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The ups and downs of Riverview Suites

600_Dennis_Jim_JohnDennis Scannell, Jim McClutchy, John McCullough (George DeLuca/Connector)

George DeLuca
Connector Staff

Riverview Suites is the new residence hall down by the river at UMass Lowell’s South Campus. The ribbon cutting ceremony on Oct. 1 brought a sense of relief to many in attendance.

After all, it took over nine years to complete a project that stalled for three years during a controversial protest of the Request For Proposals process. It then faced financial hurdles brought on by a staggering economy.

Eventually, the City’s State delegation led by Rep. Tom Golden and Rep. Kevin Murphy came to the aid of developer Jim McClutchy, who also had help from former City Manager John Cox and Attorney John McCullough.

As Master of Ceremonies, Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney provided a spirit of eloquence to the proceedings by first extolling the project.

“We thought this day would never come. But for the determination of several people who are here today it did get done, and it’s absolutely one of the most magnificent projects to open at UMass Lowell.”

The Chancellor praised the stalwart McClutchy for guiding the development through a series of tempests that would have permanently derailed the efforts of larger companies.

The project originated in 2006, when McClutchy hired a project manager to turn around a struggling project, then asked him to brainstorm ideas for the “Marginal Street” site. Ready to build on the success of a series of consecutive projects, McClutchy and a team of investors purchased development rights to the property.

A master of recognizing and navigating ominous circumstances, he sensed that Lowell would not support another large condominium project in a location that posed difficult highway access and rush hour traffic clogs. Marketing a large condominium in that location was foreboding and surface parking limitations added to the challenges of the site.

McClutchy’s project manager had been following UMass Lowell’s planning efforts and attending meetings where University officials felt hindered by the lack of land needed to expand. McClutchy said he was intent on developing the property and not interested in selling the development rights.

So the project manager recommended that he contact officials at UMass Lowell about the possibility of building a project that would serve the University in some way.

The beauty of such a plan was that the front of the property could face South Campus. UMass Lowell would benefit because there would be no land purchase or capital project that would fall under State auspices.

McClutchy said that he thought it was a good idea, but felt it would never happen because the political obstacles might be too difficult to overcome. Several days later, McClutchy approached his project manager and said that he contacted UMass Lowell officials, and they were indeed interested in the project. Thus began the complex process of research and number crunching that led to pitching the project to University officials and the subsequent pursuit of financing.

Riverview Suites was named after the spectacular view seen from the roof of the old Sullivan Printing Company, which it replaced. McClutchy’s design team imagined that students would see and appreciate this view from the upper floors of the facility, especially during the autumn and winter months when the leaves turned then disappeared.

During her speech at the ribbon cutting ceremony, Chancellor Moloney praised the foresight of the project and said, “Thanks to Jim for his vision, right at the beginning. He knew this was a great idea and he saw it through to the end.”

But it was McClutchy’s penchant for envisioning foreboding political situations that provided the insight needed to forge on when resistance began forming. As storm waters rose, he aligned himself with Lowell’s political machine to ensure the project’s survival.

The development team managed to tread water through the onslaught, and the strategy paid off in the end because of the viability of the vision.

Riverview Suites is precedent setting as a public/private partnership, one that is rarely found in the country let alone in Massachusetts. But it is also the type of achievement that involved the courage and fortitude of those who “went all in” to see it through to completion.

Riverview Suites will serve as a model for other developers and institutions to emulate for many years to come. As Chancellor Moloney stated, “This is the first and only public/private residence hall in the State of Massachusetts. And we’re happy to lead the way on this kind of innovative development which demonstrates the entrepreneurial initiative that we as a university take every day in running this institution.”

McClutchy and his partners at Soho Development LLC reached an agreement with the University on a 20-year lease as a condition of completing the final phase of the project. The 250,000 square-foot facility now houses over 800 students and contains 15 classrooms, a state of the art research lab, a recreation center, and a new living and learning community for health sciences.

City of Lowell officials are pleased because the property reaps $350,000 per year in commercial tax revenue. Had the University built the complex, it would have been tax free because of its non-profit status.

When McClutchy first unveiled his plans for Riverview Suites to UMass Lowell officials in 2006, he met with head of Student Affairs, Larry Siegel, who facilitated the approvals process with the top brass at the university.

