Lowell Week in Review: June 21, 2015

Lowell Walks LHS tour

Lowell Walks tour entering Lowell High

 Lowell Walks – Lowell High

We had another successful Lowell Walks tour yesterday: “Inside Lowell High School” led by Headmaster Brian Martin.  88 people joined the tour which began at the National Park Visitor Center and then moved on to Kirk Street, entering the building at the doorway under the iconic Lowell High clock.  The group was a mix of graduates from decades past (many returning to the school for the first time), parents and grandparents of potential students, people interested in the debate over the need for and location of a new high school, and many of the Lowell Walks regulars who have shown up for every tour.

Brian highlighted to the school’s history, taking us to the boards and plaques that hold the names of all the Carney Medal recipients, of the Distinguished Alumni, and the members of the Athletic Hall of Fame.  Many remarked on the architectural beauty of the interior of the older buildings on Kirk Street, and their continued viability as 21st century classrooms.  Brian also emphasized the present and the future, explaining that today, activities such as drama, dance and poetry attract more students than do athletics.  He finished the tour with a big push for (1) the need for a new high school and (2) the importance of keeping it where it is currently located.

Brian Martin with concept sketch of new Lowell High

Although we are only three weeks into it, this Lowell Walks series clearly has tapped a reservoir of interest in local history.  Our first tour, led by Fred Faust who talked about the preservation of downtown buildings, drew 83 people.  The second tour, led by Rosemary Noon and Paul Marion who talked about the outdoor public sculptures in downtown, drew 110.  Yesterday’s tour of Lowell High School by Brian Martin had 88 in attendance.  That high level of interest in local history has been apparent to many of us for a long time.  Why no one has previously done anything to tap into it on this scale is a question best left to another day.

For now, please mark your calendar for Saturday, June 27, 2015 at 10 am.  That’s when Sean Thibodeau will lead our next Lowell Walk.  It’s called “Literary Lowell and the Pollard Memorial Library.”  Sean will lead us to a number of places in downtown Lowell made famous by writers in their books or by their own exploits, finishing up with an interior tour of the magnificent Pollard Memorial Library.  Like all of these tours, it is free and begins outside the National Park Visitor Center on Market Street at 10am next Saturday.

Big Week for Real Estate Deals

There was no city council meeting this week due to the summer schedule and the city seemed otherwise quiet, except for several big real estate deals, two that have already received some publicity and two that have not received much attention despite their scale and implications for the city.  Here they are:

Judicial Center

Governor Baker released his FY2016-2020 Five-Year Capital Investment Plan on mass.gov on Friday.  The document calls for the expenditure of $2.125 billion in capital spending on infrastructure and economic development.  The Executive Summary specifically mentions the Lowell Judicial Center.  Here is what it says:

Lowell Trial Court ($5.9mil): Design is ongoing for the new $200mil comprehensive justice center in Lowell on the Hamilton Canal District site.  The facility will combine five trial court departments into a single facility, providing efficiencies for operations and great convenience for the public.  This new facility’s design incorporates recommendations for the strategic master planning, including: shared transaction counters, reduced space needs due to increased use of technology for video conferencing, records storage, and improved communications and access to justice.

The Executive Summary also mentions new courts in Greenfield Trial Court ($28.5mil as “construction continues”), Salem Probate and Family Court Renovations ($28mil as “construction is ongoing for this comprehensive renovation”) and Haverhill District Court ($1mil as “construction will begin on the occupied renovation of the district court building).

The Capital Plan itself contains this line item of $5.9mil for the “New Lowell Trial Court” which is described as follows:

This funds the study, design and construction of the consolidated Trial Court facility in Lowell which will replace two separate, overcrowded, outdated facilities and one private lease.

