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Four sites in running for tech center

By From the Lowell Sun

By Michael Lafleur
Lowell Sun

LOWELL -- Though they have yet to pick between one of the four sites proposed for the new UMass Lowell center for research into bio- and nanotechnology manufacturing, project officials say they have been able to narrow the list.

"Clearly, at this point some sites are looking more viable than others," said Diana Prideaux-Brune, UMass Lowell's vice chancellor for facilities.

The UMass Building Authority has granted a $1.5 million contract to Omaha, Neb.-based HDR Architecture Inc. to evaluate the four potential sites for the $80 million center for research into the mass production of nanotechnology and bio-engineered inventions.

Potential sites include:

* The Hamilton Canal District, a 15-acre swath of vacant lots and crumbling industrial buildings located between downtown Lowell and the Gallagher Intermodal Terminal that the city has acquired either through negotiated purchase or eminent domain.

* A site in the Lawrence Mills complex, near the corner of Perkins and Aiken streets, across from LeLacheur Park.

* The UMass Lowell north campus parking lot on Riverside Street.

* The former UMass Lowell west campus, located just over the Lowell line in Chelmsford.

Prideaux-Brune said it appears it would be "too expensive" to build the facility on the west campus site, while the Lawrence Mills location has flooding concerns and is rather small.

"The whole first floor would be in the flood zone," she said. "That's really hard for scientific equipment."

Meanwhile, state officials have tentatively decided to build a new, $100 million judicial center in the canal district. City officials have expressed reservations about building both the nano and judicial centers in the district as both would be exempt from property taxes and take up a large portion of the site.

Prideaux-Brune stressed, however, that no final decision has been made. She said the main concern is living within the project's $80 million budget and working within a tight design and construction schedule.

School officials would like to have the facility open by the fall of 2010.

"Everything is surmountable," she said. It's really just a matter of how much money the university wants to invest in a site."

Ahmad Soueid, a senior vice president with HDR Architecture Inc. who works out of the company's Alexandria, Va. office and specializes in the design of advanced technology research centers, said it is crucial that the UMass Lowell center be located on a site that is free from vibrations, excessive noise, electrical power surges and electromagnetic interference.

Soueid said the roughly 100,000-square-foot facility will include about 6,000 square feet of "clean room" space and a 5,000-square-foot, "high bay" clean room for plastics engineering research. The facility also will include numerous other bio-engineering and nanotechnology labs and equipment rooms.

It is hoped the center will help UMass Lowell appeal to top faculty and raise additional funds.

U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan, who is slated to become the school's chancellor on July 1, said the center "will be the signature building of the campus."

"This is a campus that unfortunately hasn't built a new academic building in nearly 40 years," he said. "We're way behind where I want to be in terms of technology and new facilities."

He said he also is considering using the center as a centerpiece of his early fundraising efforts for the university.

"Being entrepreneurial about everything the university does is going to be a priority with me," Meehan said. "We don't have enough revenue, so we need to raise money and we need to think about naming rights and naming labs for companies and people that are willing to contribute to the project."

He added that he has yet to make up his mind about the best potential site for the new facility.

"It's important the faculty have input and the community have input," he said. "It's important that the process be completed."

UMass Lowell officials hope to have a site selected by July and start designing the new facility as soon as possible after that with construction starting in the fall of 2008.

Soueid said he has been involved in the design of about a dozen nanotechnology research centers to date.

He said no two nanotechnology centers are identical.

"Unlike office buildings and classroom facilities or housing dormitories, the nanotechnology field is so vast that every research institution has their own little niche they're trying to excel and grow in," Soueid said. "Each is really customized around the vision of the institution and the objectives of the programs they have."

Prideaux-Brune said a university steering committee is in the midst of determining exactly which kinds of labs and other facilities will be located in the center.

"We're in the hard part now," she said.

She added that she envisions the university quickly needing another research center of this type almost as soon as the new facility is built.

"Unless people stop doing all the work they do, which I can't imagine, we'll have this building filled from day one and we'll be scrambling for more space after that," Prideaux-Brune said.