Toll Partners With Former Owner To Lease Cushing Village’s Retail Space

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. 

Selectmen Set March 22 As D-Day for Cushing Village Developer to Move on Project

Photo: Cushing Village.

The Belmont Board of Selectmen Monday warned the developer of Cushing Village that unless it sees “significant progress” towards construction of the three building, residential/retail/parking project at its March 22 meeting, it would be unlikely to extend a purchase and sale agreement for a critical parcel of town-owned land that expires March 28.

“It would be very difficult for us to approve an extension … unless the developer comes back with something new, 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 of the 167,000 square foot project approved by the Planning Board when he was chair back in July 2013. 

After cancelling a scheduled meeting to update Belmont elected officials on the status of its long-troubled development at its Monday, March 14 meeting, the board pointed to its next public meeting, on March 22, as the final opportunity for Chris Starr, the managing partner of Smith Legacy Partners which owns two parcels and is seeking to purchase the municipal parking lot adjacent to Trapelo Road and abuts the Starbucks cafe in Cushing Square.

Starr told the town he will attend next Tuesday night’s meeting to be held at Town Hall where he will “make a presentation,” said Baghdady.

“Something has to be done by March 28,” said Baghdady

Under a long-standing agreement, Smith Legacy was to gain title to the lot for $850,000, but only when it secured a complete financing deal. It has been the inability to nail down the money needed to begin construction that has delayed the project for the past 958 days.  

Baghdady said if Starr does not convince the board the project is moving forward, it is likely the board will revoke the purchase and sale agreement and retain ownership of the parcel. It would be unlikely that the expired P&S agreement could be revived unless that town issues a new request for proposal for the municipal parking lot and with it the Special Permit – which took 18 months to craft – would also expire.

On March 29, Starr would only have ownership to two small parcels – 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, “and that could be potentially two more moderately-sized projects.” 

With the P&S taken off the table, the town will keep nearly $700,000 in penalties that Starr has been paying the town over the past two years in option payments. 

“I want to reassure everybody that Belmont is being protected. While we want to see development in Cushing Square, we want to support the local businesses, we know what the residents have gone through, its been a roller coaster ride. But we need to protect the town.” said Baghdady.

BREAKING: Selectmen To Review Cushing Village Developer’s Financing, Viability

Photo: Chris Starr before the Planning Board.

A day after the developer of the troubled Cushing Village project came before a skeptical and non-committal Belmont Planning Board requesting yet another multi-month extension to close on an important town-owned parking lot, the chair of the Belmont Board of Selectmen said a sudden change in the developer’s financial team will now “certainly necessitate a new review by the Board of Selectmen of how viable his financing and financial arrangement is.”

Speaking before the Warrant Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 3, Selectmen Chair Sami Baghdady said developer Chris Starr’s acknowledgment that industry leader Cornerstone Real Estate Advisers is no longer involved with the project to provide a significant portion of financing “is troubling that it happened so late in process,” Baghdady told the Belmontonian after the meeting.

The board will next meet on Monday, Feb. 22 when they will convene with Liz Allison, chair of the Planning Board, to discuss the on-going issues concerning Cushing Village. 

Despite Starr initial attempt to purchase the municipal parking lot six months ago, “the selectmen have take the position that we will not tender the deed (to the lot) selling him the parking lot unless the closing takes place at the same time contemporaneously with his loan financing is approved,” said Baghdady, referring to construction financing from its lead lender, Wells Fargo. 

Only when Starr has the approximately $50 million construction loan in his hands, “that is when we will feel secure … and then we will record a land development agreement,” said Baghdady, who was Planning Board Chair when it approved the special permit allowing Starr to begin construction and purchase the parking lot adjacent to Trapelo Road.

In addition to a possible new round of financial reviews from the selectmen, the project faces a looming selectmen-imposed expiration date of March 27 for the option on the purchase and sale of the parking lot. 

“Remember, they were given two years to complete the P&S and that deadline is less than two months from now,” said Baghdady of Smith Legacy, which was selected 32 months ago to create a 164,000 sq.-ft. three building multi-use development in the heart of Cushing Square.