This new Lowell Court facility, commonly referred to as the Judicial Center around here, is to be located on the downtown side of the Lord Overpass, between Middlesex and Jackson Streets.  It will contain the already-based-in-Lowell Superior Court, District Court, and Juvenile Court and will add a permanent presence of the Northeast Housing Court (now based in Lawrence with a Lowell sitting every Monday), and the Middlesex Probate Court (now based in Cambridge but sitting in Lowell every other Friday).

Since the Registry of Deeds is supposed to go into this new building, I’ve seen the floor-by-floor design plans prepared by the architect.  Undoubtedly there is more detailed design work to do, but much has already been accomplished so hopefully they’ll get right to ground breaking and get construction underway.  Not to rain on anyone’s parade, but this building will cost $200 million to construct and this capital plan, which covers the next five years (FY2016 to FY2020) only contains $5.9 million for the duration of that five years (unless I’m reading it wrong).  To get a realistic assessment of when this thing might be built, the question that should be asked is “when is the ground breaking.”  When Governor Baker and Lt. Governor Polito show up with hard hats and shovels for a ground breaking ceremony at the end of Jackson Street, we can be confident that construction will soon begin.  However, unless this Capital Plan is amended and more money for the Lowell facility is added, that ground breaking will be during Baker’s second term, or perhaps the first term of his successor.

Markley Group & Prince Building

One project that does seem to be finally moving at an admirable pace involves the Prince Spaghetti building in South Lowell.  This past Monday, the Markley Group purchased the property from the Lowell Five Cent Savings Bank for $3,850,000.  The Lowell Five took ownership of the property last August at a foreclosure auction at which the bank paid $3,550,000.  The Lowell Five was also the foreclosing lender in that transaction with the mortgage being foreclosed being an $8 million loan to Prince Avenue Associates LLC back in November 2000.

The Markley Group coming to Lowell is a BIG DEAL.     Here’s what the company’s “About Us” webpage says:

Welcome to New England’s largest and longest operating multi-tenant, mission-critical telecommunications and data center facility. Located at One Summer Street, Markley’s 920,000 sf of white and mechanical space, highly secured center houses more than 200 tenants including industry leading financial, healthcare, academic, government, entertainment, and science & technology firms.

With connectivity to over 80 domestic and international network providers, Markley is the only “Carrier Hotel” in the region. One Summer Street is the intersection of all major fiber routes in New England. Featuring eight points of entry, Markley is a centralized location to which any and all backbone networks can be delivered with unmatched performance, low latency and lowest costs. We house the Boston Internet Exchange (BIX) which allows clients the ability to choose and connect to multiple and diverse networks, and is the ultimate hub for creating and developing IP peering partner relationships. Our robust data center has never experienced a primary power outage throughout its 10+ years of operation.

Leveraging the collective knowledge and experience of its 24×7 staff, Markley’s team of professionals is available to assist with all IT needs, whether it’s building a private, fully customizable data center suite or constructing a cloud computing platform.

We’ve all heard repeatedly for the past few years that the future of computing is “the cloud.”  Well, Markley is the cloud.  Or at least it provides the cloud.  I’m sure the company is delighted with the building and the location in Lowell.  One of the major vulnerabilities to a technology of the type used by Markley is some kind of massive natural or manmade disaster.  Should Boston be struck by a hurricane or have the natural gas storage tanks in Everett explode, Markley’s Boston-based operation would likely be knocked off line for a while.  Having another facility at a more distant location (like Lowell) provides backup and load sharing.  And with the building constructed to resemble a giant cement bunker, it’s almost perfect for such a facility.  I suspect this Markley site will be a good neighbor with no noise, little traffic, and high security.  Aside from dozens of technicians showing up at the start of each shift (the facility will operate around the clock, I’m sure), there should be little need for vehicles coming and going.

According to Boston Business Journal, the Markley Group intends to spend $200 million fitting out and equipping their new Lowell facility which, when done, will provide 100 new jobs.  If Markley’s method of purchasing the property is any indication, they have plenty of funding – they paid $3.85 million in cash for the property.

