WOBURN - In an attempt to save the proposed redevelopment of North Woburn's Tidd Home, the City Council may grant itself the authority to waive housing density caps within the community's new historic building preservation regulations.
During a recent gathering in City Hall, members of the council's Ordinance Committee sent back out for action a zoning amendment that would grant the aldermen the authority to waive a 20-unit per acre density threshold under the city's "conversion of historical buildings" ordinance.
The subgroup is recommending the full council withhold a final vote on the initiative until City Solicitor Ellen Callahan-Doucette renders an opinion as to whether the modified legislation adequately protects local neighborhoods from inappropriate redevelopments.
The Ordinance Committee has also asked Woburn's Historical Commission to forward the full council a copy of its list of historically significant properties. That inventory is being sought as Andrew Creen, Woburn's Chief Assessor, this week advised city officials that municipal records should be considered unreliable, when it comes to determining the age of structures across the community.
"So it goes back for action, and the idea is we'll have a response from the city solicitor and the Historical Commission [to rely upon before making a final decision]," said Alderman at-large Michael Concannon.
The revised legislation would allow the proprietors of historic buildings, which sit upon undersized lots of less than one-acre, to proceed with a multi-unit housing redevelopment of up to 15 units.
In overriding the preservation ordinance's 20-unit per acre standard, the council would be required to make a finding that the apartment complex's density made sense in light of the underlying property's lot dimensions.
The size of the existing structure, as well as a special permit applicant's ability to meet the preservation ordinance's two-space per unit parking requirement, would also be factored into the council's decision.
Local attorney Joseph Tarby, representing West Street resident John Flaherty, has explained the latest zoning change is being sought due to the recent discovery that the Tidd Home off of Elm Street sits upon a far smaller lot than was originally thought.
Though local officials crafted the historical preservation ordinance to apply to structures across the entire city, deliberations over the initiative began last year after Flaherty circulated plans to save the 1809 mansion in North Woburn.
The West Street resident, a local history buff who championed the costly overhaul of the Burdett Mansion by Mishawum Road and the conversion of Washington Street's old St. Joseph's Church into condominiums, has been trying to save the historic Elm Street senior housing facility from the wrecking ball for more than a year now.
Under his general proposal, the sprawling 9,900 square foot Federal Era building would be converted into an apartment complex, a use change that will reportedly require no exterior changes to the 1809 structure.
The original version of the current zoning amendment, presented in May by Flaherty, would have yanked any reference to acreage in the ordinance and instead imposed a blanket 15-unit cap on all proposed conversions of historical buildings into apartments.
However, several aldermen, referencing correspondence from Planning Director Tina Cassidy, suggested that by removing language that tied the number of allowed apartments to overall lot size, the city may inadvertently encourage hundreds of homeowners to take advantage of the zoning initiative.
Of particular concern was the effect of the zoning change in single-family or R1 districts, especially in older sections of the city where scores of homeowners may be able to transform small houses into apartment buildings.
This week, Ward 1 Alderman Joanne Campbell reiterated those concerns, as based upon her recent review of various neighborhoods within her district, dozens of properties already meet the qualifications of the preservation ordinance.
"As the 20-units per acre standard is written right now, if you have a quarter-acre lot, you could turn a one-family house into a 5-family. We're not talking about 1 or 2 properties. It's quite a few," she said.
This week, Tarby argued that by granting the council the ability to waive the 20-unit per acre density cap for undersized parcels, Flaherty's redevelopment could proceed without causing any unintended consequences. City Council President Michael Anderson, who worked on the compromise, agreed with that assessment and insisted the revised language would prevent hundreds of new homes from becoming eligible for special permits under the ordinance.
"Some of the concerns brought up by Joanne and the City Council are pretty legitimate. We don't want to turn an R1 district into a de-facto two-family or even a multi-family [zone]," Anderson acknowledged. "Applicants will now still be limited in what they can do, because they're restricted by the size of the existing structure and the [ordinance's] parking requirements."
Despite those assurances, some aldermen wanted to see concrete data that compared the number of homes that were originally eligible for apartment conversions to tallies under the revisions now being proposed. According to Ward 5 Alderman Darlene Mercer-Bruen, she was even more interested in viewing that documentation in light of Cassidy's claims that the preservation regs already allow hundreds of landlords to meet the technical qualifications for a special permit to redevelop older buildings into apartments.
"This language definitely appears to narrow things down, but I'm personally not comfortable saying this will do it with so many unknowns out there," she said.
Last month, after the council first reviewed the planning directors memo regarding the zoning amendment, the aldermen asked the assessors' office to conduct an analysis of its records to see how many landlords can take advantage of the zoning ordinance.
However, this week, Woburn's chief assessor explained his office's records aren't accurate enough to "hang your hat on." Creen also expressed confusion about what questions the council is trying to answer, as he has read several varying requests for data.
According to the City Hall department head, based upon a limited review of housing records, he believes at least 250 single-family homes and 320 two-family structures could meet the technical criteria of the city's existing historical preservation rules.
However, he warned that the analysis didn't include the square footage of attic spaces and basements — as well as accessory buildings like garages — which all could count towards the ordinance's requirement that historical buildings contain a minimum of 4,000 square feet.
Creen also cautioned that the city's dating of homes should be considered largely unreliable.
"When data collection was originally done, it was just a knock on the door. Sometimes it's accurate and sometimes it isn't," said Creen, explaining that records at the time were based upon information provided by homeowners. "More recently, our data for newly-constructed properties is very accurate. But for stuff from a long time ago…not so much."
"What's more important to us is the effective year built. So if we say a house was built in 1900, but it was fully renovated to us in 2010, we look [at the changes made in 2010 for the purposes of making our valuations]," added the assessor.
Last summer, Ward 6 Alderman Edward Tedesco unveiled the first iteration of the adaptive reuse ordinance on behalf of Flaherty, who had just acquired North Woburn's historic 20-plus room Tidd Home off of Elm Street.
Enacted in the fall of 2018, the ordinance applies to any historic property that's more than 100-years-old and contains more than 4,000 square feet.
In order for a petitioner to be deemed eligible for an apartment conversion, Woburn's Historical Commission must declare the structure as historically significant and worth saving. Applicants, in exchange for agreeing to preserve the front facades of those structures in perpetuity, can then apply to the City Council for a special permit.
After that version of the ordinance was okayed by the council, Flaherty returned to the city officials for another zoning change that would enable him to relocate Woburn's Historical Society into the Tidd Home's former office and kitchen space. In order to facilitate that new redevelopment component, the council in March okayed a zoning amendment that permits historical property owners, whose buildings contained pre-existing commercial uses as of Dec. 4, 2018, to slate as much of 25 percent of a redevelopment as office space.
Technically, those looking to take advantage of the commercial reuse clause would have to downscale the size of the pre-existing office use, thereby reducing the scope of the zoning non-conformity. Though that loss would presumably result in the loss of office lease revenues, building owners would be allowed to recoup that money by converting the rest of the structure into apartments.