The On the Street series looks at the past, present, and future of neighborhoods in Greater Boston.
For generations, Lowell has been a place with potential.
Its canal-carved downtown and classic architecture form the bones of a great city. The brick mills that once made Lowell an industrial powerhouse have gradually been redeveloped into apartments, bringing more residents to the core of the city. A bustling university sits on the edge of downtown by the Merrimack River.
But past revivals, introduced with great fanfare, invariably stalled out. Small businesses periodically opened and then faded away as grand plans to transform the area never took root.
This time, some say, things will be different for Lowell.
The long, long planned Hamilton Canal District is starting to achieve critical mass. Robotics startups and maker spaces are reviving the city’s industrial heritage. Waves of newcomers ― immigrants from Asia and artists from Boston ― are building new communities in once dormant spaces. There is hope Lowell is on the cusp of political change that will reorient power to long underrepresented immigrant neighborhoods.
“We’re seeing a major influx of transplants from Cambridge and Boston living in Lowell for greater affordability,” George Chigas, a professor at University of Massachusetts Lowell who studies the Cambodian diaspora. New economic and infrastructure investments will “exponentially improve” the quality of life in the city, Chigas said. ”Lowell is poised to go through a renaissance it probably hasn’t seen since the late 1970s when the downtown was created into Lowell National Historic Park,” he said.
That national historic park designation makes Lowell unique — it’s one of the few such urban parks in the country, reflecting Lowell’s history as “Spindle City,” the cradle of the American Industrial Revolution. Engineers harnessed the Merrimack River to power vast textile mills that employed tens of thousands of people, mostly immigrants who streamed here through the 1800s.
By the 1920s though, that industry had begun to fade, the mills moving south, where cotton was closer and the labor less expensive. Lowell entered a gradual decline that lasted for decades. But today, the buildings that remain in the Hamilton Canal District — remnants of that once booming industry — could be the epicenter of change in the city.
A 15-acre site where four canals converge, the district has interested planners and developers since the mid-2000s, when the city assembled a collection of empty lots and run-down old mills, some through eminent domain. Progress has been slow, with the city and master developer Trinity Financial parting ways in 2015 after successfully opening just one apartment building.
But last year, a new district courthouse opened, and earlier this year a 903-space parking garage was finished. A $343 million high school is under construction downtown. And work is well underway on 201 Canal, a 125-unit apartment building that will be among the largest new projects downtown Lowell has seen in years. It’s set to open next spring.
The $38 million 201 Canal project required an array of tax credits and other subsidies to make economic sense, said Larry Curtis, managing partner of WinnDevelopment, the builder. But the end result will be a mixed-income building with market rents that can work in Lowell — one-bedrooms start at around $1,500 a month ― where construction costs are comparable to Boston, even if the housing market is not.
“We’re not trying to build just luxury housing here, but affordable and workforce housing,” said Curtis, whose firm has been building in Lowell for 20 years. “Housing for people who have normal paychecks.”
Winn is one of several builders that have developed a specialty in rehabbing the massive mill complexes that line the canals, often with the help of federal historic preservation tax credits that keep costs in check. They’ve become home to thousands of people who fuel downtown businesses and enliven the streets.
“Downtown is our central business district. It is also a residential neighborhood,” said Christine McCall, the city’s director of planning and development. “That’s because 95 percent of the mill buildings have been redeveloped.”
Jim Lichoulas remembers what Lowell was like before that happened. His dad was a developer who owned several buildings around the Hamilton Canal District, and as a kid in the 1970s he’d visit, struck by the ruins of Lowell’s industrial past.
His father butted heads with officials in City Hall over what to do with the buildings, which Lowell ultimately took through eminent domain. But Lichoulas hung on to one, which he turned into the sort of place you might only find in an old city with so much empty space: Mill No. 5.
In a long corridor on the building’s fourth floor, Lichoulas has spent seven years crafting a Diagon Alley-style wonderland of salvaged storefronts that host quirky businesses — a funky record shop, an apothecary full of curiosities, an old movie house, and a rescued soda fountain transported from Maine. They are the kinds of places that are harder to find in Cambridge or Somerville these days. The space offers a vision of what Lowell used to be, and one piece of what it might become.
“I was trying to imagine what Lowell was like in the 1880s, back when the mills were booming,” he said. “I set out to re-create it.”
Yet this hall of wonders can feel worlds apart from the rest of the city, an abstract concept of a Main Street that doesn’t yet exist in Lowell’s downtown.
Not for lack of trying.
“Everything has changed in Lowell and nothing has changed at the same time,” said Franky Descoteaux, a former small business owner and city councilor who runs the Entrepreneurship Center at Community Teamwork, a small business assistance group based in Lowell. She said that while the market potential is high enough that investors are scooping up property in the city, downtown has stayed pretty much the same for decades.
But there are inklings of change.
In the past few years, a group of second-generation Asian Americans have opened shops and restaurants downtown, largely catering to Lowell High School and college students, Descoteaux said. It’s brought vibrancy to the streets and is inspiring other young owners of hyperlocal businesses to do the same.
“They’re coming up and trying to start their careers, they’re in their early 30s, late 20s,” said Peter Lam, the owner of the AWOL sneaker boutique, who was among the first wave of such storefronts to open on Merrimack Street.
There’s a growing push to spread the benefits from the city’s growth beyond downtown and into more neighborhoods, which have been transformed in recent years by waves of newcomers from Southeast Asia, Africa, and Puerto Rico.
In 2017, Asian and Latino residents successfully sued to overturn the city’s at-large election system, which had resulted in overwhelmingly white city councils and school boards in a city where more than half of residents are Asian, Latino, or Black. November’s City Council election is the first with a district-based system designed to elect councilors from across the city.
“This city is so diverse, we need our decision-makers to reflect the city that we represent,” said state Representative Vanna Howard, who was elected to represent the 17th District last year and is the second Cambodian-American to hold statewide office in Massachusetts.
There’s hope that the new system will prompt more city investment in a wider range of neighborhoods, said Geoff Foster, a longtime Lowell community organizer who now leads Common Cause Massachusetts.
“For so long, one very dominant neighborhood generated the overwhelming majority of elected officials,” he said. “It’s really a very unique moment for this city.”
Of course, not everyone’s thrilled with the changes.
Tensions have simmered in recent months between the city’s large Southeast Asian community ― 20,000 to 25,000 Cambodian refugees and their descendants live in Lowell ― and its mainly white political leaders, some of whom were forced into running against one another. Some are skeptical that changes to the makeup of the City Council will make much difference in where the city deploys resources.
Still, there’s no question that the newcomers are a big part of Lowell’s future, Chigas said.
“These second- and third-generation immigrants are taking on leadership roles,” he said. “They’re staying in Lowell, and building careers and families and they believe in the city and their place there.”
In some ways, it’s not so different than the waves of immigrants from Ireland, Quebec, and various parts of Europe who flowed in to fill Lowell’s mills through the 1800s, he said.
Lowell has always been a place where people came to build a life, and a city in the process. Today, they’re doing it again.
Read more about Lowell and explore the full On the Street series.