Planners request more traffic info before taking vote
By JAMES HAGGERTY firstname.lastname@example.org
WOBURN - Seeking more information both from the applicant and the city's consultant in the area of traffic improvements, the Planning Board Tuesday night again continued the request from Cummings Properties to construct two 7-story office buildings at Trade Center Park.
Though the applicants, noting the plan was submitted in August, said they had pretty much submitted everything it had in all areas and suggested it was time to move forward, the Planning Board voted to keep open the public hearing and scheduled the next meeting for Tuesday, Dec. 12.
A good deal of the four-hour hearing Tuesday night centered around traffic with the city's consultant, Don Cook of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, forwarding a final report in agreement with the package presented by Cummings. The report, however, was presented to the board only minutes before the meeting was opened.
In the end, at the suggestion of Planning Board member John Cashell, the board voted to request the applicants submitted a revised set of traffic plans showing all improvements they are agreeing to do.
As well, Cashell suggested, and the board agreed, that Cook then review these plans and report any further improvements he might suggest.
Cashell also suggested that the board and the applicants begin working on a schedule of when the traffic improvements will be implemented relative to the phased occupancy of the two new 7-story office buildings.
Planning Director Edmund Tarallo noted this may be difficult in the area of the Main Street rotary at Route 128 as this section of the roadway is under the jurisdiction of MassHighway.
Cummings Property is looking to construct two new office buildings totaling 600,000-square-feet at the Trade Center Park site off Sylvan Road in North Woburn on the lot facing the Showcase Cinemas. The project is expected to generate some 4,000 new vehicle trips a day.
Cook walked the board through his report intersection by intersection starting at Main/School/Elm streets and proceeding along Main Street south to about Central Square and also updated his report on the Sylvan Road, Winn Street intersection which would also be impacted.
He said his suggestions leading up to the final agreement at the this point were largely in the area of tweaking traffic signals and upgrading sensors in the roadway for better utilization of the signals.
However, upon questioning from Planning Board Chair Claudia Leis Bolgen, Cook did note that in some cases the traffic delays would be greater than what exists now, but would mainly remain in the same classification (B, C, D or E).
Cook did tell the board his final report was the result of considerable back-and-forth between his office and Cummings Park officials. However, he said, "at this point I feel comfortable."
Another large block of the four-hour hearing was spent by local residents remaining critical of the traffic reports noting the traffic studies may say one thing but living in the area leads to different conclusions.
State Rep. Patrick Natale, D-Woburn and a North Woburn resident, noted he was sure Cummings would construct a first class project at the site, but he said he hoped the same interest would be shown in traffic improvements through the area.
Otherwise, he said, "coming to a theater near you ... this is going to be Washington Street II."
A show of hands at one point, revealed 28 residents packed into the lower level of City Hall in opposition to the project.
Areas of concern were:
- the Main Street rotary (rated one of the worst in the state),
- the transition area between Sylvan Road and the Alfred Street lights,
- the number of curb cuts on Sylvan Road to allow access to Stop & Shop,
- the amount of use the access road to the rear of the Cummings site gets,
- the general safety of the residential portion of Elm Street,
- and the Elm/School/Main street intersection further north of the site.
Even residents of Pearl and Winter streets listed concerns figuring that once traffic gets bad, those traveling to the site will find new and innovated ways to get around the bottle necks, mainly through their residential neighborhoods.
A new request Tuesday night came from Planning Board member David Edmonds who suggested the city take a hard look at the Laommi Baldwin Memorial, the only revolutionary war memorial in the city, and the impacts this project might have on the park in honor of one of the city's most famous residents.
The park, he said, was originally designed to be the gateway to North Woburn, but has been chipped away at in recent years and could be further impacted by these traffic improvement plans. "So much for the thanks of a grateful nation," he said.
While at another point, Planning Board member Michael Ventresca questioned exactly what the board's role was and how far it could go in requesting the traffic improvements associated with the project.
Tarallo noted this project was submitted before the city implemented its mitigation ordinance, but noted it did have some rights under the site plan review process.
Dennis Clarke of Cummings Properties, said an awful lot of traffic upgrades have been proposed over the past six years as part of this project and even more have been agreed to over the past two months.
