Mill Revitalization Districts (MRD)

In Brief: Mills were the economic engine of the Commonwealth for more than a century. As the country's economic model changed and manufacturing moved away from Massachusetts and New England, hundreds of mills were left vacant or underutilized. Today, many communities are making an active effort to revitalize these historic, cultural, and social icons. One way of doing so is through the creation of a Mill Revitalization District (MRD). A MRD usually encompasses a historic mill (in larger cities, multiple mill buildings) and its surrounding neighborhoods. These surrounding areas are typically the canal and its banks, the worker housing, and utilitarian service buildings.
Historical drawing of mill buildings.
The Problem
mill buildings
The reuse of mill buildings is often a complicated, yet rewarding process
The reuse of mill buildings and their surrounding neighborhoods tends to be more complicated than creating new greenfield developments. Several factors such as scale, location, and structural integrity need to be addressed when redeveloping mill buildings. These buildings are also larger than most other single use structures and, too often, local market demand does not support a single new use in such a large structure. Therefore, unique design and engineering solutions are needed to create functional space that can house multiple uses and tenants.

Mill buildings also require extensive retrofitting of basic service infrastructure to meet building and environmental code requirements. Given the potential for environmental contamination of both the building and the site, the presence of old wiring and plumbing, the oddly configured space, a lack of ADA certified accessibility, and inadequate parking, redevelopment can require major investment of capital and a coordinated effort between the State regulators, municipal officials, neighbors, the developers, and the financing community.

Finally, mill districts are generally located in older, developed areas of communities, often within floodplains, and typically have narrow roads, and smaller, more affordable homes. While these neighborhood characteristics should be considered opportunities for compact, smart development, these neighborhoods have often been neglected by strategic plans and new development practices that require large parcels of land. The challenges associated with rehabilitating older buildings, developing in riparian buffers, cleaning contaminated soil and complying with local zoning that simply does not account for these sites can be a tremendous deterrent to investment. In order to make these areas attractive to the private sector, communities must provide enough "up front" planning, regulatory flexibility and financial backing to entice more sophisticated developers.

Introduction to a Mill Revitalization District (MRD)

Across the Commonwealth, there are hundreds of old mill districts spread throughout our communities. They are found in small villages like those along the Blackstone River, in small cities such as Holyoke and Maynard and in larger cities such as Lawrence, Springfield, and Fall River. Mainly built in the 19th century, these mill districts or complexes lost their economic value due to the southerly movement of traditional manufacturing in the 20th century. It was not until recently that a combination of factors coalesced to the point where many have been revitalized. Most notably, communities have come to appreciate the social, cultural and architectural character of these districts and the fact that they can be converted into economically viable mixed-use projects.

Despite the renewed interest in mill redevelopment, the process is far more complicated than "Greenfield" development. Revitalizing older industrial areas involves more than just finding new uses for the old existing buildings. The buildings must often be redesigned with state of the art telecommunications networks, infrastructure and utilities to meet current health, building, environmental standards (often involving extensive site remediation), and the internal space needs to be reconfigured. In addition to the buildings, redevelopment of the site will invariably require new vehicular and parking networks, upgraded utilities, and stormwater management practices.

The challenges at the outset of a redevelopment effort can be extremely intimidating but also are indicative of the economic and social returns that many communities have experienced from successful projects. The reuse of historic mill sites clearly demonstrates a commitment to smart growth since revitalization of these neighborhoods relies on existing infrastructure, creates a compact mixed use environment, and does not stimulate sprawl. This type of redevelopment also includes an opportunity to implement low impact development practices and other smart growth techniques that improve environmental quality in adjacent rivers and streams and implement energy efficient technologies.

Successful revitalization of mill districts depends on three related focus areas. The integration of all three is recommended for successful revitalization efforts.

  1. A Sustainable Site:

    Evaluating a mill's reuse potential begins with the structure(s), the site, and the site's relationship to adjacent features such as parks, open spaces, neighborhoods, and waterways. The site needs to be assessed from planning, environmental, and engineering perspectives. Location, physical condition, and previous uses will all play a critical role in the assessment.

