Hail Mary pass for Smith Baker Center, ‘Lowell’s Cathedral’

City manager to present options for final disposition in March

February 21, 2024 : The Lowell Sun, Melanie Gilbert

LOWELL — The fate of the magnificent but derelict and potentially dangerous Smith Baker Center, once called “Lowell’s Cathedral,” was the focus of three motions on the City Council’s agenda Tuesday night, one of which called for it to be torn down.

“It’s in no condition for anything other than demolition,” Councilor Erik Gitschier said.

The imposing high Victorian Gothic-style edifice, located at 412 Merrimack St., across from both City Hall and the Pollard Memorial Library, was constructed in 1884 for use as the First Congregational Church.

The city purchased the four-story, red-brick building in 1975 for $85,000. The building later became home to the Council on Aging and was known as the Smith Baker Center. The COA was relocated to its current location on Broadway Street in 2002, and the building has been vacant ever since. It is one of approximately 363 properties in the city’s portfolio.

The City Council declared the property surplus in July 2011, and posted at least three requests for proposals, but no deals closed. Coalition for a Better Acre, a nonprofit community organization, considered buying the property in 2018, but could not agree on terms with the city.

Six years ago, then-CBA Director of Real Estate Craig Thomas told the CBA board that projected development costs were $18 million with the unheated building needing significant site prep work.

“The building is beautiful and amazing, but it is deteriorating,” Thomas said. “There is significant water damage and it needs to be weatherized and stabilized.”

Gitschier’s roll-call floor motion failed with only himself and Councilor John Descoteaux voting in favor. Descoteaux said its “time had run out.”

“The city has done its due diligence,” Descoteaux said. “If I had my druthers, I’d have a wrecking ball on it tomorrow morning. What have we been talking about for the last year? Housing. We need more housing.”

He advocated for clearing the site for housing development.

The Department of Planning and Development noted last September that the “DPD does not have a funding source identified that would cover the cost of (hazardous material) abatement and demolition at this time.”

Councilor Paul Ratha Yem’s motion asked that the city have the appropriate department apply for Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund grants from the Massachusetts Historical Commission to preserve and restore the building.

The deed on the property does not limit the city’s ability to sell the property or restrict its reuse options, but the property is listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places and any action utilizing federal or state funding would require approval by the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

Additionally, the state will only reimburse up to 50% of expenses of a maximum grant amount of $100,000. A 2018 facility condition assessment estimated capital needs of almost $3 million, which several councilors said the city doesn’t have.

“… as a city, we cannot afford it,” Councilor Vesna Nuon said.

The report noted numerous problems including no elevators serving the building and inoperable hot water, electrical, heating and cooling and fire protection systems.

Six years later, the basement walls, which are the foundation of the entire structure, have a remaining useful life of 10 years, the roof is within one year of its useful life and the interior plaster walls and ceilings and flooring have no useful life remaining. The existing layout and interior components were rated as not being Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant and not to code.

Last year the city prohibited parking on the west side of the building parallel to Cardinal O’Connell Parkway due to concerns about debris falling off the façade.

Public safety was raised in Nuon’s motion which asked for a report back from City Manager Tom Golden on the issue.

Councilors noted boarded up windows, and Gitschier said the space is being used by unhoused people. A reporter visited the site last week and saw unsecured windows allowing both people and the elements into the space.

“I’m worried that something may happen as we wait,” Nuon said. “What if that building somehow fell down and killed those unhoused people? This building is beyond repair.”

In 2021, the nearly 140-year-old building was declared unsafe for firefighters to enter. Two red and white X’s are attached to the building, which signifies that unless it’s determined a person is inside, firefighters will battle the fire from outside. It’s one of more than a dozen such properties marked by the Fire Department throughout the city.

Nuon also submitted a motion in 2022 requesting an update on the Smith Baker building from then-City Manager Eileen Donoghue.

Then-Assistant City Manager and DPD Director Christine McCall wrote that the building qualified for earmarked funding based on its location within a Transformative Development Initiative district.

“We see this as a unique opportunity to work with MassDevelopment, community partners, and residents to envision an appropriate reuse of this building and potentially unlock critical funding to rehabilitate the building,” she said.

The status of that report was not discussed at council, but Golden acknowledged the toll that 20 years of neglect have had on the historic building. He asked to present options to the council at its March 5 meeting.

“I am extremely concerned with this building, but facing the piece of taking it down is troubling,” he said. “Let me come in with an idea.”