Lowell Community Charter Public School

The Markley Group wasn’t the only entity in Lowell spending a million-plus dollars on real estate this week.  The Lowell Community Charter Public School on Jackson Street became a property owner in a big way in a complex real estate transaction that involved two big mill buildings on Jackson Street including Mill No. 5.  To set the stage, as you drive down Jackson Street, just beyond the Edward Early Parking Garage is one big mill building on your left that houses the charter school as a tenant on the first two floors and residential condominiums up above.  Right after that is the perhaps better known Mill No. 5.  I say better known because many of us have visited the fourth floor and the funky indoor streetscape of retailers plus the Luna Theater.

So here’s what I think happened:  The first mill was condominiumized back in 2004 to create three large condominiums, each consisting of two floors.  The upper floors, called the Cotton House Lofts at Appleton Mills Condominium, themselves contained numerous residential condominiums.  The bottom two floors had been owned by a trust controlled by Jim Lichoulas.  That two floor condominium which now houses the charter school as a tenant, was sold to Lowell Community Charter School Friends, Inc for $3,680,000.  The Friends group then leased it back to the Charter School.

In the second part of the transaction, the Mill No. 5 building, which was owned by the same Lichoulas trust that held the first mill, was condominiumized just this week to create two units: one called “the school unit” which consisted of portions of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd floors; the other called the “commercial unit” which consisted of portions of all floors (and presumably all of the 4th and 5th).  The Friends of the Charter School then purchased the “school unit” for $3,835,000 meaning the Charter School will double its current footprint, I think.  The Lichoulas trust retained ownership of the “commercial unit” (the retailers of Mill No. 5 and the other floors).

There was a third part to this transaction.  The Friends of the Charter School bought a patchwork of smaller parcels on the other side of Middlesex Street, across from the back of Mill No. 5.  When you’re driving up the Middlesex Street ramp from downtown on to the Lord Overpass, these parcels are a big vacant lot off to your left.  These were all owned my various Lichoulas-controlled trusts.  Almost all were in arrears on their property taxes but those were all made current in this transaction.  The Friends of the Charter School paid $685,000 for these lots.  It is unclear how the school intends to use this now-vacant parcel.

So if my math is right, the Lowell Community Charter School Friends Inc just spent $8.2 million buying up properties along Jackson and Middlesex Streets.  Financing came from the Boston Private Bank & Trust Company in the form of a $10,315,000 first mortgage and from a second mortgage of $1 million held by the Lichoulas trust.


Not to be outdone by the charter school, UTEC also waded into the complex, multi-million dollar real estate business this week.  Like the charter school deal, this one is complicated so let’s start with the basics.  UTEC is a Massachusetts corporation.  Its headquarters is known as 35 Warren Street which was once St. Paul’s United Methodist Church.  That building is not involved in this deal.  A parking lot adjacent to UTEC on Warren Street and the next building up Warren Street were involved.  They have both been owned by UTEC for some time.  Two other buildings were also involved.  One was 40 Central Street; the other 27 Prescott Street.  Imagine driving down Central Street towards Merrimack.   You come upon a “V” in the road with Central going straight and Prescott veering to the right.  In the center of the V is a grassy wedge of land.  Just beyond that is Eastern Bank which fronts both Central and Prescott Streets.  Just beyond Eastern Bank are two other buildings: 40 Central facing Central Street and 27 Prescott facing Prescott.  These two buildings are back-to-back.  Both of these buildings were purchased by UTEC from Eastern Bank in 2011 for $125,000.

