Planning Board, O’Neill Closer on Plank Street Development Plan

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

Image (c) Google maps
Image (c) Google maps

In the most recent step of a lengthy process that began informally in early 2012, developer Vince O’Neill returned to the Planning Board on April 16 to present new revisions to plans to build two residential buildings at 100 Plank Street, a parcel off the Middlesex Turnpike that is currently permitted for commercial/industrial use.

These most recent alterations to the project’s plans were, in large part, based on Planning Board comments from previous presentations. With each of the presentations for 100 Plank Street that O’Neill has made to date, the Planning Board has struggled to balance the intent of the mixed-use bylaw concept in the Middlesex Turnpike district with the needs of the town and the realities of the real estate market.

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O’Neill’s newest plan envisions 46 residential units consisting of 7 studio, 30 one-bedroom, and 9 two-bedroom apartments, plus commercial office space totaling 4,000 square feet. This represents a doubling of commercial square footage from an earlier design, as well as fewer two bedroom units in order to limit the number of school age children likely to live in the development.

O’Neill also presented renter profiles from tenants at the Village at Taylor Pond, an apartment complex adjacent to 100 Plank Street, showing that many of the residents work nearby. The statistics support O’Neill’s speculation that potential Plank Street residents are likely to be employees at businesses in the Route 3/Middlesex Turnpike corridor.

“People [who live there] can walk to [work],” O’Neill said.  “Currently, a pretty large percent of the residents of Taylor Pond live and work within close proximity—37% of them work 1-15 minutes away; 26% live 16-30 [minutes away]. I don’t know if they’re walking, biking or driving.”

“The sidewalk and road improvements that the town is doing along Middlesex Turnpike allow people to walk to Bamboo [the restaurant]; walk across the street to Kindercare [daycare], to The Boardroom [Bistro],” O’Neill added.

O’Neill also stated that the statistics show that 28% of Taylor Pond residents are “professional”; 19% are listed as “technology”; 4% are “military.”

Members of the Planning Board were generally not pleased with O’Neill’s new plan to construct garages along Plank Street, and O’Neill responded that he would revisit building them toward the back of the lot, where they had been situated in earlier plans. The back portion of the property, however, is actually located across the Bedford line, in Billerica.

Other Planning Board comments included the desire for an even greater increase in commercial office space, but some Planning Board members acknowledged that achieving the type of mixed use originally envisioned on that particular parcel is unlikely, given its lack of visibility from the Middlesex Turnpike.

O’Neill admitted that the 100 Plank Street parcel was a flawed site to begin with. “I’ve been carrying this site for five years and, trust me, I’ve looked at everything. I just think—when I look back now—that we made a lot of mistakes in our assumptions.”

Ultimately, Planning Board member Lisa Mustapich disagreed with how the parcel had shifted from 100% commercial use— when the Criterion Property Company of the Taylor Pond development owned it— to O’Neill’s petition to convert the parcel substantially to residential use.

“I definitely think we should be looking at the area in the whole form [as mixed use], not site by site,” Mustapich agreed. “But the bylaw that we sold to the voters is what it is. This is not, in my opinion, what we told the voters that we were going to do. It’s an addition to the [Taylor Pond] apartment complex. Criterion said, ‘Cross our hearts and hope to die: that building will be commercial.’ They swore that they wouldn’t be before us—and they’re not: they sold the property to Vince [O’Neill] and now he’s before us.”

Mustapich added that she sees lots of evidence in recent news reports that the demand for commercial space in Boston is on the upswing and believes that the overflow will come out to the suburbs at some point. “[The] people [of Bedford] have been very clear with what they’ve said to us,” Mustapich argued. “They don’t want us to erode our commercial base. They don’t want us to be Carlisle. . . . I don’t support this, I’m sorry.”

However, other Planning Board members and town leaders were inclined to move ahead cautiously.

Selectman Mark Siegenthaler said, “I think it’s important to think about the redevelopment potential of other sites that are out there for pure commercial redevelopment. This site has really not operated the way any of us intended that it would….There’s no way you’re going to get a row of retail or get people to turn onto Plank Street.”

Planning Board member Sandra Hackman added, “This is an opportunity to finish what we started and make this [parcel] mixed use [with residential in the mix]. I don’t see it being possible to build more big housing projects on Middlesex Turnpike. I don’t think there’s any appetite in this town for that. I don’t see the Town approving a lot [more] multi-unit housing out there.”

Planning Board Chair Jeff Cohen concluded, “Just taking an optimistic view of [the Middlesex Turnpike] area and trying to encourage development and economic revitalization—and we’ve heard there’s a need for housing still—this seems to be a good project. It’s not perfect, it’s not what we originally thought, but it’s probably reasonable for this time on this site.”

Taking the board’s feedback about the placement of the garages into consideration as well as other recommendations, O’Neill said he would return again with another proposal, most likely in June.

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