LYNN — More than two years ago, Gov. Charlie Baker, three state cabinet secretaries, U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, then-Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy, and the state delegation stood on City Hall steps and announced a unique collaboration to jumpstart economic development.
Officials used phrases such as, “We will align our efforts and unlock tough development sites,”and “the team will assist Lynn capitalize on its potential, drive private investment, job creation, and new housing opportunities.”
But as the Lynn Economic Advancement and Development (LEAD) team, the 12-member group formed to coordinate planning, attract private developers and fast-track permits, enters its third year, some say the high-powered group has little to show for its efforts.
While the panel touts the progress it has made, with the exception of an out-of-town buyer for the former Item building on Exchange Street, not a single new developer has purchased property and a groundbreaking has yet to happen at two proposed waterfront apartment projects. In addition, a bus tour of more than 100 developers to the city’s development sites failed to yield a single project.
The tour sparked a protest by Lynn United for Change, an advocacy group. They used the gathering to advocate that a portion of the units in any new housing development be affordable. They held signs that read: “Lynn Says No To Gentrification” and “Lynn Families Before Developer’s Profits.”
Some say that didn’t help the LEAD cause.
State Rep. Dan Cahill (D-Lynn) said the fact that no new developers have emerged on the waterfront is evidence that the sites continue to have problems that frighten potential investors.
“There are all kinds of issues when you want to build on the water,” he said. “The state’s Chapter 91 law was written to protect public access to the waterfront and that costs money.”
Rick Wood, vice chair of the Lynn Area Chamber of Commerce, said the business community is not represented on LEAD, but he’s happy the team was assembled.
“We have not been apprised of what’s happening, but we are rooting for them,” he said.
State Rep. Brendan Crighton (D-Lynn) acknowledged most of the projects in the works were already lined up when the LEAD team was formed.
“Everyone would like to see things move faster, but these projects are complicated, there are a ton of permits and regulations and everyone needs to communicate to get things done as soon as possible,” he said. “While we had the zoning, expedited permitting, and incentives for development in place, we still needed to come together as a group.”
Former Mayor Kennedy said the LEAD panel is too big, with members pushing a variety of worthy goals.
“Tom McGee wants the ferry; Seth Moulton focused on vacant GE sites; I pushed for cleaning up brownfields and building hotels,” she said. “It might be more effective if we took one project at a time and put everyone’s efforts into completing it.”
Kennedy said she did not want to sound critical of the LEAD team because she appreciates the focus the Baker administration has put on Lynn.
“But I believe in smaller groups for decision making,” she said.
Jason Denoncourt, hired by Moulton as economic development director because of his commercial real estate development experience, insists progress has been made.
“We’ve kept the ball rolling,” said Denoncourt, who has returned to the private sector. “I am very proud of all the work we accomplished in Lynn.”
But when asked to name three accomplishments, he couldn’t come up with one.
Eventually, Denoncourt emailed a list that includes construction of the new Market Basket on former General Electric Co. land, two waterfront apartment projects on the Lynnway, the Gateway Residences on Washington, and a $4.5 million federal grant for a commuter ferry.
But these projects were underway before LEAD was organized.
Nonetheless, Moulton insists headway has been made toward revitalizing the city.
“There are many projects that are moving forward because of the ground work done by this team,” Moulton said.
While there has been talk of a supermarket, ferry service, revitalizing the downtown, and a new YMCA for years, they didn’t happen until LEAD pushed the permitting, he said.
Critics demand transparency
Business leaders and officials are reluctant to criticize the LEAD team publicly, saying they don’t want to offend the Baker administration or Moulton.
But privately, they say the LEAD team meets in private without scrutiny or input from them; a timeline with goals has never been released; and it’s unclear what they are working on.
“I haven’t heard much about the goals of the LEAD team lately,” said Gordon R. Hall, chairman of the Lynn Business Partnership (and a Daily Item director). “It would be great to have a public meeting so we can get an update.”
Still, Moulton argues there’s progress.
