WOBURN - The Planning Board last night delayed deliberations over a pair of subdivision plans that would freeze housing development rights on properties that sit on either side of the proposed New Boston Street Bridge.
During a virtual meeting on Tuesday night via video-conferencing service Zoom, the planners without debate continued until July 21 the definitive subdivision submissions from DM Five Inc. and Industriplex Woburn, LLC.
Under an executive order signed by Mass. Governor Charles Baker early on during the COVID-19 crisis, a series of permitting deadlines and associated public hearing timelines were waived in light of restrictions on large gatherings and workplace shutdowns.
As part of those emergency powers, the chairs of permit-granting authorities like the Planning Board and City Council were granted the authority to continue new petitions for as long as the pubic health emergency remains effective.
Both present petitions, which relate to North Woburn's 16-acre New England Resin site off New Boston Street and a 40-acre spread of parcels centered around Anderson Regional Transportation Center by Atlantic Avenue, are attempts to preserve housing development rights under a former version of Woburn's Commerce Way Corridor Overlay District (CWCOD).
Though both landowners are currently enjoying a seven-month freeze on their zoning rights under the older CWCOD standards, the Planning Board, if it okays the formal subdivision filings, will extend those protections for another eight years.
The preliminary subdivision approval process was created to let developers solicit feedback about a proposal without having to engage professional engineers and architects to create detailed construction documents.
Planning Boards then provide constructive comments about those development concepts in their decision, which establishes an initial seven-month zoning freeze.
Under the process, petitioners after the initial review can formalize the project plans for submission under the definitive subdivision process, which if approved, extends the property's zoning freeze for another eight years.
In the past few years, at least two other developers, including those pursuing the Woburn Mall or Woburn Village redevelopment and the construction of townhouses at the old Verizon Trucking Terminal off of Locust Street, have similarly utilized the preliminary subdivision approval process to preserve their development rights.
At the outset of 2020, Mayor Scott Galvin and other city officials caught word that a number of large landowners within the CWCOD were exploring redevelopment plans that would pitch housing complexes on either side of the further New Boston Street bridge.
With a number of city leaders already bemoaning the frantic pace of new housing starts, particularly in and around Commerce Way, the mayor urged the aldermen to counteract the building trend by instituting new density controls on future apartment complexes.
The council quickly responded by capping new housing within the CWCOD at 10-units per acre, a substantially different threshold given the overlay's previous 25-to-40 unit per acre ceiling.
However, before that zoning amendment passed, two landowners managed to submit preliminary subdivision plans, which sought Planning Board input on proposals to combine and carve-up industrial sites by the New Boston Street bridge.
City Hall leaders like Galvin criticized the submissions as faux redevelopment plans, because rather than eyeing an industrial reuse of the subdivisions, the petitioners were instead attempting to freeze their development rights under the old CWCOD rules.
In late January, the Planning Board issued an unfavorable recommendation on the New England Resin site proposal to carve-up the 16-acre parcel by the Wilimington line into three lots.
Notably, the New England Resins property is situated towards the very end of New Boston Street by the old Woburn Landfill property at Merrimac Street and the Wilmington line.
New England Resins, which distributes and packages chemicals like paints, clays, and epoxies, has operated out of a 100,000 square foot warehouse on the property since the 1970's, according to the corporation's website. Similar industrial uses of the land date all the way back to 1941.
At present, the entire New Boston Street industrial zone in North Woburn is completely isolated from major traffic corridors and public transportation services. As such, it can only be accessed by traveling through a network of residential side streets.
However, once the New Boston Street bridge is reopened — the $16.4 million in project funding becomes available later this year — the New England Resin site will become prime real-estate by the restored connection.
As with the initial New Boston Street filings, the Planning Board similarly rejected the preliminary subdivision filing for the Industriplex site based upon several substandard design elements.
The definitive subdivision submission, which addresses those deficiencies, would create an approximate three-acre lot within visual distance of the reconstructed bridge and another 36-acre parcel with frontage along key traffic corridors like Commerce Way and Atlantic Avenue.
During the last Planning Board meeting on the matter, Allen & Major Associates engineer Tim Williams, representing the petitioner, suggested that his client was most likely to pursue a mixed-use redevelopment for the smaller of the two proposed lots, which is located adjacent to the Atlantic Avenue side of New Boston Street by the MBTA railroad tracks.
Technically, the majority of the IndustriPlex parcels are presently subject to strict redevelopment restrictions due to a impermeable cap placed over a subsurface pollution plume. Those soil contaminates are spread across an 250-acre zone that is bordered by Presidential Way, the vicinity of the Woburn Mall, the Aberjona River, and sections of the MBTA railroad tracks.
According to authorities, the pollution occurred between 1853 and 1969, when arsenic, chromium, lead, and a myriad of other hazardous substances were essentially dumped into pits and lagoons around the sensitive Aberjona River watershed. In total, more than 80 companies that operated in the region over the past 130 years are suspected of contributing to the major environmental catastrophe.
Due to redevelopment restrictions enforced by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the old industrial sites have long sat vacant, as the cost of adhering to those protective construction practices has been considered as cost-prohibitive.