Once Just a Dream, a Revitalized City Core is Now a Reality
by Charis Anderson
NEW BEDFORD — The city’s downtown has always been poised for great things although that potential was at times cloaked by vacant storefronts and empty streets.
But to some people, the gleam of opportunity was always there.
It was in the cobblestoned streets and the stunning harbor; it was in the historic architecture and the cutting-edge artists.
Now, less than a decade after UMass Dartmouth moved into the Star Store — an event almost universally pointed to as the catalyst that helped recreate downtown as a humming commercial and residential center — the revitalization that was just out of reach for so long is finally coming to pass.
From the “realistic” real estate prices to the vibrant group of young entreprenuers, there are great possibilities in downtown New Bedford, said Philip Dwane, a Martha’s Vineyard-based developer.
A lot has happened downtown in just five or six years, and there is still tremendous room for growth, said the developer, who is set to open a new coffeehouse on North Water Street and also has a small interest in the Cummings Building.
“If you were to give me a choice between the Vineyard and New Bedford, as regards investing, I’d take New Bedford — that’s how positive I feel,” he said. “New Bedford is definitely heading in the right direction.”
Although downtown now buzzes with activity, that wasn’t always the case.
When John Magnan, a Centre Street resident, moved downtown 13 years ago, he was one of only a few people living in the neighborhood, he said.
What is now one of the most charming streets in the historic district had at the time an empty lot on the corner, he said, and at least one building in danger of collapse.
Entertainment options were limited to hardscrabble bars such as the Seabreeze — “One of the hardest driving drug bars with prostitutes in downtown,” said Magnan — and Cultivator Shoals.
“It was just empty place after empty place,” he said.
When Bill King, a downtown resident, started working downtown at the New Bedford-Acushnet Cooperative Bank as an entry-level banker in 1978, it seemed there were banks on every corner he said.
While downtown was busy during the day with bankers and insurance agents and other 9-to-5 types, its streets emptied quickly at the end of the business day, said King.
“Work ended; you vacated downtown,” he said. “By six, six-thirty, you wouldn’t want to be caught down there for anything,” he said.
The historic district was even more desolate, home as it was to notorious bars such as the National Club and the Cultivator, he said.
“In the evening, you never walked down below Freestone’s, below the Whaling Museum, because that was uncharted territory so to speak,” said King.
Twenty-five years ago when Arthur and Jean Bennett bought their property on the corner of Front and Centre Street, no one was interested in buying property downtown, they said.
“It was kind of pioneering to think of actually living down here,” said Jean.
However, the Bennetts — who remember downtown in the 1950s, “when you could buy a fur coat in three different stores,” said Jean — thought then and are not surprised now that the downtown would take off eventually.
In the mid-1990s, Montigny, who was elected to the state Senate in 1993, started thinking about the Star Store, the former department store on the corner of Purchase and Union streets.
This building, once home to a thriving department store, had been sitting empty since 1985, its vacancy not only symbolic of how far downtown had fallen but also “a physical barrier” to the revitalization of downtown, said Montigny.
“You couldn’t attract private investment to do the Star Store and yet leaving the Star Store empty” was preventing other entrepreneurs from coming into downtown, he said.
At the same time, administrators from UMass Dartmouth approached Montigny, looking for funding to build new space for the university’s College of Visual and Performing Arts.
“In the beginning, there was never a specific (goal) that this has to be an arts and cultural center,” Montigny said of the Star Store. “This project very easily could have been something else.”
But marrying the two goals — redeveloping the Star Store and building a campus for the College of Visual and Performing Arts — had the potential to recreate downtown New Bedford as an arts and cultural hub, said Montigny.
“The risk was pretty serious because we could have built it on the campus for cheaper,” he said.
The university came on board, and Montigny, after what he calls one his toughest political battles, secured the funding for the $18 million project.
In 2001, Star Store re-opened; it now serves about 400 UMass students a semester as well as several hundred students from Bristol Community College, according to John Hoey, a UMass Dartmouth spokesman.
Meanwhile, several years earlier Waterfront Historic Area League, known as WHALE, and other advocates had succeeded after years of work in getting downtown’s historic district designated a national historical park.
