Hub Firm Known as Defender of Lost Development Causes
By Joe Clements - Banker and Tradesman
 
As a developer, the Abrams Group has certain limitations, even though it might not always appear that way. "We see a lot of mills, and many of them have problems that you just can't work around," company founder and namesake Matthew Abrams said in a recent interview. Crumbling infrastructure, environmental contamination and insufficient parking are among the obstacles that might make a mill restoration untenable, said Abrams, whose firm has earned a reputation as a champion of lost development causes both for individual properties and regarding the communities targeted for investment.

In the eight years since Abrams left a successful commercial real estate brokerage career at Cushman & Wakefield to launch his Boston-based development firm, the Abrams Group has breathed new life into numerous mills and older structures throughout eastern and central Massachusetts, typically converting the properties into residential uses, in some cases rentals but increasingly focused on the condominium market. One mill property in Lowell was developed into 135 apartments now fetching up to $1,600 per month, and the Abrams Group was lauded last winter by the Center City Committee for helping revitalize the downtown area through that effort at the former Dutton Yarn Co. property.

'An Underserved Market'
For Abrams and partner Jeffrey Brooks, the approach has been to offer quality living opportunities at competitive prices in markets deemed secondary to core communities such as Boston, Brookline and Cambridge. Besides Lowell, the Abrams Group has been active recently in Worcester and Lawrence, and is now pursuing a 70-unit condominium venture at the former Foxborough State Hospital in Foxboro.

Among the more pioneering undertakings by the firm is a 15-unit condominium being crafted out of a 6-story commercial property in downtown Lawrence. Derided by many as a decaying community facing a shaky future, the outlook is not shared by the Abrams Group, with Abrams maintaining that Lawrence officials are working hard to reposition their city similar to the recent strides made in nearby Lowell.

Lawrence "has a great Main Street, and we really like what we see happening there," said Abrams, insisting that the community "is headed in the right direction. It just needs a little [boost], and we are trying to help that along."

Similarly, the Abrams Group is singing the praises for Worcester, New England's third-largest city and the site of an ambitious restoration of a former shoe factory into 97 loft-style condominiums. Despite the property's tired appearance and initial indications by abutters that "we might be a little crazy," Abrams said he was confident his firm could produce a positive result upon first touring the property. After a $21 million overhaul, more than 70 percent of the units at the Fremont Lofts have already been sold, and Abrams said he believes the pace will increase with the arrival of the spring selling season.

Buttressed by hardwood floors, exposed brick walls and ceiling heights of 12 to 18 feet, the Fremont Lofts allowed the Abrams Group to combine the natural features with a level of amenities and materials that the company feels will attract buyers, particularly those in the middle-income range. Priced to move at rates ranging between $169,000 and $339,000, the Fremont Lofts nonetheless features state-of-the-art electrical and mechanical systems, cable and Internet hookups, operable windows and air conditioning, plus common-area elements including a fitness center, storage space and landscaped courtyard. The Fremont Lofts is being developed in conjunction with the Callahan Cos.

Not only was the Fremont Lofts site attractive to the Abrams Group, Brooks complimented Worcester officials for their assistance in getting the project permitted and for their commitment to the city. "You can really feel the momentum building in Worcester," said Brooks. "It's a great place to be these days." Brooks joined the Abrams Group in 2002, handling a variety of duties for the company, including day-to-day oversight of Abrams Construction, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Abrams Group.

A licensed general contractor, Brooks said he enjoys the opportunity to take an underperforming building and pump new life into the structure, as well as the chance to help communities reverse years of disinvestment. Many of the areas that the Abrams Group is focused on "have not seen new [residential] product delivered in 30 years," he said, adding that in many cases, the lack of supply has kept residents from remaining in their hometowns. "We really feel like we are helping an underserved market in these communities," said Brooks.

Whatever the motivation, the Abrams Group has been among the more active real estate development and investment companies in Massachusetts in the new millennium. The firm has more than $100 million invested in its various projects at present, Abrams estimated, adding that he is not concerned by recent talk of a housing bubble or possible slowdown in condominium sales. Any cooling-off of activity has mostly been on the higher end of the market, he noted. Given his firm's focus on price-conscious consumers, the Abrams Group is in a good position, he said, as underscored by the robust performance at the Fremont Lofts.

"We happen to be of the opinion that the spring is going to be very strong," Abrams said. "We were going along at 95 miles per hour, and maybe we dropped down to 70 or 75 miles per hour [this winter], but we are seeing the buyers coming out and we think they will be even more active as [the year] goes along I think we're in a very good position."

As for its plans during the near future, the Abrams Group is pursuing development at the 93-acre Foxborough State Hospital and Abrams stressed "we never stop" looking at fresh opportunities for upgrading older properties. At the same time, the company is not adverse to pursuing new buildings, as evidenced by last summer's purchase of a 3-year-old Quincy apartment property for $29.5 million.

The 6-story building at 10 Seaport Drive was acquired in conjunction with Fidelity Investments, a partner which accentuates the reputation the Abrams Group has crafted in a relatively short corporate life span. Located just six miles from downtown Boston, 10 Seaport Drive is being converted into condominiums at prices a bit higher than the Abrams Group's typical range, with units running from the low $300,000 range to $400,000 and up for two-bedroom units. "We think we're going to do very well there," said Abrams, whose firm has recast the 108-unit building as the Atlantic at Marina Bay.