Monarch on The Merrimack Back on Track

The Valley Patriot, May-2011

 By: Tom Duggan, May, 2011

Bob Ansin, (CEO of sustainable development company MassInnovation, and developer of the Wood Mill in Lawrence) has had his multi-million dollar renovation project on hold since October of 2007. That’s when several erroneous Eagle-Tribune stories alleged that Ansin was running out of funds and that asbestos was found inside the Monarch on the Merrimack building.

The Monarch project, called ‘a city within a city’ is located on Merrimack St. in Lawrence in the old Wood Mill building, once considered the longest building in the world.

But now, sources connected to the stalled Monarch project say Ansin has again secured funding and is back on track to turn the mill into a “city within a city” containing housing and small businesses. “Instead of selling lots as condos the project will now include rental units which are scheduled to be ready by mid July”, our project source said. “Bob has had a bumpy road since the Tribune story sunk his funding but he never gave up on Lawrence and he never gave up on the project.

On Sunday, September 16, 2007 the Eagle-Tribune ran a cover story by Jill Harmacinski and Bill Kirk which claimed that “workers in Tyvek suits and respirators were on site Thursday clearing the contaminated material out of the building.”

That claim, said Ansin, was “categorically untrue.”

According to Ansin back in 2007, a San Francisco-based bank backed out on their commitment on a $40 million construction loan just days after the erroneous Tribune story came out claiming that asbestos was being taken out of the building.

“The bank cited the Eagle-Tribune story as a reason for pulling their commitment,” Ansin said in 2007.

“The Tribune writers should have looked at the plan filed with the DEP when they wrote their story; the subcontractors were working outside the building, according to the plan. They were certainly not ‘clearing contaminated material out of the building’ as the Trib had written,” said Ansin.

“We’ve had to spend a lot of time correcting the inaccurate perceptions that the Trib story created. [Their] story raised concerns about environmental issues that caused the bank to pull its financing commitment. Those concerns were unjustified. But now we, the crews, and our buyers are paying the price for the inaccurate claims in those Tribune articles.”

Ansin hired local contractors from Lawrence, Andover, Methuen and surrounding communities to do the work on Monarch. Local people he says bore the brunt of the project shutdown. “I felt so bad,” he recalled. “All of these local workers have been out of work since the shutdown.”

“What makes it more surprising is that the Tribune had accurately reported on that story back in July, [of 2007]”

“They had the facts. We had found a small pocket of asbestos in the ground outside, which was probably debris from when the Wood Mill’s twin building was demolished in the 1950s. We halted excavation work and filed an action plan with the Department of Environmental Protection.”

Construction on the first phase of the Monarch Lofts project on Merrimack St. in Lawrence was approaching 40% completion after Ansin had invested $25 million of his own money into the project. The project was selling strongly despite the broader market conditions: 53 of the 201 lofts in the first phase were already under agreement before the building was even completed.

After spending more than $4 million out of pocket for the building, and sinking millions more into construction and rehab, Ansin’s $200 million project was well under way in October of 2007 with more than a dozen people putting a down deposit on luxury penthouse lofts and a California bank committing more than $40 million more to help Ansin begin phase two of the project.

According to Ansin, phase two would have included finishing the luxury penthouse lofts and renovating the rest of the mill to sustain local businesses, office space, a movie theater, a bowling alley, night clubs and retail stores. But that was before the Tribune story. Now project sources say that Ansin has had to revise his plans to keep it going, partly with the help of Sal Lupoli.

Ansin also announced that, although he and Sal Lupoli of Sal’s Riverwalk (Sal’s Pizza) are not partners (as previously reported in another newspaper), in July 2008 Lupoli purchased one third of the Monarch building (400,000 square-feet0 paying more than $5.8 million for business development within the mill. “It’s like buying a condo within a housing complex, you are not buying the building itself, but the space inside the building,” Ansin explained.

“So, when you consider that I paid a little over $4 million for the entire building, sold a third of the building for nearly $6 million to Sal, and with the $55 million commitment we now have from the bank I am happy to say that Monarch on the Merrimack is going to be a reality after all.” he said in 2008.

“One thing for sure, this project is moving forward. I have made a commitment to the City of Lawrence, and I am keeping that commitment.

The Monarch project is the largest eco-friendly development in New England, and has brought positive national attention to a town that many people had overlooked. The project has been featured in CNN/Money as one of the top green developments in the nation, in Forbes as a Home of the Week, in BusinessWeek as Hot Property, and has been profiled on National Public Radio and the Wall Street Journal. Commonwealth magazine has described the project as “catalytic for the City of Lawrence” and as a “lynchpin in the city’s revival.”