The Greek philosopher Socrates said, “By far the greatest and most admirable form of wisdom is that needed to plan and beautify cities and human communities.” Who knew Socrates was such a fan of transit-oriented development (TOD)?
TOD works, and nowhere is that more evident than in Lawrence, Mass., home of the new Senator Patricia McGovern Transportation Center. This intermodal transportation hub promises to be a critical element in the revitalization of a once-flourishing mill town.
Origins of the project
“I got a call from a broker who had a listing in Lawrence. At first I put him off because I had no interest in starting a mixed-use community project there,” explains Bob Ansin, founder and CEO of MassInnovation LLC, a development company based in Fitchburg, Mass. “But finally, in June of 2003, I went to take a look and was stunned by the scale of the building. I had never walked into a building that housed almost 1.3 million square feet of space.”
Ansin describes being surprised at the great location, with its accessibility to other transportation options. “I remember exactly where I was standing when I decided that I would try to buy that building. I was on the roof with the broker, looking out at the river,” he adds. “To my right was I-495, on my left was a glorious old clock tower, and beneath me was this massive empty space, an old mill.”
Ansin says it was then that his broker said that there had been some talk about putting in a new train station. That important bit of news was the clincher on the deal. He then began to research the proposed train station. The previous proposal submitted would have put the station in the parking lot next to the mill property.
“It occurred to me,” says Ansin, “that the train station might be one of those plans that looks good and sounds good, but that had been on the drawing board forever, just another unfunded mandate.” After more research, it was discovered that all the necessary funding was already earmarked for the train station. So Ansin bought the Wood Mill in October, and says it was the train station that played the most critical element in his decision.
“I believe in smart growth. My company practices it. We don’t want to just build something and hope that people will come. We try to build communities,” Ansin says. “And that’s exactly what we’re doing here — building a city within a city.”
An integral part of this smart growth philosophy is TOD. And the new intermodal transportation facility is absolutely vital to it all.
Bringing communities together
Located in the heart of Lawrence (at the corner of South Union and Merrimack Streets), the five-level, $26 million intermodal transportation center includes a commuter rail station, a 900-car multiuse garage and a bus terminal. Adjacent to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s (MBTA) Haverhill commuter line, the intermodal center will serve as a hub for the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority (MVRTA), combining train, bus and airport shuttle services. But the development promises to do much more than that.
“This station blends the future of the city with the traditional,” explains MVRTA Administrator Joseph Costanzo. As a driving force behind the project, Costanzo expects the intermodal center to capitalize on the tremendous potential the region offers.
Driving more than $200 million in local investment, the new center transforms Lawrence, the mill district and the Merrimack Valley into a commuting embarkation point for Boston, and a destination for burgeoning businesses in Lawrence and the surrounding area. MVRTA is hoping that by serving Amesbury, Andover, Lawrence, North Andover, Haverhill, Merrimack, Methuen and Newburyport, the center will also relieve some of the burden on the already overcrowded Andover train station.
“The Lawrence intermodal center provides two critical benefits for this region: one is transportation, and the other is urban development,” explains TOD expert Al Raine, a vice president with DMJM Harris. Raine and his firm were responsible for planning and site selection, site assembly and real estate acquisition, finance and funding and the center’s design and engineering. “While every project factor was significant, site selection was critically important to optimize both the transportation and development potential,” he says. “With the right location and design, the intermodal center will serve as a linchpin for development and transportation in the region.”
Classic look with a twist
While the project has certainly been praised for its infrastructure value and its ability to lure investment, the station’s design has also made quite an impact. Seen from the street, the station’s red brick façade at first appears to be simply another mill. Stairwells resemble clock towers (echoing other nearby mill buildings), and the station’s windows carefully match the look of surrounding mills. However, passengers arriving by train are greeted with something quite different. On the inside, the station boasts an extremely modern metal and glass structure — blending the modern with the traditional. Evidently, the blend works.
“The design vastly exceeded my expectations,” explains Ansin. “To me, it is a beautiful mirror to the Wood Mill. I was expecting the transportation and parking garage to be a cold, low-cost and bare-bones structure. But this design could easily attract upscale restaurants and boutiques — and their customers.”
The design reflects the time and research put into the project by the consulting firm, according to Ansin. He says DMJM Harris and the other stakeholders were sensitive to the issues that were most important to developers. “I can tell you unequivocally that I would not have bought the Wood Mill if it were not for the transportation center and its design,” he says.
Not without challenges
While the project has earned broad support, as is the case with many TOD projects, there were significant hurdles that had to be overcome. “Identifying and securing funding sources became a challenge, particularly since we were approaching the end of the six-year TEA-21 reauthorization cycle,” says Audrey Stuart project manager for DMJM Harris. “But there was a tremendous will and desire to make this happen, so the circumstances just induced everyone to get more creative.”
The project was ultimately funded through a variety of state, federal and local sources and an innovative garage revenue bond. For example, Stuart says, the bulk of the project site was acquired from the Wood Mill, which received two floors of desperately needed parking (rather than money) as part of its compensation package.
Sorting out rail issues was also a difficult task. The transportation center lies on the MBTA’s heavily used Haverhill main line, which serves commuters traveling to and from Boston. It also handles Amtrak’s Downeaster, which provides passenger service between Boston and Portland, Maine. Finally, the tracks also serve a heavily used freight corridor.
“Rail changes had to be made so that platforms for the passenger trains stopping at the new station would not prevent wide-load freight trains from passing by,” says Stuart. “The rights of all of these railroad entities had to be protected, and every single rail improvement had to address all these different interests before implementation. We created an agreement addressing not only specific rail improvements but also a schedule for future improvements and track fees.”
With the details of the TOD effort worked out, the focus will primarily center on the added value that the development will offer to both transportation users and to the community.
Bob Ansin, who grew up in a mill town, says that one thing is certain. “The mills ain’t coming back. But that only eliminates one of about two billion things that you can do with a great big mill located just 25 miles from Boston.” For years, he says, politicians have been trying fruitlessly to bring manufacturing back to the area.
“Although we largely abandoned them 20 or 30 years ago, America is finally rediscovering its downtown areas, and old mill buildings have suddenly become attractive properties because of what can be done with them and near them.”
As an element of smart growth, TOD drives a considerable amount of the financial rebirth. In Massachusetts alone, the state legislature passed a $1.2 billion transportation bill that sets aside $54 million for TOD developments within a quarter mile of transit facilities. Massachusetts may be ahead of much of the rest of the country in this respect, but support for TOD is undoubtedly growing nationwide.
“You can’t reverse the tide of history and bring back the area’s manufacturing businesses, but you can transform peoples’ lives through smart growth and TOD,” says Ansin. True to Socrates’ philosophies, the Patricia McGovern Transportation Center is a step in this direction.
Arthur Schurr is a New York-based freelance writer who reports on transportation infrastructure projects.