Applause for The New Bedford Light’s Jack Spillane for his tenacious digging into the Star Store building debacle. The ramifications of this saga for downtown New Bedford are huge. People are drawn to downtowns to be near other people. Emptiness repels. Just look at how downtown Boston and San Francisco are suffering from the emptiness left in the wake of the Covid pandemic. Many of those now working from home don’t have a compelling reason to come back. Will UMass come back to downtown New Bedford?
Gov. Maura Healey’s predecessor Paul Cellucci understood the economic value of siting state government offices in sleepy downtown real estate markets in need of a lift. One of Cellucci’s best examples of state-sponsored smart growth was siting a state Registry of Motor Vehicles office in an old vacant building in Boston’s former Combat Zone some 25 years or so ago. The location was already served by the MBTA’s Orange Line subway stop at Chinatown. Putting the RMV there brought more foot traffic to a place that needed more feet on the street for the location to feel safe. The move was a market shifting catalyst. Then the dynamics of the location really transformed when Emerson College moved in around the corner, followed by a movie theater on Boston Common and ultimately a new Ritz Carlton in what’s now called the Theater District.
Emerson College’s transformation of Boston’s Theater District has been remarkable. Before the college students arrived, Boylston and Tremont Streets was a no man’s land, empty both day and night. With students on the sidewalks 18 hours a day, the downtown location was enlivened, attracting adults who felt safe being there for the first time in decades. The same thing happened years before in Lowell, another mill city that was transformed by UMass Lowell’s expansion there. State leaders at the time like Mike Dukakis and Paul Tsongas shared a vision for Lowell’s future and had Lowell’s best interest at heart. Go to UMass Lowell’s website and you’ll see it boasts, “Lowell’s history echoes all around you. Former mill buildings and cobblestone streets now add charm to a bustling downtown, steps away from the UMass Lowell campus, which boasts a thriving arts scene, a population rich in cultural diversity and a flair for festivals.”
The Star Store building ticks so many boxes on the state’s economic development goals and priorities: Helping an industrial-era mill city adapt to the 21st century knowledge-based economy. Directing smart growth development away from sprawl that paves farmland into parking lots and sucks economic activity away from historic downtowns. New Bedford’s downtown holds decades of public investment in infrastructure that, collectively, is worth hundreds of millions of state tax dollars. Reusing the Star Store building also accomplishes green building goals to address climate change, because the greenest building is one that is already built. The energy it took to construct it, and fabricate all of the materials inside it, is worth more than any energy savings to be had by vacating it and building new. UMass vacating the Star Store building goes against all of these state objectives. Does the left hand of the Healey administration know what the right hand is doing? Apparently not.
We seem to lack a leader at the state house like Gov. Paul Cellucci, or Gov. Michael Dukakis, who understood how to do this. Funding is not the issue here. Where there is political will, there are ways and means to get this done. Five years ago, UMass paid $75 million for a Mount Ida College campus in Newton that it does not need. (College student interns live there to be close to jobs in Boston.) Richard Freeland, who was commissioner of higher education for Massachusetts from 2008 until 2015, after spending 22 years of his career at UMass Boston, called the UMass acquisition of Mt. Ida’s real estate a boondoggle that makes no strategic sense for state taxpayers. It cannibalizes the state’s investment in UMass Boston. That $75 million could have been better spent elsewhere. If you (like me) are a parent paying a UMass tuition, you should be demanding answers from state officials about who is making and overseeing these real estate decisions for UMass.
Where is Gov. Healey’s economic development czar who has responsibility for revitalizing places like New Bedford? Advocacy groups like the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth (MassInc) with its Gateway Cities economic development initiative will be interested in the outcome. And so should smart growth advocates and historic preservationists like the nonprofit advocacy group Historic Massachusetts and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which should list the Star Store building on its annual lists of most endangered historic places.
Kudos to Jack Spillane for dogging this Star Store building story. The story hasn’t ended yet.
Carter Wilkie is co-author of “Changing Places: Rebuilding Community in the Age of Sprawl.”