'It was clean as can be'
By CHRISTOPHER SCOTT, Sun Staff

LOWELL Boston-based developers Matt Abrams and Jeff Brooks went from prospective buyers to buyers upon heaving open a heavy, red fire door and gazing at the clean, wide-open expanse of 36,000 square feet.

"The wood floor was impressive, plus it was clean as can be," said Abrams, describing the cavernous third-floor of the five-story Dutton Yarn Building on Dutton Street earlier this year. "We were impressed."

They soon bought the building from Dutton Associates LLC, whose principal is Elkin McCallum, for about $1.7 million. Now, they are well on their way to converting it to 130 market-rate apartments in an estimated $15 million project.

Political and business leaders are hailing the project as one of the most significant downtown development projects in years for several reasons:

With one- and two-bedroom units renting out for more than $1,000 monthly, it will provide homes for people with disposable income. Officials hope some of that will be spent in downtown restaurants, shops and tourist attractions.

It will complement the American Textile History Museum, located on one side, and more market-rate apartments and artist lofts on the other side. It thus turns a once skid row-like busy city gateway into an avenue of successful redevelopment.

While parking can be a prickly issue on many redevelopment projects, it won't be at this one. Behind the building, tucked up against the Western Canal, is a parking lot that can handle more than 250 vehicles. "We're just thrilled to see it happening," said the city's planning chief, J. Matthew Coggins. "Not only is it happening on a major gateway, it's happening when the economy is down. I think that says something about what the city has to offer."

From the outside, it might look like there hasn't been much progress on the job. Inside, it's a different story.

Under the stead din of saws, compressed air-powered hammers and other construction equipment, a cadre of workers buzzed through the several floors during a recent tour, framing it out with aluminum two-by-fours.

Abrams and Brooks, who comprise The Abrams Group, have more than a dozen redevelopment projects on their resume, mostly in Greater Boston. They hope to have this one completed later this year.

"This building just has it all," said Brooks, 34. "It's ready to go."

Unlike some rehab projects, which require a great deal preparatory work, the Dutton project presented few problems. Abrams, for example, said it didn't need a new roof.

Its wood floors, though scarred and soaked with oil, are solid and will be retained wherever possible to keep the structure's ties with its past.

For the past four or five years, the building has been empty. The Dutton Yarn Co., a textile venture owned and operated by McCallum's daughter Kerry and partner Penny Richards, was consolidated into a South Lowell facility at that time.

A period of vacancy also preceded Dutton Yarn's use of the 180,000-square-foot building. During that period, an effort to recruit a major department store retailer was unsuccessful. But the effort did prompt historical reflections to the late 1950s and '60s, when the building was home to Giant Department Store. Abrams, 32, said Lowell needs such a project.

"There is a real market for this," he said. "There isn't a lot of this kind of housing in downtown Lowell."

The units' primary features will include the oversized windows that already comprise much of the building today. Tall ceilings and granite countertops in kitchens and baths are to be added. "This building is really going to come back to life," said an excited City Manager John F. Cox. "It's going to be spectacular."