Originally created 05/11/04

Interest in mill renovation back on the upswing



LOWELL, Mass. -- They look like movie sets for a New York romance: funky lofts with 12-foot ceilings, nine-foot windows, exposed brick, brushed steel appliances and hardwood floors smooth as butter.

They'd be perfect pads for a Ross or Rachel, a Will or Grace.

But these condos are real - and they're being built in Lowell, a former industrial city that for years could never have dreamed of such expensive apartments.

One unit has sold for $700,000 and John DeAngelis, the developer, says he's looking next for a million-dollar deal.

While the prices may not be so high and the units may not be so posh, the same scenario is being played out in communities across southern New England.

Efforts to restore mills and other old industrial buildings stretch back to the 1970s but experts say a new wave of renovations is under way, and there may be more to come. Many of the mills are being converted into housing.

A strong real estate market fueled by low interest rates; state and federal tax incentives; and a new attitude toward urban living are just some of the factors contributing to the trend, experts said.

While statistics on the exact number of buildings involved are hard to find, government officials, academics and those involved in the development industry say the new wave of interest is real.

In Massachusetts, there is a "renaissance" of interest in reusing mills, said Laura Canter, senior vice president at MassDevelopment, the state economic development authority.

While old industrial buildings have been converted into loft apartments in Boston, projects also are in various stages of realization in smaller places such as Holyoke, Millbury, Williamstown, Fall River, Westford and Amesbury.

Rhode Island, which offers developers a generous tax credit, is perhaps the hottest area. At least 23 mill or industrial building renovation projects have been proposed since 2002 and another five may be in the works, said Rick Greenwood, project review coordinator for the state Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.

The majority are in Providence, which has generated a lot of buzz as a city on the upswing, but projects have also sprung up in Pawtucket, North Providence, Cumberland, West Warwick and Bristol.

"At least once a month, I'm out looking at a new mill that somebody is proposing to do something to. Things have been very active," said Greenwood.

A $100 million renovation is under way at the Colt industrial complex in Hartford, Conn., and there are other projects in Norwich and Bridgeport.

"We haven't seen this much activity since the 1980s," said Linda Spencer, a Connecticut state official who reviews projects that are seeking historic status and tax incentives.

Redeveloping mills can be a win-win-win proposition in which communities can provide more housing, avoid development of precious open space, and try to revitalize a struggling downtown area, Canter said.

Massachusetts passed a law in the late 1990s that was intended to address developers' concerns about their liability when developing contaminated industrial properties, she said.

John McIlwain, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, said reusing old buildings is a national trend, and cities around the country are seeing a resurgence.

"There's been an increased interest in downtown living. Loft living has become sort of a phenomenon," said Cambridge, Mass.-based architect Simeon Bruner, who has worked on 15 to 20 mill conversions over the past 30 years.

Lofts in old industrial buildings have long attracted artists, and their contributions to local economies are now seeing greater appreciation.

But lofts have also become a desirable place for people who simply want to live in style, Bruner said, so much that some developers of new buildings even advertise "loft-style" apartments.

"It's different. It's cool. It's funky," said Denise Gustafson, 48, who owns a skylighted three-level loft condo with her fiance, John Callahan, 48, at the top floor of Canal Place II, a converted mill building in Lowell.

"We like a conversation piece. We like it to have the home feeling. But we like it, too, when people are intrigued," she said.

Across the street, DeAngelis gave a tour of his Market Gallery building, where 22 units have already been sold and he has donated space to a museum to give the building a special cachet. He has three other buildings in town where he will also offer high-end units.

DeAngelis credited the Lowell city government, which has worked diligently for years to remake itself after the decline of its textile mills, with making the conditions just right.

He recalled the boarded-up windows, cobwebs and pigeon nests that once filled the 19th century J.C. Ayers pharmaceutical lab building as he showed off gleaming apartments and apartments-to-be.

"The whole city is going to change," he predicted. "I'm finding three or four buyers a week. ... Everybody's calling us now. Hopefully, the economy will stay."