Shops, clubs, restaurants, and rail have put downtown Haverhill on the upward track. Slices of life in the city center include: Antique World (top left); The Tap (top right), which has live music on weekends; Keons (center left, right), a bistro that opened in November; the Citywicks candle shop (bottom left); and the Classic Couple boutique (bottom right). PHOTOS BY ROBERT SPENCER/FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
Haverhill is the picture of progress
Its funky center already has food and nightlife; now developers are turning old factories into chic housing
HAVERHILL -- This small city on the Merrimack River is poised for its second renaissance.
From the ruins of a great fire more than a century ago rose a clutch of factory buildings that gave the downtown an intimate industrial feel.
Now, big-name real estate developers, lured by Haverhill's dense urban setting, are converting the empty tombs of shoe and furniture makers into chic condos and apartments to house the young professionals who already give the downtown a humming nightlife.
''We picked Haverhill because it looked like it was a community that had tremendous potential," said Pamela Goodman, president of Beacon Communities Development. ''It's got the train, is poised to sort of take off, and has a lot of the basic characteristics that we look for. In the downtown, when you go through, there are a lot of young people, just people on the street. It presented a picture that was quite attractive."
Beacon, the name behind such trophy properties as South Station and Rowes Wharf in Boston, and a second marquee real estate company,
City officials said that having such established names as Forest City, which developed University Park at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, is an endorsement of Haverhill's attractiveness.
''We've been hoping, and it appears to be happening, that they're going to be the spark that causes other developers to go forward," said Mayor James J. Fiorentini. ''We're hoping they're the spark that reignites the city."
Developers say Haverhill has the ingredients they look for: large, brick factory buildings in the heart of a downtown that has two commuter rail stations within walking distance. The burgeoning Wingate arts and restaurant district sits nearby, and the Merrimack is a short stroll away. Interstates 93 and 495 are nearby, providing easy access for commuters.
Another attractive feature: from one of the train stations, which is right downtown, Boston is just an hour away via commuter rail.
Downtown has a funky feel, a mix of old and new. A small pool hall and a social club are steps from eclectic shops such as an antique store, gift shop, and art galleries, including one dedicated to origami.
And you won't starve or die of thirst here: There are many bars and restaurants, from fine dining to fast food, including The Tap, a microbrewery with a rear deck that looks out on the river, and England's, which makes its own ice cream.
City officials are betting that the gentrification and reinvestment that have revitalized nearby Newburyport and Amesbury in recent years will push upriver to Haverhill. For now, the city has low vacancy rates and rising home values; the median sales price of a condominium more than tripled in a decade, to $218,000 in 2005, according to the Warren Group, a real estate information tracker.
Most important to Haverhill's future development is its growing population. The city's population grew by 15 percent in the 1990s -- more than three times the statewide rate -- and is now at about 60,000.
''The town is gritty," said David J. Levey, executive vice president for Forest City. ''It was a former blue-collar town. But there's been some interesting gentrification in the area."
Last month, Forest City outlined plans to renovate the eight-story Stoller Building, at Essex and Locke streets, into 288 rental apartments. The company is also looking at nearby properties.
And Beacon will break ground this month on two projects:
Renovation of the Cabot House furniture building at 16 Walnut St. into a 146-unit apartment complex, with rents up to $1,000 a month for affordably priced units, and up to $1,750 for market-rate units.
Converting the former Community Action Inc. building next door into 32 artist lofts that will cost in the low- to mid-$200,000 range and feature double-leaf doors, large windows, and elevator access.
Along with an accompanying parking lot, Beacon will redevelop nearly an entire city block in the heart of downtown.
Many of the proposed homes are expected to sell to young professional couples and to empty nesters eager for the services and activity of an urban center, but reluctant to pay Boston prices, where the median price for a condo is more than double the cost in Haverhill.
The downtown has already come to life with commercial activity.
The Washington Street Shoe District was accepted in 1976 for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. It was recognized as one of the finest examples of Queen Anne industrial architecture in America.
Nearly all the buildings on Washington Street today were built in the year following the 1882 fire, when 10 acres burned.
The door to downtown redevelopment opened in April 2004, when City Council approved a plan by the mayor that allowed shops and offices at street level and homes in the upper floors of downtown industrial buildings.
The mayor is proposing to lower the minimum number of parking spaces required for each unit of new housing; he also wants to encourage mixed-use projects by allowing them as a matter of right rather than requiring them to secure special permits.
Levey, of Forest City, welcomed the attention from developers. More downtown residents will enliven the area, he said, and make all housing more attractive.
''All ships rise when the tide comes in," Levey said. ''Haverhill's not back yet, but it's coming, it's going to be there. I guarantee it."