Photo: Bill Lovett, a senior development manager at Toll’s Apartment Living, before the Board of Selectmen.
It wasn’t the one-month extension the town gave Toll Brothers to close on the municipal parking lot adjacent Trapelo Road critical to the building of the long-delayed Cushing Village project that created the big buzz at the Belmont Board of Selectmen meeting on Monday, Aug. 22.
It was who the new developer is partnering with on a significant feature of the $80 million project that was a total surprise to the nearly dozen residents who sacrificed a beautiful summer evening to attend the meeting at Belmont’s Town Hall.
Chris Starr, the Bedford resident who spent almost a decade of his life attempting to construct the three building complex before giving up and relinquishing the site to the Pennsylvania -based firm, will either control “whole or in part” the leasing of 38,000 sq.-ft. of retail space in the new development.
Revealed by the Selectmen at the meeting, the news of Starr’s return to the project that he failed to complete was a startling announcement to those in attendance.
“This just didn’t make much sense at all,” said Doug Koplow of Oak Avenue.
Bill Lovett, a senior development manager at Toll’s Apartment Living – a relatively new whole-owned subsidiary within the Horsham, Penn.-based firm – would only say the details for the company’s arrangement with Starr are in the new draft Land Development Agreement, the nuts and bolts legal document describing what will occur during the construction.
The LDA notes Starr’s involvement as taking “whole or part” of the commercial portion of the project once the space is built out and the town has provided a temporary certification of occupancy. The earliest that will take place is at least two years away.
Speculation of Starr’s return leans towards Toll’s expertise in the residential development yet having little knowledge of commercial leasing. Having spent the better part of a year attempting to land a big retail operation for his project, Starr’s contacts would be seen as valuable to Toll.
Some residents expressed a worry that Starr’s background – during his tenure he could not put together the necessary financing to build the project nor find an anchor store for the site – could lead to further troubles for the project.
“[Starr] hasn’t shown much competence when he had Cushing Village and I don’t see much changing,” said Rita Butzer Carpenter of Precinct 6.
But for Selectmen Chair Mark Paolillo – who said the board was equally “surprised” by the arrangement between the present and past owners – a new near-luxury development on three town blocks at the intersection of Common and Trapelo would be a draw for most commercial retailers.
“We have the confidence that the commercial space will be very appealing to a wide range of retailers once [Cushing Village] is built,” said Paolillo. “It will be a very beautiful place to be located, and you’ll have 115 units of people who are customers inside the building.”
Before the Starr bombshell landed, most residents were eager to hear why Toll was seeking to an extension on the deadline for the parking lot purchase and, as Lovett noted, seeking next month before the Planning Board to move the deadline for the Special Permit on Dec. 3 up by several months.
In March when Toll Brothers took tentative control of the project’s development rights from Starr, Lovitt sought and received a six-month extension, until Aug. 26, to sign the Purchase and Sale for the municipal parking lot.
Since then, the firm has been performing environmental tests and other audits as part of the company’s due diligence of the site and past agreements.
Lovett said the company’s reviews “just took a bit longer than anticipated.” The delay forced Toll to push back the start of its negotiations with “a retail component” (i.e., Starbucks), said Lovitt.
“We needed to dot the ‘Is’ and cross the ‘Ts’ before moving forward,” said Lovett.
While the added month may, as Selectman Jim Williams noted, be standard fare for a project of this size and past difficulties, one selectman was less than pleased.
“I feel let down by you,” Selectman Sami Baghdady told Lovett, who said that many residents saw Toll as the “white knight” when it rescued the project in March.
“There are many frustrated people as you can tell,” Baghdady said of those in the audience, wondering what assurances does the town have that Toll will not come back in the third week in September “asking for more time?”
Lovett said the company has spent “thousands of dollars” in preconstruction costs and is eager to add Cushing Village to its portfolio of projects including a completed apartment complex in Westborough and one soon to be under construction in Natick.
While saying Toll Brothers “will not find [another extension] here” should it come back in a month with the similar request, Paolillo said the added time “is our last best chance” at guiding the project towards construction.
“There is not option B,” he said as the extension was approved.