Hamilton Canal District needs updated vision
The Lowell Sun
Updated: 02/10/2017 07:30:07 AM EST
Winn Development's announcement that it's withdrawing as the master developer of the Hamilton Canal District shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.
From the time city councilors selected Winn this past May, Winn's role as lead developer constituted more a marriage of convenience. Naming a master developer allowed the city to become eligible to receive federal and state funds for infrastructure improvements needed for development of several Hamilton Canal parcels.
City Manager Kevin Murphy had indicated from the outset of this relationship that the city would contract with individual developers interested in pursuing specific projects within the district. Winn was never going to exercise the degree of control that the former master developer, Trinity Financial, enjoyed.
In fact, the only projects currently under consideration -- but still not official -- involve two Lowell companies that seek to relocate in the district: a $40 million proposal from Genesis HealthCare to provide a 144,000-square-foot senior health-care facility and new headquarters for Watermark Environmental, which employs 75 workers in the Wannalancit Mills.
The problem Winn faced involved aligning its expertise with the Hamilton Canal's Master Plan, developed nine years ago, and the change in direction sought by members of the City Council.
While the Master Plan calls for a mixed-use development, Winn built its name on the construction of residential housing. So it was only natural that the first two projects it proposed were "workforce housing" apartments.
That's not what the City Council wanted to hear.
Times have changed since that Master Plan was drawn up in 2008. The economy has rebounded, and so has the pace of residential construction. The game-changer in councilors' eyes undoubtedly was the pace and scope of Chelmsford entrepreneur Sal Lupoli's Thorndike Exchange project -- a mix of primarily market-rate apartments and some commercial space.
That development is well underway, in contrast to the lack of activity at the nearby Hamilton Canal District.
Councilors wanted a new model for Hamilton Canal that would emulate its only visible success to date -- UMass Lowell's business incubator center at 110 Canal Place. That became clear when councilors voted to change the name of the development to the Hamilton Canal Innovation District.
It was the official death knell for Winn Development, though its fate appeared already sealed. In its letter to the city manager announcing its decision to withdraw, Winn cited its own research within the city that indicated a strong preference for business development.
So where does the city go from here? Demonstrating a preference for high-tech businesses is one thing; actually attracting them is a far more difficult matter.
The city must update its Master Plan and produce a bold, dynamic blueprint that unequivocably states the Hamilton Canal's new direction.
Whether that comes from the city's own resources or an outside entity is up to the city manager and City Council to decide.
It's time for the city to stop demonstrating what it doesn't want and show how it intends to transform its new vision for the Hamilton Canal District into a reality.