AP NEWS

Lowell Again Seeks Proposals for Smith Baker Center

March 13, 2019

LOWELL -- City administrators say the past will guide the newest attempt to develop the historic and long-vacant Smith Baker Center.

The administration is developing a new request for proposals for the sale and redevelopment of the city-owned building -- this time with less restrictive conditions. They expect the RFP to become publicly available this spring.

″(We’re) going back to the drawing board, removing some of those restrictions, making it a little more flexible, so an organization like (The Coalition for a Better Acre) could enter into a purchase and sale agreement,” City Manager Eileen Donoghue told the City Council Tuesday night.

Three years ago, it seemed the building was on the road to redevelopment.

The City Council approved the sale of the former church and community center for $300,000 to the CBA. The organization planned to renovate the building and turn it into a community and performance center.

But Donoghue said the language in the contract proved to be an issue. In particular, a condition requiring the project to be completed within a certain period of time or the fundraised money would revert to the city was a barrier to attracting investors, she said.

“Their funders were not inclined to fund if there was reverter language,” she said.

Councilor Rodney Elliott, who sat on the fundraising committee during that time, said he also recalled the requirement as an obstacle.

Last summer, negotiations between the CBA and the city fell through. The sides couldn’t come to final terms, though at the time CBA Executive Director Yun-Ju Choi said she was still hopeful her organization could come to an agreement with the city.

The building, across Merrimack Street from the Pollard Memorial Library, was built as a church in 1884. In 1969 it was dedicated as the Smith Baker Community Center, hosting poets like Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and musicians like Patti Smith and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth.

The city purchased the building in 1975 for $85,000. Though the deed does not bar the city from selling the building or restrict it’s reuse options, the property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, meaning alterations require approval from the Massachusetts Historical Commission, according to a memo.

The Council on Aging used the building until moving out in 2002. Since then, the over 12,000-square-foot building has stood vacant, aside from storage. The building has endured years of water damage and, as of last summer, needed adjustments to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and possibly repairs to windows and the roof.

In July 2011, the city declared the property surplus and sought to sell it, but received no bidders even after extending the deadline. When the city tried again in 2015, only the CBA bid, according to a memo from the city.

Assistant City Manager and Planning and Development Director Diane Tradd said the city is looking for a person or organization with a plan and ability to care for the structure to purchase the property.

“We removed some of the restrictions and we may be more open to uses in the building,” she said. “We pretty much want to see what we can get, because it’s a very expensive building to maintain.”

The building needs about $3 million worth of repairs within the next couple years, according to Tradd. She said the city periodically receives grants to work on the building, but it would take “many years of grants” to restore it.

“We want to weatherize it and we want it to be safe,” she said.

Councilor Rita Mercier asked city administrators to check if the sale deed bars the building from reverting back to a church.

Councilor Vesna Nuon said he would like to see a renewed effort to develop the building.

“We all agree that Smith Baker is very important building for our city,” he said. “It has a lot of potential.”

In other business on Tuesday, the City Council:

* Congratulated the 2019 Winterfest Soup Bowl Award winners.

* Heard a request to install electric conduits on Quebec Street between Blossom and Maple streets.

* Received a response on snow ordinance warnings and violations.

* Approved out of state travel for the Lowell Police Department and Management Information Systems Department.

* Approved a memorandum of understanding between the city and MVEA Wastewater Unit 1.

* Referred changing an ordinance to replace two part-time clinical recovery specialists with one full-time position to a public hearing on March 26.

* Heard a report on the development of an elderly friendly action plan.

Motions

* Request the city manager have the proper department implement a “Resident Satisfaction Survey” to assess community satisfaction with city services.

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins