Thinking big

Ansin has made mill redevelopment
his passion—and the revival of
struggling Bay State cities its
hoped-for byproduct.

if the walls of the Wood Worsted Mill in Lawrence could talk, they would tell the stories of thousands of immigrant laborers who landed at its looms, hoping to scratch out a better life along the banks of the Merrimack River. A century later, the former textile mill is back in business. No longer a destination for the low-skilled immigrants who still flock to Lawrence in huge numbers in search of a better life, it is now offering those of greater means a piece of the good life.

Six hundred “eco-luxury” condominiums are filling out the massive brick edifice, which stretches the length of 25 football fields. One of the biggest investments in Lawrence in decades, the $200 million redevelopment project, whose planned features include a cyber café, movie theater, restaurant, and rooftop bar, is the work of Bob Ansin, the son of an accomplished Massachusetts family who has made mill redevelopment his passion—and the revival of struggling Bay State cities its hoped-for byproduct. If the Wood Mill and other behemoths lining the Merrimack were the lifeblood of Lawrence at the turn of the last century, their still-sturdy bones are the scaffolding on which a new future for the city may be taking shape.

The big bet Ansin is placing on Lawrence is bold enough on its own. He has added another outside-the-box dimension by having the “Monarch on the Merrimack” lofts heated and cooled by geothermal exchange, a process that uses water pumped from underground, thus avoiding fossil fuel consumption and greatly reducing the emission of greenhouse gases. When Ansin bought the Wood Mill in 2003, many found it hard to equate “green living” with a place whose skyline is still marked by aging smokestacks, and equally tough to envision luxury properties in a city that’s consistently ranked among the poorest in the state. But the condos have been selling steadily, and the first residents are expected to move in by late fall.

It’s still not clear how many Lawrencians will actually benefit from this undertaking. A litany of social ills bedeviling the city will not be erased by the arrival of several hundred latte-sipping professionals. But many say the project holds not only the threat of gentrification but also the promise of a more economically diverse population and the kind of spin-off economic activity—and outlook—that such change can set in motion.

Lawrence Mayor Michael Sullivan:
“We’re going to see people
with money in their
pockets living here again.”

“For probably the first time in 40 years,” says Lawrence Mayor Michael Sullivan, “we’re going to see people with money in their pockets living here again.” It’s hard to see how that’s a bad thing in a city whose median household income of $31,600 is only slightly above half the statewide figure of $57,200.

Ansin says his company, MassInnovation, aims to bring environmentally and socially responsible principles to revitalization projects, with a focus on the intersection of development and community. Last year, Ansin made a $1 million donation to build a new Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence, a contribution his father matched by pitching in an additional million. Hardly the sort of token community offerings some developers make as a way to smooth over any ruffled feathers their project may cause. Yet Ansin insists such benevolence is not without self-interest.

“That was an entirely not-for-profit investment, but I believe that over time, it will result in direct financial returns for my company,” he says. “Every young person who is able to get involved in the club and finish school and come back to Lawrence, and participate in the revitalization of the city, increases the chances that my investment will gain value and decreases the chances that I will lose money.”

Ansin’s description of how profit and philanthropy go hand in hand brings new meaning to the business concept of a “virtuous cycle.” He may describe his more generous moves as the calculations of a bottom-line-focused developer. But plenty of struggling Massachusetts cities would roll out the welcome mat for hard-bitten business types eager to make a buck the Bob Ansin way.

The ‘A-ha’ moment

Like so many boom-and-bust cities, Lawrence is a place where celebrated assets morphed, at one point, into liabilities. This city of 72,000 people living in fewer than seven square miles was founded in 1853 by a group of industrialists who packed the housing and mills together tightly, their eyes fixed on efficiency. Mammoth factories were erected over the years, enabling owners to successfully hold down costs and maximize profits. But when the textile industry pulled out more than a century later, Lawrence was faced with two daunting challenges: retaining a middle class in such a compact, densely populated city, and finding new uses for mills that were underutilized and oversized.

“These are huge, huge buildings,” says Joseph Bevilacqua, president and CEO of the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce. “And that’s what made it more difficult over the years to get things going and get people to take over the properties.”

After the textile industry left town, Lawrence’s celebrated assets morphed into liabilities.
The largest of all was the Wood Mill, developed by Frederick Ayer and his son-in-law William Wood as part of the American Woolen Company. At a third of a mile long, the Wood Mill contains 1.3 million square feet of space. When it opened its doors in 1906, it was said to be the largest mill building in the world.

