Tweaked: Failed Dunkin’ Donut Developer’s Back On Pleasant Street With New Proposal

Photo: The new design for the strip mall at Pleasant and Brighton.

The development team whose attempt to build a Dunkin’ Donut restaurant at the corner of Pleasant and Brighton streets was shot down by the Belmont Zoning Board of Appeals in January 2016 is back before the town with a new proposal for the site.

Although “new” will be seen as a stretch for some as Nick Leo’s proposed strip mall does mention a Dunkin’ Donuts restaurant as one “alternative” in occupying the larger storefront at the former Pleasant Street Getty service station located at 350 Pleasant St. which Leo bought for $1,060,000 in July 2014.

But this time, rather than building a strip mall with one of his franchise as the anchor tenant that would involve what some contend is a zoning board not favorably disposed to business interests, the development’s retail spaces will be open to anyone.

‘Once site plan approval is granted and the construction schedule is set up, Mr. Leo will then seek out possible tenants,” said Joseph Noone, the Belmont-based attorney for the Leo Organization.

Leo’s plan this time is to build the structure under the review of the Planning Board and “if a future tenant use requires a special permit under the Belmont By-Law, the tenant will apply to the ZBA for a special permit if the proposed use is not permitted as of right,” said Noone.

The new concept comes before the Planning Board on Tuesday, July 11 at 7 p.m. for a Site and Design Review a year-and-a-half after the Zoning Board of Appeals voted down the application in January 2016 due to traffic and parking issues.

Leo, the owner of 20 Dunkin’ Donut franchises in Massachusetts and Florida, is seeking to build a 3,516 sq.-ft. strip mall with three retail spaces of 1,500, 1,000  and 746 square feet with 269 square feet of common space. The site will have 21 parking spaces, seven more than is required in an LB3 zone.

In many ways, the new design is similar to the failed plan which included a 3,500 sq.-ft. building with a pair of 1,000 sq.-ft. retail operations.

While an application is prohibited for two years to return to the ZBA after being rejected, the new project is considered just enough of a change to allow it back before the town.

“In essence, the footprint of the building is not changed from the plans previously submitted,” said Noone, noting that a small second-floor storage space was eliminated.

The big difference is what’s going inside the space, said Noone. The initial design came before the ZBA as it needed a special permit to use one of the retail spaces as a Dunkin Donuts. Since the new proposal only mentions two possible uses – or alternatives – the Planning Board will only review the proposed structure.

“The denial of the special permit for the use of a Dunkin Donuts [in 2016] does not preclude seeking site plan approval for the proposed structure,’ said Noone.

Noone said the new design incorporates suggestions and requests by abutters, neighbors and the town made during the ZBA hearings, including moving the new building closer to Pleasant Street. and the placement of the dumpster, transformer, and environmental remediation equipment.

Leo also hosted an informational meeting for the neighbors on May 9 at Noone’s office, which was attended by several neighbors. 

Belmont Day School, Residents Waiting on Dover Decision

Photo: Residents at the Planning Board meeting Tuesday night.

The Board of Selectmen’s Room in Belmont’s Town Hall was stuffed to the rafters with residents Tuesday night, May 2 as the Planning Board reopened the public hearing to hear from both sides of a now controversial development planned at a private school on Belmont Hill.

By the end of the 90-minute meeting, it was apparent the Planning Board’s next step rests on a legal interpretation by Belmont Town Counsel George Hall whether the Belmont Day School could be required to undertake a pair of potentially time-consuming and expensive independent reviews of the impact the proposed develop could have on local traffic levels and stormwater.

The Belmont Planning Board.

It is an action the Day School’s legal representative considers mute due to the state General Law 40a (3) (2) – known as the Dover Amendment – protecting education and religious entities from land use regulations; the same legal standard used more than two decades ago to build another contentious project in town, the Boston LDS Temple.

“We need to bear in mind the Dover Amendment, which means in situations like this, where there is a proposal to build a structure for an educational purpose, we are limited to imposing reasonable regulations,” said Acting Planning Board Chair Barbara Fiacco of the construction of an indoor gym/classroom space and a new road/driveway at the Day School, a private kindergarten/elementary/middle school located off Concord Avenue on Day School Lane.

