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Weston Town Meeting to vote on mixed-use plan for Josiah Smith Tavern site

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  April 11, 2013 11:00 AM

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Four years after Weston Town Meeting members struck down a plan to renovate the historic Josiah Smith Tavern as a large-scale restaurant, the future of the long-vacant site again depends on a Town Meeting vote.

Town officials are asking Town Meeting members this May to pass the first phase of a revamped proposal to build a new mixed-use development at the historic property.

The plan calls for over $4 million in town funds to renovate the exteriors of the tavern and old library, which would be done in conjunction with private developers as they build three luxury condominium units, a three-suite bed and breakfast, an 80-seat tavern, and construct 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 repurpose the site for public use as residents had hoped, it does minimize the town’s financial risk, reduces traffic concerns and environmental impact, and restores historic architecture for permanent viewing in town.

However, residents are already growing worried over the town’s new proposal, citing concerns about the site’s use and the town losing ownership over the historic properties, which date as far back as the 1750s.

Town officials will propose the first phase of the plan at Town Meeting this May, which includes transferring the old library’s property to local developer Urbanica, Inc., who would use $790,000 in pre-allocated town funds to renovate the library’s historic exterior while repurposing the interior as three luxury condominiums. Developers hope the condo units would be sold at a combined total of nearly $3 million.

But by approving the first phase of the plan, Town Meeting members would be supporting the other ideas of mixed-use development in the space – a plan that is not finalized enough to present to Town Meeting until this fall, said Michael Harrity, Weston Board of Selectmen chair.

Harrity said the developer would not go forward with the project unless residents support the idea 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's costs and needs.

However, residents who attended an informational meeting on the proposal Wednesday night already showed uneasy feelings about the development.

Tom Selldorff of Pollywog Lane said he would prefer to see the old library space used as low-income housing, noting that the town could fit about four units in the currently-crumbling building.

“We know there’s a need for affordable housing in town,” he said, citing long waiting lists at other affordable venues in Weston. He said if the town looked into building affordable units 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 himself, said that building low-income units would prove too small – each one would only measure about 700 square feet each, the size of a decent studio or one-bedroom apartment – and would not be feasible to comply with certain regulations, such as making units handicap-accessible.

Selectmen also noted that the town received only one proposal for the project, leaving officials with few options in planning for the site.

“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 over the historic sites, and hoped the buildings still could be repurposed for a possible 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 said ultimately, businesses require too much parking, while the town has a poor track record of efficiently renting out professional offices.

He also said banks are not financing office space as much as residential projects.

“Frankly, the suburban office market is not particularly strong,” he said.

Harrity also noted that although the buildings would no longer be in town possession, part of the deal would allow Weston to make certain restrictions on the proposed-private structures that would prohibit residents and business proprietors there to make certain exterior changes.

“With the deed restrictions, we control the future happenings at the old library in terms of its exterior,” he said.

He also noted that reusing the site would generate town revenue from property taxes, and would save Weston money in the long run on repairs that private owners would then take over.

And, Harrity said after the meeting, without town support, the proposal could easily slip through the town’s fingers, leaving the empty and continually-failing structures to waste away on the Town Green.

“Without this proposal, these buildings will just be left to fall down,” he said.

Weston’s Spring Town Meeting begins Monday, May 13 at the town’s high school. A simple majority vote would be required to pass the project’s first phase.

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Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JaclynReiss

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