WOBURN - A Boston developer's plans for a massive redevelopment of the old Atlantic Gelatin plant recently cleared a significant hurdle after the head of a state agency declared the proposal as complying with environmental regulations.
In an 83-page decision issued late last month, Kathleen Theoharides, the executive secretary for the Mass. Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA), ruled that officials from Legat McCall can prepare its final environmental impact report for a planned 1.6 million square foot redevelopment of the old Kraft Foods site off of Hill Street by Montvale Avenue and I-93.
Theoharides' decision does not end the MEPA process, but indicates the executive secretary is satisfied that the petitioner is on the verge of sufficiently demonstrating it can mitigate a host of potential traffic, water and energy usage, and drainage system and stormwater runoff concerns associated with the redevelopment.
"Based on a review of [the developer's draft environmental impact report] DEIR, consultation with state agencies, and a review of comment letters, I have determined that the DEIR is adequate notwithstanding that aspects of the project require additional description and analysis," she wrote in her May 24 decision, which was recently posted to MEPA's official website.
Formerly dubbed the Montvale Commons project, Legat McCall's newly tiled "The Vale" proposal complies with the provisions of the city's Technology and Business Use Overlay District (TBOD), but the City Council still must issue special permits for the proposal.
Under a master plan included in the EOEEA filings, which differs slightly from project iterations presented to city officials in the summer of 2018, the Hill Street redevelopment would include the following components:
• Nearly 880,000 square feet of Class A office and research and development (R&D) space;
• Retail storefronts containing a total of 83,200 square feet;
• A 79,200 square foot hotel with 135 guest rooms;
• A 300-unit apartment complex, comprising a total of 447,500 square feet;
• A 100-unit senior housing building;
• A 105-unit assisted living/Alzheimer's care facility;
• 75 townhomes;
• 125 multi-family housing units;
• And a parking garage structure containing a total of 2,865 spaces.
Under the Mass. Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), developers must obtain EOEEA approval before breaking ground on any undertaking that requires the issuance of state financial assistance or permits and exceeds various environmental impact thresholds.
As currently envisioned, The Vale will exceed at least five MEPA thresholds, including:
• The generation of more than 18,000 new traffic trips along the Montvale Avenue corridor;
• The alteration of more than 25 acres of land and the creation of roughly 10.5 acres in new impervious surfaces;
• The construction of more than 1,000 parking spaces.
Last fall, Theoharides predecessor, former EOEEA head Matthew Beaton, characterized Legat McCall's initial MEPA filings as woefully inadequate in light of comment letters from state agencies, neighborhood abutters, and officials in neighboring towns like Winchester and Stoneham.
Beaton subsequently ordered the developer to provide a glut of additional documentation regarding proposed raffic fixes, flood and wetlands protection controls, and architectural plans and phased-construction scheduling associated with a proposed 1.8 million square foot redevelopment of the industrial site.
"The DEIR should clearly demonstrate that the proponent has sought to avoid, minimize, and mitigate damage to the environmental to the maximum extent feasible," wrote Beaton.
Last April, the Boston developer responded to Beaton's order by filing a voluminous and data-packed DEIR that spanned 448-pages. Supplementary reports attached to the DEIR, such as a 1,627-page traffic analysis and a 160-page wetlands and runoff filing, brought the total number of pages in the package to the thousands.
Interestingly, that report provided area officials with their first full glimpse of Legal McCall's plans for mitigating waves of rush-hour traffic that are expected to inundate the vicinity of I-93 and Montvale Avenue in Woburn and Stoneham as a result of the project.
According to the proponent, The Vale development when fully built out will generate a whopping 16,688 new weekday vehicular trips, the majority of which of which will access the site via I-93 and Montvale Avenue.
To ensure the roadway network can handle such a staggering increase in traffic volume, Legat McCall has proposed the eventual expansion of Hill Street by McDonald's Restaurant and the Kraft Foods site entrance into a five lane roadway.
The construction of an onsite rotary is also being proposed to process vehicles heading to various mixed-use development components within the 57-acre, while the realignment of portions of Montvale Avenue and the I-93 on-and-off ramps are also planned.
"To offer project-related impacts, the proponent has proposed improvements to the Montvale AVenue/Hill Street/I-93 southbound off-ramp, Montvale Avenue/I-93 northbound ramps, and the Montvale Avenue/Maple Street/Unicorn Park Drive intersections," noted Theoharides.
"First, each of these three signalized intersections would be upgraded to provide for a fully-adaptive traffic signal system complaint with other adaptive signals systems within the City of Woburn," the EOEEA secretary further summarized.
In late May, just days before the EOEEA decision, City Engineer Jay Corey largely supported Legat McCall's plans to integrate traffic lights into existing adaptive control networks, which allow signal cycles to be adjusted based upon real-time traffic conditions.
However, Corey, noting a lack of specificity regarding improvements to other downstream intersections on Montvale Avenue — such as along Washington Street — sought clarifying details about the developer's plans for addressing those roadways.
The recent MEPA decision does require the Boston developer to furnish additional documentation about broader impacts to the region's road infrastructure, including to thoroughfares in Stoneham and Winchester.
"The project will generate a significant amount of traffic in a congested area. I note that comments from…the Town of Winchester and the Town of Stoneham request more specificity regarding mitigation commitments," Theoharides acknowledged in her May 24 decision. "The FEIR should provide additional and more specific mitigation commitments commensurate with the project's impacts."
Woburn's City Council has not yet been asked to issue final special permits for the project, so regardless of the final MEPA decision, the community will have future opportunities to demand more mitigation work.
Technically, Legatt and McCall's land holdings in the area total more than 77-acres, but vast swaths of land will be donated to the City of Woburn, including a 13-acre site by Walker Pond. A large section of forested land along I-93 by the Stoneham and Winchester lines is also remaining untouched by the project.
Lastly, the the developer plans to sell an approximate 1-acre plot off of Forest Street in Winchester for a by-right subdivision with 11 single-family homes.