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.

Back Again: Cushing Village to Seek More Changes to Development Permit

Photo: The proposed Cushing Village development (left) and what is currently at the location (right).

Only three weeks after receiving an extension allowing it an additional year to construct its long-stalled project, the developers of the troubled Cushing Village residential/commercial/parking complex at Common Street and Trapelo Road will be back once again before the town’s Planning Board on Thursday, Dec. 3, as the project’s money backers are expected to demand modifications to the agreement to provide them even more legal and financial cover in the event the deal falls apart.

While neither the developer, Smith Legacy’s Chris Starr, nor the town’s point person on the project, the Office of Community Development’s Jeffrey Wheeler, would indicate what section of the extension requires altering, the one-year deadline of the special permit itself would not be affected, according to Sami Baghdady, chair of the Board of Selectmen. 

Baghdady led the Planning Board when it awarded the special permit to Starr in July 2013 to build a 164,000 sq.-ft. three-building development with 115 units of housing, shops and underground parking in the heart of Cushing Square.

This time, it’s the developer’s financial backers who are demanding the changes.

“It is my understanding that the proposed modifications to the one-year extension of the special permit are at the request of the developers’ lenders,” said Baghdady, who said the thrust of the revisions is to allow the lenders the opportunity to protect their interests in the event that the developer does not meet the time deadlines of the conditions.

But even Baghdady said the public will know the exact implications of the changes when the agenda item is taken up by the Planning Board.

“It is difficult to comment any further without the benefit of the developer’s presentation at the hearing,” said Baghdady.

Thursday marks the third time since August that the development team requested and received extensions and modifications to the special permit issued nearly 30 months ago. 

The latest extension, for 12 months, issued on Nov. 17, also stipulated the developers meet three strict 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. 

The meeting’s timing is also somewhat interesting, as it will occur at the same time thousands of Belmont residents will be attending the annual “Turn on the Town” Holiday Tree Lighting Ceremony taking place in Belmont Center, a block from Town Hall. 

Belmont Police has issued traffic bulletins advising residents of road closures in the Center including Leonard Street being closed at 5:30 p.m., making travel to Town Hall difficult. 

Traditionally, the Planning Board holds meetings on Tuesday evenings.

Chair’s Sudden Resignation Has Planning Board Scrambling for New Member

Photo: Mike Battista (right) and current Selectman Sami Baghdady.

The sudden and unexpected resignation of the popular chair of the Belmont Planning Board has town officials scrambling to fill that slot just as the board tackles several high-profile tasks.

The departure of Mike Battista on Nov. 11 is a significant loss to the board as he takes half a decade of experience and institutional history with him, having been on the board since 2010 and chair since 2013.

“I enjoyed my time as a member and as chair, I got to work with amazing people, both my colleagues on the Board as well as Town Staff and Residents. Giving back to a great Town was worthwhile and fulfilling. I leave with wonderful memories knowing the Board is in good hands,” he said, as former Warrant Committee Chair Elizabeth Allison temporarily takes over the board’s reins.

“Five years is longer than I hoped to be involved and I felt it was a perfect time to move on. My travel and work schedules are more demanding leaving less time for the important business of the Planning Board,” said the president of Moniques Bath Showroom in Watertown.

Battista leaves as the board is working to establish a sweeping town-wide zoning realignment for residential structures while shepherding the long-delayed Cushing Village complex towards a conclusion.

To fill this critical post, the Belmont Board of Selectmen is seeking volunteers interested in serving on the Board for the remainder of Battista’s term that will expire on June 30, 2016.

The primary objective of the Planning Board is to protect and preserve the character and the quality of life that defines Belmont. The Board addresses numerous issues that will likely have an impact on Belmont’s future, such as:

  • drafting zoning proposals,
  • studying land-use patterns,
  • reviewing traffic concerns, and
  • evaluating specific development projects.

There is no set criteria for membership and those with a variety of backgrounds will be considered. Residents with a knowledge and experience in the areas of land use, planning, and related law are highly encouraged to apply.

To apply, residents must complete a Community Volunteer Interest Form and submit it to the Office of the Board of Selectmen along with the requested supporting documents.

