Upper Merrimack Neighborhood
The Upper Merrimack/ Moody Revitilization
The Coalition for a Better Acre has invested over $29 Million in the Upper Merrimack Planning Area just since 2007 but its investment in the area dates back to the Campaign to Save North Canal, launched in 1983, and continues today with the most recent development of Acre High School and Unity Place Apartments.
CBA’s long-term investment in the neighborhood is paying off with others in the private sector now also joining in such efforts. A private developer recently acquired a 12-unit property and invested approximately $1M in rehabilitation. Likewise, the shuttered Nuestra Senora del Carmen Church (formerly St. Jean-Baptiste) complex is also being privately redeveloped by a local developer/owner.
The Campaign to Save North Canal
The North Canal Apartments, located in the Northeast corner off the Acre, was developed for low and moderate income families under HUD’s Section 221(d)(3) below-market mortgage program in 1968. The 267 unit development was built on a downtown urban renewal site after the demolition of a predominantly French Canadian neighborhood known as “little Canada”. The project was built by local developers who, soon after the project was completed, went bankrupt. The project was found to have significant structural problems, water leakage, defective plumbing, malfunctioning electrical systems, no insulation and aging heating systems.
In 1983, when CBA leaders first learned of the planned HUD auction of the North Canal apartments, it came as a tremendous blow. With their campaign to Save the Acre Triangle neighborhood, CBA staff and leaders already had their hands full. However, according to CBA Chairperson Charlie Gargiulo, “As an organization we weren’t blinded by what we were trying to accomplish in the Acre Triangle. We knew that if we spent 3-4 years building 60-70 units in the Triangle, and at the same time we lost 267 units at North Canal, then we weren’t doing our job as a community organization.” Four years later, the North Canal Tenant Council, organized by the CBA to bring a 93a Consumer Action suit against the owners, emerged victorious from a long and arduous struggle to avert the planned auction of their homes to a private developer. Once CBA and the North Canal Tenant Council obtained ownership of the site, CBA raise over $20 million to rehab the apartments.
In 2006 and 2007, CBA invested $14 million in property improvements to the North Canal Apartments, including new kitchens and baths, flooring, high-efficiency heating systems, and landscaping and paving.
Stabilizing Other Key Properties
In 1989, following on the heels of the North Canal rehabilitation project, CBA also acquired the Elias Tobacco Building, a burned out, historic building located at 450 Merrimack Street and invested $2.4 million, creating six retail storefronts and 12 apartments and stabilizing this section of the downtown historic district.
The St. Joseph’s Complex
In the past few years, the CBA has literally transformed this section of the Acre. In 2001 CBA renovated a 15,000-square-foot former convent at 517 Moody Street into a four unit community services center serving the North Canal Tenants with a community enter, as well as providing space for CBA’s offices, a property management office and additional office space for other area non-profits. The project was able to utilize federal historic tax credits to help finance the preservation of the building. At the same time, CBA had the foresight to also acquire the adjacent St. Joseph’s Grammar School located at 511 Moody Street, which was abandoned and at risk of permanent structural damage due to water infiltration. The St. Joseph’s apartments – an adaptive reuse of the historic school building – welcomed tenants in 2008 in 15 stunning new apartments with graceful high ceilings, brilliant natural light, and gleaming floors..
Over at 760 Merrimack Street, the former St. Joseph’s High School, where Acre youth were educated for more than 100 years, has a new lease on life. Empty and in disuse since the high school closed its doors, the historically significant building was renovated by CBA into 22 units of permanently affordable rental housing. When the St. Joseph’s High School became available in the spring of 2008, CBA moved quickly to acquire the property and put together a development plan for the landmark structure sitting largely vacant on Merrimack Street. Though the basement level was occupied by a Food Pantry, the upper floors of the building were rapidly deteriorating due to water and pigeon damage.
Construction started in February of 2010 to convert the school to affordable rental housing (The Acre High School Apartments), preserving many of the key elements of the building, including the restoration of the monumental cupola atop the structure.In 2009, CBA received the Excellence Award for Historic Preservation from Lowell National Historic Park and the Lowell Heritage Partnership for the innovative pairing of community development with historic preservation in several projects, including those from the former St. Jean Baptiste parish (St. Joseph’s Elementary and High School and the former convent, now Moody Street Center.)
The Acre High School project utilized Low Income Housing Tax Credits, State and Federal Historic Tax Credits, City of Lowell HOME and CDBG funds, funds from the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Trust, Housing Stabilization Fund, and Facilities Consolidation Fund, plus funding from NeighborWorks America.
