An Open Letter To The Planning Board On Creating Less Restrictive Zoning Bylaws On Business

Photo: Meg Moriarty

An Open Letter to the Planning Board:

Supporting business development in Belmont can be good for our schools. Relaxing restrictive zoning bylaws for restaurants in Belmont should provide commercial tax revenue that pays for operating the schools, sponsorship, and support for school programs and after-school activities, job opportunities for Belmont students, and places for Belmont students and families to enjoy.

I have seen the support that local businesses provide in Belmont, both on the School Committee and the Butler PTA. I have also seen It throughout Massachusetts as a professional evaluator of programs that foster broader participation and deeper engagement of students with science, technology, engineering, and math.

This support can be both financial and non-financial support. Based on my professional experience in communities with dense local business development, local businesses partner with schools, sponsor educational programs, provide resources, and donate funds. Local businesses sponsor sports teams, arts programs, and other extracurricular activities, alleviating the financial burden on schools and allowing them to offer a wider range of activities for students. Such partnerships enhance the educational experience for students.

Engaging with local businesses fosters a sense of community. Business leaders and employees may participate in school events, mentor students, and collaborate with schools to develop curricula that align with the skills needed in the local job market. Local businesses also provide jobs for students and prepare them for future employment.

Businesses also generate tax revenue. Although the necessary, short-term option for increasing funding for Belmont schools is to pass an override in April, supporting business development is a feasible long-term strategy for generating additional tax revenue that can fund our schools while offloading the tax burden felt by many in our community. Making our zoning bylaws friendlier to restaurants is a necessary step for encouraging business development.

As a School Committee member, parent, and educator, I spend a lot of time thinking about the core ingredients of effective schools and learning opportunities for all students. I am in good company with my education preoccupation in Belmont: the schools are one of the top reasons that people move to Belmont.

And, being involved in local politics, I notice that we all share the same agenda: increase sources of revenue to offload the tax burden on individuals. Getting clear on how we can achieve that goal means we all get to row in the same direction. Making zoning bylaws less restrictive will help us move closer to generating more tax revenue for maintaining and even expanding or improving learning opportunities for all students in Belmont.

Meg Moriarty, Garfield Road

Belmont School Committee Chair

Planning Board OKs Belmont Hill School Parking Plan

Photo: The area which will become a parking lot for the Belmont Hill School

By the narrowest of margins, the Belmont Planning Board approved the Design and Site Plan Review for a proposed 140-space parking lot and 7,000-square-foot facilities building to be built on a seven-acre parcel off Prospect Street presented by the Belmont Hill School.

“I’ll go ahead and make a motion to approve design site plan review of the application as amended on the ground that the proposal complies with all elements of the Zoning Bylaw,” said Matt Lowrie, board chair who shepherded the contentious review over the past five months.

The vote was three-to-two, with Lowrie, Thayer Donham, and Karl Haglund voting to approve the proposal, while Carol Berberian and Jeff Birenbaum voted no at the meeting held virtually on Tuesday, April 11.

In a prologue to what was a swift review of the proposal, Lowrie presented the legal next steps for critics if they choose to challenge the board’s decision. But Lowrie expressed his opinion that since many of the most immediate abutters had come around to support the proposal after some mitigation by the school of its plans, “[W]ho would do this?”

When he met with those same abutters early in the process, they admitted that their legal counsel said litigating a favorable review decision, in this case, would likely result in them losing in court.

During the meeting in which public comment was not taken – the review was closed back in March – Lowrie presented a step-by-step overview of the process, highlighting the main campus parking, the facilities building, and the east campus parking off Marsh Street.

Lowrie ran down many of the “expressed concerns” that were brought up during the review process, such as the impact on abutters, the number of parking spaces, the clearing of trees and vegetation, traffic congestion, and stormwater issues.

Lowrie pointed to the legal decision Forster vs. Belmont when discussing whether parking for athletic events is considered an educational use. The court said the town could issue a special permit for tall light poles on athletic fields as the Dover Amendment protects it. The state law prohibits the Planning Board from regulating or restricting the use for an educational purpose – such as parking and the facilities building – assuming it’s a nonprofit educational institution.

Throughout his review, Lowrie relied on the opinion of town counsel George Hall in supporting the approval of the design and site review.

“In order to actually make sure that we have a decision, we need to be on the merits,” said Lowrie.

After members sought clarification of aspects of the stormwater runoff from around the new facilities building, the board voted to approve the measure. There is no indication from the Belmont Hill School on a start date for the parking lot construction.

Planning Board Ends Public Hearing On Belmont Hill School Parking Plan; Debate, Possible Vote On April 11

Photo: The level of discord for the Belmont Hill School’s parking plan has been evident by the number of yard signs in town against the 140 parking lot

After four months of public comment and increasing discord, the Belmont Planning Board voted 3-1 with one abstention to end the public debate on the controversial parking plan by the Belmont Hill School to place approximately 140 parking spaces and a 7,000 sq. ft. facilities building on seven acres of the last remaining parcel of semi-wild land in the neighborhood.

