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Cushing Village Fate In the Balance

Developer will decide in early August whether to continue or abandon project.

Could the loss of six apartments doom the Cushing Village project?

That scenario was the off shot of a public meeting Tuesday night where the Belmont Planning Board drew "a line in the sand" saying it would not approve a fourth floor in one of the three buildings at the $80 million project in the heart of the Cushing Square.

"We've hit an obvious wall on what we thought was a pretty small point," Cushing Village's developer Chris Starr told Belmont Patch after the hour-and-a-half meeting July 10, saying he will be issuing a letter by the first week of August advising the town whether he will proceed with the project or end the development proposal.

Since January when the initial blueprints were submitted to the town, the project has shrunk from 140 units to just under 120 while reducing the number and size of floors and the actual units, which Starr said shows his willingness to concede to public concerns of the projects mass and density.

"But it's obvious that (the Belmont Planning Board) is unwilling to compromise and we are," said Starr who has entered his sixth year attempting to develop the site.

"Now we really have to see if this makes sense financially. We have to now evaluate that with our other opinions for the project," Starr said.

In addition to bringing more than 100 units of low-density rental housing to Belmont, Smith Legacy's Cushing Village would also included more than 35,000 sq.-ft. of retail space, municipal parking, an upscale restaurant, fitness center, a Starbucks and an outdoor public performance space.

In addition, the town would recieve approximately $300,000 a year in added real estate tax revenue with a nearly $1 million boost to town coffers in fees and taxes during the first years of construction.

Starr has stated in the past that he would consider a Chapter 40B partial affordable housing development for the site which would exempt him from many zoning restrictions. He would need to surrender the parking lot site if he attempted to go that route.

Planning Board Chairman Sami Baghdady retorted that his group has made considerable concessions favoring Smith Legacy since the beginning of the process.

"They can say it's a three-story building (at the Winslow) and say its a compromise but it still remains four floors and having that on a former municipal lot across from an existing two-story building just won't work with the character of the square," said Baghdady.

"This is no surprise that we are requiring them to keep it at three stories," said Baghdady.

But the position where he and the other members of the board will not move from is their long-standing insistence that the Winslow be taller than three stories.

"Every time we asked them for something, they come back with half a baby," said Andy Rojas, the Board of Selectmen's representative to the Planning Board after the meeting.

"Now the Planning Board has laid out clear direction where they want (Starr) to go now it's up to them if they can live with it. I hope they can because I still think it's a viable project," he said.

Until Starr determines if he can move forward, the Smith Legacy team will not be meeting with the Board's Peer Review architect, Steve Heikin of ICON Architecture of Boston, to create another set of blueprints and a 3-D version of the site plan. 

Even if Smith Legacy decides to continue the project, it will be a further two months before the Board revisits the project at their Sept. 11 meeting.

Winslow breaking point

The apparent breaking point for Starr is the inclusion of six housing units in the proposed "Winslow" building, located in the municipal parking lot between Starbucks and Williston Road.

The team is attempting to add the six apartments into what would be considered the attic space, adding a "half" floor which would be concealed by the roof.

But that proposal was sharply criticized by Rojas who admonished the development team for ignoring what he and the Planning Board had demanded since January to keep the project at three floors.

"If the team is not hearing this, they should listen to this tape. We have to draw a line in the sand," said Rojas.

While saying that the board has every right to deny the developers blueprint at the site, "there are consequences for everyone at this point," said Smith Legacy's attorney Mark Donahue.

Yet Baghdady was skeptical that six less units in a building with 30 to 40 rentals that cost the developer $850,000 would be a deal "killer."

"If that is the case, maybe the developer should walk away from the parking lot and talk about the remaining two lots because that lot is gravy for the development," said Baghdady.

"If there is no movement and there appears to be no movement (by the Planning Board) with regards to the Winslow ... then there is no movement," said Donahue.

"We are doing our best to try and convince you what we want to do with the  Winslow which will let us precede can be done in an appropriate fashion.

"I know it's not what you want ... It's the reality of what the developer needs to go forward with to get that site plan," he added.

Additionally, Planning Board member Karl Haglund said the reduction of units throughout the development will result in a drop in underground parking area which is highly expensive.

Earlier in the meeting, the development team demonstrated how pushing another of the development's building, the "Hyland" situated at the corner of Common and Beacon streets, into the slope of the ground could conceal a portion of the height and massing which won some general praise.

Yet Heikin and the Board said the design needed more work and could benefit from 3-D blueprints to allow a clearer view of the set backs on the neighboring communities.

For residents in attendance, many who are abutters living on Horne Road who have voiced at past meanings concerns of the projects mass and bulk, the development is at a crossroads.

"I think a good planning board sets the limits and a good developer figures out how to make it work within those limits," said Horne Road's Devon Brown.

"I just don't see how six units makes or breaks this development. It can't be," said Brown.

For Baghdady, the hope is Starr will decide to continue the development process in September.

"We as a Planning Board want development ... but we want proper development in size and scale. I would hate to see (Cushing Village) end because its not that we would be losing a project but it's that we would have to start all over again," said Baghdady.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Planning Board was opposed to a fourth floor on each of the three buildings in the Cushing Village development. The Board has issued that restriction on one building, the Winslow. The other two buildings have four-story elements in their design.

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