    The history of uses on the site and the potential for existing environmental contamination within the building or in the subsurface soils will require consideration for any redevelopment effort. Contaminated sites, known as brownfields, can present unique redevelopment challenges but can also provide tremendous opportunity for leveraging environmental benefits through significant economic gains. Depending on the types of contaminants present in the buildings and the soils, certain levels of remediation are more feasible than others from a scientific and economic perspective. The feasibility of remediation will play a critical role in determining the "highest and best use" for the site. Where contamination issues are easily managed, for example, a full mix of residential and commercial uses can be considered. Where existing contamination cannot be cleaned to suitable standards, more transient uses such as parks, parking lots, or warehouses may be appropriate.

    The characteristics of the actual mill buildings can provide both challenges and opportunities to redevelopment. In terms of challenges, the size, age, and condition of mill buildings will play an important role in determining the level of effort associated with rehabilitation. In addition, structural upgrades to bring the buildings up to code are often required and the removal of large quantities of lead and asbestos can be a major concern. Existing windows and brickwork may be attractive, but can also pose serious energy efficiency issues when assessing the overall "livability" of a structure. New uses will generally require reconfiguration of large spaces and potentially enormous investments in upgrades to utility systems.

    In terms of unique opportunities posed by mill structures, important building characteristics include the historical façade, enormous windows, exposed brick face, large wooden beams, granite or limestone accents, clock towers, and decorative stair cases. The wide expanses of interior space can also present opportunities for innovation including the installation of smart technologies that are energy efficient, conserve water, and mitigate pollution. Where building have remained structurally sound, advanced retrofits such as green roofs, geothermal heating and cooling, and photovoltaic technologies may be easily integrated into the overall structure.

    In addition to the mill buildings, the overall site needs to be examined to determine opportunities for community revitalization and restoration of natural areas. Adequate traffic circulation and parking, enhanced eco-friendly landscapes, improved river access, and upgrades to sidewalks and pedestrian plazas are just some of the amenities that can be developed on a neighborhood-wide scale. As mill sites often abut rivers and streams, revitalization of these areas can leverage tangible water quality improvements through the installation of updated stormwater management practices and the restoration of buffer zones.

  2. The Local Community:

    The values of the local community and its commitment to revitalization are critical to achieve effective public-private partnerships and ultimately, a successful redevelopment project. In this type of joint venture, the community can offer assistance with master planning, implement flexible zoning techniques, seek grants for environmental upgrades, and provide tax breaks as well as Tax Increment Financing (TIF) agreements.

    It is important to analyze where the mill complex fits in terms of the City or Town's master plan and existing zoning framework. If rewriting or amending the existing zoning is necessary, an important first step is to consider the variety of zoning approaches that have been used within the Commonwealth. Over 20 Massachusetts municipalities have adopted specific bylaws or ordinances that are designed to support the revitalization of mill districts (see MRD Summary Matrix). The community's comprehensive plan process should lay the foundation for mill redevelopment by providing as much information as possible regarding the site and specific community goals. Where possible, illustrative concepts should be used to depict the scale and mix of uses desired by the community. Emerging from the comprehensive planning process, few local initiatives will reflect a strong local commitment than a well-crafted and flexible zoning ordinance amendment. Communities should use zoning as a redevelopment tool by leveraging flexible site development provisions toward the use of LID techniques, the installation of energy efficient technologies, and the provision of affordable housing.

    Depending on the existence of contamination on a site, mill buildings can help to bolster stocks of high-density housing within a community that could also be included in a local Subsidized Housing Inventory (SHI). Artist loft space, high-end condominiums, or standard affordable condominiums have all shown tremendous success in mill redevelopments. Because of the historic and aesthetic value of these sites, and because they are part of local culture, communities may find it politically easier to create large numbers of high-density and/or affordable units in areas otherwise dominated by sprawl.

  3. The Regional Market:

    Market factors need to be carefully examined in order to determine what uses will be sustained at what costs. Old mill sites may be suitable for several reuse options including industrial, commercial, retail, educational, cultural, and residential uses. Not only will the location and flexibility of the space matter, but demand for uses will play a critical role as well.

    Reuse options will depend on a combination of market demand and the suitability of the structure and site. A market demand study that addresses absorption capacity, vacancy rates, proposed projects, and cost-benefit assessments for different reuse options should be considered. While a market demand study would be a prerequisite for any proposed development, communities might choose to be proactive and undertake a preliminary assessment to better understand the redevelopment potential of the site. These studies can help in marketing the site.

