---- — It was a long time coming. But the redevelopment of the former Woolworth site in Haverhill will be well worth the wait.
More than 40 years after Woolworth vacated its store on the corner of Merrimack and Main streets, a plan to build an impressive, $18 million office and retail center is taking shape.
Harbor Place, as the seven-story, glass-enclosed building is known, will be an instant centerpiece of Haverhill's downtown. Officials hope it will anchor redevelopment of the eastern end of the city's downtown and renew its focus on the Merrimack River.
Harbor Place already has a major tenant. UMass Lowell will occupy the second and third floors of the building, establishing a satellite campus for the well regarded Lowell-based university.
Construction is scheduled to begin in the fall and take 18 to 24 months. The project should generate about 150 construction jobs.
Harbor Place is just the beginning of what could be up to $80 million worth of development by Merrimack Street Ventures along the downtown's eastern gateway. Merrimack Street Ventures is a partnership of the Greater Haverhill Foundation, which owns the Woolworth building, and the Planning Office for Urban Affairs, the nonprofit residential development arm of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. Plans include the demolition of several large buildings along Merrimack Street and the construction of retail and residential buildings.
"This is going to be a transformational, life-style changing development," Lisa Alberghini, president of the Planning Office for Urban Affairs, said in announcing the plans Monday. "It's going to be a game-changer for downtown Haverhill that's going to make the river come alive. The idea is that this is going to trigger additional investment up and down the river."
The project will open up public access to the Merrimack River with a boardwalk and boat ramp. For decades, much of the river has been closed off behind a wall of dilapidated storefronts.
"For the first time in decades, people on Merrimack Street will be able to see the Merrimack River," Mayor James Fiorentini said, adding that recent renovations to the flood wall were done with the Merrimack Street project in mind.
If the project is pushed to a successful conclusion, it will be a boon for the city and its residents by making the downtown an attraction for shoppers, diners and students. State Rep. Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill, has secured $10 million in state economic development funds to support the projects infrastructure, including the boardwalk.
"We have all been frustrated that this key parcel has been vacant for so long, since before I was born," Dempsey said of the Woolworth building. "We have been searching for the right partner and we have finally found them," he said of the foundation, the Planning Office for Urban Affairs and UMass Lowell.
Dempsey, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was influential in bringing UMass Lowell to the project.
"Downtown Haverhill has everything we are looking for -- public transportation, commuter train service and housing -- but the main reason we are involved in this is Chairman Dempsey," UMass Lowell Chancellor Martin Meehan said, "because he wants us and he gets results."
This project is the best news to come out of Haverhill in some time. It is a visionary effort that will change the character of the city's downtown for the better.
Congratulations to all involved in pulling the project together and best wishes for its successful completion.