The renovated Star Store and the national historic park anchored downtown, the two developments acting as catalysts for the revitalization that was to follow.
For downtown to become the arts and cultural center he was envisioning, institutions such as the Zeiterion and the Whaling Musuem had to succeed; small galleries needed to open; residents needed to move into downtown’s second and third floor spaces, Montigny said.
So, Montigny helped different downtown organizations secure seed money and private developers secure tax credits that made residential building projects economically feasible.
“In many cases, they were coming to me at budget time asking for a survival chit,” said Montigny.
The plan worked, and private investment started to roll into New Bedford.
In 2003, Hall Keen LLC of Norwood finalized the purchase of five different buildings along Union Street between Purchase and Pleasant streets.
The project, known as the Union Street Lofts, created 35 apartments and also contains 15,000 square feet of ground floor retail space, according to Mark Hess, of Hall Keen.
The funding for the $13 million project was a mix of conventional financing, grants and tax credits, according to Hess.
The project would not have been feasible without public financial support, he said.
“You have this beautiful, building stock that sort of deserves and warrants that kind of investment,” he said. “But on the other hand, the economics aren’t there to do it right.”
For developers to bridge the gap, at least based on the current market in New Bedford, they need historic tax credits and other subsidies, he said.
According to Hess, Hall Keen decided to leap into New Bedford based on two factors: a study completed by the city in 2000 that identified critical properties for redevelopment and the major investment by UMass Dartmouth in the Star Store.
“New Bedford has been a diamond in the rough for quite some time and really needed, particularly in the downtown, a critical mass of investment activity to get it over the hump,” said Hess.
In the early 2000s, “it seemed like the city was ready for a sustained redevelopment,” he said.
The Hall Keen project, when taken with other residential projects completed around the same time such as Jim Muse’s rehabilitation of the Hudner Building on Union, was another critical juncture in downtown’s trajectory, said Hess.
“I think this project was really a pivot point in terms of demonstrating that it really could be done,” he said.
Despite the renewed interest, development occurred in fits and starts through the mid-2000s. A 2007 economic study of downtown New Bedford found that 38 percent of ground-floor retail space remained vacant — a rate virtually unchanged since 2000.
However, the same study found that more than 500,000 square feet of commercial space in the district, or one-third of the total available space, had been renovated since 2000.
In total, more than $80 million in renovations and new construction had been completed, started or planned between 2000 and 2007, the study found.
Downtown’s residential community continued to grow, and commercial outlets followed suit: No Problemo, a Mexican restaurant, opened on the corner of Purchase and William in 2002; the Catwalk Bar and Grille opened on lower Union Street the same year; Cork came to Front Street in late 2006.
The development started snowballing: since the start of 2007, more than 30 retail businesses have opened or expanded in downtown.
Despite the broader economic meltdown of the past few years, there is a sense right now that a good business concept will be successful in downtown, said Jay Lanagan, one of the owners of Rose Alley Ale House on Front Street.
“You can’t really make a huge impact” in a larger city, more established city such as Boston, he said.
“Where in New Bedford, if you have the energy and the foresight, you can probably do well and be part of something that develops quickly,” he said. “It’s just a big, old interesting city and has a lot of potential.”
Downtown has had upswings before, upswings often followed by downswings, according to Diane Nichols, executive director of Downtown New Bedford Inc.
But this time, there’s a palpable feeling that the positive change is for keeps.
Downtown’s advocates — frankly, these days it’s hard to find a detractor — point to more than just the retail developments: There’s AHA!, an event that has grown from nine partners to more than 50 and which pumps more than $500,000 a year into the local economy; there’s the recently-expanded Ocean Explorium; the many festivals held in Custom House Square.
There is, many people say, so much going on in New Bedford, there’s no need to go elsewhere.
However, downtown’s transformation is not all sunshine and roses: as more people — residents, business owners, customers — have congregated downtown, some tensions have emerged.
The Centre Street neighborhood — home to both a growing residential population and an emerging nightlife district — is the epicenter of the growing pains.