Baghdady’s comments came after Starr, the head of Smith Legacy Partners, requested a four-month extension from the Planning Board to purchase a municipal parking lot that he in the past said is the project’s lynchpin. 

Telling the Planning Board he believes he now has a clearer path to obtaining construction financing, Starr said his firm should be signing an agreement within 60 days, four months at the latest. 

Starr’s request was set aside on Tuesday, Feb. 2 by Allison who noted that her board could not grant the extension – which would move the deadline to the first week of June – until the Selectmen approved extending the purchase and sale agreement in which the developer would purchase the lot for $850,000.

For the past year, the developer has been paying the town a monthly penalty of $30,000 fine to allow him to keep his option on the P&S. Baghdady said Smith Legacy has turned more than $600,000 in penalties. Once a P&S is signed, the town will return half of the penalty to Smith Legacy.

The concern emulating from the two town boards was when they learned that a major source of mid-level financing left the development.

When asked by the Planning Board member Raffi Manjikian the status of Cornerstone, Starr said the project’s “mezzanine” lender had left the team since it was “not playing nicely in the sandbox” with lead lender Well Fargo. Cornerstone – an industry leader in secondary commercial financing – was prepared to provide $14 million in financing to the project.  

In real estate finance, developers use mezzanine loans to secure secondary financing for their projects where the primary mortgage or construction loan equity requirements are larger than 10 percent.

In its place, Starr said the Marlton, NJ-based Micheals Development Company will bring eight percent equity financing to the project. Starr said the company will “drop in a considerable investment into Cushing Village” as well as bringing strong banking relationships that will allow the project to move “towards a closing.” 

Starr also admitted that Micheals will offer its “executional [sic] capabilities on the financial front, construction management, and lease” operations that the current team and he don’t have.

We want someone who has been there, done that and has done it around the country very successfully,” said Starr.

Micheals is well-known in real estate circles as one of the nation’s top developers and owners of affordable housing. It has developed more than 50,000 units since 1973 and is the top private-sector affordable housing owner in the country, with more than 340 properties in 33 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

It is likely Micheals was brought onto the team from previous work it had with Cambridge-based Urban Spaces, which partnered with Starr nearly a year ago to jump-start the long-stalled project.

In 2014, Urban Spaces and Michaels were involved in a 50/50 partnership to build a five-story, 160,000 sq.-ft. apartment complex at 159 First St. in Kendall Square. It included 115-unit apartments with commercial space on the first floor along with underground parking, “the same program we’d be executing at Cushing Village,” said Starr. 

But any arrangement remains stalled as Starr finds himself facing ever increasing demands from all sides, highlighted by the requirement from his lenders that he secures at minimum three leases to occupy the project’s 38,000 sq.-ft retail space. 

So far, the project has two firm leases with one national company and a “bar.” Critical for Starr is that the team’s “close to finalizing” the lease for an anchor tenant. But Starr is not longer saying the anchor will be a food market as he has expressed in the past.

Starr remains confident in his project and the town’s continued support for his effort. 

“They see what we are committed to bringing to the community, and that is a great commercial center,” he said. 

Cushing Village Developer Misses Deadline for [Put Number Here] Time

Photo: The municipal parking lot at Cushing Village is .. still there. 

Belmont just received another lump of coal from the developer who promised 30 months ago that he would build a project that “will revitalize Cushing Square and will become a source of pride for all of Belmont.”

On Dec. 3, after repeatedly missing deadlines for five months to purchase the municipal parking lot in Cushing Square, a “contrite” Chris Starr came before the Planning Board to apologize to town officials for two-and-a-half years of delays and false starts in building the 164,000 sq.-ft. the multi-use development known as Cushing Village. 

Starr told the board – which oversees the troubled project for the town – that he pledged to meet “three agreed to ‘milestones’ with the town” to begin the initial construction phase of the $63 million project consisting of 115 residential units, 38,300 sq.-ft. of retail and 225 parking space with 50 reserved for town use. 

“So we are really committed to making a change in Cushing Square and getting Cushing Village done,” said Starr.

