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Cushing Village Concessions Spur Hope for Project

Developer believes town review can be complete by Christmas, begin construction in spring.

What appeared, Cushing Village – Chris Starr's housing and retail development in the heart of Cushing Square – is back on the tracks after Starr agreed to a series of restrictions on the project's size, scale and mass at Tuesday night's Belmont's Planning Board meeting.

By agreeing to the limitations, Starr believes the project – entering its seventh year – can complete the Planning Board review process in the next two-and-half months and be able to place the first shovel in the ground by this spring.

Initial reactions from the board – which have long sponsored the restrictions – appeared positive.

"It is certainly a significant move forward. I won't say that it's on a 'fast track' because (Starr) will need to produce a great deal of data for (the board) and the public to digest. But it is now moving ahead," said Planning Board Chairman Sami Baghdady to Belmont Patch after the meeting.

Baghdady's reaction got Starr's approval, who introduced the development's current configuration in November and has been before the board since February.

"I was pleased that the board is willing to commit to what I consider a fairly  expedited process going forward ... and people thought that was reasonable," Starr told Belmont Patch.

Whom haven't been heard are the immediate abutters such as the neighbors on Horne Road. Donald Becker, a leading figure among those living in the shadow of the proposed project, said he would not comment on the proposal last night.

Reiterating what was detailed in a letter dated Sept. 10 that was sent to Baghdady, Starr’s attorney Mark Donahue of Fletcher Tilton told the board and 40 people in attendance at the Beech Street Center that Smith Legacy Partners (Starr's development company) the firm was "very pleased" to accept the restrictions placed by the board on the project's "envelope" – the outline in both height and density of the three-buildings that make up the project.

The Board has long been attempting to limit the project to three floors near neighborhoods with extensive set backs from residential areas.

"As stated numerous times in working sessions (in which the development team met with the board and its peer review consultant, Steve Heikin of ICON Architecture, to hash out ideas and concepts outside the public process) and other conversations we had, if there is a consensus on SSM (size, scale and mass), the rest of the development permitting process should proceed expeditiously," said Donahue.

Looking inside

What apparently broke the SSM deadlock was Starr turning his attention from the outside of the building and looking inward. Rather than seeking additional square footage, Starr's team rearranged the number and size of residential units inside the envelope to come up with the necessary "numbers" to make the project financially viable.

Donahue said the new residential configuration will consist of 127,000 gross square feet of housing made up of 113 to 118 units of housing in three buildings of which 65 to 70 will be two bedrooms with the remaining 50 or so single-bedroom units.

There will also be 37,500 square feet of retail space in the building.

Donahue told the board that he hopes that the board would agree with the SSM limitations as a fait accomopl so there is "not a second bite at the apple" from the board or abutters to reduce the project's density.

While Baghdady insisted that he would not agree to any plan until the developer produces 3D images and architectural drawings for the project and allows the public to comment, he did appear receptive to the concept.

Baghdady also indicated the developer's new residential housing count – with the exception of a project with only three bedroom units, he said – did not appear to be a deal breaker.

"How you slice the apple inside (the project) ... is up to you," said Baghdady.

Starr did say that he will be coming to the board seeking "flexibility" on three aspects of the project that are part of the Cushing Square Overlay District; a reduction in the parking ratio requirement for the site, the ability to make a cash payment instead of offering affordable housing units at the Village, and support the developer as he seeks time extensions to deadlines imposed by the Board of Selectmen two years ago when it approved the sale of the municipal parking lot.

After the meeting Baghdady noted that he did not see the parking reduction or payment plan to become issues to halt the project "as long as they are within reason."

As for Starr, "part and parcel of us being successful in the current size, scale and mass required by the town ... hinges on how we both work together over the next two and a half months."

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