HAVERHILL — They thought it would never happen.
Merrimack Street merchants are buzzing about the planned transformation of the downtown Woolworth property into a high-rise building with a college campus, condos, offices and stores.
They said anything will be better than the years they endured with an abandoned building at the eastern entrance to downtown.
“It can’t help but be an improvement over what’s there now,” said Melinda Barrett, owner of Barrett’s Specialty Foods at 103 Merrimack St. and a first term city councilor.
“Having a school there would be good for us,’’ she said of the UMass Lowell satellite campus. “It would increase foot traffic.”
Barrett said the Merrimack Street section of downtown is busy during the day but quiet at night, while the Washington Street end of downtown benefits from its restaurant night life.
The Woolworth building, vacant for more than 40 years, is scheduled to be demolished in late spring, signalling the start of a major redevelopment of this prominent site overlooking the Merrimack River.
A team that includes the Greater Haverhill Foundation and the Planning Office for Urban Affairs unveiled plans last week to develop the first of several mixed-use buildings along the river.
The signature tenant of the seven-story development that will replace the Woolworth building, to be called Harbor Place, will be the UMass Lowell satellite campus. The college plans to occupy the second and third floors of the new, glass-enclosed building.
Restaurants and retails shops will occupy the first floor of Harbor Place and there will be office space on upper floors.
Andrew Coppola, 28, manager of Haverhill Beef company at 117 Merrimack St., agreed that anything will be better than the Woolworth building sitting vacant and boarded up.
“It’s been an empty building my whole life,” Coppola said. “We’re pretty excited about the project. It should bring more people to Merrimack Street.”
At the A1-Deli, 92 Merrimack St., owner Robert Meidanis called the project “the best thing that ever happened downtown.”
“It think it will be better for everybody,” Meidanis said. “The (eastern section of) downtown is dead and many people are still confused about the paid parking.”
Meidanis said that even though parking is free (with time limits) along Merrimack Street, many of his customers were scared off after the city put paid parking into effect. Drivers have to pay to park in the parking garage opposite the A1-Deli, as well as on Washington Street and other downtown streets.
“Hopefully this project will bring in people with money who will shop and eat in this area,” Meidanis said.
Mal Kimball, a voting member of the Greater Haverhill Foundation, operates Kimball Insurance at 107 Merrimack St. He said he was the single dissenting vote for the purchase of the Woolworth building in 2005. He said he objected to the purchase price because it was far more than the assessed value of the property at the time. The foundation, which is a nonprofit economic development corporation working closely with the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce, bought the Woolworth building for $1.4 million.
“I don’t think it’s the right project for that spot,” Kimball said about the project planned for the Woolworth building property. “You want access to the waterfront, but the real problem was the city should have taken down that side of Merrimack Street during Urban Renewal (in the 1960s) in order to open up the river. It should have been set up like the Esplanade in Boston.”
But Kimball said the project as proposed has to be better than the Woolworth building sitting vacant.
“I just hope they are moving in the right direction and are not taking a funded Band-Aid approach, which is when you shape the project according to the availability of money,” he said. “But if people are living there, then you’d hope the scenario works out that downtown residents will do business with downtown businesses.”
Construction of the $18 million building is expected to begin in the fall and take 18 to 24 months. The job is expected to generate about 150 construction jobs, according to a press release about the project.
The entire sweeping Merrimack Street Ventures development is likely to top $80 million, officials said. Later phases include the demolition of several more large buildings on Merrimack Street which will be replaced by mixed-use projects with ground-floor retail and hundreds of condos and apartments on upper floors.
Other structures to be demolished starting in the spring include the Ocasio building and Newman’s Furniture building, as well as several other buildings heading west on Merrimack Street, city officials said.
The project is designed to bring new life to the eastern section of downtown, in the same way that redevelopment of vacant shoe factories into housing did for the western end of downtown in recent years.
The Planning Office for Urban Affairs is the nonprofit residential development arm of the Boston Catholic Archdiocese. In 2010, the group converted of the old Hayes factory building on Granite Street across from the downtown train station into 57 one- and two-bedroom apartments, most of which are reserved for low- and middle-income renters. The agency bought the Newman’s Furniture building at 32 Merrimack St. last year and has either purchased or has agreements to purchase several more buildings on Merrimack Street, officials said.
City officials said that state Rep. Brian Dempsey, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has already secured $10 million in state economic development money for the new project’s infrastructure, including the boardwalk.
Mayor James Fiorentini said the next history book about Haverhill will recall the project as one of the greatest developments in the city’s history.
The yellow, art deco-style Woolworth building opened in 1949 and has been vacant since the former department store closed in 1969.