Traffic a concern at Trade Center Park
By JAMES HAGGERTY firstname.lastname@example.org
WOBURN - With votes on two re-zonings for large projects (Decathlon and Mishawum Station) only recently wrapped up, the city is now looking at a third large project, a total of 550,000-square-feet of new office space in a pair of 7-story buildings at the Trade Center Park site in North Woburn.
The Planning Board, which will have the final say on what is approved, got its first look at the proposal from Cummings Properties at a public hearing Tuesday night with traffic, as it always is, being the main concern.
According to Cummings officials, a 5-story parking garage would separate 150,000-square-feet of office space in one 7-story building with phase two including the construction of a second 7-story building with 400,000-square-feet of office space.
Stating the buildings would become "the flagship" for Cummings Properties, officials promised a quality development the city could be proud of and the generation of more than $500,000 a year in new taxes.
The new office space would join the current two-story structure with 140,000-square-feet of space on the 17.9-acre lot off Sylvan Road, facing Route 128 off Main Street in North Woburn.
Noting the building would generate some 6,000 vehicle trips a day, Cummings officials promised at least $800,000 in traffic improvements to the Main Street corridor between Elm Street and Alfred Street and the Route 128/Main Street rotary.
However, after considerable discussion Tuesday night, at least two Planning Board members and some members of the audience, suggested a more detailed traffic study including intersections further north (up to School Street) and south (back to Central Square) on Main Street as well as the intersection of Sylvan Road/Beacon Street and Winn Street in Burlington.
Traffic impacts on residential neighborhoods like Pearl Street and Elm Street were also discussed with additional information being sought.
Back in the late 1990s, Cummings Properties successfully appeared before the Planning Board seeking to subdivide the Trade Center Park parcel, paving the way for the current proposal, attorney John McElhiney, representing Cummings Properties, said.
At that time, Stop & Shop officials were seeking approval for an updated supermarket, and plans approved included upgrades to the Main Street, Elm Street, Sylvan Road corridor.
Now, at least an additional $800,000 more in traffic work would be done including the addition of a second turning lane into and out of the shopping center at Main Street, Cummings officials said.
However, neighbors and Planning Board member David Edmonds, questioned if the original upgrades are working presently and asked how the area could handle even more traffic.
Cummings officials said they have been working diligently with MassHighway on the proposed upgrades to the corridor which they said would allow the intersection to handle the additional traffic and maintain the same level of service which currently exists.
It was also noted that driving this request forward at this time is a three- to five-year temporary agreement with the Middlesex County Superior Court to house its facilities while the Cambridge location is rebuilt. The Superior Court would occupy a good deal of the 150,000-square-foot wing of the new construction.
Additional concerns were listed Tuesday night regarding security, especially with prisoners being transported to and from the site for court appearances.
Because the zoning for this project dates back to the late 1990s and the subdivision request, the Planning Board will have the final say on the plans with the City Council acting in an advisory role.
At the public hearing several neighbors cited concerns with traffic, adequate buffers, and security, while several others spoke to the fine track record of Cummings Properties. The matter was eventually continued until the Planning Board's next meeting, Tuesday, Oct. 3.
Following McElhiney's presentation outlining the history of the site dating back to the old Sylvania plant and the former Jolly Jim's flea markets, Cummings Properties CEO Dennis Clarke, noted Cummings' commitment and dedication to the community for more than 30 years.
Both spoke of the "first class" and "double class A" office park which would be developed.
Cummings Properties Chairman Michael Pascavage noted the site currently has three access points including two on Sylvan Road and a third off an easement off Elm Street.
"There would be no access via Pearl Street," he said, noting this has been a concern of area residents.
Pascavage also noted Cummings would look to pursue a variance to allow the 150,000-square-foot, 7-story building to be slight higher than the 80-feet allowed as the Middlesex Superior Court was seeking some rooms with higher ceilings for its courtrooms.
Pascavage noted the 150,000-square-foot building and parking structure would be built first as the courthouse is looking to make a move by the end of 2007. Under the proposal, the first building would sit on the side of the lot adjacent to the current building while the second phase of construction would be to the front of the lot running parallel to Route 128.
"It will be a class A building dressed out at every level," Pascavage said. "It will be our new flagship building at Cummings Properties."
