Mishawum station plan approved by Council
By GORDON VINCENT email@example.com
WOBURN - After nearly two more hours of at times agonizing debate, the City Council Tuesday night approved a mixed used residential and office building proposal at the former Mishawum station parking area.
The votes on both the 50,000-square-foot office building and the 210 garden apartments were 6-2, with Alderman at-large Joanna Gonsalves and Ward 3 Alderman Scott Galvin opposed. Alderman at-large Paul Denaro abstained, since he was absent from a meeting in November when the public hearing was opened.
The office building will house the headquarters of the Woburn-based Northern Bank & Trust and a branch office, two board members of which bought the 7-acre parcel from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) for $7.2 million in July 2005.
"What if we denied this? What if you build your bank there and decided to sell (the rest of) your property and somebody not-so-nice comes calling?" said Ward 6 Alderman John Ciriello.
"The evil you know is better than the evil you don't know," added Ciriello, whose district includes the former Mishawum station. "I'd rather approve a project and know what's going in there than deny it and not know what's going in there."
Galvin and Gonsalves both voted against the project because they said the residential component is too dense.
"The scale and density haven't changed since (the council's Special Permits Committee last discussed the proposal in December)," said Gonsalves. "I continue to have issues with the proposal. It should be scaled back."
Galvin made a late effort to reduce the number of units to 160, but it failed by the same 6-2 margin, with even Gonsalves skeptical of the effect that might have.
"I don't know if that will reduce the size of the building," said Gonsalves, who suggested the developer could just make the units larger.
In August, the council approved a zoning change that classifies the Mishawum parcel as a "transit-oriented overlay district" which has its own set of regulations tailored to the project.
The proponents have said that 210 units is the minimum number that will bring the MBTA into discussions to restore to full-time the Mishawum stop on the commuter rail line from Lowell to North Station.
The stop was reduced after the MBTA moved its Logan Express operation to the Anderson Regional Transportation Center off Presidential Way.
The highly-visible site overlooks Route 128 across from the Marriott Courtyard in the area of the Woburn Mall. Construction costs for the project are estimated at around $36 million, and the total costs including the purchase of the land was stated by one of the owners at between $53-$56 million last year.
In 2004, the MBTA came forward with a proposal that initially included a hotel, residential housing and a new fire station, but the council rejected the creation of a similar overlay district due to concerns about density.
The parcel was then put up for sale, with the winning bid submitted by James Mawn and Fortunato Salvucci, and their proposal was submitted under the name Mishawum Properties.
The owners addressed the density concerns by placing about 425 parking spaces in a garage beneath the residential building, creating more green space and increasing the setback distances.
Of the 210 units, 186 will have two bedrooms and 24 will have one bedroom. Twenty-one, or the magic number of 10 percent, will be sold at affordable rates.
Council members focused some of their discussion on the $1 million mitigation package suggested by Mishawum Properties in December and addressed in a subsequent memo from City Engineer Jay Corey.
Mishawum Properties will pay for a number of traffic enhancements, including the installation of two new signals - at the intersection of Mishawum Road and the Industrial Parkway - plus upgrades to the signals at three other locations.
Ward 5 Alderman Darlene Mercer-Bruen suggested a $240,000 outlay for the improvement of the Elm and Main streets intersection - which is being addressed with mitigation money from another project, presumably Trade Center Park - should be divided into three $80,000 segments that would be used to pay for "miscellaneous traffic and infrastructure improvements" in wards 4, 5 and 6, the three districts that would be impacted the most by the Mishawum station development.
Ward 4 Alderman James Dwyer, who at a previous committee meeting suggested construction vehicles traveling to the Mishawum site should be prohibited from certain residential roads, asked to whom any violations should be addressed.
Attorney James Mawn, representing Mishawum Properties, said that council members would be supplied with contact information for a "construction coordinator," who would be able to communicate any concerns to the construction crew and its drivers.
"And (restricted roads) will be posted right on the site," added Mawn.
After Mawn noted the decaying Logan Express terminal will remain during the first phase of construction as a base of operations, Ciriello asked if graffiti that has recently been painted on the side facing Route 128 could be removed as quickly as possible.
"Maybe paint the back of it, so it doesn't look so bad from the highway," said Ciriello.
In his continued criticism of the density, Galvin said he took exception to Ciriello's assertion that if the council doesn't approve the Mishawum Properties' parcel, then it might get stuck with something worse.
He noted that the state Department of Housing and Community Development's regulatory control for a transit-oriented development is 20 units per acre, but the proposal from Mishawum Properties was twice that number.
"I find that to be a disservice to the whole city," said Galvin. "Forty units per acre is far too many, but the City Council is pretty much muted by what we can do now. It's a fait accompli. We made our decision back in August and now we're stuck with 210 units."
The debate rambled to both the profit potential for the project and eventually a general discussion of the city's mitigation ordinance, which requires developers of certain projects to provide 3 percent of their costs toward infrastructure improvements, to enhance traffic and other issues in the general area of the development.
City Engineer Jay Corey estimated the cost of the Mishawum project at "about $36 million," 3 percent of which is roughly $1 million - what the proponents are offering.
"They have done a good job in addressing potential adverse impacts," said Corey.
Ward 7 Alderman Raymond Drapeau asked if the cost of the project could be reviewed after construction is complete, to determine if the city should receive more in mitigation funds.
"I'd be very cautious about changing the rules in the middle of the game," said Denaro. "There's already a set of ground rules that were already set by ordinance."
Discussion about potential profit from the project was initiated after the council sought a review of a spreadsheet supplied by Woodside Terrace resident Patricia Mistretta, who indicated the petitioners could be looking at a windfall of about $30 million.
"It's a slippery slope when we start talking about profits," said Mawn. "The profit from a month ago may not be applicable today.
"It's a dangerous conversation," he added. "The (mitigation) ordinance has no mention of potential profit, and that may be because it's impossible to prognosticate. It's the impact of the project that is most appropriate, and that's what we've tried to focus on."
While City Council President Charles Doherty suggested a recap of construction costs might not be a bad idea, Ward 2 Alderman Richard Gately agreed with the speculative notion of basing mitigation on potential profits.
"You count your money on the way out the door, not on the way in," said Gately. "If they go belly-up, they're out of business."
Based on another issue raised by Mistretta, Gately asked if flooding concerns in the Mishawum area could be addressed at some point with mitigation funds. Corey said his office is working on restoring a drainage loop, but first needs permission from the state Highway Department due to the proximity to Route 128.
Corey asked attorney Mawn if his clients would consider granting the city a 10-foot easement through an adjoining parcel they bought on Old Mishawum Road, for the drainage loop. There are three single-family homes on Old Mishawum Road (a dead-end street to the south of the Mishawum parcel. Mishawum Properties acquired the southern-most parcel, but not the other two).
"That (loop) would stop all that flooding," said Gately. "That would help tremendously."
Two other people spoke in opposition to the petition during the public hearing. Forest Park Circle resident Patricia Chisholm reiterated her stance that the dwelling units should be owner-occupied.
"When people own something, they tend to take a little more pride in it," said Chisholm.
Mawn replied that residential component "has been designed as a for sale project," and the eventual intent is to turn the building over to a condo association.
Marietta Street resident Lori Medeiros agreed the project should be reduced.
"I don't think this area ... can handle the traffic," she said.