Redeveloping this property is part of a comprehensive redevelopment of the Upper Merrimack Neighborhood that CBA, in partnership with private and public funders, has undertaken over the past decade. The Acre High School is located one block from CBA’s North Canal Apartments, a 267-unit complex that CBA transformed from “Concrete City” into a model of well-managed large-scale affordable housing. Also located a block away is CBA’s St. Joseph’s Apartments, a project financed primarily with low-income housing and historic tax credits, completed in Fall 2008, and the site of the Unity Place Apartments, a 23-unit initiative that is currently in construction. CBA also has its offices in the former convent, adjacent to St. Joseph’s Apartments, renovated with Historic Tax Credits in 2002. CBA has completed eight LIHTC projects, 50 homeownership units, and currently has a portfolio with 380 residential units and 33 commercial units.
CBA’s long-term investment in the neighborhood is paying off, evidenced by a private developer who recently acquired a formerly vacant 12-unit property and invested nearly $1M in rehabilitation. Likewise, the shuttered Nuestra del Senora Church is undergoing redevelopment as residential housing. Further investment is expected once the new University Avenue Bridge opens in 2012, redirecting traffic onto Merrimack Street, a block away, providing the primary connection between UMass Lowell and the downtown.
The redevelopment of the former St. Joseph’s High School enhances the public and private investments made in the neighborhood to date, as well as provide much-needed affordable housing for families and individuals. All of the units are available to households earning less than 60% of Area Median Income (AMI). Of those, three units are reserved for families earning less than 30% of AMI. Eight units have long-term Project Based Section 8 rent subsidies.
The Acre High School Apartments provide an opportunity to develop smart, sustainable, affordable housing for the residents of Lowell while protecting the public-private investments in the neighborhood.
Unity Place Apartments is the crowning achievement in the Coalition for a Better Acre’s $80 million transformation of the Moody Street corridor in Lowell, MA, over the past two decades, completing the circle of reinvestment in these critical blocks that has been a catalyst to new private reinvestment in neighboring properties. The exciting new development replaces two of the city’s most notorious blighted buildings with 23 one-, two-, and three-bedroom units of smart, green affordable housing.
The project was completed in November 2011.
Unity Place provides an opportunity to develop smart, sustainable, affordable housing for the residents of Lowell while protecting the public-private investments in the neighborhood.
The Rebirth of a Neighborhood: Sister Lillian LaMoureux
Sister Lillian LaMoureux has lived and worked almost all of her 84 years in the Moody and Merrimack street areas of the Acre. Over the decades, she has witnessed her beloved neighborhood decline into ruin and then proudly rise again.
On every block, at every intersection, Sister Lillian LaMoureux has a story to tell of her beloved Acre neighborhood. Born in 1925, she and her five brothers and sisters were raised in a small house on Moody Street – a lot that is now the site of a new city playground being developed by Coalition for a Better Acre and the City of Lowell.
Walking by the playground, she points to the third floor of the stately brick building at 517 Moody St. “Up there, up in the corner, that was my room.” Now the offices of Coalition for a Better Acre, the building was for decades the St. Joseph’s convent where Sister Lillian lived with her fellow Grey Nuns.
“And over there, that’s where I taught.” She points to the lovely brick structure next door housing the newly refurbished St. Joseph’s Apartments – what was St. Joseph’s Elementary School for more than 100 years. “And over there, too.” She gestures toward 760 Merrimack St., the former St. Joseph’s High School, vacant since 1993, but soon to house 22 affordable housing units.
“This whole complex—the convent, elementary school, high school, church—was my life,” she says. “It absolutely broke my heart to see all these beautiful buildings closed up and deteriorating in front of our eyes. And how wonderful it is now to see them all come back to life again.”
In the past few years, the CBA has literally transformed this section of the Acre, starting with the Moody Street corridor. CBA completed the convent renovation for its offices in 2002. In 2006 and 2007, CBA invested $14 million in property improvements to the 267-unit North Canal Apartments, including new kitchens and baths, flooring, high-efficiency heating systems, and landscaping and paving. The St. Joseph’s apartments – an adaptive reuse of the historic school building – welcomed tenants in 2008. In May 2009 CBA purchased the severely distressed multi-family properties at 474-486 Moody St. with a plan to demolish and replace them with 23 new housing units. Across the street, the city is working with CBA to invest local CDBG funds to redevelop the playground.
