Panel targets four parcels for commercial projects

Some condominiums have been built near McLean Hospital, but further development became bogged down in legal battles. A local committee is now pushing for construction of 320 luxury apartments and condos in the area. Some condominiums have been built near McLean Hospital, but further development became bogged down in legal battles. A local committee is now pushing for construction of 320 luxury apartments and condos in the area. (Janet Knott/Globe Staff/File 2006)
By Evan Allen
Globe Correspondent / October 6, 2011

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A Belmont advisory panel has recommended an aggressive plan to boost local tax revenue by working with developers to build luxury housing, offices, and commercial projects at four locations across town.

The town’s Economic Development Advisory Committee, made up of community and business leaders, anticipates the proposal would increase annual revenues by $5 million within the next five years.

The plan recommends developing office and retail buildings on South Pleasant Street, a commercial and residential village at Cushing Square, luxury condominiums on the McLean Hospital property, and a supermarket and retail center at the old Metropolitan District Commission rink on Route 2.

“The town has to change its model for developing,’’ Robert Mahoney, president and chief executive officer of Belmont Savings Bank and the committee’s cochairman, said at a meeting last month with the Board of Selectmen. “We have to decide what we want, what’s best for the town, and make it clear to developers.’’

Belmont is not a developer-friendly town, according to Mahoney. Projects get bogged down in a lengthy back-and-forth with town officials, and some languish for years without breaking ground. By drawing up development requirements in advance so that prospective builders know what will and won’t be approved, the town can remove some of the uncertainty and waiting time from the process, and bring in new revenue, he said.

It’s extra money that town officials say Belmont badly needs to address growing budget deficits.

“Expenses are going up faster than the revenue,’’ said Selectman Angelo Firenze, his board’s liaison with the advisory committee. “We find little pools of money that help offset that, but those pools are drying up.’’

Over the next three years, if there are no changes in revenues or operation costs, Belmont is looking at deficits ranging from about $3.5 million to $6 million, town officials have said.

The main reason: Most of the town’s revenue comes from residential property taxes. Belmont, nicknamed “the Town of Homes,’’ lacks a strong commercial tax base, placing the burden of paying for municipal operations squarely on residents.

Of the property taxes levied for the fiscal year that ended June 30, $63.6 million, or 94 percent, came from residential taxes; business covered only $3.6 million, or 5 percent, with the remainder coming from personal property taxes.

“People are already burdened,’’ said longtime resident Lalig Musserian, who serves as secretary on the economic advisory committee “We can’t keep going back to the well.’’

The four areas selected as being ripe for development were chosen because they are either already commercial areas or because they are reasonably distant from residential areas.

The biggest project the committee recommended is the construction of 320 luxury apartments and condominiums near McLean Hospital, which they estimate would bring in $2.5 million in tax revenue.

McLean, like many developments in Belmont, has been a site of contention for the town. In the mid-1990s, McLean announced that it wanted to sell and develop some of its land, and worked closely with the town to rezone the land for assisted living, condominiums, and research and development offices.

But the project became bogged down in legal battles, and development sputtered. Only the condominiums have been built.

A second site of suggested development, Cushing Square, which the committee hopes will bring Belmont an additional $400,000 a year in tax revenue, also has a rocky history. It has been in development limbo since 2008 when developer Chris Starr proposed a four-story retail and commercial complex along Common Street.

Starr and Belmont officials took more than a year to reach a purchase-and-sale agreement on a municipal parking lot that he wanted to buy from the town, substantially slowing the development. And residents, initially supportive, became wary of the scale of the project.

Starr is reducing his proposal, dropping some areas from four stories to three and a half, switching from flat roofs to gables, and enlisting local artists to decorate. The finished product he envisions would have about 30,000 square feet of retail space and 130 apartment units, plus an underground parking garage.

“We’re undergoing a philosophical change,’’ he said. “Really listening to needs of the town, neighbors, and really trying to come up with something that celebrates the traditions of Belmont.’’

Although Starr says the lengthy process of planning, revising, and planning again has improved his proposal, he also says it would have been simpler with the kind of straightforward guidelines that the advisory committee is trying to implement.

Stephen Krasner, owner of Only Connect Electricians, would see his office on Common Street torn down to build Cushing Village. But, he says, it’s for the good of the town.

“You can’t keep saying, ‘We don’t want any taxes, we don’t want any taxes, we don’t want any taxes,’ but then say, ‘You can’t build anything,’ ’’ he said.

The advisory committee’s other two proposed development sites have been less controversial.

A thin strip of land on South Pleasant Street, from the White Street Extension to the Clark Street Bridge, would be rezoned for office and retail space, which the committee says would bring in about $1.8 million in tax revenue. The area would be redeveloped with three- to four-story buildings.

Finally, the committee recommended building a supermarket-anchored retail center at the site of the old skating rink on Route 2 near Exit 60. They estimate that it would bring Belmont $500,000 a year in tax revenue.

The committee’s next step is to hold hearings ahead of January’s Special Town Meeting. Though the committee and the Board of Selectmen expect some opposition, they are optimistic.

“These are the optimum locations,’’ said Mahoney in an interview. “It’s not a ‘throw open the doors and in come the bulldozers’ - it’s these four locations for $5 million.’’

“It’s certainly worth a shot,’’ said Selectman Ralph Jones, the board’s chairman, at last month’s meeting. “There’s no other way, other than tax increases on homeowners, that we’re gonna get this money.’’

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