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.
“It’s absurd because it’s affordable housing,” Barnes said. “A lot of (the tenants) don’t have even one car.”
And while the mills are historic, beautiful and built to last, they come with unique problems. Historic designations can limit redevelopment options. The underground waterways that carried the water to power the mills can pose environmental limits and the interiors can be difficult to reconfigure, especially for residential apartments. At Everett Mills, the football-field shape of the floors is too wide for residential use, Lydon said.
The depressed downtowns that characterize many Massachusetts mill cities add one challenge more, making it difficult to attract employers with employees looking for someplace to go for lunch or something to do after work.
“A lack of amenities,” said Brad Buschur, project director for Groundwork Lawrence, a non-profit that has spearheaded a handful of redevelopment projects in the city, noted about Lawrence as he helped lead yesterday’s tour. “No place to shop. Limited restaurants.”
Patrick Blanchette, the city’s director of economic development, did not return a phone call seeking information about the amount of commercial space that remains unfilled in Lawrence, making the exact size of the challenge facing the city impossible to assess yesterday.
But the successes so far mix with the failures on either sides of the Merrimack River and along the canals and in downtown. Among the recent notable failures is the Merrimack Paper Co. on South Canal Street, a fire damaged, partially demolished ruin that Andover developer Stephen Stapinski abandoned after the city rejected his plan for a mix of residential and commercial uses on the site.
The biggest success by far – measured by sheer size and by occupancy rates and workers employed – is Riverwalk Properties on Merrimack Street, where restaurateur Sal Lupoli has renovated 2.3 million square feet of space on 60-plus acres where local icons such as the Pacific and Wood mills once manufactured uniforms for America’s World War I troops.
“This was known as the buildings with no roofs on them. These were the buildings with the big red ‘X,’ “ Lupoli said yesterday about the complex of 12 mill buildings he began acquiring in 2003. “Now if you look at it, there’s nothing but cars and jobs.”
Riverwalk is 98 percent occupied, with 200 tenants that include several state agencies, Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, Northern Essex Community College, a restaurant owned by Lupoli himself and the headquarters of his chain of pizza parlors. In all, 3,500 people now work at the complex, which former Mayor Michael Sullivan wanted to condemn and demolish.
Lupoli didn’t attend yesterday’s redevelopment sessions, but had advice to those who did about the unique redevelopment challenges posed by the mills. Beyond assembling the tax incentives, zoning changes and the special architectural talent needed to adapt the mills for the 21 century, Lupoli said the principal ingredient is vision.
“These aren’t one-hit wonders that you put up on Route 128 and rent out in a couple of months,” Lupoli said. “You have to have a 20-year vision. You have to look at them in that light - the way you raise a child. You nurture it, you take care of it every step of the way.”