One of the most ambitious development proposals for Lawrence's mill district since the mills themselves were built a century or more ago would create an entirely new neighborhood on the Merrimack River at the Duck Bridge.
Lawrence CommunityWorks, which began in the mid-1980s as a small nonprofit fighting for affordable housing in the North Common neighborhood, would transform a sprawling group of riverfront mill buildings into a complex of 150 or more apartments, a day-care center, retail shops, high-tech companies and possibly a satellite college.
The $75 million Union Crossing, as it's been named, would remake the Southwick Clothing factory between Island Street and the Merrimack River and the Duck Mill on Union Street. A portion of the parking lot serving Southwick and the adjacent 60 Island St. office building and the Essex Arts Center would be turned into a city park — built on a raised deck over the parking area.
The development team, led by Lawrence CommunityWorks and mill owners Chet and Gary Sidell and Juan and Luis Yepez, expects construction to start on the first phase next spring.
"We're building a neighborhood," said Maggie Super-Church, who is managing the project for Lawrence CommunityWorks. "Housing, shops, services, outdoor space and parks."
To make way for the project, longtime Lawrence-based Southwick Clothing will move to a new facility in the Merrimack Valley, although its new home hasn't been identified.
Chet Sidell said the project, while big in scope, is a continuation of some of the economic development going on in the mill district along both sides of the river.
"This area doesn't feel like we're in a recession," he said. "We're proud of this, and at the end of the day, we'll have a right to be proud."
Luis Yepez, who with his brother Juan owns a mill at 25 Marston St., said the project is an unprecedented collaboration between private businesses and nonprofits to create affordable housing and good jobs.
"We are working together on a common goal to redevelop the site," he said. "We are sitting at the same table, putting the interests of those living here first."
An idea is born
The project has been at least two years in the making, said Sidell, and was born out of his need for additional parking for his tenants at 60 Island St., which is currently 90 percent occupied.
He said he approached Southwick CEO Bob Bayer in 2005 about buying the parking lot they share.
"They weren't interested," Sidell said.
A few months later, however, "the conversation changed," Sidell said, and Southwick told him that its 240,000-square foot complex and the adjacent parking lot — 5.5 acres in all — were for sale.
Sidell put together a team made up of Lawrence CommunityWorks, which had an office in his building at 60 Island St. until late last year and the Yepez brothers. After months of negotiation, they made an offer to Southwick.
In July 2007, Lawrence CommunityWorks bought the 5.5-acre site for $3.9 million.
The deal is complex. At the moment, CommunityWorks owns the three Southwick buildings, as well as the parking lot. Southwick has a one-year lease with Lawrence CommunityWorks that expires at the end of the year. Southwick's chief financial officer, Bob Nelson, said negotiations are ongoing with a potential new landlord in the Merrimack Valley. Southwick makes high-end suits for clothiers like Brooks Brothers.
But over the next few months, the ownership of the mills will change.
As part of the $45 million first phase of Union Crossing, scheduled to start next year, Lawrence CommunityWorks will sell the 65,000-square-foot building closest to Union Street to the Yepez brothers, who will work with Sidell and his son Gary to develop it into a mostly commercial project with some retail outlets on Union Street.
The sale of that building should take place some time in the next couple of months. Known as Building 4 when it was part of the Kunhardt Mills complex developed in the 1890s, it will become a business incubator housing small firms and startup companies run by high-tech or environmental entrepreneurs, said Juan Yepez. He said he is also in talks with a number of universities, including University of Massachusetts Lowell, to bring a satellite campus to the complex.
Lawrence CommunityWorks, meanwhile, will hold on to what is known as Building 9, a five-story, 140,000-square-foot building in the center of the Southwick complex.
Super-Church said the plan is to convert it into a mix of affordable- and market-rate rental and owner-occupied townhouse-style apartments on the fourth and fifth floors. A unique aspect of the upper two stories is a central corridor running down the middle of the building that will be open to roof skylights, allowing sunlight to enter, she said.
