Rivera’s folly comes to an end

The Lawrence school department moves back into their original building after $3.5 million in repairs

Lawrence on Thursday unloaded an empty downtown building and a lot next door, bringing an end to a real estate power play by Mayor Daniel Rivera that ended up backfiring.

Rivera engineered the purchase of the building at 370 Essex St. in 2015 as the future home for the city’s school department. At the time, he was locked in a battle with the landlord of the school department’s existing headquarters, which was located right behind City Hall. Rivera felt the city was being gouged on the lease, so he moved the school department into temporary quarters while its new building was rehabbed.

But it turned out Rivera couldn’t just walk away. A court ruled the city was on the hook for up to $3.5 million in repairs. Since he didn’t want to spend so much money repairing a building someone else would use, Rivera abandoned his plans for a new school department headquarters, bought the agency’s old digs, made the repairs, and moved the employees back in just 15 months after they had moved out. (Essentially, Rivera did what the landlord had been telling him to do from the start.)

The switcheroo left Rivera with a vacant, ugly downtown office building he no longer needed. He put it on the market and only one bidder, the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council, stepped forward. The council agreed to pay $601,700 for the property, which the city had purchased for $505,000 three years earlier. The city had also spent $400,000 on renovation plans for the building.

The community action council plans to spend $15.9 million removing the building’s ugly facade and building a five-story structure in place of the parking lot. The two buildings will house 40 affordable housing units and 10,000 feet of commercial space. Funding for the project will come primarily from state and federal grants as well as loans.

The City Council approved the sale in a roundabout and very odd fashion, according to the Eagle-Tribune. A vote to approve the sale failed, as did another vote to remove it from the council agenda, which would have killed it. A third proposal to table the measure also failed. The council then recessed for 20 minutes and when it returned the sales was approved on a 7-1 vote after three conditions were added to the sale — that the property remain on the city’s property tax rolls in perpetuity, that tenants be provided parking in a nearby garage, and that families with children in the Lawrence schools be given preference for the leases.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

City Councilor Marc Laplante was the lone no vote, raising concerns about the proliferation of affordable housing in Lawrence.

“What are neighboring communities doing with respect to providing assistance to these very good people who want a good place to live and can’t afford it?” Laplante asked. “I don’t know why our community has to step up every single time for this. We can’t do it all by ourselves.”