SWL: Developer to pitch 2½ story Mixed-Use project at 2 East Main to ZBA

by beth on August 21, 2018

Post image for SWL: Developer to pitch 2½ story Mixed-Use project at 2 East Main to ZBA

Above: The ZBA is being asked to decide if the long overgrown, vacant lot downtown can be the site of a mixed-use project now that owners have finally cleaned it up. (photo left by Susan Fitzgerald right by Cassie Melo)

Some readers have wondered what’s happening at the corner of Main Street and Newton Street. For a long time, I haven’t had much news to share. But Southborough Wicked Local got the scoop on a proposed project while I was on my mini-break.

The local news site posted this story on 2 East Main Street :

The owners of a vacant lot downtown hope to build a mixed-use building with shops and apartments, but the plans require a green light from the Zoning Board of Appeals. . .

The permits include a soil absorption system, 22-space parking lot and a stormwater management system.

The public hearing for the special permit is set for 7:45 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 29, at Town Hall, 17 Common St.

The proposal is to build a two-and-half story building in a traditional colonial style building that will include shops or offices and four one-bedroom apartments.

[Peter] Bemis wrote that the special permit should be granted since it blends in with other uses downtown.

The project will meet all zoning setbacks and the building would maintain a scale and scope not out of place for the neighborhood, he wrote. The project would help the value of nearby property, as well as, future municipal tax revenues, he wrote. . .

Parking would be in the rear of the building and accessible from Newton Street, Bemis wrote. The appearance would be substantially similar to that of nearby parking lots, Bemis wrote.

The project is expected to bring less than a 10 percent increase in traffic.

You can read the full article here.

For the agenda to the ZBA’s meeting that night, click here. You can find application materials posted to the Town website here.

This spring, Public Works publicly issued updated plans for fixes to that part of the road. It includes a sidewalk that would wrap around that corner and proceed to Southborough Medical Group on Newton Street.

If the proposed downtown project sounds familiar, you may be recalling a story on a brainstorming session for revitalizing Main Street last December.

The Economic Development Committee hosted the workshop. At it, some Town officials floated the concept for a similar project at the downtown’s only “blank slate” for a new business. At that time, the idea was that the Town may have to purchase the property to make it happen. Earlier that fall, the EDC had shared some community support for “small scale mixed-use buildings” downtown via survey results.

The corner lot has been vacant since the gas station was torn down about 15 years ago. Some approvals were given for a small office building project back in 2005. But nothing other than extensions happened for years.

Until recently, it was overgrown with weeds. Many residents lamented it as an eyesore at the entry point to downtown for drivers headed westbound on Rte 30. Town officials and committees made some unsuccessful efforts to get the owner to spruce it up over the years but were purportedly met with silence.*

Earlier this spring, work began to clean up the lot. Curious commenters (and readers via email) wondered what was happening. For a while, I couldn’t find any Town officials with information other than the fact that clearing trees on the lot didn’t require a new permit.

Then the project went to the Conservation Commission for another extension of its Order of Conditions in late March.

In early April, I was able to provide commenters with an update from then-Commissioner Beth Rosenbloom:

In April 2005, the Conservation Commission approved an Order of Conditions permit for the development of a small office building and associated parking area at the 2 E. Main St. site. The majority of the 0.45-acre site is within the 100-foot Buffer Zone to Bordering Vegetated Wetland, which required any proposed development on the property to be reviewed and approved by the Conservation Commission. Some site work has commenced on the site under the existing permit approval. The Board of Health also approved a septic permit in 2005.

Since then, the Order of Conditions has been extended by the Conservation Commission a number of times per the request of the property owner due to challenging economic factors, and the permit is currently due to expire on April 12, 2018. The property owner asked the Conservation Commission to extend the permit for one additional year, which they voted to approve at last week’s meeting.

According to the property owner, the septic permit has expired and will need to be re-applied for. The project will also need Site Plan approval from the Planning Board. Conservation Commission approval was limited to earth work, stormwater management, drainage improvements, removal of invasive vegetation, location of septic, and landscaping. Details on the building design or use are outside the jurisdiction of the Conservation Commission.

(Minutes from that meeting have since been posted.)

At the time, Bemis hadn’t reached out to Planning. Now, it appears that they are instead asking the ZBA for approval to pursue a different plan.

The parcel is zoned as part of the Business Village which allows for a variety of residential or commercial uses. (You can see those here.)

Back in 2016 Town Meeting voters stripped the ZBA of its ability to provide Use Variances. At the time, the Economic Development Committee opposed the change. An argument made by member Kathleen Bartolini warned it would eliminate the board’s ability to allow good mixed business use projects. Based on the application letter, that may have been overstated.

The letter points to 174.8(C) of the Town Code which includes:

The Board of Appeals may, by special permit, allow several different uses if otherwise permitted in the district or several buildings on the same lot if such uses or buildings are deemed to be compatible, meet the requirements of § 174-9 and result in improved circulation and land use patterns.

*The Planning Board tried to reach out to the owners in 2010 to get the lot cleaned up. EDC minutes document more recent failed efforts in late 2016-early 2017 to work with the owner on improving the look of the lot. Even early this spring when cleanup work finally began, the EDC didn’t know what was going on there or why.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nancy Kolk August 21, 2018 at 1:03 PM

I hope that if it comes to fruition, it will be used for shops, not more office space. It will be nice to have something aesthetically pleasing on that corner.

