By George DeLuca
March 3, 2017
Last Tuesday, the City Council shortlisted the downtown and Cawley Stadium sites as possible locations for the new Lowell High School. The final selection will be made after completing a series of studies, including an analysis of the economic potential of the downtown site.
If the high school moves, it may be feasible to annex the site to the Hamilton Canal Innovation District increasing the available acreage from fifteen to twenty.
Many feel that a new vision is needed with a more Lowell-centric marketing plan bearing a Lowell iHub style brand. “It’s an exciting opportunity. If the decision is made to move to Cawley, the city should be thinking about the property as an extension,” said Steve Tello, UMass Lowell senior associate vice chancellor of entrepreneurship and economic development.
Hamilton Canal adjoins the high school property via a historic walkway along the Merrimack Canal from Market Street to Lucy Larcom Park. “It’s about a nine iron away from the high school property, maybe an eight.” said State Representative Tom Golden.
Observers say joining the two sites may also foster direct linkages with UMass Lowell’s Tsongas Center, the Wannalancit Mills Business Center, the Offices at Boott Mills, the entrepreneurial initiatives at UMass Lowell’s East and North campuses, and Middlesex Community College’s workforce development programs.
The concept presents some exciting possibilities, but there are also challenges. “The two sides of the canal are in very different places,” said Adam Baacke, UMass Lowell’s campus planning and development director and the former director of planning and development for the City of Lowell.
Baacke said he believes there is potential for a residential project on Kirk Street that would generate tax revenue. “I think the market is almost exclusively for housing and residential redevelopment. It is a historical building and therefore eligible for historic tax credits which probably does create a viable redevelopment concept that the market will support,” he said.
A portion of the Kirk Street concept could be mixed-use, and twenty-percent of the units would have to be affordable to qualify a developer for tax credits that would “close the gap between development costs and what the actual market returns would be,” Baacke said.
However, Baacke said the Arcand Drive side of the high school property is more complex and he stresses the need for patience. “You can’t force market conditions just because you have a vision or a plan, but the absence of a vision or a plan almost guarantees that you’re not going to get anywhere,” he said. “We’d want to help the city make something happen there.”
Most agree that a clearer vision for economic development is needed in Lowell. Golden is currently pursuing $250,000 for planning purposes. But citing an innovative plan that Governor Charlie Baker will support isn’t an easy task. “One of the keys is trying to visualize what tomorrow is going to look like,” he said.
The University of Massachusetts, Lowell is spearheading its own economic development vision, one that has global reach. Since 2008, the university has developed the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center (M2D2), a business incubation research and development initiative located at the Wannalancit Mills Business Center.
M2D2 has recently expanded its operations to 110 Canal Street at Hamilton Canal. “It’s a place where there’s room to grow if we’re successful in attracting start-up companies from different parts of New England to Lowell,” Tello said.
To execute his vision, Tello raised $5.5 million to fit-up two floors at the 110 Canal Street site, allocating one floor to the M2D2 program and another to a new tech initiative called the UMass Lowell iHub. “Once we got it built and operating, we had to recruit the companies, develop the operating model, and make sure there’s a positive cash flow,” he said.
Tello has recruited 20 companies, filling fifty percent of 22,000 square feet of the space. He expects the other half to be occupied within the year. “We’re doing our part to get innovation and industry moving in Lowell,” he said.
Tello, a member of the Hamilton Canal planning committee, said the group wants to create a mini-Kendall Square style concept that he hopes “will attract a mix of tech and commercial companies, with some residential, retail and restaurant activity built-in. That’s why the vision is so important. It’s not about space per se, it’s about people,” he said. “It’s about how many people you have living in an area; what their professional background, educational level, and income bracket is, and what kind of work they want to do. And if we have the right mix of people willing to come into town, then developers will build.”
Lowell City Councilor Jim Leary agrees that there’s room for mixed use at Hamilton Canal including residential. “Lots 8 and 9 next to 110 Canal Street are relatively tiny lots compared to the rest of the development and could be designated residential,” he said. “We need to build what the millennials will care about, those people in their 20s and 30s who have income to spend and want amenities like Mill 5. Later they can move up and buy houses elsewhere in the city.”
The new courthouse at Hamilton Canal will bring about 1,500 people a day to the facility, according to Tello. A commercial build-out of the site could bring another 1,500-2,500 people. The high school property could yield up to 400 residents and another 500-1,000 people on the retail/commercial side depending on the configuration. In total, up to 4,500 people per day could be coming to the downtown area within the next 5-8 years.
Eventually, Tello hopes to attract larger companies like M2D2 sponsors Johnson & Johnson and Boston Scientific to the area. “It’s going to be two years before we see another building in the Hamilton Canal area. If we can get someone excited about a new building and get something open in two years, I think the timing could work out for the high school property,” he said.
Tello said that consolidating the two sites would enhance downtown walkability and facilitate access to the Merrimack River, but he also noted that the city’s biggest amenity is virtually invisible.
Companies want to know “where do my employees live, and where do they work and play? I’m not sure we have that all together yet for them,” Tello said. “It’s all in how you wrap it, how it’s packaged. There needs to be a vision that will attract people to the table. You need attractions and reasons to walk somewhere. We need to leverage our river by showcasing it more.”