From Heavy Industry to Great Neighborhood: Lawrence, Massachusetts leverages its community resources

As one of the last planned mill cities in the Northeast, Lawrence, Mass., was engineered specifically to maximize the water energy potential flowing on the Merrimack River. Between the 1840s and the 1960s, the city’s textile industry generated a constant flow of financial capital, luring other businesses and workers and contributing to a healthy, vibrant community.

But when domestic manufacturing began to steadily decline in the aftermath of World War II, the city lost its economic engine and suffered the flight of its middle-class white population to the suburbs. What was a manufacturing powerhouse 40 miles north of Boston is now New England’s most heavily populated Latino City, home to multiple generations of mostly Caribbean immigrants who came as low-wage labor but have stayed to make the city their own.

Since the decline of manufacturing, the city has struggled to stay afloat amid volatile economic and development trends. The recession and resulting public budget crisis have encumbered it even further.

There is hope on the horizon, however: Lawrence possesses a dynamic civil community of nonprofit groups, residents, local property owners and small businesspeople who are charting a new course. Collectively, these groups are spearheading a movement to pump life back into the economy by leveraging Lawrence’s historic resources in a new way.

The textile boom left the city’s rivers and canals lined with 12 million square feet of mill buildings. “Some of these buildings are the same size as skyscrapers lying down,” said Andre Leroux, who has lived and worked in the city and is now the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance (MSGA). “At the time that they were in operation, they were the biggest buildings in the world.”

But what can a city do with 12 million square feet of mill buildings, zoned for industrial use, when that city no longer makes its living off textiles?

Two community nonprofits think the answer is in front of them. Groundwork Lawrence (GWL) and Lawrence CommunityWorks (LCW) have been working with the City and a broad coalition to turn the mill areas into vibrant neighborhoods with new businesses and housing. To do so, they set out to build relationships among its Latino residents and entrepreneurs, as well as the largely white property owners and public agencies with an innovative civic initiative.

Ten years ago, the Reviviendo Gateway Initiative, or RGI for short, was established with the mission to build human potential, create new housing and commercial space, improve the public environment and redefine the city’s image. “Reviviendo” is Spanish for “coming back to life.” The approach is founded on planning and improving the public environment while building relationships within the community.

Maggie Super, a community development consultant and one of the founders of RGI, said that it aimed to make Lawrence’s mill district a thriving, walkable, transit-oriented community for residents and businesses.

“With aid of a pro-bono consultant, we started a year-long process to re-zone the mill district for mixed-use development,” Super said. “The zoning hadn’t been touched for fifty years, so it was a tremendous community effort.”

One year later, the rezoning was finally approved, which relaxed density and use restrictions, promoted infill development, and included a 10% inclusionary zoning requirement for affordable housing. It essentially brought back the historic development pattern of the city, instead of the suburban-style zoning it had acquired over the years.

Within year, a local developer had jumped on this new opportunity and began redeveloping the Washington Mills with 155 new housing units along the North Canal. That helped spark a number of other mill properties on both sides of the Merrimack River to prepare redevelopment plans, or to make improvements to business space. Since then, competition for new businesses has become fierce.

In 2007, as that first mill project neared completion, LCW initiated a new project called Union Crossing in the North Canal District, which was the first mill redevelopment project in the city that was resident-driven, mixed-use, green, and owned by a nonprofit entity. As a community development corporation, Lawrence CommunityWorks is striving to create a complete a community-based neighborhood in two of these mill complexes with housing, jobs and shops.

In 2007, Lawrence partnered with the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance (MSGA) as part of MSGA’s Great Neighborhoods initiative to help revitalize the North Canal District. Great Neighborhoods itself is an innovative new model for connecting Massachusetts-based policy and technical assistance organizations with local practitioners who are working to redevelop their communities in smart growth ways. The partnership helps support the local coalition-building work with coaching and funding, and provides strategic assistance for resolving the thorny issues around mixed-use financing and design in an unproven market, infrastructure reinvestment, parking, marketing, and building an active transportation network in the city.