The first milestone was to purchase the deed for the lot at Trapelo and Williston roads adjacent to the Cushing Square Starbucks at a cost of $850,000 by Friday, Dec. 11.

Um, how about moving that first deadline by a week, to Dec. 18, advised Starr’s attorney Mark Donahue. 

“We have frankly lost time as we … were communicating with the lenders,” said Donahue, speaking of lead banker Wells Fargo. Despite a lot of misgivings, the board and Board of Selectmen Chair Sami Baghdady felt that Starr and his team had a plan that could be met.

Present at the meeting was Tony Papantonis, president and founder of Needham-based Nauset Construction, who said the lot would be “secured” and fenced in during Christmas week with heavy machinery marshaled on the space. In fact, prep work would begin that week, said Papantonis.

But for residents who live in the nearby neighborhood, the scene is anything but busy. Twenty days after Starr made his “solid” promise to the Planning Board, the lot remains open for parking, there is no fencing at the site, and the only activity is people leaving Starbucks with a hot mocha in a red cup. 

Once again, Chris Starr failed to make a “milestone” for the troubled project.

“The bottom line here is that the deadline was missed,” confirmed David Kale, town administrator on Wednesday, Dec. 23.

One neighbor, who has been following the Cushing Village saga for many years, said he has been reviewing land registry activity in Belmont and has not seen any evidence that Starr or Wells Fargo has begun the process of securing the deed for the lot.

What next? Kale said the Planning Board can request an agenda item concerning Cushing Village is included at its next meeting, “but that would be up to the board to do so.” 

An email was sent to Elizabeth Allison, the current chair of the Planning Board, concerning such a request. 

But it appears that a solution may come to pass before the Planning Board’s next meeting. It seems the missed deadline has less to do with a major failure on the developer’s part but rather what has cursed the project from the time Starr first initiated plans in 2008; simple incompetence. 

According to sources within government circles, the lack of a signature on an important set of papers at a time when officers of the bank and development company are decamping for an extended holiday recess was the culprit. 

The result is an inexcusable delay of several weeks, up until the first week in January, before the team can come together to sign off of the payment to Belmont for the municipal lot.

Three more lost weeks is but a drop in the bucket when the developer said in July 2013 the first building (on the parking lot) would welcome residents and retailers by the late fall/early winter … of 2014. 

A Contrite Developer Promises Action on Long-Delayed Cushing Village

Photo: Developer Chris Starr (photo 2012)

Apologetic and contrite, Chris Starr stood before the Belmont Planning Board and said he was sorry.

“I can’t begin to tell you how much each of these delays really impacts me,” said Starr.

“I’ve seen the frustration of people in Cushing Square, and I’ve seen the residents and the business owners … and I certainly empathize with what they are going through right now. And I share that frustration,” said Starr. 

Starr, who in 2010 sued each member of the Belmont Board of Selectmen and threatened in 2012 to develop a 40B housing development if the Planning Board would not move on the development, was penitent at the Dec. 3 meeting as he sought for the third time in the past four months either an extension or modifications to the proposed project that was approved nearly 30 months before.

“I want first to start off by apologizing for having to come back for yet another request. We are deeply sorry to do this … the simple fact is that there were some lender requirements that needed to address.

The Planning Board approved Thursday night the three “modifications” to a one-year extension to the special permit granted in July 2013 passing Starr’s Smith Legacy Partners to obtain the town permits to construct the residential/commercial/parking complex running from Belmont and Common streets onto Trapelo to Winston roads. 

The two-and-a-half year delay in construction was due in large part in the difficulty in securing a primary lender who would assume the risk in a project led by an inexperienced developer. 

Starr also announced Thursday that he is now to meet three agreed to “milestones” with the town to begin the initial construction phase of the project. 

“So we are really committed to making a change in Cushing Square and getting Cushing Village done,” said Starr.

The three strict milestones with deadlines as part of the agreement:

  • The developers must close on the deed for the municipal parking lot at a cost of $850,000 by Friday, Dec. 11,
  • Begin initial demolition on Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, and
  • Seek a building foundation permit from the town by Monday, Feb. 1, 2016. 

