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Waltham to investigate how officials address local economic development

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  January 16, 2014 04:10 PM

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Waltham officials will soon begin looking into how the city manages and encourages economic development after locals have grown concerned about project delays, storefront vacancies, missed development opportunities, and crime, said Waltham City Councilor and state Rep. Thomas Stanley.

Stanley introduced a resolution in the council last week to investigate how the city can more efficiently consider development proposals and a general economic plan after several projects languished on the city council floor for years. He said he hopes to make concrete changes in the coming year.

"It’s clear that Waltham lacks a vision and has communication and planning issues, and it’s hurting our future," Stanley said by phone Thursday. "There have been constant complaints that it takes too long to get things moved through Waltham's government."

The resolution has a majority council support, Stanley said, and will likely be referred to the economic development committee, where councilors will invite development professionals to outline how other communities handle the topic.

"We want to see the ideas that other people have had, and then see what we can take from that," he said.

Stanley cited a few major projects that have taken years to complete, such as approving space for shops and restaurants at the vacant 200 Moody St. nearly three years after developers submitted plans. The property has a city-owned easement running through it and discussions over what to do about the easement bogged down the project.

He also pointed out that logistical planning issues also held up the commercial development at the former Polaroid site.

"If the city moved quicker, we would have avoided the family squabble that erupted last summer," he said, referring to how construction was halted on the Market Basket there due to internal power struggles at the company. "In one instance, it took 15 months or so to get a permit to move a water main. It's just too long," Stanley said.

However, Mayor Jeannette McCarthy said the project was done on time, noting that state authorities had to approve measures concerning moving utility lines.

"There was no delay whatsoever," she said. "The NStar lines needed moving first, which required state level regulation, and then they needed to relocate the [sewer] easement, but we expedited that."

Stanley also pointed to vacant local schools, such as the Banks School on South Street, which was declared surplus in 2005. The city has debated how to reuse the property, finally settling on converting it into housing for the elderly.

"The Banks School is going on nine years now where it’s been vacant," Stanley said. "The mayor has said the city will be lucky to break even, and that’s a travesty."

McCarthy previously told the Globe that the city originally used about $1 million to turn the top floor of the three-story building into seven condominium units, but had to halt the entire renovation project in recent years "because the city didn't have the money."

She said Thursday that councilors voted not to fund the completion of the house during the down economy, when contractors would have finished the project for cheap.

Waltham city councilors gave the OK to McCarthy a year ago to use $3.5 million in municipal bonds to convert the rest of the building into 24 condominiums for the elderly.

"Making back the money will be determined by the sales prices," McCarthy said Thursday, noting that the city has hired a real estate firm. "I'm not going to speculate one way or the other."

Stanley said he also hopes to encourage revitalizing the downtown by rebuilding some of the crumbling structures there, and modifying zoning to encourage investors to build mixed-use developments.

"There's a lot that can be done," he said.

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Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com

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