The initial focus group meetings involved McClutchy’s design/development team, Dean Siegel, UMass Lowell administrators and students. Siegel knew that UMass Lowell was on a growth spurt and that the University was planning to double its on-campus housing, so he quickly became the point person for the college on the project.

McClutchy did his homework by having his design team research local and national colleges for their approaches to housing students, looking for imperfections and complaints and using a problem solving strategy to shore up his pitch to UMass Lowell executives. It worked.

Dean Siegel was clearly impressed with the way McClutchy’s team fielded his questions and those of students who were unhappy with their on-campus living accommodations in rundown buildings fraught with problems due to deferred maintenance.

When McClutchy was called to speak at the ribbon cutting, he reflected the praise back to UMass Lowell by saying, “Without the continued support of Chancellor Moloney and President Meehan this project would never have happened.” He also praised the State Delegation, the City of Lowell, and Nancy Judge of the Highlands Neighborhood Committee, and he thanked them for their undying support throughout the complex and difficult process.

State Representative Tom “the Dean” Golden said, “It may be the first public/private partnership of its kind. It happened here because the State Delegation got behind it and tried to bring everyone together. At the end of the day, it was completed for the greater good in spite of its rough beginnings.”

Rep. Golden was referring to the row caused by the protest of the RFP process.

“But we continued to push forward to make it happen, and now the proof is in the pudding,” said Golden. “This is another victory here at UMass Lowell and I’m very proud to be an alum and happy for Chancellor Moloney and President Meehan.”

When asked about the potential for using this project as a model for other developments, Rep. Golden responded, “We need to emulate this type of cooperation throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts where everybody pulls together in the same direction because the end result is what we’re looking at here today.”

McClutchy acknowledged members of his own team, including Neshamkin-French Architects who helped to bring the project to fruition, calling it “the perfect building for the situation.” In developer speak, that means “the highest and best use of the land” was achieved.

Meanwhile, UMass Lowell has been recently named the tenth fastest growing university in the country. Now with an enrollment of 17,500, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief that progress has been made in increasing on-campus residential housing.

But Dean Siegel cannot afford to bask in the achievements emanating from the University’s continued expansion. His role as the primary user agency representative continues to present enormous challenges.

And although he has felt the white-hot heat of the massive transformation of the University, the Dean can now feel the warm glow of success from this and several other University projects as he keeps his sights on future developments.

Dean Siegel was the first to propose having UMass Lowell’s “Residence Life” manage the facility early in the Riverview Suites discussions.

Siegel began his remarks at the ribbon cutting by praising the collaborative spirit of those who participated in the project, saying, “In 2008, there were 1,600 students who lived at the University. We now have over 4,300 students living on campus, so the population has more than doubled.” This was the vision he expressed in 2006, so the visibly relieved Vice Chancellor could afford to exhibit some low-key elation on this day.

Dean Siegel praised McClutchy as “someone who I’ve known and become friendly with,” noting that University officials constantly challenged the developer’s resolve and flexibility. “We threw him curve balls nonstop. At worst he fouled them off, and at best he hit the ball right out of the park!”

The Dean was especially pleased by the applied and experiential learning breakthroughs achieved by Riverview Suites, crediting the project as being “the domino” that opened avenues to forward progress for similar initiatives laid out in the “mission and strategic plan of the University.”

John Cox was Lowell’s City Manager when the project was incubating. He remained on hand throughout the proceedings and celebration. He chimed in, “It’s a great culmination of a long process which was helped along by President Meehan and Chancellor Moloney. There were a lot of ups and downs, but projects that are worthwhile have ups and downs and I’m proud to be a part of it. When ‘Jimmy’ first approached me it was such a long way off it was like a pipe dream. I helped with the project after I left the City and we succeeded in working with the State Delegation for the special legislation that freed up the project. It’s a true team effort. Everyone pitched in, everyone did a great job, and that’s why we have this beautiful building today.”

When asked to comment on the project as a model for public/private partnerships, Jim McClutchy said in his usual personable style, “If a project benefits everybody, it works. If somebody loses, everybody loses. Here, I obviously benefit, the City benefits, and the University benefits. With those three ingredients it just seems to make sense.”

The fact that the three partners are Lowell-based makes the success of the project that much sweeter.

After nine years, the project comes to fruition!

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