Four years after Weston’s Town Meeting struck down a plan to renovate the historic Josiah Smith Tavern property as a large restaurant, the future of the long-vacant site again will go before voters.
Local officials have placed an article on the May 13 Town Meeting warrant proposing the first phase of a revamped proposal to build a mixed-use development on the town-owned property, which sits on Boston Post Road in Weston Center.
The plan calls for spending more than $4 million to renovate the exteriors of the tavern and the adjacent Old Library, which would be done in conjunction with private developers as they build three luxury condominium units, a three-suite bed-and-breakfast facility, an 80-seat tavern, and an addition to be used as meeting space for the Weston Historical Society and the Women’s Community League of Weston.
Officials said although the new plan does not open the site for public use as residents had hoped, it does minimize the town’s financial risk, reduces traffic concerns and environmental effects, and restores historic architecture.
However, some residents have expressed worries about the proposal, citing concerns about the property’s use and the town losing ownership of the historic properties, some of which date to the 1750s.
The proposal on next month’s warrant includes transferring the Old Library property to developer Urbanica Inc., which would use $790,000 in previously allocated town funds to renovate the building’s exterior while renovating its interior into the three condos. The high-end units could be sold for a combined total approaching $3 million, according to the developer.
Town Meeting’s approval also would show support for the remaining elements of the mixed-use development plan, which will not be ready for presentation to voters until the fall, according to Michael Harrity, the Board of Selectmen’s chairman.
Harrity said the developer will not go forward with the project unless residents support the first phase at Town Meeting this spring.
“If the majority of voters feel that we shouldn’t be selling this property, this deal is dead,” Harrity said, noting that the developer has already spent time, money, and resources evaluating the initial plan.
However, residents who attended an informational meeting on the proposal last week expressed uneasy feelings about the development.
Tom Selldorff, a Pollywog Lane resident, said he would prefer to see the Old Library used as low-income housing, noting that the town could fit about four units in the building after it is renovated.
“We know there’s a need for affordable housing in town,” he said, citing long waiting lists at other venues. He said if affordable units were built in the Old Library, “the spaces would be smaller than the luxury condominiums, but then it might be possible to preserve the large reading room for community use.”
However, Kamran Zahedi, president of Urbanica Inc. and a Weston resident, said setting up four income-restricted units would requiring making them too small, measuring about 700 square feet each, and it would not be feasible to comply with certain regulations, such as making the units handicapped accessible.
Selectmen also noted that the town received only one proposal for the project, leaving officials with few options.
“There were more than a dozen firms that expressed interest in the project initially, but when it came down to it, after they saw the details of what they would be working with, we only got one proposal,” said Selectman Doug Gillespie. “If there truly was a housing function there, we would have gotten a proposal.”
Some residents also were concerned about the town losing ownership of the historic properties, and said they hoped the buildings still could have a public use.
Joan Pesek, of Boston Post Road, said she would prefer to see the buildings used as office space, since the area is already zoned to support businesses.
“If we had office space and rented it out, it could still generate taxable income while maintaining some public access,” Pesek said.
Harrity said officials originally hoped for an office space proposal, but businesses require too much parking, and said the town has a poor track record of efficiently renting out professional offices.
He also said banks are not providing financing for office projects as readily as for residential developments.
“Frankly, the suburban office market is not particularly strong,” he said.
Harrity also noted that although the historic buildings would no longer be owned by the town, part of the deal would allow Weston to set limits on changes to their appearance.
“With the deed restrictions, we control the future happenings at the Old Library in terms of its exterior,” he said.
He also said the private development would generate revenue from property taxes, and would save Weston money in the long run on repairs to the aging buildings.
After the meeting, Harrity said that, without Town Meeting’s approval, the proposal would not go anywhere, leaving the empty and failing structures to waste away on the town green.
“Without this proposal, these buildings will just be left to fall down,” he said.