By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — The Boston Archdiocese has purchased a large building on Merrimack Street and is in talks with the city for a major downtown project that could also involve the long-vacant F.W. Woolworth building.
The Planning Office for Urban Affairs, an arm of the archdiocese dedicated to building affordable housing, has bought the multi-story Newman’s Furniture building at 32 Merrimack St. from longtime owner Norman Newman for $667,000, according to paperwork on file with the Southern Essex County Registry of Deeds.
The property was bought by a corporation called Merrimack Street Owner, LLC. That corporation was formed by the Planning Office of Urban Affairs in Boston, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
William Grogan, the agency’s chief operating officer, did not return several message left at his office and on his cell phone.
The agency also appears to be involved in negotiations to develop Haverhill’s signature vacant property, the Woolworth building at the corner of Merrimack and Main streets, as well as possibly other nearby buildings.
The Greater Haverhill Foundation, a nonprofit economic development corporation that works closely with the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce, bought the Woolworth building in 2005 for $1.4 million. The sale sparked speculation that various developers were interested in building a high-rise condominium complex with retail shops and a restaurant on the ground floor. Several deals fell through and then the real estate market collapsed, however.
The yellow, art deco-style Woolworth building opened in 1949 and has been vacant since the former department store closed in 1969.
In 2010, the foundation, which pays about $16,000 a year in taxes on the property, fought off calls to demolish the dilapidated structure after pieces of metal and concrete toppled down to the sidewalk. Neighbors have also complained of tall weeds growing up from the roof in recent years.
About that time, the foundation repaired the masonry, installed painted plywood over windows and doors and repaired the roof. A structural engineer was brought in to inspect the building and certified it was not in danger of collapsing.
Mayor James Fiorentini said the foundation has “a new partner” in developing the Woolworth site.
Fiorentini, who is currently developing new rules to spur market-rate housing and mixed-use projects on Merrimack Street, said he has been asked not to comment or publicly discuss details of the project.
Ronald Trombley, an officer on the foundation’s realty trust board who is handling the sale of the Woolworth building, did not return a phone call left at his downtown office. The foundation was formed by local business people in the late 1960s to build the Ward Hill Industrial Park.
The Planning Office for Urban Affairs has other projects in Haverhill. Its first in 2010 was the conversion 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.
More recently in 2012, the agency purchased the old Winter Street elementary school from the city for $324,000. It plans to build 12 “affordable” apartments there under the state’s 40B law.
Redeveloping the Woolworth site has long been considered the key to revitalizing the eastern end of downtown, which has largely missed the renaissance that began along the Washington Street end a decade ago. That area at the west end of downtown has grown with the emergence of a restaurant district and construction of hundreds of new apartments and condominiums in old factory buildings.
The vacant Woolworth building is located at the eastern gateway of downtown, at the base of the Basiliere Bridge and along the Merrimack River. It is considered a key site because it is at that entrance and because Haverhill is trying to lure development along the waterway.
In an interview last week, Sven Amirian, president of the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce, said he did not know who was behind the potential development of the Woolworth site or other buildings on Merrimack Street.
“Everyone is being pretty tight-lipped on the details,” Amirian said. “But if it happens, it’s going to be very exciting. It will be the catalyst for the redevelopment of that whole end of downtown.”
City Councilor John Michitson said a project involving the Woolworth building would be the most exciting development in the city in many years. He said he believes the mayor is tailoring his Merrimack Street zoning district to go along with what the developer wants to build there.
“That’s the city’s role there, to help facilitate what the developer is trying to do,” Michitson said.
The council recently approved several zoning changes proposed by the mayor that will allow a developer to seek valuable state tax credits for projects that include market-rate housing. The mayor has said he will be asking the council for more zoning changes soon.
Former chamber of commerce president Sally Cerasuolo-O’Rorke facilitated the foundation’s purchase of the Woolworth building in 2005 when she was chief administrator for both business groups. At the time, she suggested the building could be preserved as a cultural center or demolished to make way for a riverfront park.
A year later In 2006, a $70 million proposal by New York developer to convert the Woolworth building and several abutting parcels into a complex of condominiums and restaurants fell apart when Norman Newman declined to include his furniture store building at the 11th hour, according to the real estate agent putting the deal together.
That project, which reportedly involved the Woolworth and Ocasio buildings as well as the Emerson Floor Coverings and Newman Furniture buildings, collapsed after Newman demanded a nonrefundable payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars before he would ink the deal, Haverhill Realtor Carl Bletzer said at the time. The furniture store building is the property the archdiocese paid Newman $667,000 for in March. Newman’s Discount Furniture has been advertising a “going of business for good” sale.
In 2007, another developer considered buying the Ocasio building at 50 Merrimack St. and converting it into 30 condominiums, but that project never materialized.