“At some point, we need to close the public hearing so that we can get on to making a decision,” said Planning Board Chair Matt Lowrie at Tuesday’s virtual meeting.

Lowrie said ending the hearing does not halt the board from securing additional information. “So, for example, if we close the public hearing and there’s something else that we decided that we didn’t find out or found out and forgot, we get to ask,” he said.

“So closing the public hearing is simply the next step in the process. And I think we’re there,” said Lowrie. After little discussion among the board members, the vote was taken, and the contentious project is one vote in April from becoming a reality.

Tuesday’s vote begins the final stage of the town’s design and site plan review of the plan by the private school – celebrating its centennial this year – to develop residential parcels it purchased over the past two decades a few hundred feet from its campus. The 7-12 school with 450 students contends the new parking facility will meet the demands of student commuters, be a safer location for student to walk to the school, and will alleviate overcrowding on side streets and main roads during school events.

Critics of the plan – more than 2,700 citizens have signed a petition opposing the project – contend the parking lot will destroy habitat for a host of wildlife and cut down old-growth trees during a climate crisis while increasing traffic congestion and safety issues throughout the Belmont Hill neighborhood.

“With the public hearing … now closed, we move to the deliberation process,” said Lowrie, who suggested the board’s discussion on the parking plan take place at its next meeting on Tuesday, April 11. And while he hopes it will render a decision at its next meeting, a final vote – a simple yea or nay – will not happen until the board is ready to vote, said Lowrie.

The board has 20 days after closing the public hearing to render a decision, or the motion is automatically approved. If needed, the school has given the board an extension to April 19 to complete its work.

If the plan is approved, a draft opinion will be issued. Lowrie said Town Attorney George Hall states that a statement of reasons for denying the project is required if the plan is defeated.

Before asking for the vote, Lowrie addressed a motion submitted – and seconded – at a previous board meeting to dismiss or suspend the Design Site Plan Review process pending a study by the school on a 35 percent reduction in the parking area and a large-scale review of traffic and pedestrian safety plans.

Lowrie said after spending “a lot of time talking to town counsel” Hall, it became apparent that a motion to force the school to review its plan is “something we lack the authority to do” under Belmont by-laws.

“On my time on the board, we have never dismissed the design site plan review except for the applicant’s request, which is a different matter entirely,” said Lowrie. “It’s illegal … statutorily. Every lawyer who’s looked at this has said the same to me.”

Lowrie also put a damper on board discussions of its ability to require either improvements or a study of improvements by the school outside of the three areas that are part of the project. While such demands have been part of developments that require a Special Permit, “you cannot use design site plan review as a vehicle to require the school to make improvements elsewhere,” said Lowrie, who noted the suggested changes would be the town’s responsibility.

As Frustration To Belmont Hill Parking Plan Peaks, Select Board Reads ‘Riot Act’ To Critics Of Process, Planning Board Chair

Photo: Mark Paolillo, chair of the Select Board

Mark Paolillo anticipated the Select Board he chairs would receive emails and phone calls related to the controversial plan by the Belmont Hill School to turn an acre-and-half of rare urban woodland into a parking lot for 150 vehicles and a facilities building.

What he didn’t expect was the increasing vitriol many of the messages carried. Strident demands for volunteers on committees to be removed, allegations of favoritism from the head of the Planning Board and calls for the Select Board to step in take control of the review process.

The next virtual meeting of the Planning Board in its discussion of the Belmont Hill School Parking Plan will be Tuesday, March 14 at 7 p.m. You can find the Zoom link here.

But it was an email that included a threat of ‘a riot’ if the board did not act that was a step too far. Paolillo decided it was time to read the “riot act” to the small number of critics who had been raising the heat on the controversial project.

“We’ve also gotten numbers of emails, and I think the recent tone the tenor of the emails has taken a direction that is totally unacceptable,” said Paolillo. “Perhaps such emails are not meant literally, but any comment that suggests or hints of violence in any way will not be tolerated by this board.”

While the Select Board agenda listed the as “Belmont Hill School update with the Chair of the Planning Board,” Paolillo said the board would not take public comment since that should only be directed to the Planning Board. Rather, he read a statement that clarified the Select Board position in relations to the tone of comments and the board’s involvement to the project.

“We have to respect one another civility in our public discourse and assume goodwill on the part of anyone who participates in our local government emails that threatened ‘a riot in the streets’ unless the planning board or the Select Board acts in a certain way are not acceptable contributions to our public dialogue,” he said. “Totally unacceptable.”

