WOBURN - The City Council recently authorized the execution of an out-of-court settlement with National Amusements’ successor company that could pave the way for the redevelopment of a portion of the Showcase Cinemas site off of Middlesex Canal Parkway.

During their latest meeting in City Hall, the elected officials in an 8-to-1 vote authorized City Council President Michael Concannon to ratify the compromise with the entertainment conglomerate, which in the spring of 2017 filed suit after being prohibited from subdividing the sprawling Lowell Street area property.

The land court case, referenced to as NAI Holdings v. the Woburn City Council, had proceeded past the discovery phase over the past year and would have likely been heading to trial sometime next fall or in early 2023.

Per the legal agreement, National Amusements will be able to wiggle out of a decades-old special permits clause that forbids the corporation from subdividing the 38-acre parcel into two separate lots. However, in being freed from that previous commitment to the city, the landowner promises to subject any future development at that second lot - including proposals for by-right uses — to a special permitting process before the City Council.

National Amusements successor company, NAI Holdings, has also made a series of other concessions to the city in regards to maintaining existing drainage and stormwater infrastructure on the property, such as:

• Cleaning out all catch basins on the property;

• Inspecting and making any needed repairs to any subsurface drainage system infrastructure;

• And inspecting and repairing if necesssary the hydraulic systems used to pump runoff into an onsite retention pond.

According to Ward 4 Alderman Joseph Demers, whose district includes the movie theatre and hotel complex that overlooks I-95 by the Route 28 rotary, the deal safeguards his constituency in that the council can shape any future development through the special permitting process.

Though the City Council had in March of 2021 rejected a nearly identical settlement offer, City Solicitor Ellen Callahan-Doucette reportedly warned a sympathetic judge might side with National Amusements in light of cratering sales and other massive changes to the movie theatre industry.

Believing such a legal setback could prove disastrous for Lowell Street neighbors, who have long complained about traffic, flooding, and other nuisances by the existing theater and hotel development, Demers contends the city couldn’t risk a court defeat.

“The City Council was advised by the city solicitor that she believes a judge would be sympathetic with the standing of NAI in regards to changes to their business model and the industry as a whole,” the Ward 4 councilor explained.

“I think this is the right thing to do because it gives the City Council later input into what can go in that area,” later agreed Ward 7 Councilor Charles Viola.

The genesis of the court case dates all the way back to a previous legal dispute between National Amusements and the city over a 1989 proposal to add four more screening rooms to the original eight-theater cinema complex, as well as a shopping center and hotel.

At the time, the original 36,334 square foot theatre complex, which contained some 2,583 seats, was already commonly packed to capacity. The City Council, contending traffic from the expansion plan would overwhelm surrounding roadways and result in a host of other new neighborhood nuisances, rejected the special permit application.

In 1991, a Land Court judge overturned that council denial on the grounds that the petitioner had proposed reasonable mitigation measures to offset those impacts. After a series of subsequent negotiations and public meetings, the City Council in 1994 granted that special permit for an expansion plan that included the hotel and an extra 400 seats within the cinema building.

As part of that approval, National Amusements, besides agreeing to institute a series of drainage and traffic improvements in the area, consented to a special permit condition which stipulated the landowner and “it’s heirs [and] successors…will not build upon, develop and/or make any other use of the site…except as and for a movie theatre or cinema and motor vehicle parking [lot] incidental thereto.”

In March of 2017, National Amusements approached the city and asked for permission to subdivide the parcel in spite of that previous promise.

At the time, company officials pointed out that the theatre industry, which no longer drew daily crowds of thousands to massive complexes, had reverted to a model that included downsized individual cinema showing rooms that featured oversized seats and other luxury amenities.

As a result of those changes, the corporation argued, its previous demand for a 1,000-plus space parking lot no longer existed. Currently, according to NAI Holdings, the cinema’s previous 2,900-person capacity has shrunk down to just 880 seats, and at most, the site calls for a parking lot with no more than 330 spaces. Nonetheless, the petitioner was promising to offer 597 spaces at the property moving forward.

However, city officials, referencing the 1994 special permit conditions, refused to allow the applicant to subdivide the lot, which would allow an approximate 13.49-acre slice of the parcel to be sold off to another developer. Last year, Lowell Street area residents discovered that proposed future of that second lot, which which is being eyed by a Boston-based developer for a life sciences campus.

During the latest City Council meeting, Ward 2 Councilor Richard Gately was the lone dissenter in the vote to approve the settlement offer.

According to Gately, the theater site owner made a promise to the City of Woburn in exchange for being allowed to move ahead with a considerable development several decades ago and it should be held to its word.

“They made an agreement with us in order to put those buildings in up there…end of story,” said the South End official. “It was a war to get that thing in there and promises were made. And when you make a promise, you should keep that promise.”

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