If the scale of the mill redevelopment is overwhelming, envisioning new life for big industrial buildings is in Ansin’s blood. The scion of a wealthy family with ties to manufacturing, politics, real estate development, and media, Ansin says he continues to feel an abiding connection to his roots in Fitchburg, where his family owned the Anwelt Shoe Factory and he spent summers helping out on the production room floor, sometimes with a broom in his hand.

The 38-year-old Ansin earned a degree in political science from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. But he quickly found himself drawn to the family business and, through it, to the idea of redeveloping industrial-age buildings for 21st-century uses. For example, in 1998, he converted the Anwelt factory into a mixed-use development that now houses a public charter school along with office space for several community organizations, and will soon include apartments for the elderly.

The substantial fortune amassed by Ansin’s grandfather was built from his shoe factories and also through real estate development, land speculation, and broadcasting. Ansin’s uncle, Ed, now operates three television stations, including WHDH and WLVI in Boston and WSVN, the Fox affiliate in Florida. His father, Ron, is a well-known philanthropist who served as commissioner of commerce and development in the Dukakis administration.

Although they had no prior connection to Lawrence, the Ansin family played a crucial role in the revitalization of nearby Lowell, whose comeback has been a longstanding point of contrast to Lawrence’s decades of decay. Bob Ansin’s late cousin, Larry Ansin, was founder and president of the Lowell Plan, a business-led initiative in the 1960s that helped pave the way for the city’s comeback.

Bob Ansin, who lives in Lincoln with his Brazilian-born wife, Adriana, and two children, hadn’t originally planned to come to Lawrence at all. But in the spring of 2003, a real estate broker invited him to view the Wood Mill, which in 1912 was the site of the famous Bread & Roses strike, a name intended to evoke the mill workers’ struggle for both fair wages and a sense of human dignity and respect. After the textile industry left in the 1950s, the building became the home of Honeywell Bull, a computer manufacturing company, until 1996. At the time Ansin was invited to see it, the site had modern passenger elevators and other upgrades, and 60 percent of it was occupied by two major warehouse tenants. Ansin says, “The last thing I was thinking I’d want to do was go to Lawrence. I’d been there twice and my impression was consistent with most people’s: negative. Actually, I conveniently missed my first appointment, but the real estate broker was persistent.”

It was the Wood Mill’s proximity to the river and major highways that took Ansin by surprise when he got there. “I went up on the roof, and that was my ‘a-ha moment,’” he says. “It just didn’t register that I could be in Lawrence and be looking at 495. Then I saw the Merrimack River. And from another angle I saw Andover.”

When the real estate broker told him that three acres of land across the street came with the parcel and that there were rumors of plans to build a transportation center there, he remembers thinking, “This is too good to be true.”

Though few at the time saw Lawrence as a good prospect for high-end development, Ansin purchased the Wood Mill for $4.4 million. He says he never viewed its size as an obstacle. “It didn’t intimidate me because I haven’t looked at it as one building,” he says, noting there are firewalls between sections of the mill. “It needs to be considered four buildings under one roof, which don’t all need to be developed at the same time.”

Ansin says he takes a “triple-bottom-line” approach to his projects: He considers the financial return, the environmental impacts, and the effects a development can have on the broader community in which it is located. “We want to bring a new sense of hope and purpose to the communities in which we’re working,” he says. “We want to help change the economic reality of the existing population. I get jazzed by the idea that I’m bringing not just capital and jobs, but I’m also bringing enthusiasm and energy to a place that was in dire need of a sense that it could be something great again.”

Bringing the middle class back

After inking the deal for the Wood Mill, Ansin sold the land across the street to the regional transit authority, and in December 2005 the $25 million Senator Patricia McGovern Intermodal Transportation Center opened, putting commuter rail and bus service to Boston and other destinations just steps away from the new Monarch lofts. About 430 of the station’s 900 parking spots were set aside for residents of the lofts. “At first, the designers of the transportation center [wanted] a skywalk between our building and our parking area, so in theory, you’d never have to touch the street,” says Ansin. “And I didn’t like it, because I think you have to activate the street. I want to have retail. I want to have things to do.”

‘You have to activate the street,’ says Ansin. ‘I want to have retail. I want to have things to do.’

Monarch residents will now have to cross Merrimack Street to get to their cars or the train, but not everyone is convinced it will be so simple to keep the building from becoming a world unto itself. “It’s very easy for people to drive in, go to their units, look at the river, and have that be what they know of Lawrence,” says Bill Traynor, executive director of Lawrence Community Works, a local community development corporation. “The challenge is how to get people out of the building. And I don’t think that’s an easy challenge.”

