Brockton, Lawrence, Waltham have development wish list for Charlie Baker
Lawrence wants the state to spend $70 million to help build a new police station and training academy.
Brockton needs millions from Beacon Hill for a new public safety building and to change its one-way Main Street traffic back to two ways.
Waltham has asked the state to build a public transportation monorail along Route 128 and a new bridge over the highway that can handle more cars.
As Governor-elect Charlie Baker prepares to take the oath of office on Thursday, mayors of the three cities are preparing wish lists for the new administration. City leaders have high hopes for Baker, whose campaign promises included no cuts to local aid and developing contracts with cities that specify state-local collaboration.
Baker’s first major appointment to his inner circle was Jay Ash, the Chelsea city manager who will lead the state’s housing and economic development agency with Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk as his deputy. Ash declined to be interviewed for this article.
On the surface, the three cities — Waltham, Brockton, and Lawrence — would seem to have a lot in common. Brockton built its reputation as a shoe manufacturing capital; Waltham made watches; Lawrence’s massive mills along the Merrimack River produced textiles.
But as their mills and factories closed in the last century, the city’s downtowns changed in different ways.
Waltham, boosted by its location alongside Route 128, has flourished. Its hills overlooking the highway are now dotted with office parks and high-tech companies, and its downtown is filled with restaurants and luxury apartments.
Meanwhile, Brockton and Lawrence have struggled, with their downtowns marked by vacant storefronts and empty lots. While the two cities have tried to lure developers to build housing and open new businesses, their leaders say aid from the state is key to any recovery.
“Any mayor is going to tell you that we need unrestricted local aid, because we can’t pay our bills. We absolutely need more funding,” said Brockton Mayor Bill Carpenter, who has been on the job for a year and envisions a thriving downtown in the near future.
Carpenter said he is pleased with the Patrick administration’s grants to Brockton over the last eight years. Recent big-ticket items include a $27.4 million commitment to construct a health sciences building at Massasoit Community College and a $21.5 million grant to renovate a downtown Main Street building to house a satellite college campus for the University of Massachusetts Boston, Massasoit, and Bridgewater State University.
In addition, MassDevelopment, the state’s finance and development authority, recently invested $26 million in housing and health center projects in downtown Brockton through tax-exempt bonds and tax credits.
As Baker prepares to take office, Carpenter is preparing to pitch the new governor more projects proposed for Brockton’s downtown. Two of his biggest priorities are making Main Street two-way to improve traffic flow and adding a public safety building that would house police and fire personnel serving the city’s 94,000 residents.
“We need to lobby effectively; we need to make a strong argument,” Carpenter said.
While department stores such as Almy’s and Kresge’s are just a memory on Main Street, John Merian said he believes downtown Brockton is poised for redevelopment. Merian grew up there, owns a tuxedo shop on Main Street, and is chairman of Brockton 21st Century Corporation, which works with the city to stimulate economic growth.
“We want people to live here and have a good experience, and businesses to stay, and new businesses to come,” Merian said.
In Lawrence, the state committed $90 million over the last eight years toward grants, tax credit programs, bonds, studies, and other subsidies, including a $3.9 million project to repave and upgrade Merrimack Street this year. This spring, the city also will use a $900,000 grant to beautify an Essex Street alleyway that connects Northern Essex Community College to the downtown. Last January, the college opened a $27.4 million health and technology center.
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said the state grants received during the Patrick administration helped bring stability to a city of nearly 78,000 that has the highest unemployment rate in the state — 11 percent — more than double the state average of 5.2 percent.
With many of its historic mills either partially used or vacant, Rivera said he believes new businesses will choose to come to Lawrence, where rents are cheaper than other nearby cities and an eager workforce awaits. For Rivera, though, any new development and state aid is tied to the process of changing the city’s perception as an unsafe place to visit or do business.
Public safety is Rivera’s main priority these days. Last month, the state gave Lawrence $1 million to help pay the salaries of 10 new police officers — some of whom will walk a beat in the city’s downtown.
As soon as Baker takes office, Rivera will seek to persuade him to fund a new police station and training academy that would cost $70 million to build. The facility would replace the city’s existing station and also connect to a police training academy that would serve as an educational hub for new officers throughout New England. The proposed facility would be built across from the new Northern Essex campus and would be run by the city, the college, and the state.
“We hope to start on it next year if we can get some money,” Rivera said.
Waltham Mayor Jeannette McCarthy has been spending a lot of time along Route 128 lately, where a $4 million improvement project was completed this year. She is convinced more than ever the state needs to find a way to get more cars off the highway while also keeping the traffic flowing.
As president of the Massachusetts Mayors’ Association, she recently pitched Baker the idea of creating a monorail for the MBTA and the commuter rail that would run along the center of Route 128 with stops in Burlington, Waltham, and Westwood.
“I think long-term, it has to be part of their plan. If Disney can do it, we can do it,” said McCarthy, who envisions a monorail station at the intersection of routes 20 and 117.
She also is lobbying the state to build a five-lane bridge at the same intersection that would accommodate the increased traffic from office parks, Route 128, and those who want to shop at the new Market Basket mall on 119 acres formerly occupied by Polaroid. To date, 280,000 square feet of retail space has been developed at that location, and there is the potential to build another 1 million square feet for businesses.
To get to the shopping center these days, motorists have to drive through a maze of back roads or enter alongside Route 128 on the existing bridge over the highway, which is choked with traffic.
With an unemployment rate of 4.1 percent, Waltham has done a good job of putting its 62,000 residents to work. But McCarthy said she wants more.
“We have tremendous growth here, but my goal as mayor is to try to keep the downtown vital, to keep 128 vital, and to also protect the neighborhoods,” she said.