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Workers in harnesses straddled steel beams and passed materials to one another in the center of downtown Lynn. They’re building a 10-story, mixed-use development that will house more than 400 people and bring three or four new shops and a restaurant to the neighborhood.
Standing in front of the Munroe Street project site, developer Mike Procopio described it as a new phase in a development process that’s already evident in the city.
“We're standing downtown, there's people walking around, there's coffee shops, there's businesses ... it's this really vibrant, very culturally diverse mix of uses and people,” he said. "People have a perception of Lynn that it's gritty and they have a perception of Lynn of gangs and crimes that, frankly, was true in the '80s, and that's just not [the case] anymore."
Lynn has become one of the most development-friendly cities in the region, Procopio said, contrasting it with communities that seem to put up roadblocks at every stage. Ten years ago, the city began to reform its zoning laws to increase density in certain areas, requiring fewer parking spots and allowing larger buildings.
Now city officials say — with Procopio’s project breaking the ice for a wave of other developers — the reform is delivering.
“[Developers] have looked at that zoning and said, ‘Look, we can build extremely competitive product in Lynn at a significantly discounted price point to almost every other area here,’” Procopio said.
As Lynn enters what city planners call a historic development boom, the city hopes to attract new residents — people with well-paying jobs who are looking for an affordable alternative to Boston.
The strategy is to spur market-rate housing close to public transportation by luring developers with tax breaks that can make a proposal financially feasible.
But the development of Lynn has its detractors. An array of anti-gentrification activists — union members and working class residents — have protested at groundbreakings and other city events, arguing that it’s absurd to subsidize market-rate housing while many of the city’s renters struggle to find apartments they can afford.
The Munroe Street project is the first of a half dozen developments at different stages in the construction process, according to the city, with hundreds of new housing units on the horizon with hundreds of millions of dollars in investment.
"I can tell you that we are in a historic amount of development that's occurring,” said Jim Cowdell, who heads up the city’s economic development efforts. “When we rezoned downtown Lynn and we put the height at 10 stories, everybody said, ‘That's crazy, no one's ever going to build a 10-story building.’ That's what’s going on as we speak."
Cowdell said that in his lifetime there has not been an investment of $90 million in Lynn, referencing the price tag of the Munroe Street project. And that's just the start. Three projects in the works on the city's waterfront, totaling $895 million, according to Cowdell’s office.
"I can tell you that we are in a historic amount of development that's occurring.”James Cowdell, Lynn official
Lynn, once a shoe-making capital of the world, has struggled to attract good development since since the fall of the industry, according to Cowdell. Evidence of that struggle abounds on the waterfront: Car dealerships, fast food joints and big box stores fill an area that should be prime real estate.
“In the old days Lynn just settled,” Cowdell said. "And so, if Walmart came to Lynn and said, ‘We want to open up on your waterfront,’ the city said, ‘OK, let's do that.’”
Now, Cowdell said, those days are over.
'Lynn Deserves Better'
More than 100 affordable housing activists and trade union members recently took over Munroe Street, chanting “Lynn deserves better” and criticizing conditions at the construction site, where a worker was seriously injured earlier this year.
The protesters are angry that the Munroe Street development got a $2.5 million tax break from the city — an amount the developer and the city say was necessary for the project to be feasible.
Since 2011, rents have risen by more than a third in the city, according to data from Zillow, and interviews with low-income renters point to the difficulty of finding affordable market-rate housing.
Millie Cruz is among those who say they've been pushed out of Lynn by rising rents.
"I was evicted, no fault,” Cruz told WBUR during the protest on Munroe Street. “New landlords ... they just got me out. And I tried to stay in Lynn as much as I could, but I couldn't find nothing affordable.”
Cruz has lived in Salem for two years now, but said she’s looking for a way to move back.
Kathleen Santora, a union painter, said this wave of development shouldn’t only be aimed at people who can pay $2,500 a month in rent.
“Now that Boston is saturated, we look really good [to developers] … we have the waterfront, we have access to the airport, we have the commuter rail,” Santora said.
“But if the city wants to give tax breaks to developers, they have to give us back something – they have to give us affordable units."
Lynn United for Change is part of a coalition advocating for equitable development in the city. The organization sees gentrified neighborhoods like Jamaica Plain and East Boston as canaries in the coal mine.
"I don't feel like gentrification has happened and it's done in Lynn,” said Isaac Simon Hodes, the head of Lynn United for Change. "That's the direction that a lot of people with power and money are pushing, but I think there is still a chance … to have development that goes on a different path from what we've seen in places like JP and East Boston."
Lynn United for Change wants the city to create more affordable housing, and to consider measures like rent control, which is prohibited under state law. Hodes said the group is working to bring a measure to the city council that would require developers to set aside a portion of units for low-income tenants, similar to what exists in Boston and Cambridge.
“...if the city wants to give tax breaks to developers, they have to give us back something – they have to give us affordable units."Kathleen Santora
City officials point out that more than 12% of Lynn's existing housing stock is subsidized — twice and even three times the rate of the city’s surrounding communities — with roughly as many people renting with Section 8 vouchers.
According to Jeff Weeden, an official at Lynn’s housing and planning agency, the city wants to maintain the status quo for affordable housing. That will mean one of every four new units would have to be affordable.
Still, Weeden acknowledged there’s an affordable housing shortage in Lynn. The city commissioned a housing study in 2016 that found that affordable units “pale in comparison” to the need, with just one subsidized unit for every 4.4 low and moderate income households in the city.
A Balancing Act
While housing activists want to leverage development to create more affordable housing, developers said the city has to be careful not to turn off the spigot of development in Lynn by forcing them to include affordable units.
"I'm not sure that that's the way to address affordable housing,” said developer Lou Minicucci, one of the new developers in Lynn. “I think that it will discourage overall development.”
Early-stage construction is underway at Minicucci's $95 million waterfront project, which will add 331 units of market rate housing. He knows affordable housing — not only has he built it as a developer, but in a former life he led North Andover’s housing authority. Minicucci says Lynn needs more market rate housing to attract people from Boston and take pressure off the existing housing stock.
“The secret, I think, to solving the housing problem, the affordable housing problem, is more production,” he said. “It's more housing units. So although our project doesn't have any … affordable housing component to it, we are contributing to the housing stock, which should benefit housing pricing as a whole.
“It’s gonna be good for everybody, I think,” he said.
At Charlie’s Junction deli in downtown Lynn, owner Charlie Christopoulos said more people moving to the city means more revenue for his business.
“I like it because it's gonna be more everything, more businesses moving in,” Christopoulos said while standing at the grill during the lunchtime rush. “It's gonna be good for everybody, I think.”
Christopoulos owns his building, so he doesn’t have to worry about rent going up. But other small businesses don’t have that luxury. Cristino Acosta owns a barbershop a few blocks away from the deli. He said more people with more money will lead his landlord to raise his rent. He thinks his days downtown are numbered.
"Other people can rent for more money,” he said. “Then what do I have to do? [I'll have to] go away. Now we’re going to have to double the amount of haircuts in order to afford that."
After our initial interview, Christopoulos says a realtor approached him with an offer to buy the building.
Christopoulos and his wife decided to sell. After three decades working 15-hour days, six days a week, they want some time for themselves. And it’s the hottest real estate market they’ve ever seen.
This segment aired on October 9, 2019.
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