The traffic consultant for the project said the development would produce some 5,900 vehicle trips a day including about 900 during peak commute hours.
Main Street at the intersection with Elm Street and Alfred Street would be widened, under plans submitted to MassHighway, with a second turning lane into the site added, the consultant said. Plans are also considering a second traffic light, to be coordinated with the existing lights, for Elm Street in the area of the back entrance to the Cummings site.
It has been questioned if lights would be needed on Sylvan Road at the two entrances to the office park, but the consultant said the traffic volumes would not warrant it.
McElhiney noted that traffic figures put together for this project include additional traffic which will be generated by other projects in the area including the expansion of Kimball Court, both in Woburn and Burlington.
Following the presentations, Planning Board member John Cashell called for more extensive traffic research both further north up Main Street up to the School Street intersection (and perhaps tying the other end of Elm Street into a second signal as well) while also calling for more review further south (perhaps back to Central Square) and at the other end where Sylvan Road drops out to Winn Street at Beacon Street in Burlington.
Cashell also noted concerns listed with the former Haddon Park project in the early 1990s with regarding to the 7-story buildings casting shadows toward abutting neighborhoods.
Planning Board member David Edmonds, an area resident, was the most critical of current traffic conditions calling them "terrible." He added, "A lot of work has to be done."
He said he was especially concerned about the traffic impact for residents in the Elm Street area. "This is a big deal for me," he said.
"I am not sure I can disagree," McElhiney said of the current conditions Elm Street residents face, but said this is where the attention is being focused and the post-construction plans brings the level of service up a grade. McElhiney noted numerous traffic experts have reviewed the plans to date and are in agreement on this.
"Statistically, it may work now, but as a driver I am telling you it doesn't work," Edmonds said. "This is why I am saying I am skeptical."
"We want this project to be successful," Clarke responded. "We don't want to put a building up and then have it hard to get to."
Edmonds also asked Cummings officials to see if there is anything that can be done to give Granny Smith Lane residents a break from lights that shine all night long.
Edmonds and Planning Board Chair Claudia Leis Bolgen also asked about the temporary court facilities and the adequacy of the holding, transfer points for prisoners.
McElhiney said there would be no housing of prisoners overnight and noted the Woburn Police Chief is working with the Middlesex Sheriff's office on detailed security plans.
Bolgen also asked if this project might be ambitious given the present state of the office market in the greater Boston area.
Clarke said that after four challenging years the market started to turn after 2004.
"We are gambling on the location and a gradual recovery by 2008," he said.
Bolgen, noting the courthouse is public facility, asked the applicants to make attempts to increase public transportation to the site. Cummings officials said talks are underway with the MBTA.
Ward 6 Alderman John Ciriello opened the public hearing by noting that 99.9 percent of the traffic for the project will be coming right off the highway but said that all traffic entering North Woburn must enter through the same corridor.
With the continued expansion of Kimball Court and now news that the Woburn Heights project will be moving forward, Ciriello said he wasn't sure the addition of one more turning lane would solve the traffic problem.
"The number one issue, more so than the building itself, is traffic," he said, noting a second concern of his would be an increased buffer between the office park and abutting residential neighborhoods.
While a number of area residents questioned the project, several others showed up in support of Cummings Properties and its extensive track record of good projects and support of community efforts.
James McCurdy, Ward Street, listed concerns with traffic and also questioned security associated with the court house. "I wasn't expecting 7-story buildings," he added, which he said will "change the character of the neighborhood."
Granny Smith Lane resident Carole Finnegan had concerns over the lights and noise and requested the proper buffers to protect the neighborhood.
Mark Maguire, Winter Street, questioned the traffic counts noting that many of the vehicles aren't going to go directly to the site and may stop off first at places like Dunkin' Donuts. He also noted many will be heading back out during the day for lunch and errands.
"Nobody ever factors these things in," he said.
Those raising in support of Cummings Properties including Woburn residents Gerry White, George Holland, Erica Wright, Woburn Business Association Executive Director Paul Meaney, Donald Manzelli, and former Ward 4 Alderman William Booker.
The hearing ended when Planning Board Director Edmund Tarallo noted there will still many unanswered questions from board members while reports were still outstanding from many key department heads.
The Planning Board will renew discussions on the request at its Oct. 3 meeting.