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Saturday, August 4, 2007

Quincy Developer has found formula
to turn run-down properties into gold

By  Steve Adams – Patriot Ledger reporter

QUINCY, MASS. (August 2007) — Mark Dickinson specializes in a form of real estate alchemy: turning neglected, down-at-the-heels properties into shining jewels of redevelopment.

While working with the Grossman Companies in the 1970’s, Dickinson helped downtown Quincy bounce back from the exodus of its department store anchors by luring discounters to fill the blocks of vacant storefronts. Now, Dickinson is preparing final designs for Dover Landing, an $80-million mixed-use development at a former public works storage yard in Dover, NH.

Commercial development was an early career detour for Dickinson, who graduated from Amherst College in 1969 and took a job selling residential real estate.

He lasted just six months.

“I was 22 years old, and I thought I was supposed to go to the beach on Saturdays and Sundays,” he said. “A friend of mine was buying a house through me and the weekend that I was away, his wife went out and bought a house from somebody else. So I decided, “I don’t like this residential stuff.”

The Fitchburg native sold a parcel to two Lowell apartment developers who were capitalizing on the entry of the first wave of baby boomers into the housing market. Dickinson joined the company, Macbro Construction, as project manager, scouring sites and pushing projects through the permitting process. The company built 2,500 apartment units in eastern Massachusetts in the early 1970’s before a national pinch dried up the financing pipeline.

Dickinson then joined Braintree’s Grossman Companies real estate division, Grossman Industrial Properties, overseeing the development of shopping centers and working closely with TJX Companies Chairman Ben Cammarata on the expansion of its T.J.Maxx discount chain. Dickinson also oversaw the redevelopment of several retail properties in downtown Quincy, which was reeling from the departure of department stores such as Gilchrist, W.T. Grant, and Raymond’s.

“You had 150,000 to 200,000 square feet of former retail stores empty and it was a real disaster,” he said. “Empty buildings that big really are not healthy for a city.”

Retailers such as T.J. Maxx, Paperama, and Bed & Bath eventually moved into the renovated buildings, restoring a measure of vitality to the downtown retail scene.

Dickinson has built more than 3 million square feet of commercial projects since founding his own development company in 1980.

Headquartered in the Solomon Willard Building, a former schoolhouse that it converted into offices in the mid-1980’s, Dickinson’s company, Dickinson Development Corp., takes a selective approach. Acquiring blighted parcels is a key part of Dickinson’s strategy. In recent years it has pursued several projects involving public land in which it had to submit proposals to government regulators.

It’s the type of project that many bigger developers find too time-consuming and politically charged. But for a small company like Dickinson, with just six full-time employees, the payoffs can be significant. It recently completed its biggest-ever project: the $90 million Crossing at Walkers Brook in Reading.

The Town of Reading began soliciting proposals to redevelop a 100-acre parcel, including a 33-acre former landfill, in the late 1990’s. Two other companies that had been selected as the master developer dropped out before Dickinson Development took over. Dickinson agreed to pay the town $3 million for the land and agreed to spend up to $5 million to cap the former municipal landfill. It committed $100,000 to off-site roadwork, and agreed to spend $40,000 a year for up to 30 years for landfill monitoring.

The Crossing at Walkers Brook opened in 2005 after five years of design, permitting, and construction.

Anchored by Jordan’s Furniture, the 400,000 square foot shopping center also contains big box tenants including Home Depot, Staples, and Linens & Things.

We knew we were going to create a lot of value by taking a 33-acre landfill and creating something of an economic engine with some major draws there,” Dickinson said.

Because the Town was the seller of the property, it had more leverage than it normally would over a commercial project, Reading Town Manager Peter Hechenbliekner said.

Dickinson upheld his side of the agreement, agreeing to abide by the town’s limits on the hours of construction even when those limits disrupted the project’s progress.

“When he said he would do something, he did it. He kept his word even if he had second thoughts and didn’t want to do it,” Hechenbliekner said.

Dickinson also acquired the nearby Boston Stove Co. property, which it is developing as a Stop & Shop Supermarket scheduled to open in October.

The projects have inspired other developers to invest in nearby parcels. Burlington-based Nordic Properties recently acquired the former headquarters of aeronautics company Tasc, a division of Northrop Grumman. It has since sold one of the buildings within the corporate campus to Hallmark Health, sold another parcel to a restaurant chain, and is in lease negotiations with several retail tenants.

Those deals might not have happened if not for Dickinson Development’s persistence, said Ogden Hunnewell, president of Nordic Properties.

“Mark had the stamina and resourcefulness to get it done,” Hunnewell said. “It’s a vibrant area and he really pulled it up by its boot straps.”

After recently celebrating his 60th birthday, Dickinson has no plans to scale back. The Scituate resident is turning his attention to redevelopment projects in New Bedford and Dover, N.H.

The Dover City Council recently approved Dickinson Development’s selection as developer of a 21-acre mixed-use project called Dover Landing.

Envisioned for a former public works storage yard, the development will include 180 housing units and 67,000 square feet of commercial space. Quincy-based Sheskey Architects is designing the master plan for a village square style project, with some housing above retail shops.

Dickinson also has purchase-and-sale agreements on four out of six parcels in a vacant New Bedford mill complex, including two properties that the city took for back taxes. Dickinson is negotiating with Home Depot as the potential anchor tenant that would enable it to obtain financing for the project and let the alchemy begin.

“It’s an old build-out mill building and it’s kind of a disastrous situation”, he said. “We’re trying to breathe some life back into the thing.”

Mark Dickinson
Age: 60
Residence: Scituate
Birthplace: Fitchburg
Education: Amherst College
First job: Real Estate Agent
Current job: President, Dickinson Development Corp., 1266 Furnace Brook Parkway, Quincy, MA
Specialty: Redevelopment projects

Steve Adams may be reached at sadams@ledger.com

Copyright 2007 The Patriot Ledger

Founded in 1980, Dickinson Development is a full-service commercial real estate development and project management consulting firm based in Quincy, Mass.

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