Developer Proposes Senior-ish Housing At McLean; Residents Push Added Affordability

Photo: A photo/map of the “senior driven” development on McLean Hospital.
A luxury residential developer came before the Belmont Planning Board on Tuesday, Jan. 16 with a proposal to construct a major senior-ish project on the McLean Hospital property comprised of 34 townhouses and 70 garden-style units in a parcel zoned 20 years ago for comprehensive long-term elder care.
While West Concord-based Northland Residential (which developed the 121-unit The Woodlands on Belmont Hill) contends the proposal is a better fit than an earlier but failed 482 unit, 600,000 sq.-ft. project approved in 2001, several residents and members of the town’s Housing Trust are already pushing for a greater emphasis on affordability that would serve an aging Belmont population.
“There are 1,000 cost burdened seniors living in Belmont and that number is expected to grow,” said Gloria Leipzig of the Belmont Housing Authority and the Housing Trust. “There is a need for affordable senior housing and I think we need to … see this as an opportunity and try and figure out a way to increase the likelihood of more affordable housing on the site.
Flanked by Michele Gougeon, McLean’s chief operating officer, Northland President and CEO John Dawley said the yet unnamed project will be “senior directed” that is unlike the “Continuing Care Retirement Community” concept which includes independent and assisted living as well as nursing home care that the parcel is currently zoned.
“It will have a floor plan that is attractive to 55-years and older,” said Dawley.
Created on November 1999 after Town Meeting approved new zoning for the property that May, a memorandum of agreement between the town and McLean rezoned 238 acres into specific uses including housing, open space, research facilities and senior living.
Since the agreement, most of the land approved for redevelopment would become part of The Woodlands at Belmont Hill, a townhouse development. One of the two final open parcels is the senior-oriented Zone 3 consists of nearly 13 acres near the corner of South Pleasant and Trapelo and a similarly-sized Zone 4 set aside for Research and Development.
Gougeon told the board the hospital will develop Zone 4 into an 86,000 sq.-ft. child and adolescence academic center and then later add a small R&D center. But the parcel’s build-out “will take some time” as the hospital will need to fund raise before building can commence, she said.
In Zone 3, the Northland plans call for 104 independent, non-age restricted units. Thirty-four will be two-to-three bedroom townhouses like those in the Woodlands and two four-story “flat style” buildings with seven to nine units per floor consisting of either two bedrooms or one bedroom and den garden-style apartments. There will be senior or elderly care services as part of the development, just grounds and maintenance staff. Under the current plan, the affordable housing component will remain at nine percent of total units which calculates to nine units.
The development would be situated on the ridge above a proposed assisted living facility along South Pleasant Street. The location has utilities in place and will be ready to be built. As proposed, the completed project will bring in an additional $1.4 million into town coffers, not including permits and fees. 
Dawley said the demographics of those who’ll be purchasing these homes – mostly those 55 and over with no dependent children living with them –  show that they aren’t necessarily downsizing, most will be buying without a mortgage and own a second home elsewhere. Similar townhouse units in the Woodlands run in the $1.2 million range.
The project will need two-thirds approval from Town Meeting as the complex alters existing town zoning requirements. But Dawley said those changes to the bylaw will be “very modest …” as the Northland plan “comports with the zoning very very well.” 
The next step for the board will be “a deep dive” into the zoning and debate the merits of those changes, said Board Chair Chuck Clark, noting the “devil’s in the details.” He also said the changes to the zoning will be presented to the annual Town Meeting as two distinct amendments.
One area that many in the audience of the nearly filled the Board of Selectmen’s room hoped the board and developer would discuss was the project’s affordability component. For Roger Colton, a former member of the Housing Trust, Northland is seeking significant changes to the current bylaw “but for affordable housing, which stays the same.”
The nine units set aside for affordable housing and the acceptance of owners making up to 120 percent of area median income” is unacceptable,” said Colton.
Rachel Heller (who is the CEO of the affordable housing advocacy organization CHAPA) said the Housing Trust is excited by the start of the planning process “because there is a lot that we can do together. McLean wants to be able to sell this land … the town needs more affordable housing so let’s put our heads together and work on it and let us use [the state’s Local Initiative Program] and really maximize the amount of affordable homes that we get out of [the development].”
The Local Initiative helps residential developers and towns develop a plan where a certain percentage of the units are affordable so a project can obtain zoning approval.
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