Interest forms can be obtained on the Selectmen’s page of the Town website or by visiting the office during regular business hours. The Office of the Board of Selectman is located in Town Hall; forms can be submitted via e-mail to selectmen@belmont-ma.gov.

The deadline for applying for the position is Wednesday, Dec. 9.


Cushing Village Returns to Planning Board Tonight as the Developer Speaks Out

Sixteen months after receiving the go ahead to begin constructing the 167,000 square-foot, multi-use development in the heart of Belmont’s Cushing Square, the developer of Cushing Village will be back before the Belmont Planning Board tonight at 7 p.m. in Town Hall. 

But don’t expect any major announcements from the first appearance by Smith Legacy Partners before a town governmental board since coming to the Board of Selectmen in March. According to documents at the Office of Community Development, the development team will propose four minor design modifications to the Project Plans, approved by the Planning Board in July 2013.

In an email sent to selected residents late last week, Smith Legacy’s principal partner Chris Starr asked residents to show up to the meeting, saying “[w]e hope that you can attend this Planning Board meeting, which is another critical step in making the vision of new quality rental housing and retail space for Cushing Square a reality.”

As noted in the Community Development documents, the “proposed modifications [does not] alter the size of the development or reduce the number of apartments or parking spaces.”

Cushing Village’s emergence before town officials is the first time since September when the Acton-based developer began actively shopping the three-block site to an array of commercial developers to take on Smith Legacy as a partner, or to purchase 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.

The last time the development came before the town was in March when Smith Legacy requested a month-to-month extension for the closing date for the $850,000 purchase and sale agreement for the municipal parking lot on Trapelo Road.

As part of the agreement, the developer agreed to pay a $20,000 penalty for each month it delayed the purchase. To date, Smith Legacy has paid $100,000 into town coffers.

Despite the delays and uncertain future of his involvement with the project he spent eight years seeking to build his first large-scale development, Starr continues to make optimist statements on the future of the retail/residential project.

“We realize that it is a project with many moving parts and lots of stakeholders to protect, so we understand how important our project execution is to the town. Our work will need to be carefully integrated with the Trapelo Road Redevelopment project that will be active in Cushing Square at the same time as our project,” said Smith as he also introduced members of the development team in the message.

“Soon we will sending out invitations for you to join us for a cup of coffee and meet the team. We think it is important that we keep the channels of communications flowing. I look forward to sitting down with you to discuss your ideas and concerns for the project,” said Smith.

Belmont Planning, Health Boards to Make Changes to Kennel Rules

The Belmont Planning Board and the Board of Health will be working together to make changes to a pair of Town Meeting articles that, if passed, would force Crate Escape, the doggie day care center located on Brighton Street, to close its doors, leaving 300 customers and 150 dogs – 75 percent from Belmont – without a home of the day.

“The intent [of the articles] were not to effect day care, only overnight kennels,” said the Planning Board’s Elizabeth Allison, who said she will be sitting down with the Health Board’s Vice Chair Dr. David Alper and the town’s Health Director Stefan Russakow to replace the current static number of dogs that can stay in a “kennel.”

“Is this a backdoor way to eliminate doggy day care in town? No,” said Allison at a Planning Board meeting on Tuesday, April 15, at Town Hall.

The two Town Meeting articles, number 8 and 9, updates Belmont’s decade-old animal bylaw to meet state standards and the zoning code on the definition of what is a “kennel”; the current regulations specify a kennel as being an outdoor shelter. Under the existing code, that facility could only hold up to 25 dogs at one time.

Under the new proposed code, the definition of kennel is expanded to include commercial entities such as overnight and extended-stay as well as day care businesses. But the Town Meeting article that would amend the Health Code did not change the maximum number of 25 dogs that could be kept in a licensed location.

According to Crate Escape’s owner Bradley Hastings, he would be forced to close his Belmont site if the articles passed Town Meeting early in May.

In response to Hastings’ concern, the Allison group is considering replacing the 25 dog limit with a formula establishing a square-footage percentage of dogs that can be safely held in an interior site such as Crate Escape.

“We will come up with something to keep [Hastings] here,” said Allison, who said she will be seeking the help of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in creating the formula.