LAWRENCE — James Lydon stepped into the barn of a room on the sixth floor of Everett Mills yesterday morning, swept his hand across the massive open space and turned to the small crowd that followed him in.
“You can imagine what this space would have been like 100 years ago,” Lydon, vice president of a state agency that finances difficult redevelopment projects, told the group. “Filled with machines. People Noise. Absolutely Amazing.”
Today the room is something else, a dimly lit and mostly empty ghost of its past and a symbol of the challenges facing mill cities across Massachusetts as they struggle to fill the red brick relics of their 19th century past with 21st century uses.
That effort got a recharge in Lawrence yesterday when a team of planners, developers, architects, real estate experts, financiers and government officials met to tour the mills in the North Canal District, confer with local leaders and issue a report on how to get the job done.
The event was one of several sponsored annually in former mill cities by the Urban Land Institute and MassDevelopment, the redevelopment agency where Lydon is vice president. Earlier this year, ULI and MassDevelopment sent similar teams to Pittsfield, Haverhill and Fall River to consult about how to reinvent themselves.
The challenges for redeveloping Lawrence and the other mill cities are formidable, beginning with the major costs of cleaning up the environmental messes left behind, along with the mills, by centuries of largely unregulated manufacturing.
“This was more of a brownfield remediation project than a parking lot,” James Barnes, Lawrence’s director of community development, told the team of redevelopment advisers yesterday about the $80 million cleanup needed to build a $4 million parking lot on 12 acres behind Everett Mills.
In fact, parking is another problem altogether in converting the mills, which were built when people walked or rode trolleys to work. In Lawrence, the lenders who financed Union Crossing wanted 2.5 parking spaces for each of the 60 apartments that recently opened in the renovated mill, despite protests from the developers and the city.