The Day School has reported it would want construction on the project to begin in the fall of 2017 with a September 2018 opening.

Speaking of the Day School, Kelly Durfee Cardoza from Avalon Consulting opened the meeting telling the board the school had met with abutters and carefully attempted to address some issues immediately such as moving a dumpster away from the border with the town’s cemetery. 

Kelly Durfee Cardoza, Avalon Consulting

Cardoza also told the board the school would introduce a Transportation Demand Plan which when implemented would use a series of actions such as car pooling, traffic monitoring, establishing a commuter ride system and stagger arrival and departures to reduce the level of traffic to and from the school.

The two camps opposing the Day School’s plans – reportedly the two groups have no intention of joining their efforts due to longstanding animosity among certain neighbors – believe the construction of what is being dubbed “The Barn” will increase enrollment and subsequently bring additional vehicle traffic onto the section of Concord Avenue which residents note is jammed during the morning and evening rush to work and home.

Opponents also believe a new access road/driveway into the school off Concord Avenue will lead to unsafe driving conditions, possible drainage issues and disturb those visiting the town’s Highland Cemetery.

One group has hired an independent traffic consultant, Robert Vanasse of Vanasse & Associates, Inc. who told the board the Day School’s traffic study is insufficient in several areas of concern, including not mentioning the weekday half-mile queue of cars on Concord Avenue in the morning and afternoon, the causes of accidents in the vicinity of the school, and the high rate of speed along the roadway.

Robert Vanasse, Vanasse & Associates

Vanasse said while he was not opposed to having the new roadway to the school to be used for “emergencies only,” adding a new intersection on busy Concord Avenue.

Also, the town’s Cemetery Commission has written to the Planning Board on its concerns about stormwater, traffic and the loss of what many are calling “the decorum” of those who purchased plots in the graveyard as traffic on the new roadway will be mere feet from the site.

Stormwater management was also questioned whether the current infrastructure would be able to support a new road which would direct rainwater and snow runoff. 

But standing in the opponent’s attempts to restrict the effects of the new construction is how wide the Dover Amendment protects the Day School’s rights.

“The board should think carefully about whether they have the authority to request a peer review for the traffic study both under your site plan review bylaw and under the Dover Amendment” as both only allows for a review of “internal” traffic – within the school property – and not offsite matters, said Robinson & Cole’s Katherine Bailey.

Robinson & Cole’s Katherine Bailey

After a limited number of residents spoke mostly in favor of the school’s expansion, the Planning Board brought their own set of questions, including from the Board’s Raffi Manjikian who quired whether the school had an operation maintenance plan to ensure the previous material under the roadway will not fail after a limited number of years. 

Many of the questions posed by the Planning Board were seeking assurances from the Day School it would have plans in place and programs ready to meet all contingency issues regarding the main concerns of traffic, stormwater and being neighborly to the town’s cemetery. 

While the issue of requiring a third party peer review remained only conjecture at the meeting, Board member Joseph DeStefano asked the Day School to voluntarily submit to the second audit “as being part of this community” rather than seek legal advice from the town counsel.

When Fiacco said she wanted to hear from Hall on the board’s right to require the review, Bailey asked, “in the interest of timeliness” if the Day School could join in that discussion outside the public meeting.

If Hall decided a peer review is warranted, Bailey asked if the review could be started before the next public meeting “so to keep the process moving.” Fiacco tentatively agreed to the request if a Planning Board representative is present. 

Since the Planning Board determined at the beginning of the meeting it would not make a final decision; the next public meeting will be reopened on Tuesday, May 23.

Letter to the Editor: Belmont Day School Expansion A Traffic Problem

Photo: Belmont Day School.

To the editor:

I sent a letter to the Belmont Planning Board yesterday (April 4, 2017) from my neighbors and my wife and me.