Over on Merrimack Street, the former St. Joseph’s High School, where Acre youth were educated for more than 100 years, has a new lease on life. Empty and in disuse since the high school closed its doors, the historically significant building will be adapted to create 22 affordable rental units.
“The Grey Nuns would be very, very pleased at what’s being done to this building now,” says Sister Lillian, now a member of the Sisters for Christian Community. “The Grey Nuns were founded to take care of the poor, and it is so appropriate that this building will continue to serve those who need it most.”
Sister Lillian’s heart is full as she sees her beloved neighborhood being brought back alive, restored rather than destroyed, honoring and preserving its history. A savvy businesswoman as well as a nun – she obtained her law degree at 66 – Sister Lillian has monitored CBA closely over the years and has identified their solid recipe for success: “They know how to get the funding, they’re close with the residents so they understand their needs, and they are committed to the neighborhood. That’s how you transform a neighborhood.
"The Acre's Back and So Am I"
When Jose Morales was growing up, Moody Street was in sharp decline, with vacant buildings falling into disrepair and families moving out. As a result of CBA’s dramatic makeover of the Moody Street corridor over the past 10 years, Jose and his wife Eliana are choosing to raise their young sons in this revitalized neighborhood, living in the renovated St. Joseph’s Elementary School where Jose was once a student.
Jose Morales, 27, a former teacher who is a new recruit for the Lowell Fire Department, has lived his entire life in the Acre neighborhood. He is filled with both pride and amazement when he looks around the Moody Street neighborhood he now calls home with wife Eliana and sons Phoenix and Griffin.
"This is not the same Moody Street that I grew up with," he says. "It looks beautiful now, with all the new buildings, the landscaping, the playground. It’s a whole new neighborhood. The Acre's back and so am I.”
The adaptive reuse of the former St. Joseph’s Elementary School is one of the showpieces of a comprehensive redevelopment of the Upper Merrimack neighborhood that CBA has undertaken over the past decade in partnership with private and public funders. “This transformation of the Moody Street corridor over the past two decades is literally rebuilding and giving new life to a neighborhood that had been crumbling and deteriorating around us,” says CBA Executive Director Emily Rosenbaum. “CBA has successfully leveraged over $80 million in investment since 2002, making the neighborhood attractive, safe and desirable as we created hundreds of good-paying construction jobs for the area.”
The revitalization of neighborhoods through property development is supported by many other citywide CBA initiatives – from crime prevention initiatives such as “Lights On, Crime Off” to resident empowerment initiatives such as NeighborCircles – to stabilize neighborhoods. Residents have compared CBA’s success in the Moody Street corridor to the popular “Extreme Makeover” television show, but on a larger scale, transforming not just a single house, but an entire neighborhood.
In 2002, CBA completed renovation of the former St. Joseph’s convent at 517 Moody St. for CBA offices. In 2006 and 2007, CBA invested $14 million in property improvements to the 267-unit North Canal Apartments, including new kitchens and baths, flooring, high-efficiency heating systems, and landscaping and paving. The renovation of St. Joseph’s Apartments was completed in 2008, transforming former classrooms into 15 stunning new apartments.
CBA invested local Community Development Block Grant funds to develop a spacious playground, including a basketball court, on the property next door to the apartments. The Morales family was one of the first to move into the newly renovated building. Eliana Morales adores their apartment, with its graceful high ceilings, brilliant natural light, and gleaming floors. She loves living less than five minutes from her work as office manager at St. Patrick’s Church.
"It is a good place to raise a family. We love living in this neighborhood,” she says.
Over on Merrimack Street, CBA gave the former St. Joseph’s High School a new lease on life, transforming the historic building into beautiful, affordable housing for 22 families. The Acre High School Apartments opened in December 2010, offering on-site parking, all utilities included in rent, central air conditioning, an elevator, community room, and on-site laundry facilities.
Construction was completed in December 2011 on the new Unity Place Apartments at 482 Moody St.. The exciting new development replaced two of the city’s most notorious blighted buildings with 23 one-, two-, and three-bedroom units of smart, green affordable housing.
CBA’s long-term investment in the neighborhood is generating further improvements by developers who can now count on a return on their investment. On one side of Unity Place, a developer renovated the troubled 12-unit property into a beautiful private dormitory for University of Massachusetts Lowell students, while on the other side another local developer completed renovations to the shuttered Nuestra Senora del Carmen Church and rectory.