Photo: A rendering of a privately developed Belmont Public Library anchoring a mixed use development in Waverley Square.
In a presentation that if implemented would alter the face of Belmont for generations, the Planning Board last Tuesday revealed a rough draft proposal to transform Waverley Square and South Pleasant Street into vibrant urban centers while breaking a logjam in the construction of critical – and costly – capital projects.
Dubbed “The Big Idea” by Planning Board Chair Liz Allison, the plan envisioned by the Board’s Raffi Manjikian would consist of a multi-use development built on the site of the Belmont Car Wash at 521 Trapelo Rd. combining senior housing with a new Belmont Public Library that would be privately-built and leased back to the town by the project developer.
While the senior living/library project is in the preliminary talking stage, “the [property] owner said they are open to the concept,” said Manjikian.
“It’s time we come out to the community and begin to have this conversation with people at home, and perhaps even the developers engage with the town … to think through this idea and … contemplate something that is workable,” he said.
Nor would the library/senior living venture be a stand alone project such as The Bradford is to Cushing Square but likely the initial step in the redevelopment of South Pleasant Street running from the car wash on Trapelo Road to approximately Snake Hill Road. The three property owners have been quietly scouting their development proposal in the past year.
If the Planning Board’s blueprint goes from pie-in-the-sky to reality, it could jump start a much-needed transformation of a section of Belmont nearby residents believe has been neglected. In return, several property owners will be able to profit from what is currently an inefficient use of the land, while the town would have a new avenue to resolve at least one of its long-standing capital project demands.
The genesis of the big idea came from the Planning Board’s earlier meetings on the future of Waverley Square. Despite being a transportation hub for three towns with a history of commerce, the square has not attracted the business or housing other locales have seen.
During previous meetings, residents and the board felt the square needed “additions” for it to become a vibrant neighborhood especially those that attract people whether it be businesses – much talk has been associated with a “pub” in the area – or retaining the Waverley MBTA station. The meeting participants noted the area could absorb a substantial increase in density especially housing (including affordable units) but respect the residential nature of the nearby streets by limiting the additions’ massing.
She also said any development should not move forward if it “generates very substantial costs to the town” such as large scale residential projects which would be “selling seats in the Belmont school system.”
After putting forward the preliminary guideline of a new Waverley, Allison produced a chart that she noted isn’t seen at Planning Board: a financial worksheet showing a bottomless pit of red ink associated with the four capital projects staring Belmont taxpayers in the face.
With a new Belmont high school ($187.5 million), police station ($22.5 million), Library ($24 million) and Department of Public Works ($28 million) on the horizon, ratepayers are likely facing a $262 million price tag to meet the town’s capital needs. “And the cost will not go down,’ said Allison.
If financed by a 20-year bond at five percent, just the cost of the four projects would require the current property tax rate to rocket from $12.69/$1,000 assessed value to $15.88/$1,000, resulting in an annual tax increase for the average single family homeowner of $3,190. And that is before town folks face a Prop. 2 1/2 operating override expected in 2021.
“These are big numbers for a lot of people; I dare say a majority of people in Belmont,” said Allison. After ruminating through the guidelines and speaking to landowners, at a recent meeting, Manjikian asked himself “what if we were to think about a leaseback situation” in Waverley Square?
A fairly standard transaction in academic and commercial circles, a “sale/leaseback” is when an owner of a property sells an asset, typically real estate, and then leases it back from the buyer. Feedback to Manjikian’s off-the-top-of-his head proposal was overwhelmingly positive from town officials and the property owners.
The affordable senior housing would be in a convent location with a library, Star Market, a major bus line and the MBTA commuter rail station all within walking distance, said Allison. It would also free the current library location to be redeveloped for a new police headquarters.
Allison said the library was selected for the public portion of the project as it met many of the Planning Board’s objectives; it would be a gathering spot and a mooring for future development.
Allison said she is “very sympathetic” to library officials who told the board they were “less than enthusiastic” for the plan after finishing in February a five-year long feasibility study which proposes a new library at its current Concord Avenue location. Allison believes providing the library trustees with “some reality in a timely fashion” they could be convinced of the merits of a Waverley Square site.
Anne Marie Mahoney, chair of the Major Capital Projects Working Group – established this year to create a “sound plan for building, sequencing, and possible financing which will lead to a successful and timely completion of these projects” – who traveled from New Hampshire to hear the presentation, sounded a supportive note for the scheme.
“Personally and collective from the group we are very excited about this,” said Mahoney, saying it “frees up finances and resources, time and energy.”
“By doing something like this, it just opens the whole process up and allow the town to have a library a whole lot faster than they would if they had to wait for the town to fund it one at a time,” said Mahoney. The project would “anchor” Waverley Square with a major town building and says to the square “you are an important part of [Belmont].”
While many who attended the meeting were supportive of the concept, concerns on traffic and congestion along with financing the project were raised as potential sticking points.
“As always, the devil will be in the details,” Roy Epstein, chairman of the Warrant Committee, told the Belmontonian after the meeting. Head of the financial watchdog organization for Town Meeting, Epstein took a measured approach to the project, noted straight off that a leaseback would likely require a significant annual allocation from the town’s budget – likely between $1 to $2 million – possibly requiring an override.
Allison said there needs to be a “real enthusiastic response” from the public and Town Meeting by a two-to-one so the board can move forward on the preliminary plan. The significance of the two-thirds margin represents the number required at Town Meeting to alter the town’s zoning bylaws to allow for the greater use of height and density to make the entire project viable.
“We will have to be open and creative if this is going to succeed, but there also has to be some ground rules that will be proposed by the board,” she said.