[See letter below]

As you can see from the letter, we only learned last week that the Belmont Day School is proposing adding a 25,000 square feet buildings on its campus and constructing a busy new 1,000-foot roadway and parking lot that would border one side of Highland Meadow Cemetery into Concord Avenue. Besides disturbing the solitude of the cemetery, the new road would lead to serious traffic and safety issues.

Belmont Day School has grown from a small neighborhood grade school with a few children to a significant institution with hundreds of students. It recently added a middle school and is now planning on adding dozens of more students shortly. Four of my children attended the school, and I support its work and mission, but the school’s traffic is overwhelming the capacity of Concord Avenue leading to daily traffic jams and safety issues and, instead of facing and dealing with these issues, the school’s proposal and additional traffic will only make things worse.

The Belmont Planning Board is meeting Thursday night at 7 p.m. on the third floor of the Homer Building to review and possibly approve the school’s plan. The plan should not be approved in its present form, and it is time for the school, the town and residents to come to an agreement on handling travel to and from the school and incorporate solutions such as remote drop off and shuttle/bus services as most other hospitals and schools in the area have done to accommodate growth and reduce traffic congestion and safety hazards in the neighborhoods where they are located.

Tommy and Jane Driscoll

Concord Avenue

[Original letter]

Re: 55 Day School Lane (Belmont Day School) Development. 

Dear Mr. Wheeler, Planning Board Members, Board of Selectmen: 

Thank you for sending us the notice of the hearing on April 6, 2017, regarding the Belmont Day School Development (the “Project”). Despite the school’s claims in its application to have informed nearby residents of its plans, none of our households have been contacted, informed or otherwise given notice by the school of this massive Project before receipt of notice from the board last week. 

It is almost certainly the case that if our three households were not made aware of the Project, neither were most other residents in the nearby area. We ask that you not grant Belmont Day School the permits needed for the Project at this time – the school should explore other alternatives if it intends on continuing to grow its population and physical plant. At the very least, the Planning Board needs to delay action for at least six months while we and others in our neighborhood whose safety may be in endangered by the Project further research matters, seek legal counsel and have time to respond appropriately. There are going to be many upset people if adequate time is not provided by the Planning Board for the community to participate in this matter. 

Had Belmont Day School acted appropriately and taken reasonable measures to provide actual notice and awareness of this project many months ago to those in the community who are impacted, this would not be necessary. Given the importance of this matter, the Planning Board must delay under any reasonable interpretation of the facts and circumstances. 

Overall, Belmont Day School’s growth and ambitious expansion plans would seem to be exceeding the capacity of its location and threaten the tranquility our residential community. This is frequently occurring in the Boston area these days as schools and other non-profit organizations are driven to expansion due to growing funds and endowments. Other private schools and hospitals voluntarily acknowledge when their growth and ambitions are no longer compatible with the residential neighborhoods where they began decades earlier – one recent example is the nearby Carrol School in Lincoln which purchased an additional facility in a more compatible location to 

support adding a middle school to its existing grade school rather than expanding its footprint and imposing a burden on its local residential neighborhood. 

The characterizations and representations of the Project in the application appear to be disingenuous at best. The Cambridge Dictionary defines a driveway as a “short private road that leads from a public road to a house or garage”. What the school is proposing is hardly a driveway. It is a new roadway connecting to Concord Ave that will accommodate close to 1,000 cars per day (by the school’s estimate) and a new parking lot within 30 feet of graves in what is today a quiet and beautiful cemetery where relatives come to visit their loved ones in solitude on a daily basis. There are material safety issues and concerns that need to be fairly considered – the Planning Board cannot simply rely on one-sided reports commissioned and paid for by the School in fairness to us and other nearby residents. 

The traffic on Concord avenue today exceeds the road’s capacity in large part because of existing Belmont Day School traffic. Many mornings we are completely unable to access the road towards Belmont center because of the volume and back up in traffic. The proposed new roadway and increased volume would likely make it impossible at times for us to leave our homes when school traffic is backed up and create an unacceptable public safety risk for residents and children in the area. 