Dave Tibbetts, a former director of the state office of economic development and a co-founder of the Merrimack Valley Economic Development Council, sees it differently. In his view, it’s the nature of cities to develop areas that serve the needs of particular residents. “If it’s a sub-community within a community, I think that’s OK,” says Tibbetts. “Beacon Hill is a separate village in Boston.” Nor is Tibbetts concerned about Ansin’s development of retail and entertainment facilities within the building. “Right now there aren’t a lot of cultural amenities here, because there hasn’t been a market for that,” he says. “Bob is helping to bring a middle class back into the city.”

Ansin says retailers won’t set up shop in an area that’s blighted and without customers—and he is bringing in the customers. “Once we have 300 to 400 people living here, [the area] could support four or five cafés,” he says.

Ana Rodrigues, of Lawrence
Community Works, sees great
potential for local entrepreneurs.

Ana Rodriguez, a member of the board of Lawrence Community Works and recent past president of the board, sees great potential for local entrepreneurs. “With all the people coming into Lawrence now, it would only make sense for the business owners to get together and put together a strategy to diversify their businesses to try to meet the demands,” she says.

Still, Pedro Arce, who serves on the Merrimack Valley Workforce Investment Board, cautions against looking upon any residential project as the key to the city’s revitalization. “I think any development of that size can only help the city,” he says of immigrant-rich Lawrence, which is 60 percent Latino. “But for the city to truly advance and revive, it has to start with the development of the people within the city. Education, training, and jobs have to be the centerpiece.”

Rodriguez knows that’s true in the long run, but she can also think of a number of economic opportunities that will present themselves, even if some of them reflect the class divide between poorer residents and the incoming loftier class. “People can start cleaning services and pet-walking businesses,” she says. “They can become nannies or teach Spanish or even offer Latino cooking and dance classes.”

A mammoth undertaking

Hilda Ramirez, who directs a program of the Lawrence Cultural Council, says existing businesses need to figure out how to cater, literally and otherwise, to those buying into Lawrence’s new loft dwellings. “Sometimes you walk into a Latino-owned restaurant and they don’t have an English menu,” she says. “We need to show that we want to cater to a diverse crowd. That’s a mindset that needs to happen here. It’s so important because every time you draw in customers that a business wouldn’t typically have, that’s another worker that restaurant will eventually need to hire. They already have a big Latino market, but if they made a few changes, they could capture two or three markets.”

One thing Ansin’s new development will certainly bring in is an expanded tax base—about an extra $1 million in annual taxes, which can help improve the local infrastructure, schools, and public safety. New city revenue can also create and maintain parks and open spaces. Arce says that over time, these changes will boost property values, enabling more residents to make improvements to their homes and making Lawrence a more attractive place for everyone to live.

Defining the Lawrence landscape

Tibbetts says there is no longer any room for new commercial and industrial parks in Lawrence; developments these days are built in the outskirts instead. But Ansin’s approach creates a new way for wealth to circulate in the Merrimack Valley. “Lawrence is part of a regional economy,” says Tibbetts. “People could very well go from their loft overlooking the Merrimack to their workplace in the suburbs, which is the reverse of what we’re accustomed to.”

tipping point

Ansin wants to reverse
decades of disinvestment
in Lawrence.

The homeownership rate in Lawrence has lagged for decades, and Ansin believes 600 new stakeholders will help re-energize the community. To that end, he is not allowing any investors to purchase his condos, and none can be rented out. Buyers must sign an affidavit saying that they or an immediate family member will occupy their space.

What’s striking is how Ansin seems to have infused a condo project with such social meaning. Monarch’s “green development” technology, in addition to its community-building potential, has indeed helped him tap into a market of socially conscious types who want to be part of something bigger.

As of late June, deposits had been made on 52 of the units, which range in price from $190,000 for the smallest studio to $500,000 for a 2,000-square-foot riverview penthouse. About half of the buyers are young professionals in search of a reasonable commute and an affordable price. The other half, says Ansin, are empty-nesters, many with large houses in Andover and North Andover, who are now contemplating a move that few in the Merrimack Valley could have imagined only a few years ago. “The historic dynamic was that you were supposed to get out of Lawrence,” he says.

Ansin’s market is socially conscious types who want to be part of something bigger.