For the last 50 years, people have been talking about revitalizing the waterfront with apartments, Moulton said, but at least one project should break ground this year because of LEAD.
Despite delays, Minco Development is hoping to start construction this spring on a $100 million project to transform the vacant 14-acre North Harbor site across from North Shore Community College into 348 waterfront apartments.
“It’s easy for cynics to minimize the significant progress we’ve made,” Moulton said. “It’s a fair criticism that we are not moving quickly and I think we have a lot more work to do, and I will never be satisfied. But commercial development takes time and having all the stakeholders at one table is crucial. We are laying the groundwork.”
Mayor Thomas M. McGee, a LEAD member, compared Lynn’s emergence to Boston’s Seaport District in South Boston. While it is thriving now with hotels, offices, restaurants, luxury waterfront apartments and condominiums, it wasn’t always that way. In the early 1990s, he said, it was just rail yards and parking lots.
“Back then, nothing was happening in that section of South Boston,” he said. “But the pieces were put in place, including public investment, and a long-term vision. You need to be patient and have the right players at the table to move it forward. That’s what’s happening in Lynn.”
Convincing developers to build in Lynn
Jay Ash, state Secretary of Housing and Economic Development and a LEAD team member, said one of the major accomplishments of the group is more than 100 developers and investors have come to kick the tires in Lynn.
“It’s a big deal to have so many people focused on Lynn,” he said. “I can tell you that Lynn is the envy of 25 other Gateway cities.”
Still, Ash has said the team and the Baker administration’s focus on Lynn will not be around indefinitely.
Dean Stratouly, president of the Congress Group, a national developer with offices in Boston, said he came to Lynn a few years ago and looked at several waterfront parcels. But no deal was signed.
“There was an expectation from those landlords that the land was priceless,” he said. “A yard of concrete costs as much in Lynn as it does in Boston, but you can’t get the same high rents in Lynn, so there’s a disconnect.”
The other factor that may keep major developers from considering Lynn, Stratouly said, is the city’s reputation as unsafe.
“Developers think about how a community is perceived,” Stratouly said. “At the end of the day, you have to attract capital and the city’s perception plays into that.”
Reason for hope
James M. Cowdell, executive director of the Economic Development & Industrial Corp. (EDIC/Lynn), the city’s development bank, said LEAD is historic because it represents the first time all the stakeholders are at the table.
“They’re all there for one reason, to find resources for projects that have been identified by the city,” he said. “It’s been very successful.”
The renovation of the flatiron building at Central Avenue and Willow Street into 49 luxury apartments was the direct result of LEAD, Cowdell said. The project received local, state, and federal assistance to make the project a go.
“I don’t think it would have happened without the LEAD team,” he said. “We were able to tell the developer what we can do for them. We rolled out the carpet with city, state and federal resources.”
The North Harbor site, Central Square, and the new supermarket were all the result of the LEAD efforts, Cowdell said.
“LEAD put Lynn on the map, no other city has one,” he said. “It’s a top priority among the three branches of government.”
Dennis Frenchman, a professor at the MIT’s Center for Real Estate, said Boston’s Seaport District emerged when former Mayor Thomas M. Menino marketed it as the “Innovation District.”
As a result, Vertex Pharmaceuticals moved out of Cambridge and built an $800 million headquarters for 1,200 employees on Fan Pier.
“Seaport had a courthouse and a few hotels, but it didn’t take off until a developer built office buildings,” he said. “You can’t solve all these problems with public action alone, developers need to see something that they can’t get somewhere else.”
Wig Zamore, founder of the Mystic View Task Force, the Somerville community group that pushed for dense, mixed-use development at Assembly Square, said that community’s effort began in the 1990s. Despite hundreds of apartments, office space and retail, he said the 45-acre parcel is just 25 percent developed.
“When you are trying to transform a big chunk of land, that is much more difficult than single building development,” he said. “You have to make sure the vision is supported, that whatever infrastructure is needed to serve that vision is built, and then it takes time. The South Boston waterfront took 30 years and the full build out of Assembly Square will take another 20.”