Also, the presence of the stone wall in the cemetery and plantings do not provide sufficient visibility for any roadway or driveway – especially one connecting to an extremely busy road such as Concord Ave where cars sometimes travel at over 60 MPH when the road is not backed up. Basic safety standards prescribed by law in Massachusetts for roadways with this usage and volume cannot be ignored simply by calling the proposed roadway a “driveway”. There are serious and legitimate safety concerns that need to be fairly studied and addressed impartially. The safety issues are not hypothetical – a pedestrian was struck and severely injured recently less than 300 feet of the school’s proposed roadway, and hundreds of bicyclists use the road as the main way through Belmont every week. 

Chip and Cindy Matthes, 711 Concord Ave. 

Laura and Tim Duncan, 699 Concord Ave. 

Tom and Jane Driscoll, 689 Concord Ave.

Town Meeting Puts Kibosh On McMansions Passing Limits On Residential Homes

Photo: Peg Callanan speaking before Town Meeting on Monday. Steve Pinkerton is behind Callahan.

Late in 2014, Sargent Road’s Peg Callanan and Stephen Pinkerton of Dalton Road decided something had to be done to put a halt the sudden explosion of oversized structures – dubbed McMansions – being built in their neighborhood of single-family homes adjacent to the Grove Street Playground.

Nearly 18 months since they formed the Belmont Citizens for Responsible Zoning (BCRZ) to bring attention to what they called “a threat to the character of our community,” Callanan and Pinkerton were present to see their concerns answered when Belmont Town Meeting on Monday, June 6, overwhelmingly approved major changes to the zoning bylaw that places permanent restrictions on the size of new construction or major renovations in seven of Belmont’s eight precincts.

“The vote shows that you can change what some said was too complicated to do,” said Callanan, after the 195-32 vote to give its blessing to Article 6 which sets limits to the height and space around new homes.

The vote on the article – which took 15 minutes – came after nearly three hours of debate on four amendments that would allow the construction of a second floor by right, the placement of HVAC units and design issues. Each was defeated handily with the exception of the final amendment on another HVAC-related issue voted down by a margin of two votes, 114-112. 

While the overall article had overwhelming support, many Town Meeting members were dreading the prospect of up to nine amendments which would take time to debate and vote. Advantageously, many of the pending amendments were withdrawn before the meeting, and when Charles Hamann, chair of the Bylaw Review Committee removed three more at the last minute, he received a kiss in gratitude from Planning Board Chair Liz Allison.

See how the new bylaw effects the size and mass of single-family homes going forward in the SR-C district.

Among the new rules are:

  • An applicant that demolishes a house to build a larger home, and on a different foot print, or increases the original gross floor area by more than 30 percent during a renovation will now require obtaining a Special Permit.
  • New homes will be limited in height to 30 feet from the midpoint of the roof line and 34 feet at its highest.
  • The front set back must be the average footage of the abutting houses.
What the new bylaw does is close “two critical loop-holes” in town zoning, said Pinkerton: the lack of a total height limit and the absence of a Special Permit requirement for significant work in residential neighborhoods. 

The new bylaw expands on a one-year moratorium approved at last year’s Town Meeting placing restrictions on the total height (at 32 feet) on any new or reconstructed single-family dwelling unit in a small section of Precinct 7 that saw a rapid increase in demolitions and the construction of mega-homes.

Since that vote, the BCRZ began working with the town’s Planning Board to develop Zoning By-Law amendments to “help preserve the neighborhood’s distinctive character” by mitigating the effects of oversized construction throughout the Single Residence C Zoning District, according to a committee letter to Town Meeting.

“We pledged last year that we would work collaboratively, and that started right away and it just never stopped,” Callahan told the Belmontonian after the meeting.

“We believe that Article 6 is the best solution … that will balance the interests of today’s homeowners for larger homes while respecting the rights of its existing owners,” Callanan told Town Meeting before the vote. 

Pinkerton told Town Meeting members who were thinking of opposing the article as it does not allow “as right” the construction of a second floor or it appears to grants more power to the Planning Board, “not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

“Come to the Planning Board and work with them and with us. This has been a remarkable collaborative effort from all kinds of people,” said Pinkerton. 