Ansin, who describes the city as an island of poverty in a sea of wealth, hopes to at least begin to correct that imbalance. “If you look at the surrounding communities, about a third of people have a direct connection to Lawrence,” he says. “Either they’re from Lawrence or their parents or grandparents are from Lawrence. And it’s really sad when you grow up in a community and have to be embarrassed to say that you’re from that place. What I’m offering people is the chance to have all the creature comforts but also the sense that they’re helping to bring back a place that’s meaningful to them.”

The Carberry family of North Andover has recently found its way back to the Immigrant City, as Lawrence is known. Sisters Karen, Kelli, and Kristina are buying a penthouse at Monarch with the help of their father, who grew up in Lawrence and whose mother used to work at the Wood Mill.

“This is my father’s old stomping ground,” says Kelli Carberry. “When we were growing up, he used to drive us around and show us the city and where he used to hang out.”

Sue and Michael Adams are trading their three-bedroom house in Andover, where they raised their son, now 20, for a two-bedroom loft in Lawrence. Sue, an interior designer, has volunteered for several years at the Lawrence YWCA and began tutoring last year at a new tuition-free private school (Esperanza Academy) that serves Hispanic middle-school girls. She and her husband, a mortgage banker, are moving for the same reason she thinks others will: because they “believe in a project and a community.” “I just got this feeling that Bob Ansin and the Monarch are going to be a tipping point for Lawrence,” she says.

Ansin doesn’t expect many residents to raise children at Monarch lofts, largely because the Lawrence public schools have such a bad reputation. “But just because they don’t have kids in the schools doesn’t preclude good people from wanting to offer opportunities,” he says. “One of the biggest potential impacts that this project will have is bringing in a relatively large group of likely activists who, in paying their taxes, will have skin in the game and will make their opinions known.”

Indeed, many of those expressing interest in the development are suburbanites who work or volunteer at the city’s many nonprofits, he says. A member of the board of directors of the Boys & Girls Club, Ansin has a theory about what draws people back to the city to contribute. “I was really struck by how the vast majority of benefactors and administrators, who really are the backbone of running that organization and doing all the good, have Irish and Italian names. You look at a roster of the kids, and it’s obvious that they’re Latinos. And you say, ‘Why do they do this? They don’t live here. They live in Andover. Why do these people give so much of their time?’ And it’s because they went to the club, they lived in the projects. And by being involved today with kids they don’t know, they give back to themselves in a way.”

Investment club

Ansin is hardly the only developer to set sights on Lawrence, where the interest in vacant mills is now outstripping supply. Just next door to Monarch Lofts is the Riverwalk, a commercial complex and former mill developed by restaurateur Salvatore Lupoli, who bought the space about a year before Ansin purchased the Wood Mill. Though some of the complex had been abandoned for decades, it is now home to about 200 companies, including a restaurant and childcare center, along with a police substation and a registry of deeds. Bevilacqua, of the Chamber of Commerce, says Lupoli’s is the other development—along with Ansin’s—that has really helped set the tone for Lawrence in recent years. “The Riverwalk complex abuts 495. You can reach out and touch it,” he says. “And for years as people drove by, that was the image they had of Lawrence: all these abandoned buildings.”

“They’re providing a substantive private investment and an incentive for others to invest in Lawrence,” Bevilacqua says of Ansin and Lupoli, adding that the Merrimack Valley Federal Credit Union will soon move its corporate headquarters from North Andover to a section of the Riverwalk that had been abandoned for more than 60 years. “This is the first time in decades that a major corporate headquarters is coming to Lawrence, instead of leaving Lawrence.”

Also within walking distance is the Bell Tower Development, a former mill that houses a campus of Cambridge College. Owned by Chet and Gary Sidell, the building has more than 40 commercial and nonprofit tenants, many with a focus on arts and culture. Just down on South Canal Street is the International Business Center, owned by Art McCabe. McCabe’s building caters to small- and medium-sized international companies seeking to do business in the U.S. and has some manufacturing, warehouse, showroom, and office space, including McCabe’s law practice. “We have all created a mixed-use environment, and we each have our little niche,” he says of the parade of developers finding their way to the city. “We all fit together as part of the bigger puzzle, which is becoming Lawrence.”

Many credit the city with boosting development by creating incentives like a streamlined permitting process. Ansin says he was able to line up all his permits in under two months. “I knew Lawrence needed something, so when Bob [Ansin] came in, I said, ‘Whatever you need. You’re the customer,’” says Mayor Sullivan, adding that it was necessary to rezone that entire side of the river for mixed use. He says Lawrence has pulled together what he calls a city team, made up of representatives from the fire and police departments, along with the city inspector and the building inspector. “We get the team to do a walk-through early on to let developers know what would need to happen in order to meet the new fire codes and various parking ordinances. This way they won’t be hit with any surprises a year down the line.”

