LAWRENCE — To hear Sal Lupoli talk, you'd think the Chelmsford resident was from Texas, where everything is bigger than anywhere else.
For example, the depression being dug on land between the old Wood Mill and the Merrimack River is so massive because it will soon hold the largest building foundation being constructed in Massachusetts, which will support a 1,200-space parking garage.
The Wood Mill itself, Lupoli proudly points out, would be one of the highest buildings in the world if it were stood on one end. At 2,000 feet long, it would tower above the Empire State Building by more than 500 feet.
Finally, the Riverwalk property, which stretches from the I-495 bridge over the Merrimack River to the Duck Mill Bridge and Union Street, is the number one taxpayer in the city after having been the lowest commercial/industrial taxpayer about 18 years ago, Lupoli claims.
"You have to dream big," he said during an interview in the spacious Lupoli Properties boardroom on the second floor of what may be the smallest building in the sprawling complex. "I've been here 18 years. I've invested my heart and soul here. I spend more time here than I do at home."
Lupoli, who started Riverwalk when he was 35 years old, is now in his mid-50s. He hasn't slowed down. If anything, he seems more driven than ever to build in Lawrence, despite having also spread his empire into Lowell, Andover and Haverhill.
But Lawrence is where he started and may be where he ends.
"I'm going to the City Council soon asking for my next, 20-year vision," he said.
That will include three, 14-story buildings with a focus on life sciences companies as tenants.
"I'm finalizing plans now," he said.
Realizing the potential
Propped on shelves and easels on two walls of the room are color images of what was, what is, and what will be the Riverwalk, which has addresses starting at 200 Merrimack St., closest to the Duck bridge, up to 500 Merrimack St., down by I-495.
More or less in the middle of what has become an ever-changing landscape of buildings and parking lots is the smallish building occupied by Lupoli Cos., but shared with a slew of other businesses, including a bank, a restaurant and an insurance company.
Looking east, out the window of Lupoli's board room, NxStage Medical looms to the left. It is a kidney dialysis company that got its start at another industrial park owned by another major real estate entrepreneur in the region, Orit Goldstein. Somehow, Lupoli, by dint of salesmanship, pluck and luck, wooed NxStage away from Goldstein and into his orb of brick mill buildings on the river.
Now the company, whose CEO is Jeff Burbank, is housed in a 170,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art complex employing 700 people. Lupoli's biggest tenant, the company was purchased earlier this year by German dialysis giant Fresnius for $2.1 billion.
The building housing NxStage has a story of its own, Lupoli points out. He grabs a photo from the wall and shows how, at one time, the building NxStage is in was once much bigger — about double its current size. A smattering of smaller buildings surrounded it.
Lupoli went to his bankers and told them he wanted to tear down a million square feet of buildings. They thought he was nuts.
"I cut the building in half," he said. "Sometimes you have to tear something down to realize the real potential of it."
NxStage and its new owner seem happy with the company's current location, said Lupoli. In fact, many of its executives live in the Residences at Riverwalk, the most recent addition to the complex. That development features 270 loft-style apartments located in the first one-third of the building closest to the Duck Bridge and New Balance.
The next phase of residential, which is currently under construction, will provide another 270 apartments in the middle one-third of the building, with basement parking. The final phase of the Wood Mill, at the other end, will be all commercial and is being built in conjunction with the massive, 1,200-space parking garage to the rear of the building.
He called the apartments "reasonably priced, high-quality, work-force and market-rate housing," going for between $1,700 for a one-bedroom and $2,200 a month for two-bedroom, two-bath apartments.
Currently, about 500 people reside in the first residential phase, having moved from higher priced digs in places like Andover and Salem, Massachusetts, where comparable apartments typically rent from $2,500 to $3,500 a month, he said.
'But wait, there's more'
As usual with Lupoli, the old advertising adage, "But wait, there's more," comes into play here as well.
Topping the enormous garage, which will be used by tenants, businesses and visitors to the Riverwalk, will be a turf field, a playground, a seating area, at least one restaurant, a couple of stores, and more.
He said the turf field, which will be used by high school sports programs as well as private leagues for football, soccer, lacrosse and other sports, is an amenity sought out by the millennial generation.
"It's a quality-of-life issue," he said. "Most urban campuses lack green space."
He said the field can be used by businesses for team-building exercises, or residents who may want to just kick a soccer ball around after work.
The "end-cap" of the parking garage won't look at all like a parking garage, more like something one would see at Faneuil Hall in Boston or Assembly Row in Somerville.
The space between the new parking garage and the NxStage building will be an open-air market of sorts, with food carts and places to sit outside near the river, music and illuminated railings.
Lupoli said one of the more exciting aspects of the project will be a 2,000-foot-long river walk. Despite its name, Riverwalk has never had a proper walkway along the river. Lupoli said he has tried over the years to work with the owners of the property along the river, but always came up empty.
Enel Corp., an Italian company that specializes in green energy, bought all of the interests in the old Essex Company, which pretty much owned all of Lawrence when it was formed in the mid-1800s.
Among its vast real estate holdings, Enel owns the Great Stone Dam, the canals on both sides of the river, most of the alleys throughout the city, and a lot of land along the Merrimack River itself, including the sliver of property between the Riverwalk complex and the rushing waters of the Merrimack.
Enel has refused numerous attempts by Lupoli and city officials to use that land, so Lupoli decided to take matters into his own hands. He is pushing buildings along the river back by a dozen or so yards so that he can fit a true river walk from the end of the New Balance parking lot all the way to the NxStage building.
"This will be open to the public," he said. "There is nowhere on the river to enjoy it as a family."
As in many of Lupoli's projects, the actual river walk would never have happened without an assist and support from the city.
"Mayor Dan Rivera worked with us on the permitting process, searching for grants to support it and build it," he said.
In fact, the city works hand-in-hand with Lupoli on nearly every aspect of every one of his projects. He recently got a property tax break for the $150 million in investment he's putting into the property over the next 10 years.
The current and future phases of the project fall under something called Planned-Unit-Development, essentially a master plan that expedites permitting, helping the project move along a little faster than it otherwise might.
Chances are, when he goes before the council in the coming months, he'll tell them the same thing he told the then- City Council.
"I told them I had a vision and it would take 20 years to get there," he said. "It took Lawrence 70 years to get into the condition it was in, and it will take a while to get out of it."