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On an old city street, new signs of life
Several renovation projects injecting energy into Lowell's Merrimack Street

By CHRISTOPHER SCOTT ([email protected])
Lowell Sun Staff

LOWELL -- It's not hard to see the signs of progress.

The banner on a building that used to be home to a notorious bar proclaims "Now Open," in reference to its newest occupant, a restaurant called the Sphinx that specializes in Mediterranean cuisine.

Just a short distance away, a bright yellow debris shoot protrudes from a fourth-story window in the Ansara Building, signaling more neighborhood rehabilitation.

Although the Sphinx and Ansara building are next door to each other, neighborhood boosters say the projects are indicative of a wave of prosperity sweeping up Merrimack Street for several blocks beyond City Hall -- a section of the city's main drag often viewed as the poor relative of its more prosperous lower end.

"When I was a student at the university in the mid-1980s I used to come jogging through here and fist-fights and drug dealing were common," recalls Chris Natale, the developer gutting the Ansara building to make way for housing units. "That's not the case anymore. There's a new energy up here that have a lot of people excited."

One of those excited individuals is City Manager John Cox, who said the recent repaving of the busy street was done, in part, to give the oft-forgotten neighborhood a boost.

"We want the neighborhood up there to prosper and we're doing what we can to help, with things like the repaving," said Cox. "I'm happy to see the development up there, particularly the Natale renovation and the Sphinx."

With some trepidation, the Kandil family opened the Sphinx about two months ago.

Setting up shop in the former Laconia Lounge was taking a chance, said Sammy Kandil, son of owner Abdul Kandil.

But so was choosing a neighborhood that, over the last several years, hasn't seen much development.

"Was it taking a challenge? You bet," said Sammy Kandil. "But so far so good. We're glad to be here."

Gary Wallace, Lowell Housing Authority executive director, agrees.

Although the LHA's mailing address is nearby Moody Street, Wallace's view out his window is of Merrimack Street -- in particular the Sphinx and another venerable neighborhood business, Jeanne D'Arc Credit Union.

"Years ago I would look out this same window and watch drug deals go down in front of the Laconia," said Wallace, adding that one time he was even called as a government witness. "Now I've been over there to eat several times. That's quite a transformation that I think is spreading throughout area."

Paul Mayotte, Jeanne D'Arc's CEO, took a chance long before the neighborhood renaissance began.

Although the its main building has been located at the busy corner of Merrimack and Cabot for years, the credit union renovated and expanded into a building just a couple doors down in 1992.

"We're nothing but optimistic about the neighborhood," said Mayotte. "It is showing all the signs of rebounding from some dark days."

The neighborhood is technically in the Acre neighborhood, although it's more commonly considered just an extension of the downtown heading into the Highlands.

Because of its fringe status, the area is not part of the city's $50 million, 20-year Acre Urban Renewal Plan.

If it was, said David Turcotte, an Acre activist, there would be even greater things happening.

"There's certainly a lot happening, and the neighborhood isn't even in the plan," said Turcotte, who recently resigned from Coalition for a Better Acre's board of directors to pursue the neighborhood group's executive director's position. Turcotte attributes the resurgence to several factors:

  • With a shortage of affordable housing across the city, many of the rehab projects, like Natale's, are creating more housing opportunities.
  • Although not part of the Acre urban renewal plan, the initiative has triggered interest in the entire Acre neighborhood, including Merrimack Street.
  • The neighborhood seems to draw the city's ethnic waves, including the most recent influx of Southeast Asians.

No one knows that better than Srun Sry, who has owned the busy Battambang Supermarket on 504 Merrimack St. for the last 16 years.

During a recent interview, a steady stream of customers did business with Sry.

"Business is good," he said, adjusting his New England Patriots hat.

So good, in fact, that Sry is considering moving to another location because he can't get enough customer parking. There is an abutting lot that Sry leases from another local businessman, but it's constantly used by folks doing business at other prospering Merrimack Street spots.

"It's frustrating," he said. "I know people have business to do elsewhere, but I need the spaces, and I pay to lease them, for my customers."

Meanwhile, beyond Cabot Street, toward the former St. Joseph's Hospital, are more signs of prosperity.

Natale and his company, Mill City Properties, renovated another run-down building while the House of Hope, a homeless shelter, has also expanded.

Closer to the downtown, the former Soucy Appliance Center, which closed a couple months ago, has already been gobbled up by a local Dominican restaurant for its new home.

An $8 million renovation to the Pollard Memorial Library is also complete, which should bring even more people to the area when the library reopens in several weeks.

"There certainly is some activity up there," said Colin McNiece, chief planner for the Division of Planning and Development. "We'll do whatever we can to keep it going."

 

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