On Tuesday morning, 20 planners, engineers and municipal officials from Adelaide, South Australia arrived in Lowell, eager to see the Hamilton Canal District. The trip was organized by the Urban Development Institute of Australia.
The still-evolving $800 million 10-year revitalization of 13 acres of the until recently dilapidated birthplace of the Industrial Revolution on the fringe of Downtown Lowell has become a model in the planning world.
City of Lowell Urban Renewal Project Manager Craig Thomas gave the group a brief history of Lowell industrial history, the decline of the textile industry, the movement to demolish nearly everything during the urban renewal movement of the 1960’s and the subsequent, much smarter movement to preserve the city’s history.
“The city developed around the canals and mills which gave us an incredible infrastructure and historic legacy to work with,” he said, adding it also brought challenges like the fact there was no access to the site and that some old building were built right up against the canal walls.
Once completed the HCD will boast 425,000 square feet of office space, 50,000 square feet of retail and 725 residential units, mostly affordable rentals.
There are already 130 units of artist live/work units that have been occupied in the Appleton Mill building; they have been completed for two years. The former Freudenberg building has been rehabilitated and is now 55,000 square feet waiting for commercial tenants.
The visitors from down under were intrigued by two aspects of the HCD project: the choosing of the developer and subsequent community visioning process and the tax credit financing used to fund a large portion of the project.
Rather than the city putting out a request for proposals detailing what they wanted to be built on the site, developers were lured by a blank slate. They were urged to pitch what they could do with the 13-acre post-industrial parcel. Additionally, the chosen developer would have to agree to be a partner with the city in creating and selling the vision for the site along with the community.
Trinity Financial was chosen as the developer by City Manager Bernie Lynch in 2007. Over about 16 months the developer and city planning officials held a series of community visioning sessions gathering ideas and suggestions from the public, many of which were incorporated into the final plans. The collaborative effort created a real community buy-in among those who participated.
The first phase of the project, completed in the spring of 2011, were the 130 affordable artist live/work rental units at Appleton Mills. The project moved forward despite the bottom falling out of the economy.
The Appleton Mills redevelopment was financed through state and federal historic and housing tax credits that were purchased for $42 million by insurance giant MetLife Inc.
The project also received a $1.6 million permanent mortgage and a $34 million construction loan from MassHousing.
Gov. Deval Patrick helped launch the project with a $13 million state grant.
Dan Drazen, of Trinity Financial told the Aussies the tax credit program, which has been available in the U.S. for 25 years has been “a very powerful tool” that has made it possible to create affordable housing.
The rents in the Appleton Mills building are $700 for a studio, $900 for a one-bedroom unit and $1,100 for a two-bedroom unit.
As they walked around the open first floor of 110 Canal Street, Construction Project Manager Larry Sparrow told the group they are very close to signing two tenants to the building. Because it was a historic rehab, the project had to get this far along before potential tenants could really see the vision.
For more information about the Hamilton Canal District visit http://www.hamiltoncanal.com/