"It is my understanding the impacts don't warrant (the kind of improvements being proposed)," Clarke said. "Our goal is a world class property ... From the beginning, we have been trying to do it the right way."
If traffic becomes a problem, the property will be hard to lease which is the last thing they want to see, Clarke said.
Because of experiences with Washington Street, Edmonds said "we are looking at the broader picture. We want to make sure this works not just for you but for us."
"I keep hearing 'world class,'" said Cashell. "We would like a world class impact package. I think it is a fair request."
Cook termed the impact package "a chance to fix some problems" and noted work would be done to improve the Main Street rotary which fails at every entrance and exit point today.
Cook said he believed the study area was sufficient but, as a normal suggestion, said a review might be done a year after buildout to see if any more modifications need to be made.
Bolgen said in her 10 years on the board she has never heard a traffic expert say it can't be done because an area is already at capacity. "In layman terms, why should I believe you?" she asked.
Cook said some of the delays in some areas will increase but most are not enough to change the classification of an intersection.
In some general cases, roadways can be at capacity, Cook said, but in most cases there are always some changes which can be made to accommodate the additional traffic.
At the Winn Street/Beacon Street intersection, Cook noted, additional suggestions allowed the post-development buildout numbers to stay the same as presently exists.
Cashell then noted he would also like to see work begin on a schedule so the city and Cummings are on the same page as to when certain improvements would be in place relative to the phased occupancy of the two buildings (the Cambridge Superior Courthouse is line for a temporary lease in Phase I as the Cambridge facility is renovated.)
About a dozen North Woburn residents, led by Elm Street resident Gerald McCabe, then made their way to the front as public hearing portion of the meeting was opened.
Listing concerns with the rotary, and the section of Sylvan Road between Stop & Shop and Applebees, McCabe also said he would like to see the secondary access to Cummings Park via Elm Street blocked off.
In general, he said, "the project is too big for the roadways in North Woburn. Even with the improvements." He added, "take a real good look at the numbers. Take a look at how much traffic is there now. Ask yourself if the streets are capable of handling the traffic."
Cristy Gunduz, Elm Street, said she is seriously concerned with the safety of her children along Elm Street even before the new office buildings are constructed. There will also be an increase in the associated noise and rubbish in addition to the safety issue when the new buildings are in place, she said.
Joseph Freitas, Pearl Street, and Mark McGuire, Winter Street, both listed concerns with traffic backing up on the main roads and those looking to get to and from the site using residential side streets like theirs.
Freitas also listed problems with water pressure in the area as well as sewer problems, something City Engineer Jay Corey was asked to address at the next meeting. Also, Freitas listed the problems associated with shadows being cast from two more seven story office buildings in his neighborhood.
Robert Boissonneault, Granny Smith Lane, questioned if the improvements to the rotary would improve or make more dangerous the intersection, while he was also concerned with the section of Sylvan Road between Applebees and Stop & Shop.
"There are eight openings if you count Applebees. That's really eight problems," he said. "Just looking at this with a little common sense goes a long way."
He said regardless of what Cummings is entitled to do by zoning, if the roadways can't safely handle the traffic, the size of the buildings have to be reduced. "I don't want to see something we will regret," he said.
Dogan Gudnez, Elm Street, asked the board to consider what kind of quality of life it is leaving for the next generation.
Christ Ramirez-Platt, Elm Street, said the mitigation measures proposed are paltry compared to the size of the project. "My concern is also another high rise office building looming over the neighborhood," she said.
Natale said there has been some movement but said he still had many concerns. "I would like to slow the process down and take a look at what they are going to do," he said, noting among his many concerns was the safety of students going to and from the Linscott Rumford Elementary School.
"The traffic consultant has made a lot of good points but we have a long way to go," Natale said.
"It will be a great project when built quality wise," Natale said. "But it is almost a 200 percent increase in traffic (to this site alone.)"
While there was some discussion about closing the public hearing (at which time the board will have 90 days to make a decision), the board eventually voted to keep the public hearing open and continue the matter to Tuesday, Dec. 12.
While Tarallo seemed to favor closing the public hearing noting the board could still ask for more information in some areas, Cashell said, "I am in no hurry."
Edmonds concluded saying, "we lose nothing by keeping the public hearing open."