Mr. Fix-it: Developer has gained reputation by fixing
By CHRISTOPHER SCOTT ([email protected])
Lowell Sun Staff
(March 16, 2002) - A $15,000 mistake changed Chris Natale's life.
Working full-time as an electrical engineer at an Andover high-tech
firm, Natale bought the building at the corner of Dutton and Broadway
and started fixing it up.
Each day, he'd shoot over to Lowell at lunch - "took
me 12 minutes, one-way" - to check on the job.
During one visit, Natale told workers to preserve the original
windows because they had historic value.
Signals crossed. The windows were trashed. Replacements
cost Natale $15,000.
Natale calls the window episode the "trigger point"
- when he went from dabbling in a dream to living it.
"My dream was always to do this kind of work,"
says Natale, 41. "But I needed the financial backing
to do the job, so that's why I stayed in engineering as long
as I did."
Natale's purchased and developed 14 buildings, and just
started number 15: 16 Merrimack St., above the downtown Burger
He bought four of those properties, including 16 Merrimack
St. and the Dutton Street property, from the city, which picked
up the languishing buildings through tax title proceedings.
Natale won't discuss specifics, but says the net worth of
this holdings - assets minus liabilities - has grown at a
steady 55 percent annually
since his first job on Bowers Street in the Acre in 1986.
"He takes a lot of the tough-luck cases and makes the
most of them," Historic Board Administrator Stephen Stowell
said. "He really cares about the projects he undertakes."
Most developers would do cartwheels to skip Historic Board
review of their projects. Not Natale. He often consults with
Stowell on what's appropriate - even though Historic Board
review isn't required. Such moves mean a lot to city officials.
"He really cares about the city and the projects he
undertakes," City Manager John Cox said. "That's
okay for us."
City Councilor Armand Mercier, chairman of the panel's Economic
Development Subcommittee, agreed.
"He does a tremendous job with the tough ones - abandoned
properties," Mercier said.
Natale was born in raised in Burlington, the son of an electrical
engineer and a Lowell school teacher. He graduated from Burlington
High School in 1979 and earned undergraduate and graduate
engineering degrees from the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
He studied industrial and manufacturing engineering. But
he always loved carpentry and woodworking, a fondness he traces
back to Burlington High and the janitor, Fred Brundige.
"Fred used to take me into the high school shop and
show me how to use all the machines," Natale said. "He
really kind of took me under his wing."
Natale also says Brundige helped him stay in college. He
says he was struggling with dyslexia, and studying plastics
engineering on the undergrad level. Brundige recommended Natale
switch to another form of engineering with less comprehensive
"If he hadn't been there, I probably would have flunked
out," Natale says. "I owe a lot to him."
Brundige, 76 and retired, proudly boasts: "We're still
"But I'm not surprised Chris is doing well up in Lowell,"
he added. "He was always driven."
Excluding the Merrimack Street job, Natale has created 64
units of housing and several commercial spaces.
For example, the Lowell Community Health Center on Merrimack
Street, which is busting at the seams, rented out first-floor
administrative space in Natale's most recent project, 586
Blair Burkes, who lives in one of the Dutton Street apartments,
says he loves the spot.
"It's been a great place to live," says Burkes,
a bartender who moved to Lowell from North Reading five months
ago. "It's bright, it's airy. I've had no problems with
The ceilings are high. The floors are wood. The walls are
Oversized windows - yup, the replacements - let natural
light pour in.
Before he rents an apartment, it must pass a sort of litmus
"I ask myself: Would I allow my mother to sleep here?'"
Natale said. "That keeps me honest."
Natale's sudden emergence as a player in city development
circles, however, has city officials closely evaluating his
acquire city properties to ensure he's not getting too big,
"He's buying everything in sight, and that's good,"
Mercier said. "But I don't want him to get into the position
where he puts his other
successful projects at risk."
Such talk makes Natale nervous. He maintains he's conducting
business well within his means.
Natale declined to discuss specifics, but says that on one
recent $1.2 million job he financed less than half.
"I let more deals go than I can shake a stick at,"
Natale said. "I'll do one job at a time, maybe two, but
Natale, who lives in Melrose, owns more than a dozen other
rental properties from Cambridge to Portland, Maine.
"But Lowell's the place to be," he said. "The
architecture is great, the community is great."