In his statement to the 20 residents at Town Hall and dozens attending via Zoom, Paolillo said while many residents and abutters to the project are asking for the Select Board to get involved in the deliberation, “we have no purview whatsoever to conduct any type of a hearing as it relates to site plan review. That falls under within our zoning bylaws and the planning board.”

Opponents to the school’s parking scheme are urging the Select Board to back a request by abutters to require a Development Impact Report for the project, in which a deep dive would commence to determine the scope of the report including environment, social, physical and infrastructure impact, at which time the town would issue a Request For Proposal that a professional development team would perform. 

But Paolillo nixed that request as going beyond the Select Board’s purview.

“So folks, please, understand because I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of emails on this, that it’s not our responsibility as a Select Board to get involved in that,” said Paolillo. “While the board appoints the member to the planning board, its involvement ends there.”

Increasingly, the ire of critics has been directed at Matt Lowrie, who accepted the chair of the Planning Board after Steve Pinkerton suddenly resigned in September just as the Belmont Hill School application for the site plan review was submitted. (In an ironic sidebar, Lowrie was preparing to resign from the board with Pinkerton in October of 2022 as he is anticipating a move from Belmont.)

A growing number of abutters are seeking the Select Board to replace or dismiss Lowrie who they contend has shown by his actions since the start of the site review an overt bias in favor of the private school.

But as with refusing to inject themselves into the planning process, Paolillo said while the board does appoint the members of the Planning Board, there is no process of removing them.

Belmont’s Town Consul George Hall rendered his legal opinion on whether the select board can remove those they appoint, including planning board members. Hall’s answer was succinct: “No”, nowhere in existing state law indicates where the appointing agents also have the ability to “fire” members.

Even if such a mechanism were in place, Paolillo said the current Select Board sees no reason to seek the removal of Lowrie.

“I know you folks want us to remove him and threatened certain things for correct we don’t, we’re not going to remove him. We have confidence in the ability to serve,” said Paolillo.

“The Select Board has competence in the chair of the planning board, Matt Lowry and the other members of the planning board. It supports them in their work to reach decisions that are in the best interest of downline,”

“The Planning Board has what is sometimes an unenviable task amongst themselves. There may be different perspectives, and they do their best to fact that these perspectives in the opinions from the public into any final decision,” said Paolillo.

When an attendee asked what mechanism citizens can utilize to blue-pencil Lowrie from the Planning Board, a collective shrug of the shoulders was given. After the meeting, town officials and Select Board members theorized it would take a series of steps involving Town Meeting votes, receiving approval by the State Legislature and subsequent changes to town bylaws that would in all likelihood result in “a real s**tshow,” according to one participant.

“We understand support the right of residents, so I’m here tonight, you’re going to express their opinions and take passionate positions, but is essential to remember that thoughtful and caring residents may legitimately have different views on this,” said Paolillo.

Calling from the Orlando International Airport, Lowrie updated the Select Board on the parking plan. Planning Board is close to receiving the results of the two peer reviews’ on stormwater and traffic/congestion.

“Both of those changes were made by the Belmont Hill School at my initial suggestion, followed by extensive negotiations among the town administrator and abutters … [that] resulted in letters of support from people who had been quite vocally against it,” said Lowrie. He noted that peer review process have resulted removing parking spaces, extending a sidewalk and increasing the amount of impervious surfaces “[the Belmont Hill School] didn’t necessarily agree with them, but they certainly agreed to make the changes.”

“Because of those changes, the stormwater analysis is probably not impacted a whole lot, but it’s impacted a little. The traffic is probably not impacted a whole lot, but it could be impacted a little and so we’re waiting for final reports,” said Lowrie.

Lowrie said the Planning Board will receive the peer review at its March 14 meeting “and then, I think from there, we close the public hearing, have our vote and issue an opinion.” He said he is hopeful to have it done by the end of March.

Paolillo’s statement and clarification on the Select Board’s inability to involve itself in the process did not go over-well with many in the audience.

“The planning board is here for the community. And there are quite a lot of people in the community who wrote letters about Mr. Lowery’s behavior. Just because one person … wrote a nasty letter to [the board] doesn’t mean that no one should oversee Mr. Lowery’s behavior,” said a resident. “You’re giving him a free pass and saying ‘Thank you’ for being a jerk.”

Outside the board room, opponents of the project were disappointed that they could not express their concerns. Marina Popova who lives just across Route 2 in Arlington said “there are issues that were raised by the public and those issues should be addressed. They should be investigated and we should know the decision,” Popover said.

But with the Belmont Hill parking process, Lowrie’s decisions are “unquestionable. Whatever the one person does, that’s the law. But nobody is above the law. Everybody should be answerable to their peers, to the public, eventually, because that’s who they’re working for, Popover said.