“It seemed like the spigot just got turned on,” Steve Beauregard, the city’s Licensing Board chairman, said of the changes in that neighborhood. “Rose Alley, I think that had a lot to do with it, that might be the tipping point.”
Rose Alley Ale House, which opened earlier this year, joined a group of entertainment venues — among them Cork, Catwalk and Fins — that are clustered within a few blocks of each other from Union to Centre streets.
For years, the city has wanted this kind of development, said Beauregard.
“Well, they’ve come; they’re here,” he said. “Each place has a slew of people. Now what? … Now, I think the city has to step up to the plate and provide some resources.”
Some of the nearby neighbors claim that with the people have come loud, late-night arguments and vandalism.
“This neighborhood has taken a lot of hits that we’re old and don’t want to have noise,” said Centre Street’s John Magnan. “We know we’re in a city.”
The issue, he said, is one of planning: growth and new business is not bad, but that development needs to be better managed by the city, he said.
The Bennetts, who live next door to Magnan, agree that more management of the growth — perhaps more of a police presence on weekend nights, they said — would help maintain the balance between the residents and the late-night businesses.
“We have to learn to live with them, and they have to learn to live with us,” said Jean Bennett. “You’ve got to have a critical mass to have a city.”
But, she said, “Now we have to control the tipping point.”
Lanagan, one of the owners of Rose Alley, said some residents want too much control over the neighborhood.
People — residents and business owners alike — need to realize they own a piece of downtown, not all of it, he said.
“People try to tell people what to do with their businesses too much,” said Lanagan. “If they’re doing something that’s within zoning and within the law, they have the option to make a run for it.”
While the tensions can be chalked up to growing pains — two different groups learning to live with each other — they have consequences, he said.
“Unfortunately, those growing pains are expensive, and they send a funny message to people who are considering starting a business or building a building in New Bedford,” said Lanagan.
Some of the Centre Street neighbors are in ongoing negotiations with the Rose Alley owners to try and find a common ground.
Bill King, also a Centre Street resident, said more attention needs to be paid to the details of different business proposals and how a new business will fit into the larger picture.
“At times, for the sake of development, we don’t look at the details,” he said. “Development for the sake of development isn’t always good.”
Despite some of the concerns, everyone interviewed for this article was extremely positive about the future of New Bedford’s downtown.
The city recently completed a plan for the downtown district.
The downtown hotel project — a $12.5 million project will consist of a five-story, 106-room hotel on the city’s waterfront — is under way and should be ready for guests by early summer 2010.
The long-planned reconstruction of Route 18 took a tentative step forward last month when a public hearing to discuss the project’s 25 percent design plans was held.
Many people are pointing to the Route 18 project, which would transform the downtown portion of the road from a high-speed highway to a more pedestrian-friendly boulevard, as a critical component in continuing to move downtown’s growth forward.
“It is the key that ties this thriving downtown to what could be a thriving dual purpose waterfront,” said Montigny.
Rose Alley’s Lanagan said no one truly knows how Route 18, when complete, will affect businesses downtown, but, he continued, the project will be a good thing.
In fact, he said, “when local and state politicians say that the Route 18 project is going to happen within these time-frames it really does dictate how much investment and development does go on downtown … I think there are a lot of people holding their breath to see it get started.”
Indeed, Kevin Santos, who owns The Waterfront Grille and recently purchased the National Club building on Union Street, indicated in a recent Standard-Times story that his plans for the National Club building will be influenced by the Route 18 reconstruction.
But even though questions about the timing of the Route 18 project remain — MassHighway is expecting design and construction to take another three years, while local and state politicians say they want the project expedited — they have not interfered with interest in downtown real estate.
Denis Keohane, owner of the Catwalk and the Keystone site, said he has another building on Union Street under agreement, a purchase influenced by Santos’ purchase of the National Club building and by the plans for Route 18.
The deal for the Keystone site, which had been under agreement to a Boston-based real estate firm, fell through last month, but Keohane said he is now may keep the site.
“Now with all the development talks in downtown, I may just develop it myself,” he said.
September 06, 2009
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