ZBA Denies Developer Vote To Build ‘Boutique’ Hotel on Pleasant and Brighton

Photo: The Zoning Board of Appeals voting to deny vote on hotel proposal.

For the second time this year, the Belmont Zoning Board of Appeals denied special permits which would have allowed the construction of a multimillion-dollar development on two lots at the intersection of Pleasant Street and Brighton Avenue.

This latest denial occurred Monday night, April 4, for the renovation of the two-building, two-story structure at 334 Pleasant St. – the former Mini Mart convenience store and offices – into a boutique hotel consisting of 19 guest rooms, a cafe for guests, a fitness room, a business center and offices on the 14,400 sq.-ft. site. 

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The ZBA Monday voted 3-2 not to even bring the five permits sought by Waltham developer Michael Columba before the board for discussion. Chair Eric Smith said the board did not have the authority to move the waivers forward since the town’s zoning bylaws don’t explicitly mention “hotels.” as an acceptable application.

“There is nothing in the bylaws that says a hotel can go anywhere in Belmont because there is no reference to a hotel use so how can we even hear arguments for the special permits,” said Smith.

The board dismissed the claim by Robert Levy, an attorney with Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott representing Columba, that the zoning bylaw’s parking requirements – which does briefly refers to a “hotel” – suggests the development’s “impacts” were similar to retail and service uses that are allowed at the site with a special permit.

“In my view, the mention of a hotel in the parking requirements was simply an error made at the time the bylaw was approved,” said Smith.

Not all the members held the same view as Smith as Associate Member John McManus said he “hates to see all these opportunities get squandered.”

While “disappoint,” Waltham developer Michael Columba said he was “OK” with the decision.

“I’ve always said that if the town did not want [a hotel], I have to put the building to good use with whatever tenants I can get,” Columba said, which will likely include a convenience store, garage and offices which are deemed “as of right” under the zoning bylaw and does not require town approval.

“I have to move on this project in a few months,” said Columba, who purchased the site in September 2015 for $1.9 million. 

Monday’s decision follows the rejection on Jan. 11 of a proposed 3,500 sq.-ft. Dunkin’ Donut franchise and retail space across Brighton from Columba’s property. The landowners and franchise, the Leo family who operates nearly 20 donut shops in Massachusetts and Florida, has suggested appealing the 3-2 vote denying them permits to renovate a former gas station and garage it purchased for $1 million in 2014. 

These latest board decisions have led some residents to complain that the ZBA is contributing to what many views as a negative business climate in Belmont, where the needs of commerce are pushed aside for those of residential housing.

Board members rejected the notion it is feeding the perception of an anti-business bias in town, saying it only follows what the Town Meeting – the legislative branch of town governance – has approved.

“In my view, we are trying to apply the bylaws which have been determined by Town Meeting what should be allowed and … if it turns out, in our opinion, it’s not, we are following [Town Meeting’s] edicts,” said Smith.

“This board definitely does not have an anti-business motivation,” said member Nicholas Iannuzzi, noting the ZBA approved “a ton of businesses along South Pleasant Street using the same bylaws which are on the books today.”

“But if something doesn’t fit within the zoning bylaws, then we don’t have much choice,” said Iannuzzi.

Changes to zoning laws would start at the Planning Board who would create a new bylaw before presenting it before Town Meeting for a vote. A current example is the rewriting of zoning language placing limits on the height and mass of new residential construction in the neighborhoods surrounding Grove Street playground.

But even if Town Meeting introduces hotel use under the bylaw, Columba is not interested in a do-over.

“No, I am not coming back for a hotel. That’s done. It’s no longer an option,” he said 

Hotel Proposal Hopes Third Time the Charm Before Zoning Board of Appeal

Photo: A rendering of the proposed Belmont Inn Suites at the corner of Pleasant and Brighton streets.

“Some conjurers say that number three is the magic number,” wrote Charles Dickens and Waltham developer Michael Columba hopes his third time before the Zoning Board of Appeals is a magical one as he one again presents his proposal to build a small hotel at the base of Belmont Hill.

It’s expected the Board will take a vote tonight, Monday, April 4, on Columba’s attempt to secure five special permits which will allow the construction of a 19-unit “European-style boutique hotel” at the corner of Brighton Avenue and Pleasant Street at the location of the now vacant Mini-Mart convenience store.

And there is every reason to think that the hotel has a better than average chance to pass board muster as the five members have asked Columba and his architect, former Belmont Selectman Andy Rojas, twice to return with greater detail and data on what are standard technical issues – sound levels of air conditioning, lighting, trash collection – that a commercial real estate development is required to present. 

If there is one issue that could derail Columba’s plans to bring to Belmont the first hotel in more than century it would come from ZBA Chair Eric Smith’s quiry on  just how a hotel fits within the town’s bylaws. As there is no mention of hotels in the table of uses in the zoning documents, “the closest … is apartments which are a prohibited use in [this zoning district],” Smith said at the previous meeting in March and February.

In March, Columba’s team made the connection the zoning bylaw’s parking requirements – which does briefly refers to hotel use – suggests a hotel would be similar to a daycare center or a catering business, retail and service uses that are allowed at the site with a special permit.

The project would involve renovating the two-building, two-story structure at 334 Pleasant St. to open a boutique hotel consisting of 19 guest rooms, a cafe for guests, a fitness room, a business center and management offices on the 14,400 sq.-ft. site. 

Columba, who is head of a construction company that specializes in building airport control towers and other aviation infrastructure, built his first hotel, the Crescent Suite Hotel in Waltham and is preparing to construct a multi-level hotel on the foot of the Charles River on Moody Street.