By Kim Siebert MacPhail
Plans for the redevelopment of 54 Loomis Street by owner Cerundulo-Larsen Realty Trust of Lexington and contractor Tambone Investment Group of Burlington were unveiled at Tuesday’s Planning Board meeting to a large—and generally hostile—group of concerned citizens. The Loomis Street location is the former Belle Isle skating rink that most recently housed Pharmalucence, a provider of radio pharmaceuticals used in heart imaging.
The Loomis Street site falls within the Depot Park overlay, an area identified by the town as requiring special permitting because of its historic value and a desire to encourage “village-style” redevelopment. Prior to the 2006 Town Meeting vote that established the overlay, Sandra Hackman of the Planning Board wrote that the goal of establishing the district was “to create a well-designed, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development that fosters a sense of community and builds on the area’s unique identity.” The Loomis Street proposal is the first project within the newly-zoned district to come before the Planning Board since the overlay was designated.
At issue on Tuesday night was a range of neighborhood concerns, including traffic; child safety; drug dealing; parking; litter; privacy; the dimensions and style of the proposed building; the minimal amount of dedicated retail space planned (1,040 sq. ft. out of a possible 12,850 on the first floor); what sort of businesses would occupy the retail space; a lack of exterior green space; the lack of an elevator; how 30 more residential units would change the character of the area and if those changes would impact Depot Park; and whether a large number of school-age children would be expected to live in the new building.
Neighbors of the project called the proposed three-story, 30-unit building a “monstrosity” and a “recipe for disaster.” One Loomis Street couple said they had moved from Cambridge to Bedford precisely to get away from living in a community with buildings like the one being proposed. Joy Kenen, a Loomis Street resident, remarked that the plan would result in a building “one full story higher than anything in the area. It just doesn’t fit.”
Members of the audience asked if the town would improve sidewalks on the adjacent side streets, such as Hartford Street, or add speed bumps to discourage a potential increase in cut-through traffic. Some questioned if this was the first step in a larger plan for transforming the area.
Bill Waters of McMahon Road spoke as one of the principals of Pharmalucence, the company that recently vacated 54 Loomis but is still leasing several other buildings on DeAngelo Drive, adjacent to the Loomis Street building site. First, Waters spoke highly of building’s owner, saying that Cerundulo had been a responsible and pro-active landlord. Waters added that Pharmalucence plans to vacate the DeAngelo Drive buildings so that the company will be in one place at new headquarters in Billerica. “When that happens,” he said, “there will be five vacant buildings in that area. I don’t think that neighborhood can support five commercial buildings anymore. So, to have another use is really valuable.”
Brian O’Donnell of Fayette Road, a member of the Bicycle Advisory Committee, spoke positively about the concepts behind the project, but admitted that he doesn’t live in the neighborhood.
O’Donnell said, “I particularly noted the shock and awe as people looked at the [plans], when they saw the height. That was very disturbing even for someone who supports the concepts of what they’re theoretically trying to do here, which is to meet the kind of housing needs we have, particularly with an aging population that needs to be brought closer to the center of town, becoming less car-dependent, making more use of the buses, more use of the bikeway. That’s what cities and towns all over the Commonwealth are trying to create right now.”
When the meeting turned toward comments from the Planning Board, the members of that Board agreed that the Loomis Street/DeAngelo Drive area is in decline because of the number of vacancies and older-style commercial buildings. “People are looking for this kind of housing in walkable neighborhoods,” said Planning Board member Sandra Hackman. “There could be a lot of vitality there and we need housing for seniors and people who grew up in town and want to stay.”
Members Lisa Mustapich and Jon Silver reacted negatively to the scale of the project, saying they’d rather see a building with fewer floors that looks less “like a shoebox with a lid.” They also urged the owner and his project team to expand the first floor retail square footage. Contractor Tambone admitted that they had misread the overlay bylaw and now that they realized the mistake, they were open to increasing the retail proportions.
The Planning Board strongly supported a recommendation from the audience that the development team meet with the residents of the neighborhood to work out the issues raised before they present a second draft of the proposal. Member Sean Hanegan said “I know a lot of you [in the audience] wish you weren’t guinea pigs,” as the Board navigates the first proposal for Depot Park overlay.
Member Jeff Cohen added, “It’s a very exciting project because it is the first one to take advantage of the new overlay district. I think it’s important for the Planning Board to get it as right as we can.”