WOBURN - The new Woburn Mall owner contends a massive redevelopment of the 23-acre parcel into a lifestyle center with 350 apartments, a movie theatre complex, and more than 20 retail stores will have no discernible impact on area traffic.
Late last week, local officials posted on the City of Woburn website several parts of Edens LLC's special permit application package for its proposed Woburn Village project at 300 Mishawum Rd. in East Woburn.
The redevelopment is being pitched under a new 40R or Smart Growth Overlay District (SGOD) created by the City Council late last month.
The council is expected to address the application during its meeting tomorrow night at 7 p.m. in City Hall. A full public hearing won’t be held on the proposal until next month.
In the recent special permit filing, Edens LLC and partner Avalon Bay propose razing the 244,000 square foot indoor mall that was first erected in 1984 and replacing the shopping center with the following:
• A new strip-mall building, anchored by longtime tenant Market Basket by Commerce Way, that will also feature a DSW Shoe, a Homesense, a TJ-Maxx, and a Homegoods store.
• A new 10-screen movie cinema complex, where an attached parking garage and several other ground-level retail spaces are also proposed;
• A sprawling 419,393 square foot apartment complex, situated along the rear property line towards the New China Pearl restaurant side of the mall property, which will include 350 housing units, a 444-space garage, and roughly 13,000 square feet of ground-level retail space;
Situated along Mishawum Road near the mall's main driveway, four new retail buildings will also be constructed. Two of the newest buildings, pushed towards Mishawum Road, will be clustered in front of the new movie cinema and opposite the small plaza that houses Floyd's Barbershop and Colonial Liquors.
Directly behind those new Mishawum Road storefronts and the Colonial Liquors site, two other smaller retail buildings will be erected on either side of the site driveway.
In total, the new Woburn Village project will contain 150,000 square feet of general retail space.
No traffic impacts?
In a contention that will surely cause a stir, Edens consultants, in a required analysis accompanying the main Woburn Village petition, insist the redevelopment will actually generate less traffic than the existing indoor mall.
"The data indicates that the proposed project will result in approximately 270 fewer daily trips on a weekday and 680 fewer trips on a Saturday," a report from MDM Transportation Consultants reads.
In fact, engineers from the Malborough firm, in a 66-page study released last month, argue traffic impacts are expected to be so negligible, no major offsite road widening, intersection realignments, or light signalization investments are needed.
Instead, MDM engineers are proposing a realignment of the site's Commerce Way driveway, improvements to pedestrian and bicyclist amenities, and a handful of traffic monitoring programs.
The highlight of that mitigation package will entail a reconfiguration of the site driveway closest to Market Basket, which would be widened to include two left-turn lanes and an exclusive right-hand turning lane.
The fix will also include raising traffic islands and installing new sidewalks to further protect pedestrians, who would see two new 16-foot wide crossing zones created by the supermarket. A push-button activated crosswalk is also proposed for Commerce Way.
"In summary, the proposed development does not result in any material change in operations at intersections within the study area compared to No-Build conditions…There will be no degradation in the level of service at any of the study intersections due to the project," the traffic experts conclude in the report.
As part of the study, the petitioner was required to analyze projected traffic impacts on roadways that directly abut the 23-acre parcel, as well as at seven intersections that included:
• Commerce Way at the signalized mall driveway near Lowe's Home Improvement;
• Commerce Way at the unsignalized north site driveway — the existing loading dock area/emergency fire access that runs along the rear of the existing mall;
• Commerce Way at Mishawum Road;
• The main Mishawum Road site driveway;
• The secondary Mishawum Road driveway (unsignalized) that is located across the street from Scrub-a-Dub;
• Mishawum Road at Washington Street;
• and Mishawum Road at Industrial Way.
The indoor mall heyday has ended
Since Edens first purchased the mall in 2017 for $44 million, representatives for the South Carolina developer have repeatedly characterized the shopping center as floundering in the face of stiff competition from the Burlington Mall and new lifestyle centers like the MarketStreet Lynnfield complex.
With a number of major brick-and-mortar retailers like Sears, Toys R Us, and Sports Authority declaring bankruptcy in recent years, the commercial real-estate manager also argued that America's decades-long love affair with the indoor mall has come to a tragic end.
Replacing that model, according to a multitude of developers and market experts, consumers have reportedly developed a preference for "lifestyle centers", or outdoor markets that also feature a mix of shopping, entertainment and fine dining options.
Those destination spots, such as Somerville's Assembly Row redevelopment and Lynnfield's MarketStreet project, also commonly include housing and employment centers.
As of July of 2018, just before the City Council officially began its deliberations over establishing a 40R district around the Woburn Mall site, at least 85,000 square feet of retail space within the Mishawum Road building was listed as vacant.
By the time the recent Woburn Village petition was filed last month, that vacancy rate had climbed to 120,518 square feet.
Though some of that new turnover apparently relates to the non-renewal of leases with mall tenants, the petitioner has pointed to the high vacancy rate within the Woburn Mall as indicative of the need to revitalize the entire property.
However, MDM Transportation Consultants, in their lengthy traffic analysis, apparently did not take those market trends into account while preparing its analysis. Instead, it bases its traffic analysis based off the assumption that the Woburn Mall is operating at full capacity — when by the petitioner's own account, roughly half of the space is not being utilized.
The MDM analysis is not unique in basing "no build" traffic projections on an assumed maximum capacity use, as such assumptions are commonplace in the industry.
However, because Edens officials have suggested the Woburn Mall has long struggled with high vacancy rates and will never see an economic resurgence under an indoor mall format, abutters and city officials are almost guaranteed to criticize the findings as inconsistent with real-world conditions.