For Courtney Hayes-Sturgeon of Common Street, Lowrie’s “one sided” leadership and long-standing opposition to a development impact report will have a powerful and detrimental effect on the long-standing trees and birds and wildlife that occupy the six total acres owned by Belmont Hill School.

“Lowrie won’t even let anyone talk about the flora and the fauna because he’s tired of hearing about it. It’s as if it doesn’t exist,” said Hayes-Sturgeon.

“People are attached to this area. It’s right next to their home safe watch the thoughts of owls and all these animals, and they know that you know every little piece of trees that we’ve chopped down, or it’s just one more assault on the environment,” she said.

Q&A: Residents Standing Firm Opposing Belmont Hill School’s Parking Proposal As Project Comes Before Planning Board [VIDEO]

Photo: Rutledge Road’s Tanya Austin whose family house abuts a proposed 150-vehicle parking lot on property owned by the Belmont Hill School.

When Tanya Austin and her family were looking to decamp from Central Square two years ago, they wanted a location near the bustle and restaurants of Cambridge but with more living space and where she could set up shop to continue working from home due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Harvard Law grad, with her husband and daughter, found what they were looking for in a 1940s-era garrison colonial on Rutledge Road, just two doors from their good friends who move to Belmont years before.

“We were scoping this place online three weeks before it actually went on the market. We really wanted this house,” Austin said.

A big bonus buying on Rutledge for Austin is the ramble of brush made up of shrubs, old trees, and vines left for years to run wild that occupies the land adjacent her small backyard.

“In the summer, there are raspberry bushes which are great, and sunlight comes through the trees on sunny days. It’s just a beautiful, quiet whole area out there,” said Austin.

It was also the location of the Belmont Hill School, the nearly century-old prep school located south of the Prospect Street rotary, aiming to create a 150-space parking lot and above-ground fuel tanks, a building for the school’s facilities department. It is part of a parking plan that includes formalizing and adding spaces behind its sports facility on Marsh Street and reconfiguring the parking and drop-off area at the school’s main entrance.

Primarily a day school, 437 of the school’s 464 pupils commute daily from 84 communities across New England to attend; a new parking scheme will allow the school to manage its long-term parking goals better.

Over the past decade, the school has been purchasing parcels just north of its campus to develop the land and finalize parking.

The parking lot proposal by the Belmont Hill School (credit: Belmont Hill School)

Where now Austin sees deer bound through the underbrush, there is a thin white pole that demarcates the property line where, if the school prevails, an eight-foot-tall wooden wall will run the length of the lot.

It was then when the proposal became real, said Austin.

The neighbors and residents across Belmont Hill have been mobilizing to bring the proposal to a halt. Nearly every property along Rutledge and throughout the area has become home to lawn signs questioning the proposal. In addition, an ad hoc group of residents have created a website ( detailing the opposition, while a internet petition has collected more than 2,000 supporter signatures.

As critics have been organizing, the school is moving forward with its efforts as it has formally introduced its plans before the town in September in a detailed, one-hour-long presentation before the Belmont Planning Board.

While the school sought a quick turnaround, unforeseen delays hit the proposal. Due to the sudden departure of the Planning Board’s chair and while finding replacements – the newest member will be voted by the Select Board on Monday – the proposal is coming before the board on Tuesday, Nov. 15, for the beginning of the design and site plan review.

The link to the virtual meeting is:
Webinar ID: 880 2534 2855

With a white pole indicating the property line with the Belmont Hill School, Tanya Austin speaks about the school’s proposal that will place 150 parking spaces into the Rutledge Road neighborhood.

Speaking along the property line, Austin spoke about the proposal and its future.

Q: Why is this land of brush and old trees important to you, your neighbors, and the wider community?

A: The seven acres of woods are important not only for what they are – a stand of decades-old trees, a habitat for all kinds of wildlife, and a safeguard for the adjoining protected wetlands – but for what they represent. The area is one of the few remaining open, wooded spaces in Belmont, and our Town should be committing to the long-term preservation of our environment, rather than to fulfillment of the short-term wants of the Belmont Hill School.

Q: What would the destruction of the land into a parking lot mean to abutters and the neighborhood?

A: For immediate abutters, the replacement of the woodlands with a 150-space parking lot and equipment maintenance facility would of course be devastating. No one wants that kind of noise, light, and pollution mere feet from their backyards.

But it doesn’t just affect us, it affects everyone who drives down Prospect Street or Park Avenue, where commuter traffic is already at a standstill during rush hour; it affects all residents of Belmont, since the school will not be paying taxes on the adjoining houses it demolishes to complete its plans, thus reducing funds available to the Town; and it affects our children, who will learn the unfortunate lesson that environmental and community concerns apparently do not outweigh the short-sighted plans of a private school with money to spend.

