LAWRENCE — As many as 345 apartments could be built on the site of the 7-acre Pacific Mill complex over the next five years if initial plans for 81 units are approved by the city and the economy continues to improve, according to a developer and mill property manager.
Brady Sullivan Properties, based in Manchester, N.H., has agreed to purchase three of the five Pacific Mill buildings — which now house commercial and industrial tenants — with an eye toward converting one of them to 81 apartments while the other two would continue to house businesses.
Alida Davis, property manager for the historic, riverfront mill site at the junction of Canal Street and the Casey Bridge, said "with any luck, construction on the first phase could begin by the end of this year," with later phases over the next five or six years.
The first phase includes turning Building 6 — the first building on the left after crossing the bridge from Canal Street — into 81 apartments. That building now houses a number of businesses, including Davis' office suite, and the old Pacific Mill Diner, now known as Rachel's Diner.
The owner of Rachel's, Rachel DeSantis of Lawrence, said she will be closing at the end of this month. She said the closing of the cafe, which has been at the site since the 1970s, is happening because she is focusing more on her personal chef business. She said it just happens to coincide with the changes taking place on the property.
Two smaller buildings, buildings No. 3 and No. 5, are also to be sold to Brady Sullivan as part of Phase 1. They both house commercial tenants, which will likely remain on the property, Davis said.
She said that over the long-term, those buildings could be converted into office and mixed-retail properties but that for the time-being, the tenants would all stay.
"Businesses in this building can go to Building No. 1," said Davis during an interview in her second-floor office in Building 6. "We still have 200,000 square feet of space available."
In Phase 2, the building behind Building 6 would be converted into 88 residential units. In the final phase, the largest building on the site, Mill 1, would be converted into 176 apartments.
"But that's three to five years down the road," she said. "That's potential residential that's not on the table at this point."
She said while parking is difficult on the site, there is enough for the first two phases, but that it gets more difficult with the final phase. She said the company is looking to possibly use space in the courthouse parking lot across the street as well as space in Pemberton Park, where ample parking also exists. The park is actually connected to the back of the Pemberton Mill complex via a roadway that goes under the deck of the Casey Bridge.
Davis said Brady Sullivan has been interested in developing a residential/commercial project at the site for the last two or three years.
"We've been in and out of negotiations and they just decided to go ahead now," she said, adding that the company is well-known for making high-quality projects and has actually expanded in the down economy. She said the project, once it's built-out, will be worth an estimated $40 million to $50 million. The work on the interior of the buildings will complement work on the outside, including all new windows and extensive landscaping and parking lot improvements.
Ron Decola, project manager with Brady Sullivan, said the company has been doing "adaptive reuse" projects for more than 20 years, including mill conversions like the Lawrence project in the last 7 or 8 years all over New England.
"Mill conversions are very attractive," he said, noting that developers use state and federal tax credits to make such projects financially feasible. "Without the tax credits, these deals do not work."
Rents charged will be market-rate. At nearby Washington Mill, an apartment complex that was renovated several years ago, rents range from $900 a month for the smallest units to $1,700 for the largest units. The smaller units at the Pacific Mill complex, which will be renamed The Lofts at 300 Canal Street, range in size from around 900 square feet up to the largest at almost 2,000 square feet.
Decola said the company is optimistic about the future of Lawrence.
"We like Lawrence," he said. "It's got a good highway system, it's centrally located and has an MBTA station. We expect to attract people who can't afford the Boston market."
Davis said the project, which will include numerous amenities, from a health club to possibly an indoor basketball court, will cater to empty-nesters, divorcees and young professionals without children.
So far, she said, the city has been very supportive of the project.
A number of local businesspeople have also come out in support, including Juan and Luis Yepez, who own several mills in the city.
"This new project will compliment the redevelopment of the North Canal district, which continues with work done by Union Crossing, 60 Island Street and the Washington Mills," they said in a letter of support.
Gary Sidell, of Bell Tower Management, which oversees 60 Island St., said the project would "create a new and vibrant community of people who are proud to live here, who will support local retail establishments and who will hopefully share with others the renaissance that is taking place."
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