Cushing Square Developer Seeks Equity Partner, Buyer for Delayed Project

After more than a year of promises and delays, the developer of Cushing Village – the nearly 167,000 square-foot, multi-use development in the heart of Belmont’s Cushing Square – is actively seeking an equity partner or is hoping to sell the project’s development rights to the highest bidder as financial constraints have plaguing the project.

Beginning this month, a big-time Boston commercial real estate search firm hired by Cushing Village’s developer Acton-based Smith Legacy Partners, Inc. has been actively shopping the three-block site to an array of experienced commercial development teams and investors in an attempt to convince one to take on Smith Legacy as a partner, or to purchase the right to build the future home of 115 residential units, 230 parking spaces and nearly 36,000 square feet of retail at the corner of Trapelo Road and Common Street.

In an advertisement distributed to the commercial real estate community, Boston Realty Advisors, the Boylston Street consultancy known for its deal-making prowess, has been or will soon conduct tours of the site – now occupied by abandoned retail and commercial spaces, a laundry and a Starbucks Cafe – as it seeks a “pre-sale or joint venture development opportunity” for the development it describes as “fully permitted and shovel ready.”

Jason Weissman, BRA’s founder and principal, told the “The Real Reporter,” which covers the New England commercial real estate industry, Smith Legacy will seek “creative proposals and will entertain innovative deal structures,” with the opportunity made available “[without] pricing guidance.”

While Chris Starr, the man who has shepherd the project for the past eight years, did not comment, a member of a PR firm working with Smith Legacy was adamant the development will stay with Starr.

“To be clear, Cushing Village is not for sale – Smith Legacy Partners is pursuing partnership opportunities because they realize that others might want to invest in Belmont but there’s no intention to sell the property,” Suzanne Morse, a vice president with O’Neill and Associates wrote in an email.

Yet in its pitch, BRA makes it clear that Cushing Village “represents a rare opportunity to acquire a 163,883 gross square foot mixed-use community, on a pre-sale or joint venture basis, in one of Metro Boston’s most affluent communities.”

Smith Legacy’s apparent need for a partner or buyer would, at first glance, appear unnecessary as the market for mixed-use projects is “ideal” given the advanced recovery is sparking interest in ground-up projects, especially those permitted and ready for launch, one commercial real estate insider told “The Real Reporter.” With interest rates at historic lows, Cushing Village’s residential segment “is especially attractive given the amount of capital chasing that asset class.”

Yet, according to numerous sources within real estate, business and government, the sense Smith Legacy – a first time development team attempting to build a large development – was over-its-head with the development was evident well before the town began the planning process. In the summer of 2011, Starr and his development partner, Cambridge-based Oaktree Development, parted ways, leaving Starr without an experienced hand to reach out to banks, investors and commercial brokers.

“This deal was going south when Oaktree left,” one industry insider told the Belmontonian.

One did not need to scratch the surface very hard to hear reports of Smith Legacy’s difficulties in both securing and then keeping its financing in place. One source indicated Smith Legacy had a tentative financing deal set, but the lender backed out for an unexplained reason.

A lending source told the Belmontonian while many debt providers would listen to the developer’s pitch; none would expand their hand in agreement.

“[Starr] would have placed the biggest sign on the [SS] Pierce Building (the abandoned building where the entry to Cushing Village will be built) announcing the bank doing the deal,” said a person with knowledge of the process. “Do you see one?” they quipped.

Another source said Smith Legacy was caught in a vicious vortex of an inexperienced developer: they lacked the wherewithal to attract financing, and so commercial tenants were leery of committing to long-term leases in a project without financing. Ironically, without tenants, lenders are unwilling to fund a financing deal.

But when Starr received the Planning Board’s final OK to build after a hard-fought design process, all appearance was that Cushing Village would be up and running in record time.

After receiving the Planning Board’s OK in July 2013, Starr announced he would break ground “in a few months” with the first of the three buildings – the “Winslow” which would be located on the municipal parking lot along Trapelo Road and – completed by summer or fall of 2014, with the third building and the parking finished by the spring of 2015.

But other than crews conducting test borings and limited work on preparing the site for development, no activity commenced at the site during the rest of 2014 and into the New Year. Nor would Starr present to town or elected officials a firm financial commitment from an investor or lender.

Suddenly in March, Smith Legacy’s attorney, Mark Donahue, requested the selectmen grant a 30-day extension for the closing date of the purchase and sale agreement for the municipal parking lot until June 27. The pre-approved price for the lot is $850,000.

“We’re working diligently on a number of different fronts,” Donahue told the board, saying Smith Legacy was firming up the Starbucks relocation plans and deciding the site for temporary construction parking. Additionally, Donahue advised the board the construction would “begin between August and October.”