Part of the land which the new parking lot for the Belmont Hill School is being built

Q: When did it become apparent to you and the neighbors that Belmont Hill School was determined to move forward with the proposal for a 150-space parking lot, a facilities building, and above ground fuel tanks?

A: We first became aware of the proposed project in November 2021, and actually attended two meetings that winter, one public and one private, with the school at which they presented their plans. We were hopeful at the time that the school would be willing to work with us, or at least give due consideration to our stated objections: the environmental impact, the effect on traffic, and of course the consequences to immediate abutters.

But it wasn’t until our third meeting with the school on May 25, 2022 that it really became clear that they were not at all interested in hearing what we had to say. We were literally told that no changes would be made to their plan unless the Town forced the school to make them, and at that point we knew we had to take action.

Q: What has been the relationship between the neighbors and the school? Has the school been receptive to neighbors concerns? Can you point to one incident that would highlight the interaction?

A: Until about a year ago I would have said that the neighborhood had a good relationship with the school, which has always touted its openness to community concerns and its collaboration with neighbors. But despite its claims to wanting to work with us and adapt its plans to our needs, the school has done nothing substantive towards that goal– instead, it has made cosmetic changes that have no real effect on the scope of the project, and attempted to pass them off as compromise.

One of the most egregious examples is the school’s oft-repeated claim that in response to our concerns that the curved driveway into the parking lot would cause approaching vehicles’ headlights to shine into neighbors’ yards, the school took the significant step of purchasing the property at 20 Park Ave., allowing the driveway to be straightened. However, it’s our understanding that the school had been attempting to purchase that property for years, well before anyone expressed concerns about the driveway, characterizing their purchase now as an act of benevolence is just disingenuous.

Q: Has the neighbors and supporters reached out to town officials such as the Town Administrator, Community Development and the Planning Board? What has been their response?

A: We have repeatedly reached out to the Planning Board, Select Board, and the Town Administrator to discuss this issue. In fact, they are probably tired of hearing from us! In general they have been very open to hearing us out. Several board members and the Town Administrator have come out to view the property in person, rather than relying on the maps submitted by the school, and have encouraged us to attend and speak out at board meetings to make our voices heard in the review process. However, I’m not sure that this will be enough if the school isn’t willing to compromise.

Q: What is the neighbors seeking from the school, such as reduction in size or placing the parking on the main campus? Has the neighbors communicated with the school on these areas of compromise?

A: As a group, the neighbors have made many suggestions, both general and specific, as to how the school could revise its plans in a way that would be satisfactory to both the school and the Town. Unfortunately, the school has flatly refused to consider them, instead making minor changes that pay lip service to the idea of compromise, while accusing our group of being inflexible. Many of our suggestions have been met with the claim that the school has already deemed them to be impossible or impractical– without any further discussion of how they arrived at that conclusion.

At this point, the problem is not so much the specific details of the plan– though obviously increased setbacks from residences, reduction in the number of old-growth trees cut down, and significant reduction in size and use of the parking lot and maintenance facility would be welcome– but the school’s dogged adherence to its original plans without room for discussion.

Q: The Belmont Hill School has many tools as they move forward: the land parcels were purchased from willing sellers in an open market, it has a proposal that meets the town bylaws, and they can use the Dover Amendment as the sword of Damocles to any opposition. Are the neighbors playing with, as they say in poker, a Devil’s Hand (a set of weak card)?

A: I don’t believe that the school, for all that it claims to be within its rights under the law, can necessarily claim to have a trump card (to use a different card game analogy) in the Dover Amendment. Even under the Dover Amendment, the school has the burden of demonstrating that its proposed use of the land has an educational purpose, and even if it can meet that burden the Town is entitled to impose “reasonable regulations” on things like setbacks, open space, and parking. Perhaps in tacit acknowledgment of this fact, the school has not yet formally invoked the Amendment. The bottom line is that the Town has the power to regulate the school’s project if it sees fit– we are simply asking the Town to exercise that power if the school cannot come to a compromise.

Q: While not giving away any future plans, I understand an attorney has been advising the neighbors of their rights. Is litigation a possibility? 

We have indeed retained counsel to assist us in this matter. As one would expect, we are hopeful that litigation will not be necessary– no one wants a protracted lawsuit, which could take years to resolve. That being said, we are not afraid to file suit if it comes to that point; this issue is too important to let go after only token resistance, and we believe we have the public support necessary to take this as far we need to. Our petition has 2,000 signatures, which just goes to show how widespread people’s interest is in opposing this project.

Q: What should the greater Belmont community to know about this issue? 

A: We can’t emphasize enough that this is not just a localized issue, that only matters to our immediate neighborhood. It’s not even a “Town of Belmont” issue, though of course Belmont residents will feel the most immediate effects. It’s bigger than that; how we (and by “we” I include the Belmont Hill School) act here is an indicator of how we will act in the future, when the next choice has to be made between sustainability and convenience; between looking to the future or remaining mired in the past. Belmont Hill School has been educating children for almost a century. We should all think about what they’ll learn from this, and act accordingly.

