LOWELL — The renovation of Mill No. 5 gives new meaning to the real estate term “mixed use project.”
At heart an office building for small businesses and technology start-ups, the former textile mill is being renovated with a kind of fun-house brio to attract the eclectic, off-beat, and hip: boutique movie theater, yoga studio, farm-to-table restaurant, a lounge/library in the style of an English manor — the whole thing decorated with architectural materials salvaged from the likes of Dr. Seuss’ house.
The whimsy, said developer Constantine Valhouli, is deliberately intended to provoke inspiration.
“What people go to a well-functioning downtown for are the chance encounters,” Valhouli said during a recent tour. “Somebody from a start-up can take a break in the middle of the day and walk around, go to a yoga class, grab that coffee, and that’s often where you’re going to have the inspiration to solve the problem.”
Though a soup kitchen and storefront churches are a few doors away, Mill No. 5 is being reborn in the Hamilton Canal District of downtown Lowell, which itself has undergone a remarkable transformation. An area that once evoked bombed-out Berlin circa 1945 now features slick new apartments, tree-lined paths, a community health center, another new office building under construction, and soon the $175 million Lowell trial court complex.
“When you consider the economic downturn we’ve been in, so much has been done, it’s remarkable,” said Robert Forrant, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and regional analyst for the economic journal MassBenchmarks.
As important, Forrant said, is the flavor a development such as Mill No. 5 will add to downtown Lowell. The eclectic tone should help draw more artists and creative types to the area, giving it a vibe and character distinct from more conventional business districts.
“And if you put a small bookstore cafe in, that would be just another venue that could make the city more like a Northampton, Mass.,” Forrant said.
Mill No. 5 is a labor of love of Valhouli and his business partner, Jim Lichoulas. Friends since high school, the two took different career paths, with Valhouli pursuing film and other creative endeavors and landing in Brooklyn, and Lichoulas joining the family real estate business.
But they shared a passion for old-world craftsmanship and a hobby of salvaging the cast-asides from rehab projects. The pair had been stockpiling their acquisitions — hand-crafted moldings, 300-year-old doors, stained-glass windows — at Lichoulas’s farm in New Hampshire.
“We always wanted to work together on something,” Lichoulas said. “Here we were able to combine a lot of different things in one place and it gave us space for all the stuff in the barn.”
The reclaimed fixtures are everywhere. There’s the restored century-old storefront from Mattapoisett, 350-year-old lintel posts, bow-front windows from a Beacon Hill row house, and the doors from the Springfield house of Theodor Giesel, aka Dr. Seuss, which Valhouli scored at an auction.
The result will be something of a Disneyland for hipsters, unfurling in one big blocklong stretch. Inside the entry hall will be a reconstructed early 19th-century New England schoolhouse, an exhibit that will be part of what Valhouli calls the Lowell Atheneum, which will also feature a collection of hand-painted pseudo-historical plaques from New England history.
The retail stores will be set behind old-world storefronts, across from a Victorian lounge, which will serve as an in-house lending library. Valhouli also plans to hold author readings there.
Across will be the cafe, run by Michele Hazut, a well-traveled chef trained at Johnson and Wales, that will feature food made with ingredients from local growers.
“We have so many farms around here,” Hazut said. “We take for granted that you can go just go to farm stand,” nearby.
The latest plan is to make the restaurant fare available to patrons of the movie house.
The 64-seat theater will be Valhouli’s baby. He has produced several documentaries, including “Curve,” about plus-sized models.
Next to the theater, Valhouli points out, will be a black-box performance space, along with what he calls the “world’s smallest drive-in,” a 1957 Studebaker convertible with its own private screen.
Valhouli likens the development of the project to how jazz musicians build a song. “We’ve not built from a plan,” he said. “You play a theme, and you just keep playing improvisations over it.”
During a recent tour, the pair could barely walk a few paces without sharing their latest inspirations: a beer garden, a farmer’s market, a “Skillshare” workshop, a kind of open classroom where people can teach others their particular expertise, from welding to meatball making.
Even with the opening months away, most of the building is already under lease, with more than 50 enterprises lured by the low rents and easy terms the partners are currently offering.
Several are tech start-ups relocating from Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, as well as Darkwind Media, a Rochester, N.Y.-based game developer looking for its first Massachusetts office.
“I knew we didn’t want typical white walls and a dropped ceiling,” said Darkwind chief technology officer Scott Flynn. “I think it’s going to be an incredibly creative space. It has the benefit of having all these other things to do.”
While the partners hope to have a grand opening the week of the Lowell Folk Fest in late July, when the city will be thronged with visitors, they’re also considering an earlier soft opening.
Meanwhile nearby developer Trinity Financial is nearing completion on 110 Canal, a 55,000-square-foot office building nearby that is slated to open in July. Trinity has bigger plans for the Hamilton Canal district — an entire neighborhood would include 800 new apartments and nearly 500,000 square feet of new offices and retail.
“We are talking to a number of innovative technology companies that will set the tone for the overall development of the district, as well as some established, well-heeled local companies looking to upgrade space,” said Trinity vice president Abby Goldenfarb.
The fact that Mill No. 5 is attracting tenants, although of a less mainstream variety than those sought by Trinity, bodes well for the district.
“We just want to build something people will respond to favorably,” Valhouli said. “So far, the right people have been coming in — awesome people.”