UML Buy to Enliven City’s Core

07/16/2009
By From the Boston Globe

By Robert Gavin

LOWELL - When the Lowell Hilton opened in 1986, it crowned years of efforts by this old mill city to revive a dying downtown. Nearly a quarter century later, the 252-room hotel, now a Doubletree, is playing a new role in the evolution of Lowell’s urban core.

At the end of this month, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell will purchase the hotel, then redevelop it into student housing and a conference center. The $19 million project will not only bring more than 300 college students to live and spend in downtown, but for the university, which has traditionally clung to the banks of the Merrimack River, it will also establish a presence in the heart of the city.

“This is transformational,’’ said Martin Meehan, UMass-Lowell chancellor. “It ties us to the downtown and urban center as never before.’’

The move represents another phase in Lowell’s 30-year experiment to maintain a lively downtown, an effort that has included initiatives to lure shops, restaurants, artists, and residents to the center of the city. Many have worked, some haven’t. But they illustrate the creativity, flexibility, and persistence that cities need to keep downtowns vital, economic development specialists said.

“What’s striking is Lowell has tried just about everything we can think of,’’ said David Luberoff, executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, a think tank at Harvard University. “A lot of it is still fragile, and you wonder if it can survive the next storm. But it’s an extraordinary, resilient place.’’

Lowell’s government, businesses, and institutions have combined public and private investment to boost downtown, including the construction of an arena and minor league baseball field on its outskirts. They have encouraged the redevelopment of mills into condominiums, created an arts district to lure artists and their studios, and established a loan program to attract shops and restaurants.

Since 2000, some 2.5 million square feet of an estimated 10 million to 15 million square feet of space in downtown Lowell has been redeveloped, with housing units nearly doubling to more than 3,000, according to city officials. On a recent sunny afternoon, streets bustled with tourists, residents, and workers, many sitting at tables outside restaurants.

Getting UMass-Lowell into downtown will help solidify these gains, said assistant city manager Adam Baacke. “When a university plays an active role, it generally provides benefits for both the community and the university,’’ he said.

In many ways, the history of the hotel reflects Lowell’s resilience. Overlooking the Concord River, it was first developed as a Hilton, connected by footbridge to the training center in Lowell of then-giant minicomputer maker Wang Laboratories. Wang was to provide most of the hotel’s business.

When Wang and the minicomputer industry collapsed in the early 1990s, so did the Hilton. The Wang training center became the Lowell campus of Middlesex Community College, but the hotel never fully recovered, local development officials said.

It had at least two more owners, changing its flag to Sheraton, then Doubletree. The occupancy rate in recent months slipped as low as 30 percent, Meehan said.

The hotel’s struggles, however, provided an opportunity for the university to add housing for students as it shifts from a commuter school to a residential one. About one in three of UMass-Lowell’s 12,000 or so students live on campus, up from about one in four two years ago, according to the university. University officials expect that eventually, one of every two students will live at the school.

“This was the best opportunity for the school to obtain their objectives,’’ said Ralph V. Izzi Jr., spokesman for the hotel’s owner, the Procaccianti Group of Cranston, R.I., “and it was a good opportunity for us.’’

UMass-Lowell will pay $15 million for the hotel and spend up to $4 million on renovations. The university’s building authority will borrow to finance the project, paying the debt with student housing fees and revenues generated through conferences and continued hotel operations.

The university will set aside a number of rooms for hotel guests during the school year. It will operate the entire facility as a hotel during the summer, when students leave and events such as the Lowell Folk Festival draw thousands to the city.

Still, there’s a hint of sadness in the loss of this privately owned hotel, a key component in the vision of the architect of Lowell’s revitalization, the late Senator Paul Tsongas. When the Hilton opened in 1986, it was the first downtown hotel in decades, and it became a symbol of Lowell’s renaissance after a long decline as a textile manufacturing center.

But times change. Tsongas’s widow, US Representative Niki Tsongas, called UMass-Lowell’s plans for the hotel “the highest and best use.’’

“This brings the university right into the heart of the city,’’ said Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat. “All this contributes to the life of the city, and to the good.’’

Downtown business owners and residents hope UMass-Lowell students will add vitality to their neighborhood.

“You’ll have a population that will be in the vicinity for the entire day,’’ said Andrew Jacobson, owner of Brew’d Awakening Coffeehaus. “That means more people down here spending money, and hopefully they’ll be bringing friends to spend more money.’’

J. Dayne Lamb, who bought a downtown condominium two years ago with her husband, Gardner Stratton, said a greater university presence will also attract new people and ideas.

“Downtown Lowell needs all the educated people it can get,’’ she said. “Cities with robust and good universities are the ones that rise through bad economic times.’’

Many universities have played leading roles in community development. The University of Akron, for example, bought a hotel in downtown Akron, Ohio, in 2007 to house more than 200 students. While some raised concerns the loss of hotel rooms would hurt convention business, the university’s redevelopment of the hotel has helped the downtown, said Mark Williamson, a Akron spokesman.

“It’s working remarkably well,’’ Williamson said. “It has brought more young people to the center city.’’

In Lowell, development officials hope UMass-Lowell’s efforts will yield similar results.

“This is not the road we thought we would take with the hotel, but it shows the city is willing to adapt,’’ said James Cook, executive director of the nonprofit Lowell Development & Financial Corp. “You always have to take a step back, assess what’s working, what’s not, and decide where you want to go.’’