Sullivan says that before opening the Riverwalk, Lupoli was concerned about the city’s lingering reputation for auto theft. The mayor told Lupoli that if he could spare some office space, the city would set up a police substation on the premises. That station now has three officers that work out of 2,000 square feet of space, and auto theft has become a non-issue in this area.

A fork in the road

If Lawrence is not yet as vibrant as some would like it to be, it is also not as ill-fated as it once was. For a time the city was inextricably linked in people’s minds to auto theft, arson, and teen pregnancy. As Sullivan puts it, “The city went through some years when it was burning.” Lawrence Community Works’ Ana Rodriguez, who has lived in Lawrence for 21 years, says she’s watched the city change before her eyes. “There’s been a huge difference,” she says. “Back then you’d just see all these boarded-up buildings. Houses that used to be shooting galleries are now homes for two or three families. There were empty lots that have now become parks.”

Meanwhile, the city’s huge Hispanic population is beginning to flex its economic muscle. Arce, of the Workforce Investment Board, is president and CEO of a new bank slated to open in Lawrence in late fall. When he decided to found the bank, he first had to raise at least $750,000. He says that from June 2006 to January 2007, he was actually able to raise $1.2 million, 75 percent of which came from Hispanic business owners and professionals. “There’s this perception that we have to feel sorry for all the Hispanics,” says Arce. But Hispanics are following the same upwardly mobile migration path as earlier immigrant groups. “Many are now middle and upper-middle class and moving out of Lawrence,” says Arce, who now lives in North Andover himself, after coming to Lawrence from Ecuador as a young child.

Arce attributes some of the changes in the city to the success of local real estate investors, many of whom bought up rental properties in Lawrence and other nearby cities in recent years. “The new wealth that’s been created by these entrepreneurs has been circulating more in the community,” he says. “I don’t know if we’d have opened this bank five or 10 years ago. If I had to measure the pulse in Lawrence, I’d say there’s a lot of optimism now. It’s not going to happen overnight, or even in two or three years, but I think we’re going to be able to look back in five years and say that it is a different city.”

Still, during the community’s decades of economic decline, when hope was hard to find, deep-seated problems took hold that aren’t easily turned around. The city’s teen pregnancy rate is more than three times higher than the statewide rate, and Arce points out that just 10 percent of adults in Lawrence have college degrees. According to Bill Traynor of Lawrence Community Works, current figures suggest that only 40 percent of children entering kindergarten in Lawrence will graduate from high school. Of those, more than a quarter won’t have a plan in place for work or education after high school. “As a community, we don’t have great aspirations for our young people,” he says. “We want to create a new culture in Lawrence of supporting our young.”

‘We want to create a new culture of supporting our young.’

Sullivan agrees that if future generations are to make the most of the possibilities unfolding today, the city will have to shed its sense of fatalism once and for all. “We have this mindset in Lawrence, where we condition our kids to believe that they’re always supposed to be poor because it’s always been that way. The time we’re at right now is critical,” he says. “We’re at a fork in the road, and we need to shift thousands of people down that road less traveled.”

Bob Ansin doesn’t pretend that the Monarch Lofts will be shifting too many Lawrencians down that less-traveled road, at least not directly. But he says the development is part of a trend toward reversing decades of disinvestment in the city, a flight of capital that has surely compounded the challenges facing poorer residents.

Heightened expectations for a
former boom-and-bust city.

“Lawrence needed someone from outside the city who is seen as credible—who had done this sort of development before, and who had the financial capacity to back up what they said—to come to Lawrence and validate that this is a good place to invest,” says Ansin. “And I expect to see more private investment as a result, as people begin to see that our investments have yielded an attractive return.”

Lawrence has long suffered in comparisons with Lowell, whose celebrated mill district has become part of the Lowell National Historical Park. But Dave Tibbetts says artists have begun finding it difficult to afford loft space in Lowell and are starting to make their way to Lawrence, whose location along the river and proximity to I-495 offer some distinct advantages.

Meet the Author
Ansin says he regularly spends time in Lowell, trying to get a sense of what has worked there and how leaders have managed to bring together so many varied interests. “To their credit, they have developed a new identity for themselves,” he says. “In Lawrence, we’re in the process.” But the virtuous cycle, it seems, has begun.

Melissa DaPonte Katz is a freelance writer in Amherst.