Saying that he wanted to "open up a dialogue ... for our mutually aligned goal of improving Belmont," developer Chris Starr brought the first concrete vision of his Cushing Village retail/residential project at the Economic Development Advisory Committee's meeting on Thursday, Nov. 18.
And given his druthers, this is the ultimate plan Starr brings to the town.
"This is our final proposal. This is what we are going to present and it is the culmination of many, many discussions with neighbors, town officials and a whole lot of vested interests," said Starr, who said after the meeting he wants Cushing Village to be in the ground by mid-summer 2012.
But while he said that he will bring the proposal to the town "in a matter of days" to begin the approval process, Starr admitted that at this time he still does not have a development partner – his one time partner, Cambridge-based Oaktree Development, dropped out of the project this summer – a lead retail tenant or final construction financing in place.
Yet Starr – whose first plans for the site go back to 2006 – is confident that those obstacle will not prevent him from moving quickly on "this very personal" development.
Saying that the Cushing Village proposal is creating "a great deal of excitement" in the financial and development communities, Starr said that while "some of these details may change, we are very confident that when we are prepared to take on partners, they will be as ready as we are."
Coming to the committee to "whet your appetite," Starr revealed a development proposal that will be the most significant project built in Belmont in more than a decade.
Starr's Cushing Village proposal will be home to:
• 120 one- and two-bed apartments;
• Between 35,000 to 30,000 square feet of retail space at the corner of Common Street and Trapelo Road, likely anchored by a food marketer like a Trader's Joe in addition to "a bank" and an array of local stores;
• 300 parking spaces - 158 dedicated for municipal parking - both above and below ground;
• a health club/spa at the corner of Belmont and Common streets;
• a Starbucks and, using his personnel connections with a James Beard-winning restauranteur, a high-end signature restaurant; while
• Bringing a net $300,000 tax revenue increase into town coffers.
The project comes after years of delays and controversy including residents who felt the project was intrusive – it would require the closing of Horne Road – and introduced too much building mass into a residential neighborhood and Starr's lawsuit against individual Belmont selectmen for refusing to sell the municipal parking lot to his team just over a year ago.
While not wanting to provide the project's exact square footage or other aspects of the development, Starr said his purpose is to give an general view of what Cushing Village will provide Belmont.
Good design vs. FAR
"In the end I want us to say, 'Is this really good design?' I would rather that be the new metric going forward, not square footage or (floor-area-ratio)," said Starr.
Saying the development seeks to provide "a village feel" to the square, Starr said Cushing Village will be made up of three sections.
The three-and-a-half story residential wing, dubbed the Winslow (after the painter Winslow Homer), will be located where the municipal parking lot is located. It will have wood themes that "embodies" the arts and crafts era of a century ago that can be seen in Belmont's residential neighborhoods.
It will house a Starbucks and a restaurant that, Starr hopes, will be run by personal friend who is a celebrity chef on the Food Network.
"I want it to be like (the Belmont Center eatery that was recently named a top 50 restaurant in Boston Magazine) which is a fun place to go," said Starr.
The center piece Pomona (named after the Roman goddess of fruitfulness who is represented on Belmont's town seal) will have a naturalistic feel at the corner of Common Street and Trapleo Road.
It is where a "small" market to set to be located with residential units above in the second to fourth floor with dedicated parking spaces for tenants below ground.
"What we heard time and time again is the neighbors want a market they can walk to," said Starr.
Starr said he is in talks "daily and hourly" with national and regional firms to be a main retail tenant including national boutique foot markets like – but not specifically – Trader Joe's, Fresh Market or Whole Foods and regional firms such as Foodies in the South End and Idlewild Market in Acton.
While not wanting to say which of the firms he has talked with, Starr said any business brought into the development will be "comfortable with smaller retail spaces and are savvy market operators."
In addition to possibly a bank branch ("Yippee," Planning Board member Andy Rojas said jokingly to the suggestion) Starr said the focus will be on the combination of stores and services.
"We have an abundance of retail excitement for the site so it is about the right tenant mix of retail service and restaurants that will create a tapestry of different offerings that gives the project a lot of flavor and a lot of enjoyment to the people in the square, to the town of Belmont and the residents," he said.
The residential component – to be located in the upper floors of both the Winslow and Pamona – will be made up of approximately 60 800 square foot one-bedrooms and an equal number of 1,200 square foot two-bedrooms. The apartments will rent for $1,800 to $2,100.
Starr said the realities of today's weak housing market requires projects of Cushing Village's size to be built with rental units to obtain financing.
The Highland building on Belmont and Common streets where the former CVS store is located will be built in a stone and tile theme "like it was coming out of the earth" that will provide vistas of Boston and Oakley Country Club from patios on site.
It is here where 58 parking spaces will be built into the ground under the building but on level with Trapelo Road, providing enough spaces for the entire Cushing Square business district.
A health club/spa will be housed there but no residential units will be located in the building, said Starr. Unlike the previous two structures, he did not present designs of the Highland at the meeting.
Approximately 250 construction jobs will be needed to build the project. An estimated $670,000 tax bill will be generated by the project which, after expected expenses for schools and public safety, will result in an increase of $300,000 to the town.
And in the year the construction commence, one-time building and associated fees and the first year taxes will bring $1,250,000 into the town's treasury.
While the project will help the town "sluff off" the "Oh it's only Belmont" attitude of many have, Starr said he does not want Cushing Village to be exclusive of the town.
"This isn't a gated community, closed off just for the benefit of the few," said Starr. "We are taking a Belmont first philosophy here."
"We want to offer up the work, the labor, the amenities to Belmont residents. We want to make sure our design focus and everything we're doing puts Belmont first," said Starr.