There was some opposition, on forcing design parameters being placed on homeowners and builders, and whether new residents would be heard by the Planning Board, yet those issues were brushed aside allow the article to pass comfortably.

Future of Cushing Village On Boards’ Agenda Tuesday Night, 969 Days After Town’s OK

Photo: After 969 days, still nothing built at the proposed Cushing Village development.

In his 1953 groundbreaking book on sending men to Mars, German/American rocket scientist Werner von Braun estimated it would take 969 days for a spaceship to venture between the two planets, a time span von Braun dubbed “at the breaking point of [human] endurance.”

And it appears Belmont has reached its “breaking point” as tonight, Tuesday, March 22, the Board of Selectmen and Planning Board in joint session will decide whether to extend a purchase and sales arrangement for a municipal parking lot to the Cushing Village’s development team.

The long-troubled residential/retail/parking project headed by developer, Chris Starr’s Smith Legacy Partners, has yet to show any progress towards building the 115 units of housing, 38,000 sq.-ft. of stores and approximately 200 parking spaces since the town approved a special permit and a design and site plan review for the $80 million development on July 27, 2013, 969 days ago.

With no indication that Starr has been able to put together a fairly standard financial package by meeting minimal project requirements from lenders since the selectmen last met two weeks ago, it’s likely the two boards will follow the sentiment of the boards expressed over the past six weeks the status quo is unlikely to change.

“It would be very difficult for us to approve an extension … unless the developer comes back with … 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 at the board’s Monday, March 14 meeting.

While Starr did announce early in February a new mid-level “mezzanine” lender and that he was close to securing in a large, national retail tenant to fill the majority of the store footage, no announcements have been forthcoming from the Bedford-based company in the last month, as he has cancelled his latest appearances before the boards this month.                                                                                                                              

Representatives of the two boards with direct involvement with the project – the Selectmen must approve a sale of town-owned property and the Planning Board with oversight over design and massing – met a month earlier along with the Town Counsel, George Hall, Town Treasurer Floyd Carman and Town Administrator David Kale, to prepare a shared game plan on the fast approaching late March deadline when the two-year purchase and sale agreement with Starr for the parking lot adjacent Trapelo Road and Starbuck expires.

While no announcement was made at the time, subsequent statements by both boards expressed a lack of patience with three months of missed “drop dead” milestones the development team said they would meet, which included buying the lot, demolishing the site and the beginning of laying foundations, all promised by mid-January. 

The small lot is the lynchpin parcel for the entire project as it will be the easiest to construct and open. The two parcels Starr currently owns – 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 – will require a considerable amount of excavation for the underground parking facilities and a costly buildout.

While Starr could likely come up with the long-agreed to $850,000 asking price for the lot, it doesn’t appear he was able to demonstrate to the selectmen he had construction financing in place which the board has demanded as part of the public parking deal. 

In the past two years, the selectmen have required Starr to pay what was first a $20,000 and now is a $30,000 “fine” for each month he could not close on the lot. The penalty has reached more than $650,000 (although half of the amount will go back to Starr as part of the closing cost).

Baghdady said if Starr does come to the board with a positive development such as a check for $850,000, it is likely the boards will no extend purchase and sale agreement and retain ownership of the parcel.

Then it would be back to square one for the town in redeveloping the parcels since it is unlikely the expired P&S agreement could be revived for a new development team unless the town issues a new request for proposal for the municipal parking lot. That would trigger a reopening of the Special Permit process which took 18 months to craft for Smith Legacy.

Starr will still hold the rights to the two parcels with an option on the parking lot but if was unable to find financing for a simple commercial deal, it’s highly unlikely he could convince a bank or financing company to invest in a smaller building with less of an upside. 

But Starr does hold the development rights to the sites, which likely has value to a developer wishing to skip the grind of shaping a new Special Permit and just build. 

If there is a developer waiting in the wings, the next week in Town Hall could be a whirl of agreements, payments and meetings as the town and a “white knight” secure a new deal before the P&S expires.

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. 