Cityside Subaru To Supersize Pleasant Street Location With Big New Dealership

Photo: A preliminary design of the proposed new Cityside Subaru dealership on Pleasant Street.

Belmont-based Cityside Subaru is about to supersize itself as it will bring before the town a proposal to double the size of its location by building a nearly 40,000 square foot all-purpose dealership on Pleasant Street.

When completed, the new multi-level structure will occupy 39,900 square feet on 1.6 acres and rise to nearly 40 feet overlooking the roadway. So far no price tag has been placed on the project or when construction will commence and a proposed opening day.

While details are still sketchy, the dealership will pull the curtain back on its intentions on Thursday, Sept. 9 at 7 p.m. at a virtual Zoom meeting of the Belmont Planning Board.

One important thing Cityside does have in its hands is a variance on the proposed building’s height and the number of stories as well as a special permit on lot coverage coming from a 2020 ruling by the Belmont Zoning Board of Appeals. Those actions by the ZBA will allow the new building to reach 38 feet and three stories, an additional six feet and one floor above existing zoning requirements.

But the most significant allowance for the developer is in commercial lot coverage which doubles under the proposal from 38 percent to 73 percent.

In an effort “to create a more efficient customer experience,” Cityside’s proposes to demolish the existing building at 790 Pleasant St. – constructed in 2003 – in addition to the pair of adjacent structures on parcels Cityside purchased in the past few years. The new building will be completed in phases to allow the existing dealership to operate while the new structure – which occupies 774A and 778 Pleasant St. – is under construction.

The ground floor will have 24 service bays, pull-in spaces, parts, retail and storage. The rear of the building will be for customer and employee parking and new vehicle storage. The second or main level will be a new showroom, offices, conference rooms and customer “amenities.” The top third level will be structured parking where new vehicles will be stored.

Cityside – which is a member of the Colonial Automotive Group – is proposing hours of operation to be: Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.

In its application to the Planning Board, Cityside broached what will be one of the most contentious issues it will face: traffic, suggesting the redesign will “reduce unnecessary vehicle movements” along Pleasant Street.

News reports from across the country reveal the new Cityside building will be one of the larger structures constructed by a Subaru dealer.

Bidding Opens For New Skating Rink, Decision On Winning Offer In May

Photo: A new rink will replace the five decade old “Skip” Viglirolo Skating Rink.

In the same week the Belmont’s Skip Viglirolo Skating Rink was forced to shut down due to “unseasonably warm” temperatures – in January(!)– the town and schools OKed opening the bidding process to build a next-generation private/public partnership skating facility on school property west of Harris Field.

“This is actually a big moment in the development of this project,” said Jeffery Wheller, Belmont’s senior planner before a joint meeting of the Select Board and School Committee as each group voted unanimously to approve the release of the final version of the request for proposal on Jan. 15.

“Hopefully after tonight’s presentation we’ll get some exciting responses to the project,” he said.

The town’s Community Development Office also released a seven-month timeline of important milestones the RFP will undergo before a deal is struck.

  • Wednesday, Jan. 15: RFP is released to the public.
  • Wednesday, Jan. 29: Site visit and preliminary meeting with interested parties.
  • Tuesday, Feb. 25: Select Board/School Committee discuss review process.
  • Friday, March 20: Proposals are due.
  • Tuesday, April 7: School Committee/Select Board review top proposals.
  • Tuesday, April 28: School Committee/Select Board interview best proposals.
  • Tuesday, May 12: School Committee/Select Board selects the winning proposal.
  • Monday, June 1: On the second night of the 2020 annual Town Meeting, a Special Town Meeting will be convened to vote: 1). To lease school property to a private developer(s) and 2). amend the definition in the town’s zoning bylaw on municipal recreational uses.
  • Tuesday, June 9: School Committee awards a contract to the winning proposal.
  • Between June 10 to July 8: School Committee negotiates a long-term lease with the selected developer(s).

The town is predicting the design and site plan review process managed by the Planning Board will take between six to nine months. Only when that is completed can the developer seek a building permit.

The existing rink – known as “The Skip” – will remain in operation until the new facility is up and running and will be taken down by the town unless the area that the rink currently occupies will is needed to fulfill the town’s programmatic needs.

The RFP is fairly similar to earlier drafts, although a proposed tennis complex has been removed from the proposal.

