Lowell Mill Developer Offers Tenants Help
Lupoli revises Thorndike Exchange plan, giving displaced residents option to stay in city
LOWELL -- Developer Sal Lupoli is hoping city regulators fast-track his Thorndike Exchange mill- renovation project so he can offer housing to dozens of residents facing eviction from Perkins Place apartments, which was purchased by UMass Lowell in June for student housing.
The Planning Board will get its first look at Lupoli's revised proposal tonight. Historic Board approval is also required.
Lupoli initially proposed a 118-unit upscale apartment project with ground-level restaurants and other commercial enterprises. But after recently meeting with Perkins Place residents, Lupoli is proposing 150 residential units, with slightly fewer commercial amenities.
Perkins Place residents were shocked earlier this summer upon learning that UMass Lowell purchased their building for $61 million. The purchase strained city-UMass Lowell relations because the sale created a $321,000 hole in the city's budget -- revenue the building would have generated in annual property taxes. As a state agency, the university is exempt from paying local property taxes. It has, however, agreed to cover the property's tax bill for 2017.
City Manager Kevin Murphy and city councilors were also upset that many Perkins Place residents -- young urban professionals the city has worked hard to attract -- would be displaced and likely leave Lowell.
"It's kind of a perfect storm," said Ralph Sutter, a Perkins Place resident and de-facto tenant leader of the latest developments. "It's a win-win for (Lupoli) and us if we can move in there.
Lupoli and Murphy said it's a test of the city's private-public partnership.
"I can't say enough about City Manager Murphy and how accommodating he's been," said Lupoli. "I also can't say enough about these people. What a journey they've been on this summer. They are so passionate about the city and want to remain residents."
"All partnerships hit bumps in the road," said Murphy. "Partnerships that are strong ride out those bumps and that's what we're doing here.
Murphy said he's spoken with UMass President Marty Meehan and was assured that Perkins Place residents can remain living there until Lupoli's project is ready for occupancy. Initially, UMass Lowell planned to occupy the building for the start of the 2017-18 school year.
If city regulatory boards swiftly approve Lupoli's $50 million project, the Chelmsford native estimates the old Comfort Furniture and Bedding mill will be ready for occupancy in nine months.
Many Perkins residents have found the planned units at Thorndike Exchange to be similar to Perkins, he said. The site is slightly farther from downtown but will be next to the Gallagher Terminal commuter rail station and is planned to have several on-site restaurants.
Perkins residents have also stressed a desire for a dog-friendly space, Sutter said. None of the residents have yet signed leases at Thorndike Exchange, he said.
Lupoli initially planned to do the project in two phases. But realizing that timing is key, he decided to do it in one phase.
"For us it's stepping out on a limb a little," Lupoli said. "But Kevin loved the idea."
Lupoli said his lender, Lowell Five Cent Savings Bank, is "on board and excited."
Murphy said he is confident both the Planning and Historic Boards will understand the significance of approving the project in a timely manner.
"It goes without saying that the city will do its due diligence while the project is before regulatory boards," Murphy said. "But we will do whatever we can to make sure this happens. This is what development in Lowell is all about. Not putting up roadblocks, but making projects as seamless as possible."
The proposal calls for renovating the existing mill and building a new structure. Under the revised plan, Lupoli is proposing to add a seventh story to the new building. In an interview with Sun editors, he said the Historic Board initially expressed some reservations about the new building being higher than the existing structure. But to make the project economically feasible, he needed to go up, he said. About 50,000 square feet will be dedicated to commercial enterprises, as opposed to 70,000 square feet in the initial proposal.
Speaking on behalf of the university, spokesman Jeff Cournoyer said: "We are committed to being as accommodating as possible to tenants who are relocating in Lowell. We look forward to learning more about the timetable for Thorndike Exchange and continuing to discuss how we can keep as many Perkins residents in Lowell as possible."
Meanwhile, several Perkins residents are also going through a homeownership program run by the Lowell Development & Financial Corp., with more expected to join.
One former Perkins resident has already begun buying a home and another has just started the process, said James Cook, the LDFC executive director.
The agency offers a 50 percent down-payment assistance, with an interest-free loan of up to $5,000. Those eligible include first-time homebuyers, employees of the city of Lowell or UMass Lowell, and now, Perkins Park residents.
The LDFC expanded the program specifically in an effort to keep renters who were paying market rates, and were generally young professionals who said they were happy living in an area where they could easily walk to shops, restaurants and green space.
By Christopher Scott • August 17, 2016 • The Lowell Sun • Original Article