WOBURN - The City Council last night agreed to let Woburn Mall redeveloper Edens LLC erect seasonal canopies over patio areas that will sit adjacent to the Woburn Village project's outdoor market buildings.
In an unanimous vote on Tuesday night, the aldermen voted 8-0 in favor of allowing the South Carolina based property manager to erect structural canopies outside of seven buildings situated across the sprawling 23-acre redevelopment in East Woburn.
As part of the special permit discussion, the City Council labelled the design revision as a minor modification to the Woburn Village approval granted by aldermen last June. The second such petition to be addressed since the council in January clarified regulations around minor modifications to special permits, the Woburn Village petition was passed without the need for a full public hearing process.
Alderman at-large Michael Concannon abstained from this week's deliberations.
According to Edens LLC representative Keith Hague and Burlington attorney Mark Vaughan, the 300 Mishawum Rd. landlord had always envisioned the possibility of using a canopy system to shield outdoor diners from the elements.
Because those outdoor seating areas were already depicted on the original site plans, with the seats being accounted for in Woburn Village project's parking calculations, the developer never believed the amenity would pose a problem.
After securing several tenants for the future outdoor market area — including Surf Seafood, Broadway, Panera Bread, Caffe Nero, and Shake Shack — Edens officials firmed up plans to erect permanent canopy systems at each designated patio area.
However, Building Commissioner Thomas Quinn, believing the design change was significant enough to warrant additional feedback from the city, referred the petitioners to the City Council.
"We always intended to have them. We just didn't show them on the plan and Mr. Quinn wanted us to bring this to you," Hague explained.
"We're really looking to design it so it won't flop around in the wind," said Hague, explaining the canopy include glass panels, instead of consisting of cheap plastic or fabric materials. "You can see the Broadway enclosure is all glass [for the ground-level patio area]. It's very aesthetically pleasing with no temporary-enclosure look to it whatsoever."
According to Ward 5 Alderman Darlene Mercer-Bruen, whose district includes the Woburn Mall redevelopment, since the canopy enclosures will not at all impact the site's parking requirements, she has no issue with the new design elements.
Mercer-Bruen, noting Hague's descriptions of the areas as walled enclosures with glass paneling, did suggest the petitioner could have avoided questions about the amenity by including them in original site plans and renderings.
"I don't think it's a bad thing, but I wanted to make sure we counted for the appropriate amount of parking," she said. "The permanency of the structure, with you talking about glass walls, makes me wonder why we didn't include these from the beginning."
Ward 1 Alderman Joanne Campbell also asked questions about the look of the inclement-weather barriers, especially since city officials spent months establishing rigid design criteria for new developments within the underlying smart-growth of 40R zoning overlay district.
Worried that the aesthetics of the entire project could be cheapened by the use of canvas or plastic materials, Campbell insisted a condition be added to the approval that forbid such products from being part of any ground-level enclosure.
Ultimately, the Ward 1 alderman added the reference to ground-level dining areas, because a roof deck seating area planned for the Broadway restaurant would likely consist of a removable PVC-type structure.
"I don't like the plastic I've seen in some restaurants, so I want to make sure you don't use that," she said.
The council agreed to add Campbell's stipulation to its special permit amendment last night, with all but Ward 6 Alderman Edward Tedesco supporting the condition.
According to Ward 7 Alderman Lindsay Higgins, she had no concerns with the canopy concept, but she wanted assurances the outdoor dining areas would be used on a seasonal basis. Specifically, she was concerned HVAC systems could be incorporated into the enclosures and thereby allow restaurant tenants to use the patio areas year round.
"They can't be removed in the winter, but they'll be closed up [in the colder weather] and be temporary in nature," Hague responded. "The patio areas are outside of the actual building In the winter, everything is close down, including the door that goes out to that patio area."
Notably, the Woburn Mall matter was tackled as the elected officials met for the first time ever in a virtual-setting. The special circumstances, driven by the novel coronavirus crisis, allowed each council member to participate in the meeting from the safety of their own homes.
Without a full quorum of members being present in City Hall, the aldermen would normally run afoul of the state's Open Meeting Law by having so many members participate remotely — only City Council President Michael Anderson was physically present in the council chambers.
However, due to the state's ongoing public health emergency, Mass. Governor Charles Baker earlier this month issued an emergency order that suspended portions of the Open Meeting Law to allow government bodies to hold virtual meetings through Internet-based video conferencing services.