In addition, Donahue sought and was given the right to extend the closing date by 30 days but only by paying the town a $20,000 fee. Since that agreement was in place, Smith Legacy has deposited $80,000 into the town’s coffers.

Starr’s lack of movement on the project had tried the patience of Rojas and the other selectmen who were prepared to set a fall deadline for the municipal lot’s purchase. Only after meetings with town officials was the ultimatum shelved.

This summer, Smith Legacy attempted and failed to convince the Zoning Board of Appeals to allow Starbucks to move from its current location adjacent to the municipal parking lot to a temporary location near the corner of Belmont Street and Trapelo Road.

The future of Smith Legacy holding ownership of the property is not as crystal clear as Starr is telling people. A source told the Belmontonian an established and seasoned development team would not enter into such a deal as a “junior” partner, reducing its involvement to simply being a lender without a say in the development.

This will be at least a 60/40 deal, said a real estate source.

The real value, according to nearly everyone who discussed the project, is in the development rights; the permitting and design agreements with the town.

Smith Legacy’s current predicament – without an finalized financial package, a single new commercial tenant in 14 months (a “tavern” to be managed by a Washington Street resident to open in 2017) and few options – is now being seen as inevitable by many in town.

“This is not a complete surprise,” said Andy Rojas, chair of the Belmont Board of Selectmen who sat on the Planning Board during the majority of the 18 months it took for the town and Starr to cobble together a development deal in July 2013.

“Many involved in the process have for years thought and anticipated that Mr. Starr would need to bring in an experienced equity and development partner,” he said. “I believe that it finally has dawned on Mr. Starr that this is the only way forward for him.”

The need for an experienced hand to build what many would consider a moderate-sized suburban multi-purpose project has become critical in today’s commercial environment said one real estate observer.

“I think a lot of the reasons have to do with lenders being more demanding of higher-equity levels in a project and the developer either finds selling out a better route or if they want to stay in, they can spread the risk some and or use that capital for something else,” said Joseph Clements, founder and editor of the “The Real Reporter”, which covers the New England commercial real estate industry.

Final Cut: Frank’s Barber Shop Closes as Commercial Market Shifts

Frank Cannalonga has been a Belmont barber for the past half century.
And if you count the first ten years spent with his brother-in-law’s shop in Watertown, it’s been 60 years “cutting hair,” Cannalonga said.
“I have been here 50 years at this barber chair. That’s a lot of standing,” said the 84-year-old Robinwood Road resident.
As satirist Fran Lebowitz observed that “you’re only as good as your last haircut,” then you couldn’t come to a better place than Frank’s Barber Shop at 113 Trapelo Rd. across the busy street from Starbucks and the town’s municipal parking lot.
Frank or his long-time partner, Fred Sacco, sits you down and gets to work, with a razor and scissors, sometimes both in the same hand. They show the efficiency of more than a century as barbers, cleanly making the unruly presentable with a preference to the “high and tight” style that has become fashionable again.
On one recent Saturday, a Watertown kid’s thatched thick hair is buzz cut into shape.
“He’s one big cow lick,” said the pre-teen’s mother to Frank as Fred puts the finishing touches on a regular, explaining he can now go home to his wife.
“I don’t know if I want to now,” he said laughing.
Not a “hipster” barber salons with names such as Gentlemens Choice or The Barbershop Lounge where cuts run up to $50, Frank’s doesn’t have on-line appointment scheduling (“Oh no,” said Frank when asked if the store has a Web page. “They know when we are open.”), leather couches or alternative music booming in the background.
Just a couple of threadbare chairs where customers or an appreciative parent can sit and talk in the two-chair establishment. A television is in the back “when the game is on,” lollipops nestled adjacent to the cash register at the ready for anyone who needs one, a plaque of appreciation from the Lions Club and a family photo on the shelf.
And the prices: $16 for the “regular”, three more of the “razor” cut. You can get your hair styled but “most come in for the regular,” said Cannalonga.
This coming Saturday, June 21, Frank’s will close like it always does around 4:30 p.m. but only after the last customer has been dusted with talcum powder and Frank rings in the sale.
It will also be the final Saturday for Frank’s, as the traditional barbershop shuts its door for the last time.
“And that will be it. I’ll come by a few days later to clean up the place and that will be it,” said Cannalonga.
In a trend that is becoming more familiar in Belmont this spring, as the state economy has recovered and the town awaits major development and infrastructure projects to start, commercial leases are either shooting skyward or existing businesses are not given the opportunity to renew their leases as landlords sights have turned to more lucrative enterprises.
Customers still park in the lot at what was once One Stop Market at the corner of Pleasant Street and Brighton Street only to be surprised to find the long-time convenience store locked and empty.
“Thanks for everything!” reads the sign at the front door.
Others are feeling the pinch. Gustazo Cuban Restaurant & Cafe at School and Trapelo is leaving for Waltham while other mom and pop shops wait to see what their owners are thinking.
Frank’s is one of those casualty of Belmont’s changing commercial scene.