One of the modifications deals directly with the very first milestone, delaying the Dec. 11 closing of the sale of the municipal parking lot adjacent Trapelo Road by a week.  

Starr said he and his family is “committed to closing on the 18th” ending by thanking the Planning Board for “your understanding, your patience and I’m sure it won’t go unrewarded.” 

Mark Donahue, the Smith Legacy attorney, outlined the modifications that he noted was being required by Wells Fargo, the developer’s lead lender who will commit $15 million at the start of the project.

The first is a “force majeure” provision that allows the three milestones will be extended in the event of an extraordinary incident; relating to acts of God and not mere neglect or if the developer seeks a better deal.  

The second is what Donahue called “the lender saving provision” where the milestone dates are set aside if the lender exercises its rights of taking control of the property if it is determined the developer fails to meet his obligation to the bank. The lender, Wells Fargo, will then have the ability to negotiate a sale or a new deal with the town within the one-year extension, preventing the project from falling into “a black hole.”

The benefit of the second alteration is it “reassures the town” the project will be ultimately completed, with or without Starr at the helm, said Donahue.

“This is not to suggest in any fashion that the developer is walking away from these milestones,” said Donahue.

The third is the delay by a week of the first milestone. 

“We have frankly lost time as we … were communicating with the lenders,” said Donahue. 

The new additions, said Belmont Selectman Chair Sami Baghdady, will be beneficial to Belmont as it will allow the development to move forward whoever is in control of the project.

Saying that “we’re all frustrated to be here again” Baghdady said when looking at the development “in the bigger picture, we have to say to ourselves, ‘OK, what’s best for Belmont?'” 

None of the proposed language affects the one-year extension “and it’s still ticking,” said Baghdady. If the developer misses any of the milestone conditions, “we don’t want the special permit to terminate. We do want the lender to have the opportunity to come in, secure the project, take it over, finish the construction, cure, remedy and proceed.” 

“We don’t want a hole in the ground … and if this developer can’t make it continue, it is good for Belmont to have some else move in and move this project forward,” he said.

Cushing Village, at 164,000 sq.-ft. encompassing three buildings and two town blocks, would be the largest development in Belmont in recent memory. When completed in 18 months, the $63 million project will include 115 residential units, 38,000 sq.-ft. of retail spaces and underground parking that includes 50 municipal spaces.

After the closing, the public will see heavy equipment come to the municipal parking lot, the first building site, a few days later as the lot will be closed for the final time on Christmas week, according to Tony Papantonis, president and founder of Needham-based Nauset Construction.

Demolition of the S.S. Pierce building (at the corner of Common and Trapelo) and the former CVS building at Common and Belmont would then begin as well as prep work on the municipal lot within two weeks, in the first weeks of January 2016.

White Knight to the Rescue: Cushing Village Partnering with Cambridge Firm

Photo: Cushing Village on the Chinese-language website, Jei Wi. 

After more than 21 months since the town approved its construction, the developer of the multi-use Cushing Village project has apparently found his “White Knight” to help rescue the 167,000 square foot project that has been floundering since 2013. 

In a press release dated April 27, Cushing Village’s developer, Smith Legacy Partners said Cambridge-based Urban Spaces would become its “development partner” in constructing the three-building complex comprising 115 apartments, about 36,000 square feet of retail/commercial space and a garage complex with 230 parking spaces. 

Urban Spaces’ “development expertise will help to ensure that the vision we have for the Cushing Village project becomes a reality,” said Chris Starr, the managing partner of Smith Legacy Partners located in Acton.

Movement on the long-stalled project at the corner of Trapelo Road and Common Street was met with approval from town officials.

“We welcome any news suggesting that the Cushing Village project is progressing,” said Sami Baghdady, chair of the Belmont Board of Selectmen. Baghdady was chair of the Planning Board, which spent nearly 18 months reviewing Starr’s plans for the project before approving the development plans in July 2013. 

Reports have yet to reveal the exact relationship between Starr and Urban Spaces, in terms of an equity stake, or which party has the controlling interest currently or in the future. In Urban Spaces’ past developments, the still young firm – it was founded in 2005 and completed its first major development in 2010 – has a history of continuing to hold onto properties once they are completed. 

