politics newsletter: March 31, 2024

The most significant news from Lowell City Hall last Tuesday night was not the City Council meeting, which was unremarkable, but from the Council’s Economic Development Subcommittee which met before the regular Council meeting. UMass Lowell Chancellor Julie Chen made a presentation to the subcommittee on the University’s “Lowell Innovation Network Corridor” initiative, also known as Lowell INC or LINC.

The immediate geographic focus of this effort runs from the Tsongas Center to Lelacheur Park. The two key players are UMass Lowell and Wexford Science & Technology, a Baltimore-based private developer founded in 1998 that works exclusively with universities, academic medical centers, and research institutions on complimentary real estate development projects.

Wexford’s specialty is creating what it calls “Knowledge Communities” which are “fully integrated innovation districts as primary drivers of economic development in many metropolitan regions.” As shown on the company’s website, Wexford has an enviable list of partners:

  • Philadelphia PA – uCity Square – with Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania
  • St. Louis MO – Cortex Innovation Community – with Washington University and Saint Louis University
  • Winston-Salem NC – Innovation Quarter – with Wake Forest University
  • Baltimore MD – BioPark – with University of Maryland
  • Providence RI – 195 District – with Brown University and the University of Rhode Island
  • Durham NC – Downtown Durham – with Duke University
  • Phoenix AZ – Phoenix Bioscience Core – with Arizona State University and the University of Arizona
  • Miami FL – Converge Miami – University of Miami
  • Pittsburgh PA – Pittsburgh Knowledge Community – with University of Pittsburgh
  • St. Louis MO – BRDG Park – with St. Louis Community College
  • Norfolk VA – Innovation Research Park – with Old Dominion University
  • New Haven CT – Downtown Crossing – with Yale
  • Hershey PA – with Penn State
  • Chicago IL – University Technology Park – with Illinois Tech
  • Sacramento CA – Aggie Square – with University of California Davis
  • Charlotte NC – The Pearl – with Wake Forest School of Medicine

That’s an impressive roster. To think that the next entry might be “Lowell MA – Lowell Innovation Network Corridor – with UMass Lowell” almost defies belief. This is the equivalent of the city winning the Mega Millions jackpot.

What exactly is Lowell INC? It’s a mixed-use development that will create private workspaces, private housing, and new student housing in a relatively compact space that will leverage the steady stream of high-end talent from UMass Lowell’s faculty and staff to attract businesses hungry for new employees. Further enhancing this project will be new housing which will allow employees to live near their jobs; the amazing availability and diversity of Lowell’s already-existing amenities from sports to restaurants to entertainment; the scenic location of the development space between the Merrimack River and the Northern Canal; and the relative proximity to Boston via commuter rail and the regional highway system without the astronomical cost of real estate in and closer to Boston.

Perhaps most encouraging is that this project is already underway. Although the new buildings that are contemplated won’t be finished until 2027, some of the companies that will occupy them are already moving into UMass Lowell’s Wannalancit Mills complex which is in the center of the LINC district. Having the occupants of these to-be-constructed buildings already onsite and in operation should be a tremendous boost to construction.

As for new construction, the initial focus will be on either side of the Tsongas Center. On the east side of the arena (closest to Bridge Street) there is now a large surface parking lot. A building identified as “UML & Industry Co-location and Professional Housing” will be constructed here. On the other side of the arena, across the Western Canal and Suffolk Street is University-owned property now occupied by the Hall Street Garage, two surface parking lots, and a small, one-story building that doesn’t seem worth saving. Here will be more “UML & Industry Co-location and Professional Housing” constructed on either side of the Hall Street Garage. The final construction project identified at this point will be new student housing built on an existing surface parking lot on Aiken Street, directly across from Lelacheur Park. This will complement the adjacent University Suites dormitory that opened in 2013.

Chancellor Chen, citing a report from the Donahue Institute, predicted that Lowell INC will create 1300 construction jobs, 2000 permanent jobs, add $4 million to $6 million per year in tax revenue to Lowell, and will result in $3.7 billion in new economic activity over the next ten years.

More good news about LINC came on Wednesday when Governor Maura Healey traveled to UMass Lowell to announce her administration’s support for the project. Accompanying the Governor was Jerry Wohletz, the President and CEO of Draper, a Cambridge-based research and development organization that will be perhaps the prime tenant of this development. In fact, Draper has already commenced moving employees into temporary space in the Wannalancit Mills and will fully occupy one of the new buildings that will be constructed over the next two years.

Bringing Draper to Lowell is a very big deal. Anyone with more than a passing interest in the defense and aerospace industry has heard the name. Founded by Charles Stark Draper in the 1930s as part of MIT (where Draper was a professor), the company developed sophisticated and much-needed guidance systems for weaponry during World War II, then after the war continued in defense-related research and development while branching out into space exploration. It was Draper that developed the computer guidance system used in the Appollo space craft that reached the moon. In 1973, Draper spun off from MIT to become an independent non-profit organization. It currently has 1700 employees and had annual revenue of $672 million in 2022.