Union Crossing is a 100 percent affordable housing project that when entirely complete will comprise 131 housing units and 90,000 square feet of commercial real estate space, and is expected to generate 200 new jobs. The project benefits from the collaboration between LCW and Groundwork Lawrence, which is developing five miles of community paths and green spaces in Lawrence connecting various neighborhoods as part of a planning goal that addresses land use, infrastructure and transportation issues. It is located between the Merrimack River and the North Canal and provides a “front door” to the water.

“We have an intentional commitment to smart growth principles,” said Jessica Andors, Co-Executive Director of Lawrence Community Works, citing the project’s re-use and improvement of existing infrastructure, green features (including a solar array on the building’s roof), and close proximity to a regional transit hub.

“Lawrence was hard hit by the recession, but the mill redevelopment has jumpstarted again,” Leroux added. “While the market is still shaky, there are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of projects moving forward in a challenging environment. That is a really good sign and speaks to the phenomenal work this coalition has done to begin to rebuild Lawrence from the inside out.”

“Over the next 5 years, there could be almost 1000 units built in mill buildings in this part of Lawrence,” said Brad Buschur, landscape architect and planner with Groundwork Lawrence. “That will be great for the small businesses downtown.”

And there’s more to the mill district’s redevelopment plans than widespread construction.

“Housing alone is not the only investment that you make,” Andors said. “At the same time you want to think about the community—the facilities you are creating, the parks and green space, the improvements you are making to streets and sidewalks that make the community more walkable, the investments you are making in the development and education of young people and families. There is a whole ‘people’ side of the work we do.”

Groundwork Lawrence has been systematically planning and building five miles of community paths and new public parks in the city to help connect neighborhoods with the downtown and the waterways. They work closely with the City to provide staff capacity that is not otherwise available and to work with the state and private sources on financing. They have also built a network of community gardens with over 200 affiliated gardeners.

Lawrence is the youngest city in Massachusetts, and that rising generation wants good schools, local job opportunities, good places to live, and places to be social. “They want to invest in the local community and live in a more vibrant city space,” added Rosa Pina, the outreach director for Groundwork Lawrence.

“We have a great number of kids who have gone on to become professionals who have come back to their town to make improvements in their community,” Pina said. “We have teachers, business owners … it’s great.”

This focus on attracting and retaining jobs and local talent means Lawrence community members envision the mill district redevelopment projects as a way to spur economic growth.

“The tax benefits for the city are an important way in which the redeveloped mills contribute to Lawrence’s economy,” Super said. Residents living in the former mills are just two blocks from downtown, helping grow a base of customers and consumers for the area who will promote small business, retail and restaurant activity.

“We are seeing job creation from the new commercial spaces,” Super said. “Lawrence is affordable for small businesses and offers space to grow as they get bigger. This is a tremendous opportunity to restore Lawrence’s place as the hub of the regional economy.”

There is still a long way to go. Much of the progress is still under the radar screen and out of view of mainstream media. A recent Boston Magazine article labeled Lawrence as the “City of the Damned” and detailed the adversity the city has faced, particularly due to its public budget crisis which has forced cuts in city staffing, particularly in public safety.

The article, however, triggered a mass movement of Lawrence community members who were eager to speak out about their passion for their city, and are already hatching plans for collaborative projects. The group, “We Are Lawrence” is a patchwork of non-profits, business owners and community members who have held rallies both in Lawrence and at the Boston Magazine headquarters with the aim of publically re-claiming the image of their city as one that, in the face of adversity, is trying to stage a comeback. Lawrence CommunityWorks and Groundwork Lawrence have been among the leaders of this movement.

“We want to start reshaping the story of our city by working together to accomplish things that couldn’t be done by an individual or organization alone,” Super said.

“What makes this project unique is that we are addressing sustainability from the economic, environmental and social sides,” Buschur said. “I think it is rare that you see a community coalition tackling all three. It is something we take pride in.”

For more information on how to revitalize neighborhoods, click here
For more information on the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance and its Great Neighborhoods initiative, click here
For more information on Lawrence CommunityWorks, click here
For more information on Groundwork Lawrence, click here
For more information on We Are Lawrence, click here