With Full Slate, Planning Punts Possible Airbnb Regs to Summer Review

Photo: The Airbnb web page for Belmont.

With so much currently on its plate and with little data to move forward on, Belmont’s Planning Board decided to “punt” for now on a review of the town’s bylaws in respect to residents who rent rooms through Airbnb, the popular website for people to list, find and rent lodging.

“We are not scrapping for items to take up,” said Liz Allison, Planning Board chair at the board’s Tuesday, Dec. 5 public meeting, as its members decided it would take up a comprehensive review of the town’s bylaws this summer of this new way of casual lodging for people in the market for “something between hotels and couch-surfing.”

Since starting in 2008, the private company, now valued at more than $20 billion, has more than 1,500,000 listings in 34,000 cities and 190 countries. Approximately 1 million rooms worldwide were rented using the website for the New Year’s Eve/Day celebration.

While close to Boston and Cambridge, which have hundreds of Airbnb hosts renting thousands of spaces, Belmont is like many suburban communities, with just over two dozen hosts currently lending room(s) from between $49 a night for a double bed off Belmont Street to $333 a night for a room and bath on Belmont Hill. The average per night rental in Belmont is $132.

Under existing Belmont zoning code, residents who rent rooms through Airbnb are viewed as a bed and breakfast. Those residents living in the general residential area can “by right” to rent up to three bedrooms as long as it is for a week or longer.

Those seeking to provide rooms for fewer than seven days requires a Special Permit, which are granted or rejected by the Zoning Board of Appeals. 

Since most Airbnb rentals are two to four nights, it’s likely many hosts will be impacted by a negative ZBA vote.

Last month, the ZBA voted 3-2 to approve the first Special Permit for an Airbnb “host” on Betts Road but since a “Special” requires a “super majority,” the application was rejected. 

Several ZBA members, including one who voted against the request, said they wanted to seek guidance from the Planning Board for a more precise definition of the town’s lodging bylaws.

Residents opposed to the new web-based rental said last month they view Airbnb as a quality of life issue, projecting strangers with rolling suitcases roaming town streets, being brought to residences by “Uber cars” at all hours of the day and night.

There have been attempts by municipalities to place restrictions on the business model, mostly by large cities protecting hotel tax revenue. San Francisco required Airbnb to charge a 14 percent hotel tax yet failed to limit rooms being rented out for more than 75 days consecutively annually. Boston is contemplating regulations while Somerville attempted to impose a six percent tax but had no way of collecting the fee. 

Allison noted currently none of the surrounding towns comparable to Belmont – such as Arlington, Winchester, Bedford, Lexington to name four – “have as yet any zoning regulation” for Airbnb rentals.

“This is clearly a new area” and while there is a discussion on the subject, “there are no models within comparable communities,” said Allison, adding that it would be advantageous for the Planning Board to learn from the experience of other towns before imposing its regulations.

Since there are approximately 30 Airbnb hosts in town, the board unanimously decided to make a review of existing bylaws “a summer project” after the Planning Board clears its plate of current projects including work on imposing height and size restrictions on new construction, in general residential zone district. 

Cushing Village Sets Latest Deadline While Similar Watertown Project Set to Open

Photo: Similiar in many ways to Cushing The Residence Inn by Marriott nearing completion in Watertown.

The developer of the long-troubled Cushing Village project – the 164,000 sq.-ft. three-building development approved in July 2013 – told the Planning Board Tuesday night, Jan. 5 that he is really, really close to getting all his ducks lined up to begin construction on the $63 million project.

Next month.


Now 30 months behind the initial timeline provided by Chris Starr, head of the development team Smith Legacy Partners, the latest “update” – requested by the Planning Board after Starr’s team missed a “drop dead milestone” of Dec. 18 to purchase the town’s municipal parking lot for $850,000 to begin construction of the first of the three buildings – has Starr asking the town to “stand still” until the board’s next scheduled meeting on Feb. 2 when his team “hopes to inform the board of a loan closing at that meeting.”

