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Turning around Mass. gateway cities

Lowell’s canal system gives the town a unique personality.
Lowell’s canal system gives the town a unique personality.(Barry Chin/Globe staff)

In most formerly industrial Massachusetts cities, big, game-changing real estate developments — the kinds of projects that have the potential to turn an entire city around — can’t get built because they don’t make sense economically for developers. And if the state started lining up smart but unfinanceable development projects from New Bedford and Haverhill to Pittsfield, and handing out subsidies to each one, the tab would quickly soar into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Instead the state earmarked just $16 million.

The notion that $16 million is enough to turn around a handful of economically lagging cities, let alone more than two dozen of them, should be absurd. The need in places like New Bedford, Lawrence, and Springfield is several orders of magnitude bigger. Even so, the state has managed to turn the sum into a big pile of money. It's happened by focusing first on the thing that makes the state's older industrial cities so compelling — the fact that they're not faceless suburban subdivisions.

From Cambridge to Cleveland, cities are surging. Economic development is largely an urban game, because urban centers offer residents and businesses something they can't get in a subdivision — authentic, compelling environments.

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The comeback of the American city is a place-based phenomenon. It's about tapping into what's unique and vibrant about a specific neighborhood in a specific city. Boston's Back Bay, Brooklyn's gritty waterfront, and Pittsburgh's booming public market are all contextual; they don't happen in the abstract, which is why they're all so difficult to replicate at the bottom of a suburban highway off-ramp.

From the canals in Lowell and Holyoke to New Bedford's port to Malden's classic downtown and Chelsea's industrial architecture, Massachusetts' smaller cities are full of the types of urban amenities that have catalyzed development in other cities. Most just haven't put all the pieces together in a systematic way yet. The $16 million the Legislature committed to turning these cities around was earmarked for a fund for transformative redevelopment projects. As one slug of money in a real estate deal, the money won't transform much. So the fund is being stretched as far as it'll possibly go, by asking cities across the state to think deeply about the characteristics that make them compelling places.

MassDevelopment, the quasi-public agency administering the fund, put out a call earlier this year, asking cities to identify priority redevelopment districts for transformative projects. The agency put a few parameters on the call: Cities could only focus on one development district, it had to be compact enough to walk through in five minutes, and cities had to identify private and civic redevelopment planning partners. Three winning cities would receive a slice of the state's $16 million, in the form of a redevelopment planning fellow.

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The MassDevelopment program asks cities to take a far more granular approach to development planning than they usually take. It leads with an authentic vision for a specific urban place.

"The older approach would be just putting something in, and assuming that, naturally, others would come after it," says Anne Haynes, the director of the transformative development program at MassDevelopment. "We want to focus on the types of places and spaces that generate activity. So when the larger project comes in, it feeds off" what's around it. If a large new development rises in a downtown that's full of storefronts that don't make sense, the downtown won't get the kind of boost it should.

This approach assumes that there will be more money coming down the line for large, transformative real estate developments, but it also recognizes that these larger developments will only work if they're tapping into a strong sense of place, and a workable local development vision. It acknowledges that money to make unfinanceable developments financially feasible is important, but it also acknowledges that money can't buy vision, and it can't conjure a strong neighborhood out of nowhere.

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Related:

The Podium: Reinventing Holyoke

Ben Schreckinger: 'Unnovation' can move New England forward

Opinion: Gateway cities don't need a silver bullet

The Podium: The next chapter for Mass. gateway cities


Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.