The main features of the RFP include:

  • The facility – which may be expanded to be a year round operation – will need to share the land west of the existing rink and Harris Field with three athletic fields, a pair of throwing circles and 110 parking spaces (90 reserved for students on school days) that will be built at town expense.
  • The facility – with a maximum height of two-and-a-half stories – can contain a full-size and one half-size sheet of ice. The building will have at least 300 seats for spectators, public restrooms, a skate shop and food concessions.
  • The building will have a minimum of four locker rooms with two containing 35 lockers for boys’ and girls’ varsity and the other two with 45 lockers for the junior varsity teams. Each room will have a coaches room, showers and storage. The facility will also have a refs room, an athletic trainers room and wet area.
  • Two locker rooms will also be used by high school fall and spring sports, one each for the home and visiting teams. The restrooms will also have outdoor accessibility.
  • The town would “prefer” a zero-net energy facility i.e. avoiding fossil fuels to power the site.
  • The high school’s ice hockey teams will have four consecutive hours of ice time Monday to Saturday, during the 15-week season. Games will be played over two hours. Belmont Youth Hockey will have hours and times that meet its growing needs as will programs linked to the town’s Recreation Department.
  • The hours of operation will be negotiated with the winning bidder and the town.

Each candidate will be evaluated and ranked based on a matrix in which the town will grade the four comparative evaluation criteria the town has selected.

For example, those bidders that can show experience designing and building a significant number of similar rinks that have been successful and with similar goals as Belmont is seeking will receive a “very advantageous” ranking; those who have built only “some” facilities will be seen as being “advantageous” while those with no experience constructing rinks will be deemed “non-advantageous.”

Planning Board Seeking Two New Members To Join ‘Congenial’ Group

Photo: The Planning Board’s acting Chair Stephen Pinkerton.

With two empty seats on the group, the Belmont Planning Board is looking to close the gap before the start of a busy fall season, said acting Planning Board Chair Stephen Pinkerton.

“We are reaching out to residents who want to volunteer to serve with a group that is doing some important work for the community,” said Pinkerton, who took over from the previous Chair, Charles Clark, who stepped down after serving nine years on the board.

The board is seeking candidates to fill a full-time vacancy – with the departure of Clark – and an associate member’s position. For both seats, “clearly there’s a need for someone who has strategic or master planning experience,” said Pinkerton.

Those interested in applying for the positions can go the town’s “Talent Bank.”

Created to protect and preserve the character and quality of life that defines Belmont, the Planning Board will face a number of high profile cases coming before its docket in the coming months including a residential and educational development on the two last open parcels at McLean Hospital, multiuse construction along South Pleasant Street and creating bylaws on short-term rentals such as those on AirBnB.

Pinkerton said one area of expertise the board would like to add is someone with legal experience.

“We have a good representative group with planning background so it will be useful to get a lawyer on board,” said Pinkerton who said McLean specifically “will not be an easy one” to resolve as the town and hospital are working within a land management agreement created 20 years ago this November.

While the associate member is not a full voting member, Clark said it’s likely whoever is appoved by the Select Board will be the board’s representative on the 2020-2030 Belmont Comprehensive Plan, which is the framework to guide future decisions and policies governing a wide range of land-use related issues in town.

Creating a new town master plan will “not be a start from scratch” project, said Pinkerton but rather skillfully taking out what has been accomplished since the last revision and help input policies approved by the Planning Board such as the Housing Production and energy plans.

Pinkerton believes a one-time member of the Warrant Committee or the Capital Projects Committee would be ideal for the position.

The Board will be taking its time during August to find the best person to join “a really congenial group. We’re not a fire brand agency,” said Pinkerton.

Planning Board Shelves McLean Residential Project As Affordability Takes Center Stage

Photo: The Planning Board in session.

A proposed 125 unit residential development on one of the last large parcels of open space in Belmont was shelved by the Belmont Planning Board as questions of affordability, density and other issues were raised by residents and board members.

“We don’t have the time” to satisfactory review the proposal before a Town Meeting vote, said Board Chair Chuck Clark at the Thursday, March 14 meeting as the board voted unanimously to not bring six bylaw changes to the town’s annual legislative gathering.

The postponement is a victory for affordable housing campaigners who contend the McLean Hospital Zone 3 project is the one best and likely final opportunities to bring a substantial number of accessible units into the town’s housing inventory.

“Let’s slow this down so we all can get to and work together,” said Rachel Heller, co-chairman of the Belmont Housing Trust, which has been advocating for greater income diverse housing through public policy – securing the town’s Housing Production Plan – and with growing activism. 

The delay is a blow to property owner McLean Hospital and Northland Residential, the proposed developer, which were seeking a positive vote at the annual Town Meeting in May to expedite the construction of what a Northland executive called an “age directed” project on nearly 13 acres of land set aside for housing when Town Meeting approved a mixed-use development plan with McLean nearly two decades ago in July 1999.

While the proponents pointed to the success of the nearby Northland-developed The Woodlands as being replicated on Zone 3, board vice chair Stephen Pinkerton said: “there are a lot of issues in terms of density and interest in affordable housing that need to be vetted among a half a dozen entities in town.”

