By Rick Sobey
LOWELL -- The Acre neighborhood's renaissance, slowed by the recession, is back on track.
Thanks to new construction projects at Jeanne D'Arc Credit Union and UMass Lowell, the Merrimack Street corridor is becoming one of the more "blossoming" areas of Lowell, according to city officials.
"It's all coming together," said City Manager Bernie Lynch. "The Acre was bustling in the 1960s and '70s, but like so many urban areas, it went through a period of disinvestment. But the neighborhood is really on the rebound, and we're very pleased with what we're seeing from Jeanne D'Arc and the university.
"It's very important to see Jeanne D'Arc investing in the neighborhood with this sizable building. It really shows their confidence in the area," Lynch added.
The credit union's under-construction facility, at 585-597 Merrimack St., should be completed by April, according to President and CEO Mark Cochran. This three-story, modern building is rising across the street from its current main office and loan center.
"With business growing, we needed more space, and this facility will make it more comfortable and more private for our customers," Cochran said.
The building will consist of 13,600 square feet of space, multiple drive-through lanes and ATMs, and plenty of parking.
"We've always been on Merrimack Street and thankfully an opportunity opened up to stay here and improve the branch," Cochran added. "We hope it helps revitalize the area and transform the neighborhood."
Currently the loan center building is next to the branch office, but the construction will consolidate the facilities, making it a "more efficient and more effective working environment," Cochran said. The new facility will also have a third floor for administration.
Jeanne D'Arc won't immediately add employees, but Cochran said the new facility gives them the ability to grow.
When the move is finished next spring, he said the credit union plans to sell its current property on Merrimack Street.
"It'll help improve that spot over there, just like us improving this spot by purchasing the Lowell Community Health Center's property," Cochran said. "Merrimack Street has come a long way, and downtown is growing down here. Downtown doesn't have to stop at City Hall."
In addition to Jeanne D'Arc's project, others are well under way that should benefit the area, Lynch said. The University Avenue bridge construction will be done by the end of September, which will help bring traffic straight down Merrimack Street, he said.
"You'll see more vehicular and pedestrian traffic down there, bringing more people to the businesses," Lynch said. "We made the area a priority this year with the manager's neighborhood-initiative program, and we like the investments that we're seeing."
Lynch also emphasized that UMass Lowell's University Crossing student center will tremendously enhance Merrimack Street. The 230,000-square-foot complex between Merrimack and Salem streets, at the old St. Joseph's Hospital on Pawtucket Street, will be a hub of student activity and should connect the university's three campuses with the downtown business and cultural district.
The four-story glass structure, set for a spring 2014 opening, will have the admissions and financial-aid offices, restaurants, space for clubs and organizations, a bookstore and much more.
"It's going to be a prominent building in the city and increase the economic vitality of the area," Lynch said. "It will be within walking distance from Merrimack Street businesses and great for the city."
"The student center will really benefit the businesses down there, bringing more foot traffic and bike traffic with the bike lanes there now," said Mayor Patrick Murphy.
As anticipation builds for the university's project, Jeanne D'Arc's CEO said credit-union customers are also looking forward to the change next year.
"Investing again in the neighborhood is exciting to them," Cochran said. "They know all the tellers and loan workers, so this welcoming building will be a new business home for them."