Hamilton Canal District development at Lowell


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May 25, 2006
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Lowell offers up 15 acres for mixed-use
Boston Business Journal - July 7, 2006
by Brian Kladko
Journal staff

LOWELL -- This city is looking for a developer to write the next chapter of its long comeback.

Last week, the City Council formally issued a "request for qualifications," the first step in its effort to turn 15 acres of dilapidated downtown property into a new neighborhood of offices, shops and up to 1,000 homes.

Known as the Hamilton Canal District, the city has painstakingly assembled the package from 20 separate industrial parcels, some of which it seized by eminent domain. Now it plans to sell the site to the developer with the best background and the best plan.

The district, which includes run-down mill buildings -- one of them barely salvageable -- and paved over parking areas, lies along a main corridor into downtown, a short walk from the commuter rail station, and next to some of the restored mill buildings that symbolize the city's long climb back from near oblivion. If the city's vision comes to pass, Lowell will finally get what has eluded it all this time: a vibrant core where people live, work, shop and play.

In that sense, development of the Hamilton Canal District could be to Lowell what the Big Dig was to Boston: Stitching parts of the city back together, and, in the process, spurring a chain reaction of other projects.

"It's very rare that anyone gets an opportunity of this scale," said Adam Baacke, the city's deputy director of community and economic development.

Lowell has been talking up the opportunity to developers, taking out a booth at a "New Urbanism" conference in Providence, R.I., in May. After the request for qualifications was approved, it launched a Web site, www.hamiltoncanal.com, detailing its attributes.

The parcel, appraised at $10 million as clean land, could accommodate 65,000 square feet of commercial space in addition to the 1,000 apartments or condos, based on a market analysis commissioned by the city last summer. But Baacke said "the city would welcome a more substantial commercial mix."

That's understandable, because Lowell's downtown is not exactly bustling. National chain stores haven't set up shop, and the Lowell Sun described the downtown retail sector last week as being in a "malaise," with several establishments going out of business and few prospects for replacements.

On top of that, the city's major office space -- the CrossPoint office complex, former headquarters of Wang Laboratories -- lies on the outskirts of town on Route 3. So, despite a concentration of artists and a calendar of popular festivals, the downtown lacks the continuous, diverse and lucrative street activity that marks successful towns and cities.

"The downtown is still grasping for some kind of retail identity," said Robert Forrant, a professor in the Department of Regional Economic and Social Development at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. "UMass-Lowell students don't go into downtown to shop. When they think about spending in Lowell, they go to the malls."

Still, as New England mill towns go, this one is a role model, rivaled only by Providence, Forrant said. Thanks to an infusion of federal funds in the 1980s, it turned its decaying mills into tourist attractions and returned some streets to their original cobblestone charm. In the 1990s, it built a $28 million arena and a $12.5 million baseball stadium that hosts a minor league team.

Eight years ago, city officials began seeking ways to introduce more market-rate units downtown; at the time, almost all of the 3,800 downtown residents were living in subsidized housing. After the city took over an old building for nonpayment of taxes and turned it into 51 units of artist live/work space and a gallery, other developers followed. Since 2000, 800 market-rate units have been occupied, and another 600 have been approved.

Now the city is hoping to build on that with the Hamilton Canal District offering. To entice developers, it's promising a super-streamlined approval process consisting of an intense, weeklong dialogue among the developer, city officials and the public, in which the developer will be expected to respond overnight to suggestions and to keep doing so until some kind of rough consensus is achieved.

Not only will the process be much quicker, Baacke said, it also might produce a more creative plan.

Developers have until Aug. 15 to submit their qualifications. The city plans to ask three to five developers to submit detailed proposals, including financials, in the fall, and will select one of them by the end of the year. The developer will then have about six months to draw up a more formal plan to present to the public.

City officials aren't saying what they hope to get for the property, besides recouping the $8 million spent to buy it.

"Obviously we want to be made whole for the investments we made in putting all this together," Baacke said. "But in the end, we really benefit from the end product."