Romney OKs Lowell land swap

08/06/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.

By JULIE MEHEGAN
Sun Statehouse Bureau

BOSTON - The University of Massachusetts Lowell could soon be setting up part of its shop in Lowell's Acre neighborhood, with Gov. Mitt Romney's approval yesterday of a bill allowing a land swap between the school and a private developer.

Romney's signature on the bill which moved quickly through the Legislature during informal sessions but at one point was nearly vetoed authorizes a complex deal that would allow the university and developer John F. Power to trade ownership of two city properties.

The legislation allows the university to turn over ownership of 600 Suffolk St. in the Wannalancit Mills complex to Power and his firm, Farley White Interests.

In exchange, Power, who is in negotiations to purchase the shuttered St. Joseph's Hospital on Pawtucket Street in the Acre from HealthSouth, would turn that building over to the university.

The deal has advantages for both sides: Power's firm wins total ownership of the Wannalancit Mills complex, and the university gets to house its newly formed School of Health and Environment in the former hospital building which is equipped to support clinical programs.

UMass can also generate revenue by leasing unused portions of the building.

University officials and the city's Statehouse delegation had worked for several weeks to craft the legislation, which passed the House and Senate easily in August. But Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, acting as governor while Romney was out of state, sent the legislation back unsigned because of concerns that it was "convoluted" and did not adequately protect the university's interests.

Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, a Lowell Democrat, said the administration's concerns were addressed once all of the parties involved met directly. Changes ensured that the proper environmental reviews will be conducted, and a complex part of the bill creating a nonprofit development corporation to own the hospital property was eliminated.

The Republican governor signed the bill after the Legislature made those changes.

"It's great for the city, great for the university," Panagiotakos said. "It will really anchor the university on that side of the bridge between the campuses. It brings a little more continuity to the university, and it fits their programmatic needs in almost a perfect way."

With Romney's signature in place, the parties involved have the authority to strike a deal. But there are still details to be negotiated, noted Diana Prideaux-Brune, the university's vice chancellor of facilities.

Power must still execute the purchase of the St. Joseph's Hospital building from HealthSouth. Then he and the university must finalize the swap of properties.

"There is a lot of work to do over the next couple of months, the due diligence and the nuts and bolts of how this will all work," Prideaux-Brune said. "I think it's going to happen. It's just a matter of getting over the mountain of all that has to be done."

Prideaux-Brune said if all goes well the deal may be finalized within 90 days.

Power could not be reached last night for comment.

Julie Mehegan's e-mail address is jmehegan@lowellsun.com .