Characteristics that Support the Mill Revitalization District Approach

While mill districts are difficult to revitalize the benefits are significant. Through mill revitalization projects, municipalities have an opportunity to rejuvenate the "heart" of the community, promote compact development, and take full advantage of the river/canal and other water resources. Suggested actions for communities interested in revitalizing these districts include:

  • Define the physical boundaries of the mill district. Within these borders, one can typically locate a mix of uses including manufacturing, retail, office, institutional, and residential.
  • Adopt a vision and statement of purpose for the MRD. Ideally, it should be included in the community's working master plan and zoning by-laws/ordinances.
  • Create and maintain a comprehensive inventory of buildings, occupancy status, tax title status, and other pertinent information within the MRD.
  • Consider using special permit granting authority to govern the MRD in a manner that can accommodate significant levels of flexibility and discretion on the part of the permit granting authority.
  • Explore a different set of permitting processes, zoning regulations, and building codes to encourage development. These would include providing easily available data from the inventory above, streamlining the approval process, creating flexible zoning bylaws or ordinances including incentive overlays, and exploring historic preservation and design guidelines.
  • Maintain existing building stock by mothballing structures to prevent further deterioration and enforcing demolition delays when applicable.
  • Conduct Phase 1 and 2 environmental assessments of existing mill sites.
  • Explore innovative techniques to encourage smart growth/smart energy including green technologies, and multi-modal transportation options.
  • Identify all the infrastructure improvements that may be required to revitalize the district and attempt to fund through existing state level grant programs.
  • Explore innovative financial options such as tax abatements, TIF or DIF Districts, long-term leases, grants and other non-traditional funding options.

Whitin Mill Redevelopment Plan, Northbridge, MA
Whitin Mill Redevelopment Plan, Northbridge, MA
Source: Alternatives Unlimited


In addition to the above actions, the MRD can be promoted as an incentive based district where the redevelopment potential is optimized when developers meet certain conditions, such as the use of energy conservation and low impact development practices, provision of public amenities and/or affordable housing, enhanced stormwater treatment, and the use of green technologies.

The MRD may require the participation of the community using its public-private partnership powers to make it work. Typically, developers will request capital improvements such as increased parking, higher water and sewer capacity, and fiber-optical capability. In most cases, the cost of these improvements can be recovered when the community and developers enter into a Tax Increment Financing agreement.

Benefits of Successful Mill Revitalization

The potential benefits of a successful MRD include:

  • The MRD contributes greatly to realizing smart growth by reclaiming underused industrial space and locating new growth in areas where basic infrastructure is typically available.
  • Through careful site design, MRDs can open up riverfronts for pedestrian uses, improve scenic vistas, and help to improve water quality.
  • At the most basic level, a complex of buildings that are critical historic, cultural, and social icons, and that formed the economic engine for so many of our cities and towns, is revitalized.
  • The MRD reflects a diversity of commerce, interests, and needs of the community. These districts are places where small industrial uses and services are comfortably placed near artist lofts and market rate, attainable housing. They are places where "dotcoms" work on upper floors while there are restaurants, bars and retail activities on the street level below. The MRD is often a critical stimulus to the revitalization of a community's core.
  • In communities where there is a great demand for these types of mixed-uses, the MRD may serve as a "receiving zone" under the community's transfer of development rights provisions. Thus, it helps prevent sprawl and conserves natural resources, agricultural land, and forests while concentrating development in preferable areas.
  • The MRD improves environmental health through remediation of degraded and contaminated buildings and land.
  • The MRD promotes alternative transit options that reduce fossil fuel consumption and instead, foster healthy and active communities while mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.
Financial Considerations

The regeneration of mill districts typically results in the following financial benefits to cities and towns:

  • Mill districts transform areas that once drained taxes and municipal services into financial assets through improved property values and higher property taxes.
  • They generate employment opportunities for local workers. In many instances, this reduces commuting and the environmental problems associated with auto use.
  • They provide flexible space for small firms. Thus, these businesses have the opportunity to grow and prosper while remaining in the mill.
  • Surrounding property owners tend to reinvest, making their properties more valuable and typically resulting in a higher tax yield for the community.
  • The environmental remediation of mill districts leads to environmental improvements to adjacent waterways.