WOBURN - The City Council may establish a special committee to reexamine how to best amend zoning regulations and encourage true mixed-use redevelopment of properties along the Commerce Way corridor.

In late January, the City Council, worried about the frantic pace of new multi-family housing projects within Woburn's Commerce Way Corridor Overlay District (CWCOD), took preemptive action to squash new special permit requests for dense apartment complexes within the economic development zone.

Specifically, in a unanimous vote, the city officials passed a zoning amendment that limits the density of new housing starts to 10-units per acre and further requires developers to designate at least 25 percent of that housing as affordable inventory as defined under Chapter 40B.

However, some on the City Council, such as Alderman at-large Michael Concannon, made clear their support of the zoning change was contingent upon pledges by local leaders to reconsider their whole vision for the Commerce Way area.

Under an order recently filed by Anderson at-large Michael Concannon and Ward 7 Alderman Lindsay Higgins, the council would create a new CWCOD Committee to begin that planning exercise. The legislation, part of a larger effort to overhaul the City Council's "Rules and Orders" manual, would legitimize the review by listing the new subgroup as a formal council committee.

The review comes at a pivotal time for the area, where some 800 apartment units will be coming online in the next few years. The Woburn Village redevelopment of the old Woburn Mall site, situated off Commerce Way by the entryway into the CWCOD, is also expected to spark renewed interest in the area.

Simultaneously, state transportation officials are finalizing design documents for the projected $16.4 million New Boston Street bridge project, which will re-establish a pivotal connection between an isolated cluster of industrial businesses in North Woburn by Merrimac Street and the northern edge of the CCWOD.

Noting the Wilmington side of New Boston Street is home to 370 businesses that employ more than 5,000 people, state planners with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) forecasted the bridge project is likely to trigger a new wave of business investments. In a 2018 MAPC analysis, prepared at the city's request, the state planners encouraged local leaders to loosen zoning restrictions to foster that growth.

Already, two area landowners are looking to capitalize on the New Boston Street bridge project, which is expected to release severe traffic congestion in the area by creating an easy connection to public transportation options at Anderson Regional Transportation Center and the I-93/95 cloverleaf.

In fact, the City Council swiftly enacted the new CWCOD housing controls last January after just a single hearing because of the pair of petitions for the IndustriPlex and New England Resin sites.

Though the Planning Board has recently rejected both preliminary subdivision plans, the pair of petitioners have sucessfully preserved for the next seven months their rights to proposing housing developments under the old CWCOD criteria.

CWCOD history

A little over a decade ago, local officials established the CWCOD in the hopes of encouraging the construction of high-end retail and professional office building complexes along Commerce Way, which is viewed as the last vast expanse of underutilized land in the city.

At the time, the City Council and Planning Board, who jointly crafted the special zoning regs, also included dense 25-unit per acre housing complexes as a permissible use, but had anticipated such luxury housing units would complement the commercial components.

However, as of late, area landowners, rather than blending housing complexes into larger commercially-anchored redevelopments, have instead pitched apartment-centric projects with small restaurant and retail components.

In the spring of 2018, after the MAPC released another planning study focusing on the Woburn Mall redevelopment, Anderson and other city councilors began voicing concerns that the entire Commerce Way corridor would become over saturated with apartment units.

In an attempt to discourage that trend, Anderson proposed capping all new housing projects across the city at 20-units per acre. Though that zoning legislation eventually passed, the future City Council president later learned the regulations would not apply to special overlay districts, such as the CWCOD.

To remedy that problem, he returned months later with companion legislation that proposed to imposition of similar controls on housing along Commerce Way.

However, after meeting some pushback, the CWCOD amendment was modified to create a sliding density scale that increased based upon the size of commercial elements included in redevelopment plans. Under the initiative, stand-alone housing projects were capped at a flexible 25-to-40 unit cap.

With the City Council in January significantly cutting back on that minimum threshold by instituting a uniform 10-unit per acre standard, some local officials like Concannon have worried the new rules will completely stifle new investment into the area.

"This is a big change to a 10-year-old ordinance that we've been using for a while now," responded the alderman at-large.

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