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May 13, 2019

Developer of critical WooSox mixed-use project has low-key history

Photo | Grant Welker The Walmart Supercenter at Tobias Boland Way in Worcester
Photo | Grant Welker

Denis Dowdle couldn't have foreseen himself at the center of Worcester's biggest economic development story in generations.

The key principal for Boston-based Madison Properties had experience with Worcester only once before. He developed the former U.S. Steel facility in Quinsigamond Village into Worcester Crossing, a Walmart Supercenter-anchored development off Route 146.

About two years ago, Dowdle began considering another industrial site in Worcester. This time, he looked at manufacturer Wyman-Gordon's property off Madison Street, a property he compared to the U.S. Steel site and saw as perhaps the city's last major undeveloped parcel.

Then, of course, the Pawtucket Red Sox came along.

Today, Dowdle – a low-key developer without the name recognition or the long roster of completed projects other builders tout – is the lynchpin of a $240-million project raising Worcester's profile across the state, with the minor league baseball team set to move into a new ballpark in April 2021, as part of Dowdle's planned mixed-use development.

“A lot of things came together,” Dowdle said of the team's plans to move coming together after he already secured a sale agreement for the site. “It felt like the stars were aligning for Worcester."

Dowdle, particularly, is key to the financing of the project. The city needs revenue from Dowdle's development to generate tax revenues from hotels, offices, apartments and retailers in a special taxing district the city established solely to pay off the ballpark costs.

The city has said no general taxpayer funds will be used to pay off the $101 million it borrowed for the stadium and new revenue will cover all public costs.

Dowdle's development is responsible for generating more than half of the $3.7 million the city says it needs annually for the debt service starting in 2022.

A smaller first in Worcester

Dowdle has never built a project as large and complex as the roughly $140-million development he's now planning for the Canal District.

He's undertaken two ground-up construction projects, each now with one thing in common with the planned development across from Polar Park: The once-contaminated sites they were built on.

“I gravitate toward what I think is good real estate with some challenges,” Dowdle said.

In both Worcester developments – Worcester Crossing and the planned project across from Polar Park – Dowdle appears to have fortuitious timing.

In Worcester Crossings' case, a new Route 146 was about to add a fast route between I-290 and the Massachusetts Turnpike. In the case of the Wyman-Gordon site, Dowdle happened to begin talks with the manufacturer just before the city reached an agreement with the PawSox to bring the team to Worcester.

Dowdle said he eyed the Wyman-Gordon site first in 2004, but at that time the company wasn't yet selling. He bought the former U.S. Steel site instead. Turning the U.S. Steel plant into a retail plaza took roughly six years, including legal challenges to zoning changes.

Dowdle listened to residents' concerns and was transparent with the public for his vision for the U.S. Steel site, said Jane Petrella, then the head of the Quinsigamond Village Community Center.

Denis Dowdle

“He was always open to any suggestions,” Petrella said.

Worcester Crossing transformed that part of Quinsigamond Village, a neighborhood overshadowed for decades by a since-closed landfill.

“With Quinsigamond Village, there's been a long-standing resident desire to improve some of the physical conditions of their environment,” said Mullen Sawyer, the executive director of the Oak Hill Community Development Corp., the group covering the Quinsigamond Village neighborhood.

To Boston, Woburn and back

Dowdle moved to Boston in the 1980s, working for the news station Channel 56 before shifting into a career in real estate in the early 1990s.

Much of his time since has been as an investor, including two centers he has since sold: the Walmart-anchored North Reading Plaza and the Market Basket-anchored Woburn Mall, which has become dated and nearly empty but is now seeking a major mixed-use overhaul under new owners.

In 2006, Dowdle bought a small parcel of less than an acre in Boston's Seaport neighborhood, then surrounded by little besides parking lots and the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center a few blocks away.

Dowdle proposed a hotel on the parcel but found it to be unfeasible in the short term. He ultimately sold the site in 2016 to national developer Crescent Heights for $36 million, or more than six times what he paid for it. The development, called NEMA Boston, is now nearing completion as a 21-story, 414-unit apartment building.

Photo | Grant Welker
NEMA Boston, an apartment building in Boston's Seaport neighborhood, is nearing completion. Dowdle once had plans to develop the site but sold it.

More recently, Dowdle has spent much of his time redeveloping a former contaminated parcel in Woburn just off where I-93 and I-128 meet. The site, formerly owned by chemical maker W.R. Grace & Co. site, was cleaned up before Dowdle bought the property in 2014.

The project, now called Woburn Landing, includes a 110 Grill, Red Robin and Chick-fil-A, with the first phase opening two years after Dowdle bought the site. A Hampton Inn and a Homewood Suites is slated to open in a single building after Labor Day.

“All in all, it's turned out to be a very good project,” Woburn Mayor Scott Galvin said. “He's a hard working guy. He sticks with it.”

About two years ago, Dowdle was at a Boston event when he ran into the man who was Worcester's mayor at the time of the Worcester Crossing project: Timothy Murray. Murray, now the president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, implored Dowdle to head back to downtown Worcester to see all that had changed since he was last in the city.

Dowdle checked back in at the Wyman-Gordon site, where the long-time manufacturer had demolished buildings more than 15 years ago and cleaned up much of the property. He initially envisioned something more like Worcester Crossing, to be built over a longer period.

Dowdle signed a purchase-and-sale agreement with Wyman-Gordon in May 2018, three months before the PawSox said they will move to Worcester.

Dowdle's plans then shifted to a denser mixed-use development he's planning in partnership with the PawSox and the city to help remake the neighborhood.

Project falling behind schedule

From the city's perspective, there's little time to waste. The first phase of the development is to open by Jan. 1, 2021 in an agreement last year between the city and Dowdle.

Dowdle now says the first phase will open likely in mid-2021. No timeline has yet been set for construction to start.

Dowdle is getting significant help from the city and state in building the Canal District project.

The state is paying $23 million for a parking garage on the site to accommodate the project's own tenants and visitors, along with those for the ballpark and surrounding businesses. Another $12 million will subsidize market-rate housing for Dowdle's apartments, of which preliminary plans call for at least 225 units.

Worcester is waiving $2 million worth of Dowdle's permitting and other fees it would normally charge applicants, has agreed to a 10-year tax break for hotel rooms and a 15-year break for apartments, and will work with Dowdle to secure additional state funding for housing subsidies.

The city has said it will reconstruct Lamartine and Washington streets, which line the south and east sides of the project, and give additional tax breaks to Dowdle for later phases if significant portions of the first phase open on time.

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