Thursday, July 29, 2010

MARKET TRENDS: As 55-and-over housing demand wanes, builders adjust

It seemed like a good idea a decade ago: Build 30 condominiums in downtown Northborough just for people ages 55 and over. No children, no new teachers to pay, no new problems for the town.

But years later, Laurence Place stood vacant and half-finished. Despite efforts by several developers, the project wasn’t flying in a real estate market increasingly saturated with senior housing. With years wasted and an eyesore in the center of town, Northborough officials and residents decided to take action.

Developer Peter Burke tours one of the units nearing completion in Northborough after age limits were dropped; a marker still bears its original name. (Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe)

This fall, thanks to a change in the zoning bylaws, the first units are expected to open under a new name — Laurence Falls — and without the ban on children.

“The old model hasn’t proven successful in today’s changing housing market,’’ said town planner Kathy Joubert. “And we decided that for us in Northborough, from a zoning perspective, the age of our residents shouldn’t make a difference to us as a town.’’

This was not a decision reached lightly. Only after 18 months of discussion, the creation of a special zoning subcommittee, and a heated Town Meeting debate last year did the revised zoning bylaw win approval.

Previously, multifamily housing was only allowed in town under affordable- housing guidelines or the senior residential overlay district bylaw, which re stricted the age of buyers to 55 and up. The new bylaw allows multifamily housing for all ages in certain downtown neighborhoods and along Route 20.

“We see it as a step in the right direction . . . to develop the center of town into a more vibrant place,’’ said Planning Board chairman Rick Leif.

Similar efforts have failed in other communities. Two years ago, Hudson officials refused to loosen age restrictions on a struggling 55-and-over project, saying the change would be unfair for residents who had already bought units. Not long before that, Wellesley had resisted efforts by a developer to backpedal on age limits.

But with more developers abandoning 55-and-over projects before construction even begins, Northborough’s decision is being watched closely by the real estate world.

Most such projects were built after 2000, as developers foresaw a surge in demand as baby boomers began to retire. And many towns embraced the concept as a way to add newcomers — and new property taxes — without burdening public schools with the additional costs that new students would bring.

“Zoning for new housing has become more stringent, more expensive, and less available, and the over-55 concept met both the cities’ and towns’ desires and there was plenty of data showing that if you built it, they would come,’’ said Peter Burke, developer of Laurence Falls and principal of Fresh Look, a Natick-based consulting team helping to complete the project.

A study published in 2005 by the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association reported that 150 “active-adult’’ developments were built or under construction in Massachusetts, with another 172 projects planned, amounting to about 24,000 age-restricted units.

But, according to the nonprofit industry association, even if the demand for these developments were to double, the total need would still amount to fewer than 3,500 units a year.

“There was not an overall control on the number of units approved within the state,’’ Burke said. “So cities and towns rushed to create new zoning bylaws, developers rushed to get approvals, and the total number built far exceeded the demand.’’

Laurence Falls is the first multifamily project allowed in Northborough since the bylaw change.

“I think it was a fair compromise,’’ said Charles O’Toole, who lives near the development. “The building is directly across the street from me, and I’ve been sitting here looking at this pretty ugly vacant space for the last couple of years. It’d be nice to see some people move back in and liven up the neighborhood.’’

But not everyone in Northborough is sold on the more open-ended zoning bylaw.

“All the town officials seem to care about is who is going to get the biggest buck. All they want is the tax money; they don’t care about the precedent they’re setting,’’ said Cathy Staniunas, another neighbor. “To me this is going to be a nightmare. More traffic and more children and more gridlock. This Northborough is not Northborough anymore, and we’re going to be moving out of here.’’

Town officials said they are making efforts to respond to neighbors’ concerns. They’re asking Framingham Trust Co. — the bank that took over the property after its previous owner defaulted on his loan — to change the plan from three-bedroom units to two-bedroom town houses as a way to encourage singles, empty-nesters, and young professionals to move in, rather than families.

For O’Toole, a telecommuter who spends most days working from home and waiting for a drop-in visit from his grandson, the bylaw change is a chance for his “graying’’ neighborhood to be filled with a little excitement and vitality.

“People need to realize that this is a nice area for everyone, and having families in that vacant spot will do a lot of good,’’ he said. “It’s time for this place to wake up.’’

Jennifer Roach Boston Globe July 22, 2010

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