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Like many New England states, Massachusetts is dotted with historic mill buildings in varying stages of abandonment and disrepair. Many of these mills were established during the nineteenth century to produce textiles and other goods, and became vacant or underutilized when manufacturing operations moved to the southern states. These large mill sites, usually located along riverfronts, have enormous potential to be redeveloped for residential or mixed-use purposes. Recognizing this potential, a number of New England states and localities have adopted incentives to encourage reuse of mill properties. This article focuses on mill revitalization tools created by local governments in the state of Massachusetts, and will provide examples of successful mill reuse projects that have resulted in housing development.

Mills Revitalization Tools

Robertson on the River  a mill reuse project in Taunton, Massachusetts.

Numerous mill properties have been redeveloped in Massachusetts using various financial and regulatory incentives. According to one report, there are currently 45 mill renovation projects in various stages of completion throughout the state. However, redevelopment efforts for these old mill buildings can often be complicated by environmental contamination issues, as well as by excessive costs associated with upgrading utilities, infrastructure, and parking facilities. In addition, most mill properties are zoned for industrial uses and require flexible zoning regulations to allow residential or mixed-use development. To further promote the revitalization of mill projects, communities are pursuing the following strategies:

Tax credits: The state of Massachusetts' historic rehabilitation tax credit program has helped many localities redevelop abandoned mill properties. The program provides a state tax credit for up to 20 percent of rehabilitation expenditures for projects certified by the Massachusetts Historic Commission. The state statute requires that at least 25 percent of tax credits be reserved for projects containing affordable housing. In the city of Taunton, Massachusetts, a mixed-use development Robertson on the River opened in December 2005 with 64 affordable units and 18,000 square feet of commercial space. Close to five percent of the $15 million in financing was provided by state historic tax credits.

Overlay zoning districts: Many Massachusetts communities have adopted overlay zoning as a planning tool to encourage mill revitalization. Overlay zoning allows communities to establish regulations for a specified area or as an alternate to underlying zoning requirements. Some communities, such as Bellingham, Easthampton, and New Bedford, have adopted mill conversion overlay districts, while others, such as Northbridge, have adopted historic mill adaptive reuse overlay districts to spur redevelopment of historically significant mill buildings.

A view of mill buildings along the Merrimack River in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Northbridge's Historic Mill Adaptive Reuse Overlay District allows adaptive reuse of underutilized historic mills as mixed-use developments. The overlay zone permits multifamily housing by special permit, and requires that 10 percent of the housing units be affordable to moderate-income households. The district also allows a density bonus of two additional dwelling units for each affordable unit provided above the required 10 percent.

Some communities, such as the cities of Lawrence and Haverhill, have adopted smart growth overlay districts under the state's 40R law, which provides financial incentives to cities and towns that adopt special overlay zoning districts to allow high-density residential and mixed-use developments. The city of Lawrence recently adopted the Arlington Mills Smart Growth Overlay District to promote revitalization in the Arlington Mills area. The district permits conversion of mill buildings into residential and mixed-use developments by right. New projects in the smart growth overlay district are subject to the state's affordability requirements 20 percent of housing units must be permanently affordable to low-income families. The city is anticipating the development of 500 affordable and market rate housing units in the long term.


The reuse of historic mill buildings has allowed communities in Massachusetts to increase their housing supply and preserve historically significant properties. With the use of appropriate revitalization tools, state and local governments can encourage successful redevelopment of vacant or underutilized industrial structures for residential and mixed-use purposes.

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