In January of this year, a number of folks involved in the UTEC board as well as Greg Croteau, UTEC’s executive director, formed a second Massachusetts corporation called UTEC Hub Inc.  The stated purpose of this corporation was to purchase and rehab real estate for the benefit of UTEC.  So this past Friday, UTEC sold to UTEC Hub the building and parcel on Warren Street for $625,000 and the Prescott and Central Street buildings for $1,200,000.  UTEC Hub financed the purchase with a mortgage of $6,256,500 from “AL Wainwright Communifund L LLC” (yes, that’s exactly how the entity is spelled).  The lender is a “community development financial institution” that deals in “new market tax credits.”  This is a federal program that encourages lenders to loan money to low income communities (like Lowell, apparently).  The incentive is that these tax credits that can be bought and sold as an asset.  There seems to be a substantial market for these tax credits among people and entities looking to offset high levels of taxable income.

While I’m confident I have the numbers and the ownership path correct, all of this tax credit financing is new to me so a few of the details may be off.  This method of financing is big business in Lowell.  That’s where the financing for the ongoing rehab of the Appleton Mills on Jackson Street (the ones on the right side of Jackson, closest to Central) received their funding.  That’s also how the Coalition for a Better Acre is building its new apartment complex on upper Gorham Street.  My own view is that there’s a lot of money being spent on rehabbing and constructing buildings in Lowell and that’s a good thing, regardless of where the money is coming from.

Happy Father’s Day to everyone.

14 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: June 21, 2015

  1. Brian says:

    Another pending real estate deal could use some scrutiny as well. UML’s purchase and demolition of 193 and 199 Pawtucket St. “UMass Lowell says it is close to purchasing a pair of apartment buildings on Pawtucket Street that have long been eyed for demolition by the university and the city.”


    Adam Baake says “The Pawtucket Street buildings will allow the university to have more space in an area where about 7,000 students per day walk between east campus and north campus.” This is a ridiculous assertion. Open space where it isn’t needed in cities is vacuous. Those walks are dispersed throughout the day and I doubt students are spilling onto the street because of pedestrian congestion. Wouldn’t widening the sidewalk be cheaper for UML than buying, demolishing, planning, and executing “open space”? It was just announced that tuition and fees are going up $980 per student. This project is most likely to cost UML more than a million dollars. Correlation?

    CM Murphy states “”Those are really eyesores, and I think it’ll make the city look even more attractive,” Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but anyone can see that those building are not eyesores. They look like they’ve been freshly painted. If triple deckers are eyesores than much of Lowell should be demolished. There’s also a small business unit that would be destroyed. These structures contribute around $12,000 property tax annually to the city. The small business would also contribute sales and income tax to the state.

    The building is in a perfect location for students that want to save money on housing by not living in the dorms. No car is needed so students can potentially spend the savings downtown. Advocating for demolition, from the city’s standpoint, make no sense.

    Does the current owner have trouble renting out the units? I doubt it. UML is doing great things and I’m generally a proponent of their expansion. This seems more like snubbing out the competition so more students need to live in the dorms.

  2. Concerned says:

    Wow indeed! Thanks so much for all this information! Reading Lowell’s media, you would have thought that the courthouse was going up tomorrow. Instead, any reasonable soul now has to conclude that there’s little hope until 2020. Just a little bit off schedule. Ran into someone who works in court who told me that he was told the new courthouse was about to be built. This was 15 years ago when he started working there.

  3. Brian says:

    It should also be remembered that those buildings are remnants of Little Canada which was bulldozed in the 1960’s to make way for urban renewal. UML’s version of urban renewal is more piecemeal and harder to spot but could be just as devastating to the acre. Parking lots and gratuitous open space kill neighborhood vitality just as monolithic housing projects do.

    UML can buy whatever it wants from private citizens but if city, student, and public sentiment is against them(and it should be on this issue) then they might back off.

    How UML grows is more important than how big UML grows.

  4. Paul Early says:


    Thank you for raising this issue. I agree with you assessment of these two properties on Pawtucket Street. I seem to recall that they weren’t just painted, but were actually renovated to some extent. My understanding is that the university wants to create a pedestrian corridor to connect the East, North and South campuses along Pawtucket Street.

    I recall that when the developer building next to Bachand Hall was petitioning the Planning Board, the university was asking for wider sidewalks so that some cafe could open up on the street level.