“This won’t pass [Town Meeting] by a two-thirds majority” as Pinkerton motioned to the residents filling the Selectmen’s Room, suggesting the process be “paused.” 

Clark told the Belmontonian the Planning Board will ask the Belmont Board of Selectmen to create a task force with “everybody” including the Housing Trust, residents in addition to McLean “to figure this out.”

“I see this come back to Town Meeting in the fall,” said Clark, referring to an anticipated Special Town Meeting that typically takes place in November. “I suspect we’ll come to an agreement, it will just take a while.”

While campaigners did not have specific numbers or percentages of units, advocates said they are available to assist McLean and Northland either by introducing established affordable developers to partner with the proponents or work independently.

“A task force will create the opportunity for all these voices to be heard and then really think how to develop something that’s beneficial for McLean meets the town’s needs,” said Heller.

The question now hanging over the stalled development is if McLean and Northland will accept a new round of negotiations that could result in a greater affordability component.

McLean and the developer both noted in their presentations Thursday night the nearly 13 acres is currently zoned to accommodate approximately 500 apartment-style units in a high-density complex that includes buildings upwards to six stories tall and generating considerable vehicle traffic.

But it’s unlikely McLean would go that route and the developer admitted the “bankability” of such large assisted living/care complexes has waned considerably in the past decade.

The development – located on the southern ridge of the hospital close to Star Market and Pleasant Street – would be a “senior directed independent living residential community” consisting of 34 large 2 to 3 bedroom townhouses with a sales price of upwards of $1.5 million similar to those in the adjacent Woodlands along with 91 “flat” 1 to 2 bedroom apartments located in four-story buildings. The complex would provide town coffers with $1.6 million in added tax revenue.

Under a revised plan, 20 apartments would be designated “affordable” for those making 80 percent of the area median income (for a two-person family, an 80 percent AMI would be $63,050), an increase from a proposed 9 units that target buyers with an AMI as high as 120 percent ($94,550 for a two-family household). 

When the meeting was thrown open to public comment, it was quickly evident that despite a doubling of the number of affordable units in Zone 3, housing advocates felt, as Heller noted, “we can do a lot better.”

With Belmont still 337 units short of the state’s goal of 10 percent affordable housing. McLean is “one of the few if the only way for the town to get to that 10 percent,” said Heller, who said that rather than townhouses, the community needs more rental units as more than 40 percent of Belmont renters are “cost-burdened” as housing costs take more than a third of their income.

Gloria Leipzig of the Belmont Housing Authority noted the 40-unit Waverley Woods, designated in the 1999 agreement for low and moderate income housing, was built on 1.4 acres, “eight times” the space being proposed for the Zone 3 development.

“Certainly more than 34 large townhouses and 90 [apartments] can be built on this property,” she said.

Squandering The Potential 

As the land was “laid aside for specific community needs,” once a development proposal is adopted, “we can’t take this zoning back,” said Joseph Zarro, pastor of Belmont’s Plymouth Church. “I think we’d be squandering the potential of this land” under the proposed project.”

One resident commented on a statement by a Northland executive who said the new townhouses that would likely sell for $1.5 million was built “for folks that look like me and you.” Elizabeth Lipson of the Housing Trust said she is sensitive to “dog whistle” comments that housing in Belmont should be built with a certain income level in mind.

“One of the objectives of many of us is to diversify our town by income and … also by race,” said Lipson, who found the comment “upsetting.” 

Throwing another wrench into the works was a legal ruling brought forth by attorney Roger Colton who noted a 2002 ruling by the state’s Land Court against the town’s Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals (American Retirement Corp vs  et al) limiting both boards “to make its own interpretation of what was ‘best’ for the town” which should be left “to the legislative process.”

With issues of housing diversity, density and a sticking point that the bylaw changes would benefit the current proposal but not alter the existing zoning map, leaving the possibility of a future developer to build to the approved level of nearly 500 units, Clark said there was no chance the board could resolve any of the outstanding issues by the end of the month.

“There are too many moving parts,” he said.

Nearly lost in the residential development discussion was McLean’s earlier proposal to construct a campus for children and adolescence education and a research and development center on an adjacent parcel located to the northeast. Known as Zone 4, the development will not start for upwards to five years as the hospital raises funds for the project, said Michele Gougeon, McLean’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Eventually, the site will include a combined academic and residential building and a “small” Research and Development building which will fit inside a 150,000 sq.-ft. envelop.

Clark noted in past agreements, due to the R&D portion is being reduced by more than half of the original, the town could be obligated to pay McLean for that change, a statement Gougeon said would need to be reviewed.

By the end of the night, Clark believed there will be a solution to the issues face all parties.

“I think McLean can do better. I think Belmont can do better,” said Clark.

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.