Photo: After 969 days, still nothing built at the proposed Cushing Village development.
In his 1953 groundbreaking book on sending men to Mars, German/American rocket scientist Werner von Braun estimated it would take 969 days for a spaceship to venture between the two planets, a time span von Braun dubbed “at the breaking point of [human] endurance.”
And it appears Belmont has reached its “breaking point” as tonight, Tuesday, March 22, the Board of Selectmen and Planning Board in joint session will decide whether to extend a purchase and sales arrangement for a municipal parking lot to the Cushing Village’s development team.
The long-troubled residential/retail/parking project headed by developer, Chris Starr’s Smith Legacy Partners, has yet to show any progress towards building the 115 units of housing, 38,000 sq.-ft. of stores and approximately 200 parking spaces since the town approved a special permit and a design and site plan review for the $80 million development on July 27, 2013, 969 days ago.
With no indication that Starr has been able to put together a fairly standard financial package by meeting minimal project requirements from lenders since the selectmen last met two weeks ago, it’s likely the two boards will follow the sentiment of the boards expressed over the past six weeks the status quo is unlikely to change.
“It would be very difficult for us to approve an extension … unless the developer comes back with … something that gives us absolute security that [the] project will proceed and go forward and not lag for years and months,” said Selectmen Chair Sami Baghdady at the board’s Monday, March 14 meeting.
While Starr did announce early in February a new mid-level “mezzanine” lender and that he was close to securing in a large, national retail tenant to fill the majority of the store footage, no announcements have been forthcoming from the Bedford-based company in the last month, as he has cancelled his latest appearances before the boards this month.
Representatives of the two boards with direct involvement with the project – the Selectmen must approve a sale of town-owned property and the Planning Board with oversight over design and massing – met a month earlier along with the Town Counsel, George Hall, Town Treasurer Floyd Carman and Town Administrator David Kale, to prepare a shared game plan on the fast approaching late March deadline when the two-year purchase and sale agreement with Starr for the parking lot adjacent Trapelo Road and Starbuck expires.
While no announcement was made at the time, subsequent statements by both boards expressed a lack of patience with three months of missed “drop dead” milestones the development team said they would meet, which included buying the lot, demolishing the site and the beginning of laying foundations, all promised by mid-January.
The small lot is the lynchpin parcel for the entire project as it will be the easiest to construct and open. The two parcels Starr currently owns – the former CVS building at Common and Belmont and the building at the intersection of Trapelo and Common that once housed the S.S. Pierce store – will require a considerable amount of excavation for the underground parking facilities and a costly buildout.
While Starr could likely come up with the long-agreed to $850,000 asking price for the lot, it doesn’t appear he was able to demonstrate to the selectmen he had construction financing in place which the board has demanded as part of the public parking deal.
In the past two years, the selectmen have required Starr to pay what was first a $20,000 and now is a $30,000 “fine” for each month he could not close on the lot. The penalty has reached more than $650,000 (although half of the amount will go back to Starr as part of the closing cost).
Baghdady said if Starr does come to the board with a positive development such as a check for $850,000, it is likely the boards will no extend purchase and sale agreement and retain ownership of the parcel.
Then it would be back to square one for the town in redeveloping the parcels since it is unlikely the expired P&S agreement could be revived for a new development team unless the town issues a new request for proposal for the municipal parking lot. That would trigger a reopening of the Special Permit process which took 18 months to craft for Smith Legacy.
Starr will still hold the rights to the two parcels with an option on the parking lot but if was unable to find financing for a simple commercial deal, it’s highly unlikely he could convince a bank or financing company to invest in a smaller building with less of an upside.
But Starr does hold the development rights to the sites, which likely has value to a developer wishing to skip the grind of shaping a new Special Permit and just build.
If there is a developer waiting in the wings, the next week in Town Hall could be a whirl of agreements, payments and meetings as the town and a “white knight” secure a new deal before the P&S expires.