“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.