Nation’s Design Experts Contemplate Sustainability, Impact of Fairhaven Mills Project
By Joe Cohen Standard-Times Staff Writer

Officials hope to turn the Fairhaven Mills site in the New Bedford’s North End into a state-of-the-art development showcasing contemporary design and sustainability. This shell of an old mill has since been demolished by developers. St Anthony Church looms in the background, one of the city’s architectural and cultural icons. Peter Pereira/The Standard-Times

NEW BEDFORD — In late January, city officials and the owner of the Fairhaven Mills waterfront industrial site met in Boston with top architects and planners who have worked on state-of-the-art, energy efficient development projects around the country. Their goal was to turn the 13.9-acre Fairhaven Mills site into a showcase for so-called “sustainable design” while maximizing its potential to revive the near North End.
Developer Mark Dickinson of Quincy-based Dickinson Development Corp., Mayor Scott W. Lang, and Matthew A. Morrissey and Derek Santos, both of the New Bedford Economic Development Council, spent two days at the first Sustainable Cities Design Academy conducted by the American Architectural Foundation and United Technologies Corp.
Billed as a new national effort, the design academy is aimed at producing “the most energy efficient developments in the nation because of expert guidance” provided by architects and others brought together by the foundation and UTC, the two organizations said.
In addition to the New Bedford Fairhaven Mills project, the design academy participants studied three others: A proposal for redevelopment of the Philadelphia Navy Yard into a transit and
mixed-use project; a mixed-use transit-oriented development in the District of Columbia near the Minnesota Avenue Metro Station; and a plan for new residential and community space in Boston near Chinatown and the Southeast Expressway.
In welcoming architects, planners, developers and municipal officials to the design academy in Boston at the Prudential Center and later at the Lenox Hotel, Ronald E. Bogle, president and CEO of the American Architectural Foundation, said one goal was to “reach community leaders (to make them) understand the power of design.” Bogle said the inaugural design academy was aimed at engaging public officials on practical issues that could have long-lasting benefits to their communities.
Theodore C. Landsmark, president of Boston Architectural College, told the Boston gathering the design academy was bringing together creative people to “transcend (the) normal” and “learn in ways that are invigorating.”
Amid buzz words such as “knowledge sharing,” “best practices,” “cost-efficient,” and “sustainability,” participants were reminded that buildings are huge consumers of energy and other resources and spew out large amounts of pollutants. That is all the more reason to share knowledge, implement best practices that are cost efficient and lead to sustainability, academy leaders pointed out.
For the New Bedford project participants, Morrissey said in an interview last week, the design academy offered a unique opportunity to tap into “world-class talent using very real development and economic parameters. It was an opportunity to look at how to maximize the development of the site while not economically crippling it.” Architects and planners
participating came from New York, Oregon, Texas, California, Minnesota, Kentucky, Seattle, Michigan and elsewhere.
This past week, Dickinson, Lang and Morrissey said the design academy affected their thinking about Fairhaven Mills in different ways, ranging from sharpening already gestating ideas to making them think outside conventional planning concepts.
Dickinson, who has an extensive background in development and historic preservation, said the design academy helped him sharpen his focus.
Lang and Morrissey said the design academy and input from “outsiders” led them to realize how the redevelopment project could be the cornerstone for revitalizing a large swath of the North End and at the same time it could extend the Whaling City’s links to its past in terms of architecture and relationships with the water.
The Fairhaven Mills site, long dormant and often the subject of political controversy in recent years, appears to be headed toward redevelopment with retail space, other so-called mixed uses and possibly a large section of green space.
Dickinson Development, with partner Mark White of D.W. White Construction Inc. of Acushnet, closed Feb. 9 on the Fairhaven Mills building No. 4 on Coggeshall Street, completing its acquisition of all parcels on the site adjacent to the Acushnet River. The final parcel was purchased from New Bedford businessman John J. Meldon after more than a year of negotiation.
The sale price was $2.645 million.
The site figures importantly into New Bedford’s plans for a riverside walkway along the Acushnet River from Coggeshall Street to Tarkiln Hill Road, plans that are progressing along with an effort to build a boathouse near the Fairhaven Mills site for crew, other rowing and small watercraft.
City officials and Mr. Dickinson have announced their intention to tear down the No. 4 mill building. While that will require Historic Commission and City Council approval, the council has previously supported the building’s demolition in favor of redevelopment of the site. The costs of trying to save and restore the old mill building are considered prohibitive — $20 million or more — and its interior layout limits potential uses.
In addition, the No. 4 mill building is at the center of what would be the gateway to the Fairhaven Mills site. Officials and Mr. Dickinson have discussed building a main roadway from Coggeshall Street due north through the site to Sawyer Street. Such a “spine” road could divide the project into new development to its west and development or green area to its east. More importantly, the roadway would meet up with redesigned and improved I-195 off and on ramps along with major improvements to Coggeshall Street, including traffic signals.
Dickinson Development’s proposed project still needs a major retail anchor tenant, but officials have said that much progress has been made on that front. Morrissey said Dickinson and the city may apply for project approvals from the Historic Commission and Planning Board as early as March.
Lang said the design academy showed project planners both what they were not seeing in terms of best practices and reinforced existing thinking in some ways. “What came through loud and clear from these national designers (who participated in the project review) was that the land needs to be divided into two separate identities, one water related and one not. We want to be focused on jobs and tax revenue, but also directed toward the quality of life the project can bring,” Lang said. Lang said the outside planners pushed for thinking about the site to be developed as a “highly compact dense area that can accommodate play, work, entertainment, offices, living … that we should really pack it in … and create a whole new neighborhood.”
“Do not think of it in terms of a (building) pad and another pad, think of it as a dense site … possibly with five or six stories” of buildings, Lang said. “It will be different than anything seen in the city before,” Lang said.
Morrissey said the message was “you do not want to create a suburban retail mall, you want to create a more urban fabric with walkways and access to the water.”
Morrissey said that while the No. 4 mill building cannot be saved as a practical matter, it is possible to “retain the historical character with a lot of density” and keep the “flavor” of the mill site and blend it with surrounding neighborhoods. Morrissey said the design team that focused on Fairhaven Mills included people from Minneapolis, San Francisco and Philadelphia.
Dickinson called the design academy an “intellectual exercise good for the mind and the soul.” He said that while his firm always gives a high priority to historical preservation, energy efficiency and environmental sustainability, this effort was more about overall land use and design alternatives. “It was eye opening,” Dickinson said. “It gave me reason to think about different siting alternatives … to test different alternatives” in the planning process.
February 22, 2009 6:01 AM
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