“Unlike most developers, who are there to get projects built and move on, we manage all of our own properties,” said Urban Spaces’ Vice President of Operations Jeff Hirsch.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” Hirsch said in an article in the trade journal Construction Now.

The press release announcing the partnership said Urban Spaces “acquires, develops, and manages high-end residential properties in close proximity to urban centers.” 

Town officials are not aware of the partnership arrangement between Starr and Urban Spaces. 

“I am not aware of the nature of Urban Spaces’ participation in the project, but I am sure we will learn more before the developer purchases the Cushing Square parking lot property from the town,” said Baghdady. 

The initial step forward to begin construction of the complex will be the sale of the municipal parking lot adjacent to Trapelo and Williston roads by the town to the partnership for $850,000. That sale will be completed once the new team meets a series of provisions in the development agreement, once of which is identifying the development’s financing. 

The town can expect to receive about $1.5 million in the parking lot sale and fees and permit costs. 

But despite the announcement, nothing has taken place between the partners and the town with no firm date for the beginning of construction, according to Glenn Clancy, the town’s director of Community Development. 

The partnership announcement appears to bring an end to a tumultuous 21 months for Starr – who personally sued each of the Board of Selectmen in 2010 in a dispute over the municipal parking lot – as proclamations to the town of quick start on the project quickly turned into a series of delays and broken promises. 

Stalled by financing

In January 2014, Starr made public statements that construction would begin in the late winter or the early summer with the first stores opening by the spring of 2015. Yet the next time the development team was before town officials was in March 2014 when Starr’s representatives  negotiated with the Board of Selectmen a month-to-month extension to purchase the Trapelo Road  municipal parking lot by paying a $20,000 monthly non-refundable fee.

So far, Smith Legacy has sent nearly a quarter of a million dollars into town coffers. This month, the fee is scheduled to increase to $30,000. 

Discussion within the local business circles indicated that Starr – whose previous development experience has been building a small retail development in his hometown – was finding it difficult finding the necessary development financing to come before the town to purchase the parking lot. 

In addition, Starr had parted ways with his previous development partner, Porter Square’s Oaktree Development before finalizing the building rights with the Planning Board, which many business insiders said only made it more difficult finding a financial backer.

By August 2014, Starr hired Boston Realty Advisors, a commercial deal maker, offering up Cushing Village as a “pre-sale or joint venture development opportunity.”

By the beginning of 2015, the development showed up on the leading real estate website in China,, where it was seeking investors willing to pay up to $8 million to become a financial partner.

While the development stalled, the project lost an opportunity to lease the anchor retail space to a grocery store Starr has longed sought, when Foodie’s Urban Market decided to rent about 30,000 square-feet in the former Macy’s site in Belmont Center. 

It appeared activity was about to occur at the development with the news that the popular laundromat E-Z Duz It at the corner of Horne Road and Common Street was closing on April 30. 

What Urban Spaces brings to the partnership is just about everything needed to start, complete and run the development. The firm, founded by Paul Ognibene (who incidentally is the chair of the Cohasset School Committee), has experience developing Cushing Village-like projects. A recently completed building is a commercial development at 159 First Street in Cambridge’s Kendall Square, totaling 126,000 square feet housing 115 apartments with an underground parking garage and ground floor retail.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 8.51.54 AM

159 First Street, Cambridge, built by Urban Spaces.

Another, currently being planned on the Brighton and Brookline line on Washington Street, would include 130 units on five floors, first-floor retail space with 80 underground parking spaces. In that project, Urban Space acquired a 99-year lease on the property. 

Urban Space is also very active in the property management field and has financed projects it builds such as 7 Cameron Ave. in North Cambridge, and 30 Haven St. in Reading, built in 2012.

Coincidently, Urban Spaces partnered with Oaktree Development in the Reading development. 

“We’re in a big growth stage,” Urban Spaces’ Hirsch said in the Construction Now article.

“We’ve tripled in size in the last year and a half, and our property management business has quadrupled. We have been able to bring in some amazingly talented people with the same core values towards value, quality, and plain old hard work,” he said.