By Katie Lannan
LOWELL -- Every afternoon, Roger Levasseur sees hoards of reflective-vest-clad construction workers filling up his Salem Street shop.
"At 12 o'clock, there might be 20 guys lined up," said Levasseur, owner of the 95-year old Cote's Market. "They all come in here for lunch. And they do eat. Big appetites, these guys."
Levasseur said his sales have surged thanks to the crews working on UMass Lowell's new student center at the former St. Joseph's Hospital site and a replacement for the nearby Textile Memorial Bridge.
This business boost is the first step in what Levasseur and others hope will be a revitalization of the upper Merrimack Street area, spurred by these major projects.
"Years ago, it was blighted," Levasseur said of the area surrounding his family's market. "All of the growth in Lowell's been beneficial. Now you've got new buildings, you've got students coming in. There's always something."
The state is about 60 percent through its plan to construct a new bridge carrying University Avenue across the Merrimack River to join Pawtucket Street. Structural steel should be in place by the end of this year, with the new bridge open to traffic next September, according to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
The existing 116-year-old span is set to be torn down starting in October. The department expects to finish the $29.4 million dollar project by October 2014.
At the south end of the bridge, between Merrimack and Salem streets, will be University Crossing, a 140,000-square-foot complex housing more than two dozen UMass Lowell departments, plus a food court and bookstore that will be open to the public.
"It'll be the social heart of the campus," said UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan.
And, Meehan said, it will also become an economic hub, as students, faculty and staff converge on the centralized facilities from across the university's north, east and south campuses.
"Just the increased people traffic around University Crossing should have collateral benefits to the small businesses in the area and will spur development of new small-business spaces," Meehan said. "The new campus center and renovations along Salem Street and this area are going to allow us to play a major role in the economic development of this neighborhood."
The new building has already sparked development, bringing in about 300 construction and related jobs, said university spokeswoman Christine Gillette. Another 100 workers are expected to be added as the project continues.
Renovations to an existing Salem Street building are slated to be finished by late next spring so that offices, including the university police department, can be set up over the summer.
Gillette said the project is moving forward as scheduled, with demolition crews now at work on the Pawtucket Street property. Expected to be completed in December, the demolition will be followed by the installation of a foundation. The new building's steel shell will start going up in January.
Jim O'Donnell, president and co-owner of O'Donnell Funeral Home, hopes the ongoing development will usher in a rebirth for the neighborhood where his family's business has operated since 1884.
"Between the university and the expected commerce, what I hope it will bring is a strengthening of the inner city of Lowell, this particular section of Lowell that has been there since the beginning and is where the melting pot and a lot of our history started," O'Donnell said.
O'Donnell said that in the meantime, the traffic delays and occasional road closings can be minor annoyances to neighborhood residents.
"For those who are living there now, it does create some temporary inconveniences, but realizing what's going to happen when it's all complete is an exciting opportunity," he said.
Aside from "some pain-in-the-neck traffic issues," the projects have been well-managed and smoothly run, said Deb Chausse, executive director of the Merrimack Street-based family shelter House of Hope.
"Part of what else I'm seeing, along the Salem Street side, some of those abutters are all of a sudden doing home improvement projects, windows going in and the exteriors being improved," Chausse said.
From the changes in the neighborhood, Chausse wants to see a strengthening not only of its economy, but also of a sense of community and local ties.
Already, she's noticed this beginning, she said, with more people out and about on the streets.
"To see people walking around the neighborhood is really cool," she said. "I just hope to see a really distressed neighborhood continue to stabilize."