Living A City Planner’s Dream
January 27, 2019 : Banker & Tradesman, by Steve Adams
Title: MassDevelopment Transformative Development Initiative Fellow, Lawrence
Industry experience: one year
As part of MassDevelopment’s Transformative Development Initiative (TDI) fellow program, economic development specialists spend a 3-year period working in Massachusetts Gateway Cities to revitalize walkable downtown areas. Jessica Martinez, a Los Angeles native who obtained her master’s degree in urban planning from Boston University this year, took over as Lawrence’s TDI Fellow in September. But the script took an unexpected twist when a series of natural gas explosions ripped through Lawrence and two neighboring communities, damaging approximately 80 properties. Martinez’ assignment in Lawrence follows a summer internship working in rural sections of Iowa and surrounding states for McClure Engineering Co., where she worked on placemaking and economic development strategies.
Q: Did you have any familiarity with Lawrence before taking this assignment?
A: I had never set foot in Lawrence. Noah [Koretz], the director of TDI, interviewed me and advised that the next day I should rent a car and go up to the Lawrence and visit one of the coffee shops and walk around and tell him what I thought. When you get off the main exit from Interstate 495 and see the stone mills, it’s like you’re walking into a place that doesn’t exist anymore. I was entirely enchanted and felt like it was a city planner’s dream. It’s a blessing and a curse, because you don’t build cities like that anymore: a tight-knit, walkable community. The TDI District extends from Union Street to Lawrence Street. The reason that it was chosen was because in the past 10 years, there has been a lot of investment in new market-rate housing in all the old industrial mill buildings. Thousands of new residents have moved in and over 830 market-rate apartments have been built. The interesting thing about downtown Lawrence and Lawrence in general is, unlikely many Gateway Cities, there’s very little vacancy. It’s not so much there are vacancies that need to be filled on Essex Street, but there’s a lack of diversity in amenities and there’s frustration from the city and other business owners that there have been a lot of land owners who have not really improved their properties for the past 10 or 20 years. You may have a storefront church or a business that’s not really useful on Essex Street, where people crave experience.
Q: How did the Columbia Gas disaster affect the focus of your fellowship?
A: The week after I started in Lawrence, the explosions happened on Sept. 13. It’s been an interesting dynamic. Right now, the focus has been on marketing Lawrence. Even Lawrentians don’t really come downtown and hang out. There’s still a perception that’s haunted the city, even though it’s gone through a major transformation. There are beautiful spaces to walk around and fantastic restaurants. Business communication has been a big focus. Realistically, (the gas disaster recovery) is going to be a multiyear effort. I’ve been sitting in a lot of meetings between the three communities. The issue is that a lot of the Lawrence business owners didn’t have the infrastructure to support themselves to begin with. Let’s talk about Quickbooks, let’s talk about making you more resilient for emergencies in the future rather than having to let go your wait staff.
Q: Are you seeing improvements in commercial real estate investment?
A: We have had new players in the downtown area that have been incredibly supportive of the TDI and the urban renewal plan that came out last year. Some land owners have been receptive and want to be part of the changing face of Lawrence. There are fantastic (zoning) overlays that make possible housing and mixed uses and retail. It’s just a matter of layering the incentives. My entire TDI district falls in the Chapter 40R overlay, so that’s transit-oriented development. The incentives are there.
Q: What are the key takeaways from the Lawrence urban renewal plan?
A: That came out last year and it’s been a major platform for how the TDI moves forward. The TDI district is much more granular. In the market analysis in the [urban renewal] plan, there seems to be an option and possibility to support more restaurants, women’s clothing and furniture stores. It saves a lot of time to not have to replicate the work. Now we’ll be launching a survey this quarter for the residents who utilize downtown. These mill buildings are gorgeous: they have gyms and dog-washing stations, test kitchens and libraries. There’s no reason to have to leave your home sometimes, and some residents have never walked two blocks up Essex Street. We call it the mall-ization of living. One of the goals of this is to build up our data and survey residents to understand the changing population. Also, we’re taking a look at walkability and improved public safety.
Q: What’s the thrust of the TDI during the next few months?
A: Seeing how the small business resiliency plans shape up and how that’s going to affect the TDI district is a major part of it. Then we have a potential grant in the pipeline to fund placemaking lighting and look at lighting up the south wall of the Everett Mills for outdoor movies and events.
Q: Has there been interest in using the federal Opportunity Zones tax incentives in Lawrence?
A: The entire TDI is in an Opportunity Zone. With the Lawrence Partnership, I am meeting with various advisers to discuss how to leverage the Opportunity Zone funds for our smaller and medium-sized developers in the city. There’s already development happening in the city and it’s a matter of connecting people getting people to use the funds.
Martinez’s Five Favorite National Parks: