Rehabilitation puts a new lilt in old streets

Along the half-mile stretch from the train station to Lowell's city center it's hard to see any sign of a much-vaunted rehabilitation process. Peeling paint and grimy brick dominate the landscape, and the cheery "Make it in Massachusetts" sticker plastered across the window of a derelict apartment building seems more pathetic than encouraging.

Then, suddenly, in the downtown area, standing out in sharp relief among the shabby facades and dreary storefronts, are the signs of a new vitality.

Buildings with rosy brick facades and rows of generously proportioned windows bear signs proclaiming that offices are now, or soon will be, for rent. Small stylish shops and restaurants to lively business among faded five-and-dime stores. A recently constructed parking garage covers part of a downtown block, and new streetlights and benches line a freshly bricked pedestrian walk.

Rehabilitative construction is in evidence on a number of sites, including the downtown high school; perhaps the most interesting project is the huge and elderly mill building being trimmed into fashionable apartments intended to lure young professionals.

This flurry of activity is not unique to Lowell.

Another old Massachusetts city, Springfield -- which as recently as 1978 seemed to have hit a new low in its steady spiral downward -- is full of new life. The efforts of local groups, combined with federal and state grants, have "leveraged" over $100 million of private investment in Springfield. Today, steel is rising and concrete is being poured on seven large construction projects in the city's downtown area.

New Bedford, using $1.5 million in community development funds from the federal government, has triggered more than $3 million in private investments. Along the once- shabby waterfront new businesses are locating and old ones expanding.

In Worcester a new in-town mall is being built, and the city's main street is being rehabilitated.

Fall River is watching its first new downtown construction rise from a long vacant lot.

Rehabilitation and similar leveraging of private investment is under way in other Massachusetts cities as well, including Lawrence, Haverhill, Malden, Fitchburg, and Leominster.

What's happening in Massachusetts? It is being referred to as "urban revival."

Each community is working with a slightly different formula, but in general, a combination of strong local leadership and creative financing -- similar in spirit to the "urban enterprise zones" concept favored by President Reagan -- has been the key. Whatever the trick, it is putting Massachusetts downtown areas back to work.

Until very recently commercial conditions were bleak in these urban areas. For some decades the economic vitality of these once-lively industrial centers has been drained as manufacturers headed south for cheaper labor and milder climes. Further, sleek new suburban shopping malls began luring commerce from downtown areas. At the time of the election of former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, many of these towns seemed to have hit new lows.

A number of Massachusetts officials credit the Dukakis administration with providing the impetus for revitalization. In 1976 Governor Dukakis and his state planning director, Frank Keefe, put forward a blueprint mapping out specific means of stimulating Bay State economic growth.

In drawing up this plan both Mr. Keefe and Governor Dukakis made it clear that they believed Massachusetts tax dollars would be much better spent in rehabilitating facilities already existing in urban areas throughout the state instead of pouring money into new projects in outlying areas. Governor Dukakis spoke of using existing city and town centers as the "building blocks" of his administration's growth policy.

In keeping with this philosophy, the Dukakis administration, in 1978, launched the Commercial Area Revitalization Districts (CARD) plan. CARD was created to give depressed urban areas easier access to the cash necessary to make development a reality. Under the plan, an older commercial area which has shown loss of jobs and disinvestment can receive CARD designation from the state.

Once given that CARD designation, an area becomes eligible for industrial revenue bonds (IRBs). These bonds enable banks to offer loans at lower interest rates to would-be developers in the area.

"Private investors love CARD," says Edmund Mangini, deputy administrator and CARD coordinator for the Massachusetts State Department of Communities and Development. "Often it's a developer who will initiate CARD proceedings for an area." Mr. Mangini points out that IRBs enable banks to offer money at 70 percent of market rates, and adds that "with the high cost of interest, it's the only way to go."

There are now 115 CARD areas in Massachusetts. About $140 million in bonds have been issued, and the State Department of Communities and Development estimates that this investment has created 3,000 jobsstatewide. CARD projects have been popping up all over the state. Cities like Lowell and Springfield have gratefully used CARD's easy loan terms to augment their own development schemes.

"Leveraging is really the key," says Robert Patterson, executive director of the Massachusetts Industrial Financing Agency (MIFA), created in 1978 and charged with issuing and overseeing the IRBs. In other words, the easy loans are an incentive to lure private investment back into the downtowns. But CARD has not been doing this work alone.

"The CARD program was patterned to fit together with other things," says Edmund Mangini. Perhaps the most important of these "other things" has been the federal government's Urban Development Action (UDAG). David Starr, head of Springfield Central, a private organization instrumental in the revitalization of Springfield, calls these grants "money to remove an obstacle."

In order to qualify for a UDAG, a community must present the federal government with a development plan, and ask for funding for a specific element of that plan.

For example, developers mapping out a $75 million development plan for downtown Springfield faltered when they realized a shortage of parking spaces was a serious obstacle to success. Consequently, they asked for and received $ 16 million in UDAG funding for a parking garage. "That $16 million made the $75 million do-able," explains David Starr.

Municipal improvements, such as parking, street lights, new sidewalks, are typical UDAG projects. UDAG adds the missing piece that makes the plan as a whole feasible.

"CARD is a good instrument," says David Starr, "and UDAG is the best. UDAG says, 'You move first, and then we'll help you.' It's the most private-enterprise-oriented program you can have. The government reacts to you."

CARD and UDAG are perhaps are most visible, but not the only investment tools being used in Massachusetts. Chapter 121-A of the Massachusetts tax code allows developers to pay a city a fixed rate in lieu of taxes for the first 15 to 40 years of their project. Many communities are making use of that provision as well as taking advantage of federal tax breaks provided for development in historic areas.

Lowell in 1978 qualified for $40 million in federal funds after being designated as a national historic park. New Bedford, too, has qualified as a historic area and has received grants accordingly.

However, the programs don't work by themselves. As Carlo Marchetti, executive director of Springfield Central points out, "All these vehicles are great, but you need people to know about them and use them and push for them. You need a certain kind of leadership to make it work."

Robert Patterson comments that one reason Massachusetts has become a national model for successful revitalization may simply be that the problem was more severe in the Bay State. Massachusetts has 39 cities in addition to what Mr. Patterson calls "countless larger mill towns."

"Because there are so many, and they are so close together, the need [for urban revitalization] is greater in Massachusetts."

"But Massachusetts hasn't done anything that couldn't be done in the rest of the country. The secret of success here has been targeting. We've been specifically targeting funds to the downtowns."

Mr. Patterson also credits a change in attitude with helping to bring about the Massachusetts urban successes. "We've got a resource here in our built environment. It was time we started realizing it."

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