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UML eyes more tech-center sites

By From the Lowell Sun

By Michael Lafleur
Lowell Sun

LOWELL -- UMass Lowell has expanded its list of potential sites for a new nanotechnology research center to include two locations in the heart of the school's North Campus.

UMass Lowell spokeswoman Renae Lias Claffey said the university now is considering whether to build the center, which will focus on research in the mass production of nano- and bio-engineered products, on the sites of what is now Cumnock Hall or Smith Hall.

"These are highly visible locations on UMass Lowell North, so the new chancellor came in and wanted to include them in the mix," she said. "After all, he didn't have a say in the first go around."

New UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan could not be reached for comment yesterday or last week.

Locating the $80 million project -- to be called the Emerging Technology and Innovation Center -- on the site of either Cumnock or Smith Hall would mean the building would have to be razed as part of the project.

Diana Prideaux-Brune, UMass Lowell's executive director for facilities and the project manager, said Cumnock Hall was built in the 1950s, while Smith Hall dates to the early 1900s.

The former is located on University Avenue in the heart of north campus. It houses the university's administrative offices, including that of Chancellor Meehan, who resigned his seat in Congress to take the school's helm earlier this month. Smith Hall is located nearby, at the corner of University Avenue and the VFW Highway.

The UMass Building Authority already has granted a $1.5 million contract to Omaha, Neb.-based HDR Associates to consider four other potential tech-center sites.

Prideaux-Brune said the two new sites were added "just to make sure we've looked at all the possibilities."

"It's an important building for the campus, and we need to make sure we get it right," she said.

The four other sites under consideration include:

* The so-called Hamilton Canal District, a 15-acre swath of crumbling mill buildings and vacant lots that the city has acquired through its eminent-domain powers or negotiated purchase.

* A vacant university-owned parcel in the Lawrence Mills complex, at the corner of Perkins and Aiken streets, directly across from LeLacheur Park and the UMass Lowell campus recreation center.

* Riverside Parking lot, located off Riverside Street on north campus.

* The former UMass Lowell West Campus, which is just over the Chelmsford line.

Prideaux-Brune said all sites still are under consideration, though the Lawrence Mills and West Campus sites are the least likely to be picked.

There are flooding concerns with the Lawrence Mills site, which was flooded by the Merrimack River the past two springs, while the West Campus site is considered too distant from other university operations and facilities.

University officials hope to have the technology center open by the fall of 2010.

Prideaux-Brune said building on the Cumnock site might delay that opening somewhat because of the need to relocate the central offices. She said the Smith site would allow for an opening date "pretty close" to the original time frame.

She said university and HDR officials hope to select a site by sometime next month.

"The earlier the decision, the better the chance of getting this thing open on time," she said. "But it's very complicated. The decision has to be right."

Meanwhile, City Manager Bernie Lynch yesterday said he hopes to be able to recommend a master developer to carry out the city's ambitious plans for the Hamilton Canal District by early September.

City plans call for selling the district properties to a single, large development firm that would oversee a massive rehabilitation project for the area, converting into a mix of condominiums, apartments, commercial offices and retail shops. Lynch is negotiating with three such development teams.

The state Division of Capital Asset Management, the real-estate arm of state government, already has chosen the canal district as the location for a $100 million judicial center. The judicial center would be exempt from local property taxes, as would UMass Lowell's technology center.

Lynch yesterday said that while having two large, tax-exempt structures in the canal district is a concern, they don't rule out locating the tech center in the district as well "if it makes sense for the university and city financially."

"What we have to weigh over is the benefit of having a cutting-edge building, a cutting edge industry located right in the downtown area," he said. "That obviously has some benefits to it, but we'd have to understand what that means and how the deal would be structured."