A textile town is reborn, again Thriving: A high-rise office complex northwest of Boston is transformed from a symbol of urban decline to economic revival in Lowell, Mass.

Sun Journal

December 31, 1997|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LOWELL, Mass. -- Taller than any structure within five miles, the three old Wang towers stand at the crossroads of Interstate 495 and U.S. 3, the gateway to this old textile-manufacturing city 30 miles northwest of Boston. So when the computer maker went bankrupt five years ago and abandoned the towers, the suddenly empty complex became a symbol of a declining city.

The Boston Globe ran an editorial cartoon in which the towers were drawn as a white elephant. Developers debated whether the office complex would work better as a jail or a casino. When the towers -- with 1.2 million square feet of space -- were for sale in 1994, the winning bid was a mere $525,000 from a pair of young, poorly financed vice presidents of an insurance company.

"We were determined to turn the building into commercial office space," says Luis Alvarado, now 38, who was one of the buyers. "But we weren't sure. People were hesitant to come to Lowell. They said, 'I don't want Lowell on my business cards.' "

Three years later, the Wang towers are nearly full, with two dozen commercial tenants. And the complex, now called Cross Point Center, is again considered a symbol of Lowell's economic revival. Urban experts increasingly cite Lowell as a model for how to revitalize the small, inland cities of the Northeast, many of which are suffering even now, during a nationwide economic expansion.

"Lowell has been a very aggressive, very savvy recycler of itself," says Jerold S. Kayden, an urban-planning expert at Harvard University. "Instead of tearing down the old textile mills or tearing down the empty buildings Wang left, the city government has helped to find new uses for these structures. Lowell offers a real model for urban renewal in cities of this size."

Within one generation, Lowell (pop. 97,000) twice has had to transform itself to overcome the meltdown of its largest employers. In the 1970s and 1980s, transformation meant the renovation of the run-down, red-brick textile mills whose builders had abandoned the city. In this decade, transformation has required an aggressive effort to fill the office space that Wang left behind.

Lowell is prospering, urban planners and academics say, because political and business leaders have absorbed the lesson of the city's history: Do not park all your economic engines in the same garage. The new Lowell includes businesses from health care to mutual funds, Internet start-ups to banks, as well as a growing number of small businesses owned by the city's Asian immigrants. A strong tourism industry fills a busy downtown during the summer, with visitors riding restored trolley cars and walking through museums housed in old factories.

"The loss of textiles almost killed Lowell, and the loss of Wang was a disaster," says City Manager Brian Martin. "We have learned, the hard way, that you need to diversify your businesses and harness your city's history -- without dooming yourself to repeat it."

Lowell owes its existence to one of history's more brazen acts of industrial espionage. In 1810, a Bostonian named Francis Cabot Lowell visited textile manufacturers in England and committed to memory the design of the power loom. He copied what he had seen, and set up a company on the banks of the Charles River in Waltham, Mass.

Lowell died in 1817. But his partners, seeking to expand, moved in 1821 to the patch of land where the Pawtucket Falls meetsthe Merrimack River. In 1826, the tiny town was named for Lowell. By 1850, it had become the first textile capital of America ("El Dorado on the Merrimack," some called it), with six miles of canals powering the water wheels of 40 mills, which produced 2 million yards of fabric a week.

One prominent visitor of that era wrote that Lowell was a "city springing up, like the enchanted palaces of the Arabian Tales, as it were in a single night."

But the city was slowly surpassed in production by urban areas closer to the ocean. Beginning in the 1920s, textile mills began to leave for the nonunionized South. By the 1960s, the mills were gone, and Lowell's downtown was severely blighted.

The subsequent resurgence of the town is a key piece of a statewide economic turnaround that former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis trumpeted as the "Massachusetts Miracle."

In the 1970s, a strong movement of preservationists, working closely with business leaders and local politicians such as U.S. Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, pushed to restore Lowell's historic buildings. In 1978, the Lowell National Historical Park was established downtown as a monument to the Industrial Revolution. Over the next 15 years, more than 200 historic structures -- many of them factories -- were reclaimed. The landmark Market Mills was transformed into rental housing, retail stores and office space for high-tech business.

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