If you’re in the waterfront strip of New Bedford called the Hicks-Logan district, chances are you meant to be there, you didn’t just happen by. Maybe that could have occurred way back, before they hemmed the place in with Route 18 to the west, Interstate-195 to the north, creating an elongated wedge sidling up to the waterfront and narrowing as it reaches south to Route 6, an area once famous for the prodigious output of textile mills and a metals plant. 

Nothing to be done about the highway boundaries. Nonetheless, the city hopes to make this area a bit more inviting to potential investors. Despite many going enterprises, up-market apartments in a refurbished mill, the busy Kyler Seafood market on Washburn Street and a shipyard being developed at the old Revere Copper & Brass site on the Acushnet River, Hicks-Logan by some angles still looks abandoned by the world. 

The City Council on Thursday night is expected to take a step culminating the eight-year effort that produced the Hicks-Logan Redevelopment Plan, a map of a possible next phase in the history of this place where a century ago Wamsutta Mills employed 30,000 people and made some of the best bedsheets on the planet. The council, which approved the plan itself late last year, is poised now to consider for a second and final time the revised zoning code that goes with it, covering a portion of the Hicks-Logan district identified in the plan. 

The hope is that the plan and the new, simplified rules for building in the district will spur change for the better. 

“It’s the most distressed neighborhood in the city,” said Mayor Jon Mitchell, adding that his own great-grandparents lived there, settling into a spot on Kenyon Street soon after arriving in this country from Poland. “There’s not much left of it.”

This may all seem familiar for those with long memories for these activities, as the city under then-Mayor Scott Lang’s administration in 2008 completed the Hicks-Logan-Sawyer Master Plan. The current plan, in the works under the Mitchell administration since 2014, is informed by the older one, but encompasses a smaller area and takes a different approach.

“What we’re trying to do now is go further, create an urban renewal district,” Mitchell said, referring to a designation established in state law. If the plan passes muster with the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, which Mitchell anticipates will be a formality, the city would then have the leeway of a few next options: acquiring land, demolishing or renovating buildings, issuing bonds and receiving grants and loans.

At the moment, the plan for the 112-acre district designates about eight acres for possible transfer to the New Bedford Redevelopment Authority. The property, or portions of it, could then perhaps become part of a developer’s project. 

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While the land acquisition option is a distinguishing aspect of the urban renewal approach, Mitchell’s chief of staff, Neil Mello, emphasized that such a step would only be taken if a developer were interested in doing something with the land. This is not primarily a land-taking project, Mello said.

Of the eight designated acres, two are already owned by the city; four acres in private hands are the area of a rectangular fire pond. Bound on two sides by old mill buildings, on two sides by fence, concertina wire and scrubby brush, the pond on a gray day resembles a vast vat of ink. In the northwest corner a plastic barrel floats half-submerged, making one wonder what else lies beneath.

Who knows, if the plan works, some sort of recreational pond could emerge from this bleak beginning. 

The plan includes that possibility, as the effort is meant to build on what’s already there. This is not the government wrecking-ball urban renewal of the 1960s.

The role of the city, state and federal governments here is setting the stage, including completing a plan and the zoning, improving the road network and perhaps adding some greenery. The hope is that private developers will take it from there.

“It’s not a small thing to have a good plan in place,” said Derek Santos, executive director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council, a nonprofit organization that worked with the city in developing this plan, and will next turn to pursuing contacts with developers who might be interested in investing in Hicks-Logan.

“You’ll find folks in the private sector like that sort of predictability,” Santos said. “Banks don’t like surprises.”

Of course, there have been plans for a better Hicks-Logan before. There was the master plan completed in 2008, a study done by Santos’ organization in 2005, and parts of the area were included in a New Bedford/Fairhaven Municipal Harbor Plan in 2002. None produced the sort of change the city has wanted to see.

This is different, Santos said. For one thing, it’s an urban renewal plan, which strengthens the city’s hand in making changes and pursuing money to get the job done, such as federal and state funds to improve roads. Also, he said, there’s the zoning change that goes with it.

“It’s not just advocating approving new zoning,” he said. The ordinance change expected to be approved by the council on Thursday “is new policy,” and could help make the area more attractive to potential investors.

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He said his organization would likely start contacting people who have already invested in the city and branch out from there. They’ll be working the trade shows, getting out the word.

As it’s understood that people who put up the money to build things prefer less dense bureaucratic thickets, the zoning change is meant to hack away some of the regulatory brush that has accrued over the years.

“The main issue is there are too many regulations” governing land use in that area, said New Bedford Planning Director Jennifer Carloni, describing current zoning there as a confusing “hodgepodge.”

The new ordinance supports the plan, which calls for two main sections in the northern portion of the whole district, from I-195 south about to Wamsutta Street.

An inland area west of Belleville Avenue and North Front Street extending south to Wamsutta Street is designated for residential, commercial and some limited industrial use. Most industrial uses in that area would require a special permit from the Planning Board.

A smaller waterfront area east of Belleville and North Front is meant to keep and expand waterfront-related uses and attract similar new enterprises. The waterfront area would also allow hotels and restaurants without a special permit.

The new zoning rules are meant to make more clear what can be built where, and to remove a few legal hurdles to the sort of development the plan hopes to encourage.

For example, in the inland area, current zoning says you can build homes in some spots but not others. The new zoning allows residential development in that whole section, Carloni said, but not in the waterfront section. Also, she said the new rules drop the special permit requirement for new multi-family development in the inland section. 

Compared to the master plan of 2008, this one reflects the emergence of offshore wind as an economic engine for the port, as it puts more emphasis on commercial use of the waterfront section, Carloni said.

The plan does not include large expanses of vacant land, but is meant to encourage development in smaller patches here and there, Carloni said. Aside from undeveloped land set aside for current ferry and future commuter rail parking and other uses related to eventually running the trains, there are about 17 undeveloped acres, Carloni said. 

The district covered by the new zoning ordinance is already home to hundreds of apartments in the old Wamsutta Mill and to Acushnet River Antiques in the old Grinnell Mill on Kilburn Street. Among other enterprises, there are two auto body shops, a diesel service shop, a custom nameplates company, substance-abuse treatment centers, some offices, a bar/dance club called Le Place and two churches with Latin American congregations.

Much to Mayor Mitchell’s chagrin, there are also two tire recycling operations, one on Washburn, another farther south on Acushnet Avenue, close to where the rail platform is being built. Mitchell said tire recycling is a messy affair no longer allowed in the city, but existing businesses are allowed to remain. 

The sort of business the mayor is happy to see, and the Hicks-Logan plan would hope to encourage, is the new shipyard now being carved out of the old home of a metals factory, first New Bedford Copper Works starting in 1861, then Revere, which closed in 2008. 

Out front of the old plant now are great mounds of dirt, one taller than the mill itself, left over from work the new owners have done putting in the rail spur that was completed in the fall. Charlie and Michael Quinn, the father and son who have been in commercial fishing for decades and now own several maritime enterprises, bought the 13-acre property in 2019 and are busy turning it into a full-service shipyard, including repairs, cargo and operations relating to offshore wind. 

Michael Quinn said they were encouraged by the dredging project in this part of the port, and saw the potential of the site. After investments of about $30 million, he said they expect to be in operation by 2024.

“We grew up in the city; we love the city,” Michael said. “We saw an opportunity. We’re crazy Irishmen, we like a challenge.”

Email Arthur Hirsch at ahirsch@newbedfordlight.org.

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