The corridor will be wider than traditional apartment building hallways, with enough room for small sitting areas or patios outside each townhouse, giving occupants more of a sense of community.
Lisa Kozol, director of real estate for Lawrence CommunityWorks, said rents for the family housing will be $900 to $1,200 a month, depending on the size of the apartment, family income and number of children.
Because the developers are using historic tax credits to renovate the exterior of the building, ownership won't be an option for five years. After that, however, residents could buy the apartments.
The third floor will contain congregate housing, leased in part by Lawrence General Hospital for visiting physicians and nurses on call at the hospital. Lawrence CommunityWorks has an agreement with the hospital to provide space to hospital staff with short-term contracts or on call at the hospital to stay in either group apartments or one- or two-bedroom units.
Also on that floor will be additional work-force housing available to teachers and other local workers just getting their start and looking for an inexpensive place to live.
The second floor will be home to Merrimack River Community Child Care, a partner in the project, which will also lease some of the work-force housing. That business is now located on the first floor of the complex.
The first floor of the building will be used for about 80 parking spaces for tenants of the building.
The 550-plus parking spaces on the rest of the site will be divided among the three property owners — Lawrence CommunityWorks, the Sidells and the Yepez brothers.
During the second phase, scheduled to start in 2010, the former dye works that now houses the Southwick retail store will be converted to restaurant, retail or community use, topped by a roof deck.
Also in the second phase is redevelopment of the former Duck Mill, a 130,000-square-foot building that now houses All Things Sicilian, which is moving to the Riverwalk complex on Merrimack Street. Sidell is planning to sell the building to Lawrence CommunityWorks by the end of next month. The nonprofit group will then convert the building to housing on the upper floors and commercial or retail uses on the first floor.
The third phase of the project, scheduled to start in 2012, will be to erect three new buildings on Island Street for retail or residential use.
Super-Church said financing for the project will come from a variety of public and private sources.
The first phase is expected to cost about $45 million and includes the housing in one building, the commercial office space in the other and the new park and parking lot.
She said most of the financing for the housing portion of the project will come from a combination of state and federal tax credits while the commercial portion of the project to be done by the Yepez brothers will rely more on conventional bank financing.
Key features of Union Crossing
r Pedestrian/road bridge from Canal Street, over the North Canal, will link Union Crossing with Gateway area.
r Path will also lead to Lawrence General Hospital on Marston Street for hospital employees going back and forth to work.
r Project will create an estimated 200 jobs.
r Residential and commercial properties — a total of 400,00 square feet of renovated and newly built space — will inject $225,000 in new property taxes to city coffers.
r Financing includes mix of traditional and nontraditional sources and will take advantage of numerous government-sponsored tax credit and rebate programs.
r Green development practices and features, including solar panels on the roof and an energy exchange system that will tap the cool waters of the Merrimack, will cut energy costs and reduce environmental impact.
r Tenants will be offered financial literacy training as well as matched savings programs. (See separate story on Your Money page inside today's paper.)
r On-site day care will serve for 136 infants, toddlers and preschoolers.
r Project will create 150 to 165 units of housing, including 80 units in the old Southwick building and the remainder in the Duck Mill.
r A new public park over part of the existing parking lot off Island Street will serve residents and neighbors.
r Cantilevered walkway on the river side of the mill complex will provide access to the Merrimack.
r A two-lane bridge to be built by the city over the North Canal will connect the entire complex to the anticipated 1,000-space parking lot being developed as part of the Gateway initiative, funded by local, state and federal agencies.
r In the last phase of the project, three new retail or residential buildings will be built along Island Street, overlooking the new park on one side and the North Canal on the other.
r Southwick Clothing, which has been at the 50 Island St. location for 25 years, sold its three buildings to Lawrence CommunityWorks last year and is planning to move to a new facility elsewhere in the Merrimack Valley.
For more details on the plan, see the Union Crossing master plan at: www.coldhamandhartman.com.