“Well, I wasn’t quite ready. I could have worked another year or two before getting out. But I wasn’t even offered the chance so that’s where it is,” said Cannalonga. 

Frank’s landlord, Harry Misakian of Misakian Belmont LLC, which owns the commercial block that runs along Trapelo onto Common Street, could not be contacted.

Frank’s and his neighbors including the Christian Science Reading Room and  are leaving months before the first shovels are anticipated to hit the ground for the construction of Cushing Village, the 186,000 square foot development that will bring nearly 35,000 square feet of new retail and more than 110 high-end residential units to Cushing Square, across the street from Frank’s.
Rumors have an up-scale man’s salon occupying Frank’s spot.

What he will miss the most is the customers, “because after 50 years you build up quite a few friends,” said Cannalonga.
Sacco will soon be working for “our competitor across the way, a nice kid,” he said.
But there is no bitterness from Frank on leaving before he had hoped.
“It’s been a good run,” said Cannalonga.

Starbucks Temporary Relocation On Zoning Board Agenda Tonight

The Belmont Zoning Board of Appeals tonight, Monday, June 16 will reconvene its hearing from last month on the temporary relocation of the Cushing Square Starbucks Coffee Cafe to the intersection of Belmont Street and Trapelo Road, a meeting that brought out nearly 40 residents voicing concern on the possible increase in traffic and parking as well as questioned trash migrating into the abutting neighborhoods.

The meeting will take place at 7 p.m. in the Belmont Gallery of Art, on the third floor of the Homer Building, located in the Town Hall complex in Belmont Center.

The original meeting, held on Monday, May 19, brought out residents who heard the popular Cushing Square Starbucks would temporarily move for about a year from its present location at 112 Trapelo Road up the road to 6-8 Trapelo which is less than a block from the intersection of Belmont and Pine streets. 

The move is necessary due to the construction of Cushing Village, the 186,000 sq.-ft. multi-building residential/retail/parking complex being constructed by developer Chris Starr of Smith Legacy Partners. Starr’s company also owns the two storefronts which the cafe would move into.

Smith Legacy is seeking a pair of special permits for the relocation; one to performs renovations to the exterior and the second to run a restaurant at the site.

Residents of the nearby neighborhoods told the board at last month’s meeting of their worries that the cafe, with nearly 50 seats, will aggrandize parking problems facing the adjacent residential streets that are currently being used by commuters. They also voiced worries of greater trash and litter in their community and other nuisances.

Starbucks Trapelo Road Store Moving As Cushing Square Development Starts

In the first-clear evidence the proposed 186,000 square foot-Cushing Village project in the heart of Belmont’s Cushing Square is set to get underway, the developer of the three-building residential, retail and parking complex will seek town approval to relocate for a year the Starbucks Coffee store at 112 Trapelo Road adjacent to the municipal parking lot to a currently occupied store front near the intersection of Belmont Street and Trapelo Road.

In a public filing with the town’s Community Development department, Chris Starr of Smith Legacy Partners is requesting two variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals to alter the entrance to 6-8 Trapelo Rd. and allow a temporary restaurant with 30 seats to be located at the site.

Starr states that the plan “is to have Starbucks return to Cushing Village” in 2015 when building is completed on the first structure of the complex which will occupy the municipal parking lot.

When Starbucks decamps back to Cushing Village, Starr said in statement that the improved site “will then continue to be used for the new use granted under the Special Permit.” It is not known what eatery that will replace the national coffee shop in 2015.

The meeting will take place on Monday, May 19 at 7 p.m. in the Belmont Art Gallery on the third floor of the Homer Building in the Town Hall complex.

There is no date in the documents when the move will take place.

The relocated Starbucks will occupy just under 800 square feet with occupancy for up to 52 people. It will be located just two store fronts from Moozy’s Ice Cream & Yogurt Emporium which is located at the corner of Belmont and Trapelo. 

The new location will not provide off street parking which Starbucks has at its current location

The relocation site houses a tailors store and a jewelers.

“It’s so exciting,” said Yun Cao, who owns the small Herb Spa located next to the site. “I am a small business so this will bring customers,” she said.

Located at the corner of Common Street and Trapelo, Cushing Village – which will also provide 245 parking spaces, 37,500 square feet of stores, a small grocery store, a fitness and health spa and a restaurant – was approved by the Planning Board in July 2013 after an 18-month hearing process. To date, the only activity to have taken place on the proposed development site has been remedial environment clearing.