No decision yet on court house at Trade Center
By GORDON VINCENT firstname.lastname@example.org
WOBURN - A consultant working on the city's behalf has less than two weeks to issue a report on traffic figures supplied by Cummings Properties in the developer's bid to locate two new office buildings at Trade Center Park.
After a nearly 3 1/2-hour meeting on Thursday, the Planning Board continued its public hearing on the Cummings proposal until Tuesday, Nov. 14. Donald Cook, of the Vanasse Hangen Brustlin (VHB) firm, said he is confident he could render an opinion on traffic by that date.
"I don't see any reason why we won't be prepared by that time," said Cook, who is representing the city as part of the peer review process of Cummings' hired traffic consultant, Edwards and Kelcey.
Most of the other issues with the proposal for the two 80-foot high office buildings appear to be settled, though traffic remains the most considerable and most prominent factor.
Attorney John McElhiney, representing Cummings, suggested last night that once VHB's traffic review is delivered and the planners have enough time to absorb it, he would seek a vote.
"I'm not sure we're going to be presenting all that much more," said McElhiney.
While the focus remains the impact of the project on the bustling intersection of Elm, Main and Alfred streets, the Planning Board last night asked Cook to expand his review to include the intersection of Mishawum Road and Main Street, just north of Hammond Square.
Cummings is presently offering a mitigation package of about $1 million to improve the traffic situation in the area, since the office buildings will bring in an estimated 4,000 new vehicle trips per day.
"What should the scope of the area be? Don Cook can tell you that. But I'm not sure we're way off the mark in what we're looking at," McElhiney said. "You have a real opportunity, a known entity (Cummings) with deep pockets that can put a lot of money into that (Main/Elm/Alfred) intersection.
"If you want to do it better, this is the project that can do it," he added.
One of the office buildings will be the temporary headquarters for Middlesex Superior Court, which will be relocated while its present facilities in East Cambridge are being renovated. The Planning Board heard from Judge Robert Mulligan, Chief Justice of Administrative Management for the state court system, of the need for temporary court space.
Also speaking last night were North Woburn residents who continue to express dire concerns about the impact of the project on their neighborhood. Others spoke in favor of the proposal, claiming an office building would be a better option than a retail store or high-density apartments, along with the taxes that will be reaped by the city.
Mulligan impressed upon the board the need for a temporary court house while the bromidic building in Cambridge undergoes repairs, including the removal of asbestos, which once airborne is a known carcinogen.
The court system received only two requests-for-proposals for a temporary site for the superior court, from Cummings and at a location in Somerville that "was not accessible to the public," Mulligan said.
"The only response we have to go with is Cummings Properties," he said. "This is our only alternative."
Mulligan said the plan is to relocate the facility for three years, and then return to Cambridge. Mulligan said his goal is eventually to bring all five branches of the court system - district, superior, juvenile, probate and family - back to the Cambridge facility.
Maintaining a superior court in Woburn "is not in my interest," Mulligan said.
State Rep. Patrick Natale, whose district includes North Woburn, said the 3-year time frame for the temporary court was probably a bit optimistic, however.
"Having a court house is not a bad thing, but the money to rehab the Cambridge court is going to have to come from the house and the senate," said Natale, who estimated the renovation costs at between $150 million-$200 million.
"This could be longer than five years," added Natale. "That doesn't mean (the court) will stay in Woburn, but it may be longer than three years before they're back in Cambridge."
Natale also said his main concern was traffic, particularly in the rotary connecting Main Street and Route 128, which is apparently not being addressed with mitigation.
"I avoid that rotary at 2 o'clock in the afternoon," said Natale. "That's a lot of traffic they want to try to bring in here. I hope they prove to me it can be done."
Richard Benevento and Rod Emery from Edwards and Kelcey explained with computer animation the pre-build and post-build conditions in 2011 for the Elm/Main/Alfred intersection, using figures which McElhiney were updated and "tweaked" from a previous traffic study done in the 1990s.
The traffic improvements proposed by Cummings will allow for the additional 4,000 vehicle trips a day, Emery said, though some members of the Planning Board still questioned the accuracy of the present model.
"It's probably double the volume you're showing," said Planning Board member John Cashell.
David Edmonds, another board member, was particularly appalled at animation that showed congestion on Elm Street at the intersection of the Stop & Shop driveway, where little exists now.
"What you're showing me is that Elm Street is a dead duck," said Edmonds, who noted he drives that road several times a day. "Your simulation shows me Elm Street doesn't work. In 20 years, I've never seen Elm Street backed up like that."
Cook, who was brought on board three weeks ago, said he would still like to make some recommendations about mitigation and "further adjustments," though he was not specific about anything except for noting "the signalization needs to be done properly, or there could be a problem."
Cashell said he would like to take considerable time to read and react to Cook's report, given the importance of the Main/Elm/Alfred intersection to North Woburn.
"I'm not being a stalwart toward this project, but I don't want to see us digging a deeper hole for ourselves as far as the traffic is concerned," said Cashell. "We can't think we're going to have more development without addressing some of the problems it will bring."
Former Mayor John Gilgun said the tax revenue generated from the project would help the city, particularly since there is a plan in the pipeline to build three new elementary schools.
"I can't for the life of me see why we can't look at this as a win-win situation for the city of Woburn," said Gilgun.
Field Terrace resident and former Ward 4 Alderman William J. Mulrenan asked the board to consider Cummings' record and said the office buildings at Trade Center Park are "going to be class."
Garden Terrace resident John Casey touted Cummings' philanthropy, citing its contributions to organizations like CMarc, and the Woburn Boys & Girls Club. He also noted Cummings "employs local people."
In a somewhat surprising move, former Ward 5 Alderman Paul Medeiros - a frequent Cummings foe when he was a member of the City Council - said he was in favor of the Trade Center Park project.
"An office use is not a bad use," said Medeiros. "If this were going into the W.R. Grace property (on Washington Street), I'd be supporting it. We'd at least know we're going to have rest on the weekends."
He also suggested the buildings might also act as sound barriers for noise from the highway, an idea which has gained some momentum recently.
Cedarwood Road resident Mary Laing and Pearl Street resident Kerstin Lochrie also spoke in favor, the latter of whom admitted she was surprised she was doing so.
"It looks like something's going to go there, and the last thing we want is more apartments or more houses," said Lochrie. "I have two children who go to the Linscott (Elementary School in North Woburn) and the classrooms are bursting at the seams."
Elm Street resident Gerald McCabe questioned the traffic study from several perspectives and said the proposal was more of a "win-lose" situation for residents.
"This project, for a lot of neighbors, is going to make life miserable," said McCabe. "There are other alternatives for the Cambridge court house. There's a lot of buildings that are vacant around here. Why do we need new ones?"
Cortland Circle resident Paul Lyness said he foresees problems with traffic is the buildings are erected, while Granny Smith Lane resident Robert Boissonneault noted one of his concerns was the impact on the 128/Main Street rotary, which he said was rated fourth worst in the state 10 years ago.
He also suggested that people driving to the Trade Center site would use short cuts, causing further problems on Elm Street.
"My main concern is people are going to start getting hurt, and when that happens, it's too late," said Boissonneault.
Ward 6 Alderman John Ciriello, whose district includes most of North Woburn, agreed the main concern was traffic at the rotary, which is the artery to North Woburn.
"Everything gets funneled through that intersection, and I don't want to see it get strangled," he said.