PEABODY — A former Pulaski Street leather mill that has seen better days is undergoing a transformation into a place where you might be able to live, work and play, some day.
The City Council is mulling the creation of a mill overlay district, the purpose of which would allow old mills to house many more uses than those allowed in industrial zones. The three-building mill at 58 Pulaski St. is already home to antique dealers, a new brewery, fitness and dance studios, and a demonstration kitchen studio.
But many of these tenants each had to go before the City Council for a special permit, a time-consuming process with an element of uncertainty to it — that could be drastically reduced if businesses were allowed to set up shop by right.
The intent, said Curt Bellavance, the city’s community development director, is to create value out of an under-performing asset by allowing more commercial uses that do not fit the underlying light industrial zoning, which does not allow residential and has just a limited range of commercial uses.
While the goal of the zoning amendment was live, work and play, councilors were having a tough time with the “live” part when it came to allowing loft apartments in a mill that sits on the outskirts of a busy industrial park with plenty of truck traffic.
Ed Greeley of Wakefield, who bought the mill late last year from the previous owner, proposed building 12 one-bedroom lofts on the upper floors. The lofts would feature plenty of exposed brick, arched windows and stunning views of the Waters River for some of the tenants.
But last Thursday, the council’s Industrial and Community Development Subcommittee did give its support to the overlay district, just without the multifamily housing component. The zoning change still needs approval of the City Council, which could choose to accept the committee’s recommendation or disregard it.
“This is a live industrial park,” said Ward 3 Councilor James Moutsoulas. He was concerned that those living in the lofts would put together a neighborhood coalition and drive out the industrial park businesses.
He said allowing apartments in the mill might serve as a precedent to open what is otherwise a single-family home neighborhood up to other apartment buildings, as some were proposed not far from the mill about 30 years ago. This was something the neighborhood had opposed.
Moutsoulas said if apartments are removed from the mix, he would be all for the concept.
“I don’t see that co-existing with any of the businesses down there,” said Councilor at Large Anne Manning-Martin, about the proposed multifamily use.
However, Greeley told the council he plans to reorient the building, so that the rear of the property will instead become the front entrance for the mill, creating a separation from the truck traffic at the main entrance to the industrial park. There is already a separate driveway at the rear of the mill.
The council subcommittee, acting on a motion from Ward 2 Councilor Peter McGinn, voted to extract the residential piece from the mill district overlay.
So what’s left of the uses allowed by right? Stores of up to 4,500 square feet, bakeries, restaurants, cafes, and businesses serving food and drink, up to 3,000 square feet in size. The new zoning would also allow for an ATM inside the mill, indoor recreation, art galleries and a museum.
Larger stores and businesses would require a special permit. Banks and financial institutions and free-standing ATMs would be prohibited, and drive through facilities would require a special permit.
In the mill
The three-building former leather mill has a total of 230,000 square feet, with available rental space of 180,000 square feet, according to Jake Connolly, a business partner with Greeley in his NE Cabinets business.
NE Cabinets used to be a tenant in the mill for about seven years, but a year ago they moved out to another building across the way in the industrial park. The move made way for the Little Star Child Care Center.
In addition to the day care, the mill is now home to the new Essex County Brewing Company, photography businesses, a bookseller, several antique dealers, and dance and fitness studios. A Boston-based company called ButcherBox — which offers a subscription service for high-quality grass-fed beef, free-range organic chicken, and other meats — has built a demonstration kitchen studio in one corner of the fourth floor of Building B. Here, the company films recipe videos of its products.
The company was looking for a rustic farmhouse look with plenty of exposed brick when it happened upon the mill, said Creative Director Jenny Valley. The permitting process took about a year. But the build-out of what now looks like a home kitchen led to the idea the mill could support lofts as well, Connolly said.
Enza Groppo, owner and personal trainer of VIP Fitness, another tenant in the mill, said she loves her new space, which includes a distinctive red carpeted training area for small group and personal training, circuit training and Olympic lifting.
“It allows me to do so much more with my clientele than the space I had prior,” Groppo said.
Connolly said building improvements include a new roof and fire alarm system. With the building being reoriented, they plan to construct a new parking lot, main entrance and elevator at this new entrance. They are also planning a new food court.
Deed records show The Mills at Pulaski LLC purchased the property in 2012 for more than $2.7 million. Greeley said in an interview that does not reflect the sale that just closed in December but declined to disclose the price.
“I knew if I could buy the property, I knew what I could do with it,” Greeley, who grew up in West Peabody, told the council. He looks at the mill as a challenge. He reasoned that if the building had people living in it, they would patronize the businesses. He also noted it was not a residential-heavy project.
Greeley said anyone moving into the mill would know they are moving into an “energetic environment.”
Councilors did have some concerns about whether the building was safe.
“I’m here to talk about this building, because I’ve been dealing with this building for my whole career,” said Lt. Chris Dowling, a fire inspector and investigator with the Peabody Fire Department. He became a firefighter in 2001.
“The building was largely in disrepair. It was abandoned. But, the troubling thing was it was occupied,” Dowling told the council. He told councilors there was “a lot of illegal activity there in the past,” some of it involving motorcycle gangs and arson.
While the building is not completely in compliance, the new owner is working toward that goal.
“With every tenant that moves in there, the building gets safer,” Dowling told the council.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.