Undoubtedly there are many people who have played big roles in making this happen but Chancellor Julie Chen is likely at the lead of that group, not only because of her current position as Chancellor, but because much of her professional career involved research and development in the defense industry, a skill set that would seem particularly helpful in attracting a company like Draper.

Although he did not speak at the subcommittee meeting, City Manager Tom Golden seems fully supportive of this project, particularly behind the scenes. However, he must be careful not to cross the City Council so he may be tempering his public advocacy a bit to see which way the Council winds are blowing. Right now, Councilors seem supportive, but whether that lasts remains to be seen.

One of the arguments against the city moving to a system of District Councilors like we have now rather than the At Large system that existed from 1947 to 2021 was that historically in Lowell the district system undercut citywide initiatives with Councilors focusing exclusively on their own districts. The competition for resources among districts and the resulting deal-cutting squandered opportunities to accomplish big, transformative projects.

While the LINC project has already been launched by UMass Lowell and its private developer partner, the city will have to play a big role in realizing the full potential of the initiative, most likely with infrastructure improvements and perhaps tax incentives. However, if parochial concerns lead  Councilors to weaken their support, it could undercut the project’s chances of success and limit the benefits that ultimately flow to the city.

Imagining that the City Council might sabotage a project like this is not far-fetched. As wonderful as this proposal is, the unfortunate part is that it, or something like it, could have been achieved a decade ago but for the vehement anti-UMass Lowell attitude of City Councilors.

When Marty Meehan took over as UMass Lowell Chancellor, he expanded the university at a rapid pace. That continued with the transition to Jacquie Moloney as Meehan’s successor. It was enhanced even more when Kevin Murphy became Lowell City Manager. When Murphy came to that office, he shared a vision of Lowell as a “college town” which would maximize the many benefits of having a major research university and a thriving community college (UMass Lowell and MCC) within the city.

But the rapid expansion of UMass Lowell’s footprint caused a negative reaction among certain Councilors, members of the media, and members of the public. The main complaint seemed to be that every privately-owned property acquired by UMass Lowell would cease paying property taxes to the city (since state-owned property does not pay local taxes). Given all the other benefits that a thriving and expanding UMass Lowell provided the city, those objections seemed irrational, but they were real, nonetheless. The pushback began when individual parcels near University Crossing were purchased; rose in volume when the Notini property on Aiken Street was sold to the University (It became the Campus Recreation Sports Complex); and reached a fever pitch when the Perkins Place Apartments on Perkins Street was sold to the University (It was rebranded River Hawk Village and is used for graduate student housing).

The Council’s anti-UMass Lowell hysteria forced City Manager Murphy to enter negotiations with UMass Lowell’s Chancellor Jacquie Moloney “to more clearly define the fiscal relationship between the city and the university.” Whatever the details of those “negotiations” were, the result was a chilling of the relationship between the city and the University. Had they been spouses, their next stop would have been Middlesex Probate Court citing irreconcilable differences.

But fast forward to today, we find that having a $3.7 billion dollar development dropped in the city’s lap has converted reactionary critics from ten years ago to boosters today. Hopefully that will persist.


In the bigger picture, the decade-long pause in the University’s development of this area is nothing compared to the 60-year wait for the Northern Canal Urban Renewal project to attain its objectives. In the late 1950s, Lowell was dead in the water development-wise so the city embraced Federal programs that flowed from the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954.

Referred to as “urban renewal” these programs provided federal dollars to replace substandard housing with new public housing. While some in Lowell saw this as a sincere opportunity to upgrade housing, others manipulated the process to offload what they saw as valueless mill buildings they owned, particularly the Merrimack Manufacturing Company, Lowell’s first big mill complex which extended from the Boott Mills all the way to the Lawrence Mills. But to qualify for federal funds, a certain percentage of the project area had to consist of housing, so the boundaries of the demolition district were expanded to include much of the Little Canada neighborhood which extended from upper Merrimack Street to the Lawrence and Wannalancit Mills (then called Suffolk and Tremont Mills) which were not to be demolished. Put in today’s geographic context, the Merrimack Mills were centered on the Tsongas Arena and Little Canada was in the vicinity of Lelacheur Park. This puts Lowell INC squarely within the Northern Canal Urban Renewal zone.

Although urban renewal is universally criticized today for destroying poor yet vibrant neighborhoods and displacing residents with inadequate or non-existent provisions for their relocation, the hope at the time was to create improved housing and to clear the way for “new industry” (whatever that was). In a way, Lowell INC with its mixed-used development objectives could be the realization of that vision.

In the meantime, to learn more about the negative consequences of urban renewal, consider attending next Sunday’s Parker Lecture which will feature Charlie Gargiulo discussing his memoir, Legends of Little Canada which is his personal account of growing up in Little Canada and the consequences of being forcibly displaced from the neighborhood by the urban renewal wrecking ball.

Charlie’s talk will take place at Lowell National Historical Park visitor center at 246 Market Street at 2pm next Sunday, April 7, 2024. After the talk, Charlie will have copies of Legends of Little Canada available for sale.

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