In a letter to the board – which was received a few hours before Monday night’s meeting, Jan. 5 – Starr painted yet another rosy picture of the development’s status, similar in tone and optimism made to the town in August 2013, September 2014, and in May, August and December of last year.

Reading the correspondence’s highlights, Board Chair Liz Allison said that while the team didn’t come close to meeting its earlier promises for Dec. 18, “the Cushing Village Development team has achieved significant lender-based milestones and is committed to proceed(ing) expeditiously with a loan closing in the month of January.”

Starr attempted to reassure the board that the project’s major lenders – including lead bank Wells Fargo – are still involved in closing the deal for the municipal lot, telling the board member they can contact the banks to validate his effort to purchase the lot.

Starr also noted that real estate veteran Rod Loring, who has three decades of experience in the residential and commercial sides, has been added to the day-to-day leadership team to work closely with Starr.

It is unknown if this move was an internal change or one suggested by the lenders and other potential partners.

Starr concluded by revealing that the biggest impediment to the closing, a lease modification with a “national” company to join the project, was difficult to do during the holidays.

While Starr would not say whether the firm was a retail operation or a parking lot management firm, he expects to sign up the company “shortly.”

Starr concluded by stating how he wants to work closely with the board as he “remains committed to Cushing Village. The development team is … confident that significant progress will be made over the next month.” He also is requesting an “internal” working group be established with the board – whose meetings will not be advertised to the public – and a weekly “call” to update the town of any progress to these new goals.

While saying the lost Dec. 18 deadline was a “disappointment,” Allison said attempting to close a land deal during the holiday season was, in hindsight, difficult to accomplish.

Yet members were not in such a forgiving mood. While encouraged to hear the developer wants to increase communications with the board and the staff in the Office of Community Development, “action will speak louder than words,” said Raffi Manjikian.

“I’m disappointed that it took until … we arrived at this meeting to see this letter,” said Barbara Fiacco.

“They took a significant amount of time and made a number of promises when they were here asking for an extension. I found that a little frustrating. The residents deserve more transparency,” she said.

The board’s irritation with the continuous delays in the Belmont project since one needs only to look to neighboring Watertown to witness a development that is fast on its way of cutting the opening-day ribbon.

The Residence Inn by Marriott on Arsenal Street across from the Arsenal Mall is similar in design and function to Cushing Village. The six-story extended-stay hotel has 150 rooms with kitchen area and work space, 115 underground parking spaces and first-floor retail space.

The significant difference with Cushing Village is that the Residence Inn is nearing completion. Despite receiving the OK from Watertown to commence development in late 2014, the project – developed by the experienced team at Boylston Properties – is expected to open to the public in the late spring/summer, generating tax revenue and hotel fees to Watertown.

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. 

ZBA Grounds Airbnb, Punts Internet Lodging to Planning Board

Photo: The room that Joanne Sintiris rents for $85 a night as an Airbnb host.

Joanne Sintiris found herself uncomfortably close to the edge of a financial cliff. 

A divorce left the Betts Road resident wrestling to make ends meet and seeking some way to make a little extra money. 

“I needed some way to supplement my income. It was hard to see how I was going to do that,” she said.

Then Sintiris discovered the wildly popular online service Airbnb where homeowners can rent out one or more rooms in their house, condo or apartment for a nightly, weekly or monthly fee.

“It turned out to be a real savoir,” said Sintiris, who rents a spare room out for $85 a night, below the $135 average for the Boston area.

The “room” includes a private entrance, one bedroom, living room, private bathroom, use of a washer/dryer, a shared garden and patio with a grill.

“It was crazy. I was turning people away, many people who I didn’t want,” said the Cambridge native. 

And her guests raved about the experience.

“Joanne was a wonderful host, she was easy to communicate with, friendly, and we felt very welcome in the apartment. The location was quiet, relaxing, yet still easy to get to the best parts of Boston,” wrote a lodger who stayed in October.

Sintiris will now see her windfall slashed dramatically after the Belmont Zoning Board of Appeals Monday night, Dec. 7, rejected her request by a single vote for a special permit to would allow her to continue renting the room for less than seven days.

