LAWRENCE – Not much good came out of the city's last attempt at urban renewal in the middle of the last century. 

The list of casualties was long: entire blocks of homes – most occupied by poor people – were condemned and razed in the name of combating blight, displacing families who had lived in the city for generations. Historic buildings, including the stately post office at Broadway and Essex Street, much of the Wood Mill and all of Theater Row along Broadway, were demolished in favor of more modern developments such as the Intown Mall on Common Street.

The Intown Mall never attracted many shoppers and was torn down three years ago after decades of neglect. A McDonald's restaurant went up at the site of the former post office. The former Theater Row is now an uninterrupted strip of low-slung and small-scale retail, including nail salons, auto body shops and more fast food restaurants. Parking lots cover other sites that never attracted new development.

The good that came out of urban renewal in Lawrence and nationwide in the 1950s, '60s and '70s was the lesson learned and the historic preservation movement that it birthed.

“That's when the realization came that these buildings were valuable,” said Susan Grabski, executive director of the Lawrence History Center, which on May 7 will sponsor a symposium on the history of urban renewal in the city. “The post office seems to be the icon of what went wrong with urban renewal. The building was no longer adequate for the post office's needs. They needed a different type of facility. That didn't mean the building should have been taken down. It could have been used for other purposes. The areas (of Lawrence) that are currently thriving the most are the ones that weren't torn down.”

Second phase

Now a second phase of urban renewal is getting underway, but this time the plan will be developed locally rather than in Washington, and the focus will be preservation rather than demolition, organizers say.

"This won't be your grandfather's urban renewal,” Mayor Daniel Rivera said Friday. “This is the community coming together saying, 'This is what we want to see.' This urban renewal plan, working with a huge community group, (will focus) on what to grow as opposed to what to demolish here.”

The effort is being led by the Lawrence Redevelopment Authority, a five-member board whose membership had dwindled to one when Rivera took office in January 2014. Rivera replaced the one member and appointed four new ones, including its chairman, Kristen Horal, a community development finance professional who focuses on affordable housing.

She shares Rivera's belief in preservation rather than demolition and in the role the public should play.

“Even if we wanted to do it the way it was done before, you're not allowed to do that kind of thing anymore,” Horal said about urban renewal of the mid-20th century, which was a mostly closed, top-down process imposed by the federal government and focused on clearing downtowns rather than restoring them. “In the 1950s and '60s, it was a federal program that came in with large buckets of cash. They did what they wanted. The statute we're working under is a state one and it doesn't come with a lot of money. We want an open process, a lot of conversation.”

Already, the redevelopment authority has held four public meetings to collect input from residents, most recently on March 22 at Heritage State Park, when the 60 or 70 residents who attended were organized into groups and asked to brainstorm about their vision for the future of Lawrence.

The authority also has created a citizens advisory group of 26 residents, developers, businessmen and civic leaders to help steer the process, and on Tuesday posted a survey form on the Internet asking residents to identify a site or project that should be a focus of the plan and to react to a draft mission statement for the plan.

Vague, on purpose

The mission statement so far is vague and hard to argue with: It calls for development that will create higher-paying jobs for residents, improve housing and services, build on the city's “historic buildings, rivers and canals, infrastructure and transportation,” project a positive image and attract regional employers.

Rivera said keeping the mission statement vague, at least for now, is the point, and he declined to say whether he may have his own short list of projects that he might want done.

“That's not the way we lead,” he said. “There's a community conversation happening.”

Still, the conversation is being steered at least in part by a team of consultants hired by the redevelopment authority. The authority last year signed a $60,000 contract with Maggie Super Church, a local urban planner, to help manage the project, and is spending another $175,000 on four other consultants led by the Cecil Group of Boston, which helped the city of Somerville redesign Assembly Square into something friendlier to pedestrians.

One decision has been made: In another departure from the urban renewal of the last century, the plan now being developed will focus on Lawrence's industrial and retail core on both sides of the Merrimack River and up Broadway. A team of volunteers is making its way through the study area, collecting data on every parcel, including occupancy and the condition of the buildings, which will later be matched with data on file at City Hall.

The challenges of redesigning a 19th century city for the 21st are formidable, including what do with the millions of square feet of empty mill space that has defied redevelopment for decades, as well the pollution left behind by more than a century of mostly unregulated industry. The image of a city whose finances and school system were so badly managed that the state has taken them over also could pose hurdles for redevelopment, as could the city's pervasive poverty. 

The environmental challenges for redeveloping Lawrence are paying out today at the corner of Broadway and South Canal Street, a gateway property near the center of the proposed redevelopment area where the Merrimac Paper mill operated for more than a century until its bankruptcy a decade ago. Today, the site is a burned-out shell, whose owner owes $6 million in back taxes and fees. Some hope for the site arrived last year, when the federal Environmental Protection Agency spent about $2 million to clean up the asbestos throughout the mill's maze of buildings.

The redevelopment authority is scheduled to submit its plan to the Planning Board this fall, and then to the City Council.

First step

Whatever happens next – whether the plan goes on a shelf and is forgotten or becomes a road map out of blight and poverty for the state's poorest city -- Rivera and Harol said it's important to take the first step. 

“They'll be parts of this plan that may never get funded or happen, but if someone wants to do something in the urban renewal area, it has to meet the requirements of the plan,” Rivera said. “The city needs an urban renewal plan because without that guidance, development just happens to us as opposed to with us.”

Harol said the plan will succeed only if it “resonates with the people.”

“If lots of people are behind the plan, it's easier to get resources, to attract developers, to get the story of the city out there, to show the city is organized around its priorities,” Harol said. “That's how the plan becomes real.”

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