Developer Tackles Blighted Property in Leominster
November 11, 2012 : Sentinel & Enterprise, by Jack Minch
LEOMINSTER – For years the buildings at 98 Adams St. sat vacant for young people who set up skateboard ramps and decorated the walls with graffiti, some of it obscene.
The paint on exterior walls weathered, and trees grew through cracks in the parking lot’s asphalt.
James Whitney, who redeveloped a former mill at 40 Spruce St., announced plans in April to take on Adams Street for a combination of office and residential space.
Whitney calls 98 Adams St. the last blighted commercial property in the city.
He closed on the property three weeks ago with financing from MassDevelopment.
When the project is built out in five to seven years it could be worth $20 million, but the first phase is only a fraction of that.
MassDevelopment is lending Whitney $2.68 million for construction costs during phase 1 of the project and another $60,000 brownfields loan to clean up a small fuel spill on the property.
Whitney said he enjoy the challenges that come with redevelopment projects.
New construction projects are planned out well so each step is foreseen, but contractors can never be sure what’s behind each wall in a redevelopment, he said.
A handful of workers were on site this week along with suppliers such as John Blanchflower of National Lumber, and Gary Barber of Jeld-Wen Windows and Doors.
“This is a very big project,” Blanchflower said.
The redevelopment is the latest in a list of projects updating the city including Leominster High School, the new Rollstone Bank & Trust building in Monument Square and new parking garage at the train station, said Mayor Dean Mazzarella.
“That was our worst building in the city in terms of condition but structurally a very strong building,” Mazzarella said. “It took somebody like (Whitney) to come in and take on the challenge.”
Adams Street runs between Cotton and Pleasant streets downtown.
Homes around it, including the Leominster Housing Authority’s Rockwell Village across the street, are kept neat and well tended.
The Adams Street property was once home to Commonwealth Plastics and a Thom McAn warehouse.
Whitney plans to redevelop the property in two phases.
The Commonwealth Plastics building is about 40,000 square feet spread over two floors that will be turned into commercial office space first.
Whitney expects work to be done in about six months if the winter weather is not too bad.
“There really is a shortage of affordable space in Leominster,” Whitney said.
A second, 88,000-square-foot building that runs 300 feet along Adams Street will be phase two for some commercial office space on the first floor and 52 apartments spread over the first and second floors.
Whitney said he plans to paint the larger building this week so it won’t be such an eyesore for the neighbors.
The project is expected to create about 13 construction jobs and about 50 permanent jobs when the project is completed.
“The redevelopment of 98 Adams St. marries two core tenets of MassDevelopment’s mission” eliminating blight and creating jobs,” said MassDevelopment President and CEO Marty Jones. “Jim Whitney has a sterling track record in successfully redeveloping properties in Leominster and we’re pleased to support his work in the city’s downtown.”
Whitney has been working on the 5 1/2-acre site about two weeks with a handful of employees.
They cut out window openings, cleared out the skateboard ramps, are fixing drainage from the roofs where scrappers stole the pipes, and are clearing the trees from the property.
The walls are exposed brick, and trusses are made out of giant steel beams.
“You can’t build something brand new like this and now they are cleaned, they have a look that’s out there,” Whitney said.
He plans to leave much of the space open in phase one so he can build to suit his tenants’ needs.
Whitney is not expecting problems finding businesses to fill the space.
MassDevelopment, known in the area for its work at the former Army post Devens, is a quasi-public agency. It is a self-supporting agency providing loans and tax-exempt bonds, but Gov. Deval Patrick appoints its board members.
The agency gave out 31 loans worth about $22.3 million in fiscal 2011 and 36 loans valued about $35.6 million in fiscal 2012, which ended June 30.
It has about $30 million budgeted for lending in the current fiscal year.
“Our mission is to stimulate economic development throughout Massachusetts which goes along with creating jobs, creating housing units and eliminating blight,” said spokeswoman Kelsey Abbruzzese.
MassDevelopment lent Whitney $1 million for his project at 40 Spruce St. in 2010.
He redeveloped the property into office space.
MassDevelopment was more willing to finance the project than commercial banks because of its mission, Whitney said.
“When you get into a rehab of a building like this and the Spruce Street deal, they are able to do a lot better on the financing end of it, the construction end of it than a regular bank would be,” he said. “They are willing to take more of a risk than a regular lending institute would.”
A dilapidated building on the other side of the Cotton Street intersection is not part of Whitney’s project.
© Copyright 2012 Sentinel & Enterprise.