LAWRENCE – It began as a dense, churning beehive of mills that employed thousands and produced paper, plastics, clothing and more for longer than a century, then declined into a crumbling, contaminated relic of the city's – and the nation's – faded industrial might.
From those ashes, the east end of Canal Street this summer begins a third phase of life, as a grassy bowl-shaped park ringed by wildflowers, maple seedlings and several city landmarks, including the historic Stone Mill, Lawrence General Hospital and the Spicket and Merrimack rivers.
“So this all is now parkland,” James Barnes, the city's director of Community Development, said during a visit to the park last week, sweeping his open hand across a poster-sized photo of the burned-out shells of buildings that occupied this eastern gateway to downtown for decades after the mills closed. “Unless you see something like this photograph, you don't understand the transformation of urban space.”
This particular transformation cost more than $100 million and began 32 years ago, when the city took ownership of the Oxford Paper mill – once owned by National Geographic – which had closed and stopped paying taxes on its 3.5-acre site. The plastics and vinyl factory that General Tire and Rubber Co. – now GenCorp - operated on an adjoining 8.5 acres was closing at the same time, doubling the redevelopment challenge.
The two empty mills became magnets for looters, drug users and the homeless while the city, GenCorp, the hospital and several surrounding businesses organized to work out the complicated logistics of cleaning up and redeveloping the two properties. The effort was propelled by several state and federal grants and by GenCorp's agreement to demolish its buildings and give the land to the city.
In all, 40 or so buildings and their smokestacks and storage silos were demolished on the GenCorp and Oxford sites. Their contaminants – mostly PCBs and asbestos – were shipped to landfills as far as Utah or buried on-site under acres of impervious orange-colored cap. The exposed sluices, which discharged the river water that ran the turbines and carried waste from the mills to the Spicket River, were covered. Rail tracks and trestles were removed. GenCorp's 9.5 acres were paved over for a parking lot, a gesture of still unfilled optimism that the mills still in the area will fill up with residents and workers. Oxford's 3.5 acres were set aside for the park.
Because of the cap sealing the toxins buried below, nothing more can be built on the 13 acres.
The opening of the park was delayed last year when heavy rain washed away the new plantings and grasses. The replantings are taking hold, allowing for a ribbon-cutting in the fall, which Barnes said he hopes will be followed by outdoor concerts and theater, volleyball tournaments and fairs promoting city services, including housing.
“What used to be here was derelict, bombed-out and burned-out,” said Kevin O'Gara, whose family owns a 110,000-square-foot red brick building adjoining the park that was built by Everett Mills in 1904 and is now an office building. “It was about as ugly an entrance to downtown as any city could possibly want. Buildings were decaying, falling apart. It was just blight. Somebody scraped the old mills away and brought nature back.”
The view is good enough that O'Gara is installing only a split-rail fence and flower beds between his property and the park, rather than something more secure.
“I didn't want it to be a chain link fence,” he said. “We've had enough of that.”
After the decades of demolition and environmental clean ups, the new park comes on line as several other city parks are opening, in the works or getting an upgrade. Most are on former industrial sites.
Last year, the city and Groundwork Lawrence opened the Spicket River Greenway, a three-mile biking and hiking trail from the Methuen city line to the new park opening at the former Oxford mill site. The new park on the site has not yet been named.
The Campagnone Common is finishing up a million-dollar upgrade.
Last week, Mayor Daniel Rivera asked the state Department of Transportation to give the city the unused Boston & Maine rail line that runs beside Broadway for two miles from the Merrimack River to the Methuen line, where the city would build another hiking and biking trail.
One more urban transformation from abandoned industrial site to parkland is getting underway just across the North Canal from the Oxford park, at the end of the mile-long island created when the canal was dug to capture the river water that powered the mills. The state announced in April it will spend $2.8 million to preserve five acres at the tip of the island, where it juts into the Merrimack River across from Sal Lupoli's Riverwalk development.
“This park is significant because of its historic, ecological and scenic qualities,” Brad Buschur, project director for Groundwork Lawrence, said about the passive park planned for the island's tip. “It has a 25-foot waterfall at the end of the canal, it's at the confluence of the Merrimack and Spicket rivers and at low tide it has a really amazing beach. It provides winter-roosting habitat for bald eagles, which perch on the willows to fish. It's a patch of forest in a dense urban area."
The so-called Ferrous Site was once heavily developed, including with an ironworks from which the site draws its name, and a state laboratory that developed the technology for using sand as a filter to remove typhoid from the human waste dumped into waterways. Few signs of its industrial past remain on the heavily wooded island, except the outfall pipe that still releases untreated sewage into the river during heavy rains, and Ultimate Windows, which owns the north end of the island and is selling the five acres to Groundwork Lawrence for the park. The non-profit development group will convey the park to the city when it is completed.
Gov. Deval Patrick walked the gated site on April 30, when he announced the $3 million grant to pay for building the park. The grant will pay for a foot-bridge connecting the park to North Canal Street, hiking trails, an overlook and clearings along the river where fishers can cast their lines for the bass, shad and other fish that migrate up and down the Merrimack.
Between the Ferrous and Oxford parks is a new steel-arch bridge spanning 204-feet across the Spicket River ravine that the state recently built, when it also rebuilt the intersection of Canal, Marston and Prospect streets and widened Canal Street between the Oxford and Ferrous sites. The $10.5 million bridge and roadwork enhances access to both parks and, like the parks themselves, was a key step in remaking the eastern gateway to downtown from Interstate 495.
“It was a long road, a long time to get there,” said Eric Kfoury, a GenCorp consultant who worked on redeveloping the two mill sites, and whose brother, Steven, is a former Lawrence City Council president. “For a long time, it was concepts, promises, whatever. But both GenCorp and the city, we delivered on it. Our hope is that it continues to spur more development in the downtown corridor.”