Two Years Late: Cushing Village Taking First Step Towards Construction

Photo: The municipal parking lot up for sale in Cushing Square is adjacent Starbucks.

Exactly two years to the day after the town’s Planning Board approved a special permit granting him permission to begin construction, the developer of the troubled Cushing Village complex will be before town officials early next week seeking to purchase a critical piece of town-owned property so he can finally begin construction on the long-stalled project. 

The Belmont Board of Selectmen’s Monday, July 27 meeting agenda calls on the board to initially meet in executive session before proceeding to vote whether or not to sell the municipal parking lot at Williston and Trapelo roads to a newly-formed partnership consisting of original developer, Smith Legacy Partners, and its new business associate, Cambridge-based Urban Spaces.

The price tag for the parking lot adjacent Starbucks – set two years ago – is $850,000; along with fees and permits, the final price is closer to $1.3 million. The property will house the first of three buildings making up the 186,000 square-foot retail/housing/parking development in the heart of Cushing Square.

The vote to sell the property marks the two year anniversary when Smith Legacy’s Chris Starr was granted the 25-page special permit from the Planning Board at the culmination of an 18-month design review phase on the project made up of 115 residential units, 38,000 sq.-ft. of retail space and 235 parking spaces. 

At the time, Starr proclaimed an accelerated project schedule. Starr told media outlets construction on the first building – located on the parking lot – would be open for retail businesses and resident housing by the late fall/early winter of 2014. The entire project would be completed by mid-summer 2016, said Starr.

But it soon became apparent Starr was unable to find a financial source willing to back him due to his lack of experience building large-scaled projects. In March 2014, Starr struck a deal with the town to extend the closing on the parking lot by a month for a $20,000 fee. The fee increased to $30,000 a month after a year.

By Sept, 2014, Starr hired a Boston realty firm, Boston Realty Advisors, to unearth a partner or sell his stake in the development. The campaign went international with large ads on a leading Asian real estate website.

In the end, a young development firm, Urban Spaces, joined with Starr. It remains unclear the partnership arrangement between the two, including whether there is a majority stakeholder or arrangements for future management of Cushing Village. 

And it does not appear the partnership has been damaged with the arrest of Urban Spaces’ CEO and founder, Paul Ognibene, who was arraigned last week on one count of sexual conduct for fee after he was arrested by Cambridge Police in a sex sting.

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.

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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.