In a debate that once veered off to include the threat of sex offenders and all guests requiring CORI background checks, the board Monday essentially punted the issue off to the Planning Board, which will be asked to create, or at least, modernize the town’s antiquated lodging and boarder bylaws for the 250 residents who host Airbnb visitors in Belmont.

“If it is correct that there will be 250 people with rooms to rent, then in that case it must be thought out in a comprehensive way which is the role of the Planning Board,” said ZBA Chairman Eric Smith. 

Sintiris’ case is the first of what could be several hundred the Office of Community Development anticipates to bring before the ZBA. The town contends that under existing town bylaws, anyone renting for less than seven days must obtain a special permit under the town’s bylaws. Sintiris just happened to be the first Airbnb provider plucked from the website to be required to rent the room for seven plus days. 

Since a majority of lodgers stay less than four days, Sintiris sought the special permit since those potential customers are decamping across the town line in Cambridge (with a 1,000 Airbnb listings), Boston (2,000), and other neighboring communities that have no or very limited restrictions.

“I need to have the flexibility to provide a room for a weekend or a week,” she said.

Airbnb is now one of the biggest success stories coming from the new internet service industry, reporting Monday a net worth exceeding $25 billion.

While there is the occasional sensational negative event, Airbnb have become the “go to” lodging experience for a rapidly growing number of travels around the world. In the seven years since Airbnb was founded, more than 60 million people have used the service, listing almost two million homes in 34,000 cities (Paris alone has 60,000 hosts) in approximately 190 countries worldwide.

Municipalities have scratched the surface of regulating these new fangled rentals; Somerville proposed a six percent tax (but had no way of implementing it) and Boston is pondering restrictions.

For the handful of residents who opposed the special permit, the issues created by this “disrubting ” range from noise to fear of those coming into the community. 

Opponents such as Patrice Shea of Talyor Street, who lives close by another Airbnb location, said her street has vehicles coming in “from all over the country” in addition to “Uber cars” – the online, on-demand car service – as people arriving at “very unusual hours,” while many strangers are seen walking with suitcases on the sidewalk. She also wondered if the town wasn’t loss of town revenued in taxes and fees.

“It’s just plain creepy,” Shea said after her testimony. 

“I get the fiscal benefit to the host … and the renter, they pay less money. [But] what does it do to me?” said JP Looney who lives eight houses up Betts from Sintiris, wondering if “a boarding house” in the vacinity will likely reduce his property values.

Looney also pondered safety issues with unfamiliar people coming into the area.

“Is Airbnb doing a criminal background check? That’s not what I understand from the website,” Looney ask. “We are opening up a can of worms by allowing this.”

Picking up on the critic’s line of questioning, board member Nicholas Iannuzzi said without CORI and sexual offendors background checks, “you should in fear of our own safety with anyone in your house for $85 a night.” 

Sintiris countered that she has had a “great experience with everyone,” including university educators and professionals who are coming to town for work or to visit children at school.  

In the end, the board voted 3-2 (Iannuzzi and Jim Zarkadas voting no) in favor of Sintiris’ special permit; while a purality, it was one vote shy of the necessary threshold for the issuance of the license. 

While Iannuzzi’s negative response was towards the distrubtor aspect of the technology, Zarkadas’ ran towards finding a more precise definition of the town’s lodging bylaws.

“It really is up to the Planning Board to make updated laws because there has been a lot of changes and I’m pretty sure they were written back in … the 1800s. While I’m open to business, but when it starts to cross the line of running and operating a business in a neighborhood, there is a lot of unknowns that need to answered,” he said.

Sami Baghdady, the current chair of the Board of Selectmen and former chair of the Planning Board, said it is incumbent for the bylaw writing entity to fill in the gaps in taxes, zoning and licenses that new technology brings to the town.

“The Planning Board needs to address this quite quickly, just because there is more than 200 units now doing business,” he said.

For Sintiris, the change to seven days minimum stay that began this fall “has already hurt me,” saying the current regulations has cut her income by $1,000 a month. 

“I’m not asking for much. Just enough,” she said.