    As to the two buildings in question here, their value to the city (taxes) would probably increase over time, especially if the street levels were utilized for small businesses.

  5. Joe S says:

    A lot of activity. The Courthouse/Bond Bill needs clarification, but something like a Courthouse should have a long life, and therefore the debt service on the construction would likely be over many years, well beyond the 5 year window. But the amount included is not sufficient no matter how you slice it.

    It may be interesting to see how the tax bill of the Markley property works out. Current valuation is $5.9M, but the sales price is well below that. The TIF was described as only affecting the increase in value as Markley developed the property, but if the base value is reset than it might prove to be a tax loser.

    That brings us to the negative tax base, whether it is the hydro plant, UML, UTEC, or others. While we add “new growth” to the tax base each year, we never subtract “old value lost”, with the result that the rest of us pick up the difference. We may see that in property tax bills issued in January when the increase exceeds the 1.5% advertised, like the 3.5% last year turned into an average increase of 6.5%.

  6. Suze says:

    I agree that taking properties off the tax rolls so students can have wider sidewalks is gratuitous. UML has been buying up much of the housing in that area to convert to parking. Not good for the neighborhood or the taxpayers of Lowell.

  7. Brian says:

    UML is in a tough spot on this one. If they pay out the nose to buy and demolish the building for a better pedestrian experience then they’ll look foolish because it could be done cheaper by just widening the sidewalk. If perception is they’re doing it to stifle housing competition then they look like a bully. If the true goal is to add more parking then they’ll be considered deceptive, not to mention ironic because it would make walking there more dangerous.
    If any or all three are true then public opinion of UML could become a lot more antagonistic. I hope that doesn’t happen.

  8. vfahlberg says:

    I can’t visualize the area, but I will say that the more that UML converts to a non-commuter campus, the more need they will have for green space. Few college campuses leave no green space for students to gather, throw frisbees, read and relax outdoors. I have a friend who decided not to apply to UML because “it didn’t have a campus feel.” Maybe the space in question is too small to add anything substantial to increase green space, but most campuses, even urban ones, still provide their students with green space. $12,000 is not much if it could help bring students into the downtown and give it more of a Davis Square type feel to it, bolstering small businesses that can cater to a student demographic.

  9. Brian says:

    @vfalhberg Take a look at the parcel. It’s probably foot-for-foot one of the most productive land uses in the city, outside of the core downtown. Playing frisbee there will get you run over or thrown off a ledge into the river. There’s already a gathering spot next to the buildings for reading and relaxation. UML has green space a few hundred yards away next to fox hall.

    Urban schools aren’t for everyone yet students spend more to go to Emerson and BU. One million+ dollars for a state funded school (they should be funded more by the state) to pay to do something unnecessary PLUS 12k times 30 years is a ton of dough.

    The reason Davis Square is popular is they have good public transit, lots of dense housing, and they don’t bulldoze productive properties for parking lots or gratuitous open space. They make solid land-use decisions.

    Your comment reminds me of parents who move to the suburbs so “Billy” can have a bigger backyard. Kids would rather have friends to play with close by in a small yard than be alone in the big backyard. The same goes for college students except parking lots and useless open space are THE BIG BACKYARD.

  10. Brian says:

    Shouldn’t The City want off-campus UML housing as close to campus as possible? Demolishing these buildings will only push more students into the neighborhoods. College students play loud music at 3am, vomit, and pee in lawns. If we push students to rent apartments with driveways they’ll bring their cars with them, creating more congestion. LEAVE YOUR CARS IN DUNSTABLE!!!

    Anyone from the Acre or Pawtucketville should be against this plan. Reducing housing options with steady or increased demand will price out many students and families alike.

    Am I on point with this or just shouting into the wind?

  11. Brian says:

    With little need for traffic coming and going why is the Markley Group trying to buy public streets for private use? So much for being good neighbors.

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