Wednesday, January 19, 2011

NEW DEVELOPMENT: Tardy smart growth

Eight area communities signed on to a law rewarding dense development, but five years later only Lakeville and Norwood have completed projects

State legislators approved a new law in 2005 to give communities more local control over proposals calling for dense development — something that had been lacking under Massachusetts’ older affordable-housing statute. But five years later, only a handful of cities and towns have successfully completed the projects proposed under the so-called Smart Growth Act.

Eight communities south of Boston — Bridgewater, Brockton, Easton, Kingston, Lakeville, Norwood, Plymouth, and Sharon — signed on to “smart growth,’’ establishing zoning districts that allow for dense development in strategic locations, such as near transportation hubs or commercial areas. In return, they received hundreds of thousands in cash incentives, along with the 2005 statute’s promise of a $3,000 “density bonus’’ for every unit built.

The one string attached to cash, however, has begun to make communities with stalled or abandoned projects worry over the state’s next move. The Smart Growth Act, also known as Chapter 40R, has a “claw back’’ provision that gives incentive recipients three years to show progress or return the money.

Kingston and Bridgewater, both recipients of $600,000 incentive payments and now arriving at the three-year mark, are waiting for the state’s knock on the door. Kingston’s once-promising 1021 Kingston Place mixed-use project was abandoned last winter after drawn-out court appeals undermined the developer’s financing. Property owner Mary O’Donnell has since decided to pursue a solar and wind farm.

Kingston Town Administrator Jill Myers said it would be painful to return the $600,000 incentive payment, but not fatal to the town’s finances. “We’ve kept that money in a separate account,’’ she said.

That’s not the case in Bridgewater. The town’s $600,000 incentive payment, up for claw-back in September, was spent shortly after it arrived in 2008, to help keep the town’s operational budget afloat. Meanwhile, the 594-unit proposed expansion to the Waterford Village apartment complex, adjacent to the MBTA station and Bridgewater State University, has gone nowhere.

The state’s listed status for the project says it all: “Time of future development is highly uncertain.’’

Bridgewater officials say they plan to contact the state Department of Housing and Community Development to see what options are available to the town.

Town Council member Michael Demos, a former selectman, said his town’s plight isn’t surprising, given its lack of future planning. He said Bridgewater, in a financial pinch, decided to use the incentive money without considering the potential for the proposed project to fail.

“Going forward, I’m confident, with the change of government, the town will no longer think it can continue to deal with its budgetary issues in a reactive way,’’ Demos said in an e-mail. Bridgewater replaced its Board of Selectmen with a nine-member Town Council on Jan. 1.

As for Easton’s Queset Commons, where permits are in place for the opening phase but a citizens’ appeal of a Conservation Commission ruling has temporarily stalled activity, officials say an extension of the state’s deadline would help.

“Once we get [the appeal] settled, we’re ready to go,’’ said developer Doug King.

Easton Town Administrator David Colton said the three-year deadline for progress is up in about six months. The town has already spent much of the $350,000 state incentive, he said. About $280,000 went to capital projects, and the remaining $70,000 into the general fund.

“Obviously, if we can’t do what needs to be done by the deadline, we’ll be asking the state for an extension,’’ Colton said. “The delay in the project has not been our fault, and the economy isn’t what anybody anticipated back in 2008.’’

Town Planner Brad Washburn said Easton is counting on Queset progressing. “About $2 million in infrastructure improvements by the developer are included in this,’’ he said.

Department of Housing and Community Development spokesman Phil Hailer said the state just might cut municipalities with languishing projects a little slack from the claw.

“Obviously, in the last three years, the dynamic has changed quite a bit, and we certainly understand the financial climate,’’ Hailer said. “If a community is running up against the deadline and can show good cause as to why the project can’t proceed, we will make every effort to work with them.’’

Hailer said the agency wants them all to be built eventually. “To my knowledge, we haven’t taken back any money yet,’’ he said.

The success rate among the 40R projects south of Boston is similar to that of the other 22 Smart Growth projects statewide, according to the agency.

In Brockton, where little progress has been made on a 1,096-unit Smart Growth project, officials said they, too, could benefit from a reprieve from the state.

The city signed on to do a massive overhaul of its downtown, reusing some vacant commercial buildings in the process, but it hasn’t moved forward despite having received its $600,000 incentive payment. The plan calls for development of several “sub-districts.’’ Some consist of commercial, retail, and industrial projects. Others utilize land for public parks and parking lots. The plan includes some mixed-use blend of residential with commercial as well.

The developer who had planned a 308-unit housing project called Renaissance Village has withdrawn the proposal. And a small plan for 30 to 40 units of very-low-income housing, in St. Paul’s district, is still in “preliminary discussion,’’ according to state records.

“Ours is divided into five [Smart Growth] subdistricts,’’ and the plan for St. Paul’s is the only one where any discussion is now taking place, said Pam Gurley, Planning Department secretary. “As of now, we have nothing further,’’ she said.

But other south-of-Boston projects have had varying degrees of success.

Norwood, the first community in the state to establish a Smart Growth District, reached the finish line in 2008, completing a modest 15-unit project by renovating a former church, rectory, and convent on St. George Avenue, located near south Norwood’s business district. The town received a total of $43,000 in incentives and bonuses for the units built. Now local officials are discussing a second project.

Lakeville’s efforts have also paid off, with 100 of the 207 units planned near the rail station already built and rented.

“Lakeville is right on track,’’ said Town Administrator Rita Garbitt, adding the town received a $350,000 incentive payment for establishing a Smart Growth District, followed by $300,000 in density bonus payments to date.

In Plymouth, the overhaul of the 150-year-old Cordage Park mill complex on the waterfront is expected to reach a milestone soon.

“We have an interested developer in Boston,’’ said property owner Joe Jannetty. A former Wal-Mart store on the property is set for demolition within the next three months. Phase I, calling for 150 apartments and some commercial space housed in two new buildings, will replace the Wal-Mart. “Once those rentals are complete, we’ll pursue condos on the waterfront,’’ Jannetty said.

The project is also in line for a $2 million Community Development Grant, said Plymouth Planning Director Lee Hartmann.

“I’m confident we’ll receive it,’’ Hartmann said. While Plymouth passed the three-year mark for its $600,000 incentive payment last October, he doesn’t anticipate any heat from the state. “This is certainly not a case of a project being abandoned,’’ he said.

Work on Sharon Commons is also ready to begin, according to developer Michael Intoccia.

“We’re starting the roadway and hope to have the first foundation in, weather permitting, within the next 30 to 45 days,’’ he said.

Christine Legere Boston Globe January 13, 2011

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