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2 Kelly Roney August 21, 2018 at 3:49 PM

I’m an abutter, and I absolutely support mixed use on this site. It’ll be good for Southborough to have a more commercially active downtown.

I’d like a better building than a simple rectangular footprint – say, bay windows in the front for added architectural interest – but you can’t have everything.

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3 arborist August 21, 2018 at 3:59 PM

It would be nice to have a pub there on that corner so us old folk could enjoy some suds and a sandwich

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4 Kelly Roney August 24, 2018 at 12:55 AM

Yes, it would. Mauro’s (a/k/a the Spa)?

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5 David Parry August 22, 2018 at 9:30 AM

Wonderful news!

AT LAST we have a real proposal.

The property owner, civil engineer Peter Bemis, has tried really hard , for many years, to find a suitable developer for this very significant site.

The lot has stood vacant for 20 or so long year, and this has been a blighting influence and deterred investment in our Center.

I have not seen the proposed site plan or architecture, but hopefully it is attractively designed. Certainly the proposed uses are EXACTLY what we need to revitalize our charmig historic Southborough Center … More small shops and services, and small apartments.

“Historic” ? Yes. For instance, the Knights of Columbus building was built in the 1700’s. Look carefully at the assembly of buildings we have here … And you will see, potentially, a “Jewel in the Rough”.

Next we need “special” treatment of the public infrastructure, to make the historic Center appear distinctive … Rather than a continuation of the proposed grey concrete sidewalks, but, instead, consideration of having red paving bricks, or concrete stained red. And domestic scale street lamps.

Please lend your support to help this project become reality.

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6 Townie August 22, 2018 at 1:37 PM

I think this is great news also. I really hope that the boards involved can come together, set aside their personal differences, and realize this needs to happen to down town. Southborough needs to stop sitting back and watching every town around us flourish with new business, residents, etc. I too am hopeful a pub of some sort would come to down town!

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7 Lucy August 23, 2018 at 3:09 PM

What happened? The concern here is the zba using special permit if in fact it’s a use change. This could be a setup for larger development on street. I’m for the project but if it needs a use variance then it should go to town meeting to get approved. The citizens don’t want the zba making large decisions and this could and is likely a setup for things to come.

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8 beth August 24, 2018 at 5:20 PM

The letter claims that a use variance isn’t needed. As I wrote, it is in a zoning district which allows for variety of uses. I also linked relevant sections of the town code. I’m not a lawyer and can’t tell you if the applicant’s letter is correct reading of the bylaws or not. I left it to readers to look at them and make a judgment for themselves. You can always attend the ZBA meeting and ask questions.

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9 Lucy August 26, 2018 at 1:58 PM

The applicant, zba and town attorney will all have that opinion. Unless there is an outside council which should be an internal one that is impartial and I mean really impartial then I wouldn’t believe anyone’s interpretation. Again, for the project but this is setting up the next big one guaranteed. Anything with a mixed use should need both the planning board and most likely use variance at town meeting. Zba will grant and say let them appeal, which is wrong.

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10 Allan Bezanson August 24, 2018 at 9:23 AM

All along I was hoping it might be converted to a small cow pasture or pig pen to honor the memory of Deerfoot Farm. But, if we can’t have that, this proposal seems to have a lot of merit.

As for retail, our downtown, now featuring breakfast, pizza, lottery tickets or a haircut could use a little more variety. A brick sidewalk leading to a pub would add some soul to this town. Many of us will be eternally grateful if the owner can overcome the challenges to building on this lot.

Retail trumps business here, says I. And the facade of the building is a very big deal. Make it distinctive, not bland.

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11 Concerned Voter August 26, 2018 at 11:36 AM

What is the difference between the “special permit” requested (to change to a currently not allowed use?) and a now defunct Use Variance (voted out of existence at Special Town Meeting)?

Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals, as well as other town officials, can someone please explain the difference and post that here for public understanding?

I agree with Lucy’s good and valid question. Is this a USE VARIANCE disguised as a SPECIAL PERMIT REQUEST? Again, this town no longer offers Use Variances (like most towns).

Also, just a cautionary note if residential apartments are being considered over a restaurant / pub / kitchen use. There are real life instances of flash fires (cooking oil as an example) that are fast and dangerous. Zoning in many communities does not permit this mix of uses for that reason. If current zoning does not permit that mix of uses, could this be the reason?

Also, this is a former gas station use. Are there any 21E issues / clean up / ground water issues? For example, underground tanks, reported spills, etc.(see State’s website)? This typically gets addressed early on with environmental testing by a qualified professional outfit.

Lastly, generally speaking, density and resulting parking needs / traffic etc, are always important considerations. How much parking is on-site versus potentially street clogging, up and around corners?

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12 beth August 28, 2018 at 9:27 PM

To me it seems that the answer to one of your questions is within the section of the code which I quoted – giving the ZBA ability to permit the multiple uses if those uses fall within the generally allowed uses for the site’s zone and the project meets some other qualifications.

A use variance used to allow the ZBA to allow uses that weren’t allowed in the site’s zone (e.g., residential project in commercial only zone). That is what they are no longer allowed to do.

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