WOBURN - Concluding a herculean economic planning effort that began nearly 16 months ago, the City Council recently sanctioned the transformative Woburn Village redevelopment of Mishawum Road's 23-acre Woburn Mall site.
During their last meeting in City Hall, the aldermen voted unanimously to grant EDENs LLC a special permit for a sprawling lifestyle center in East Woburn by Commerce Way that will include 350 apartments, a movie theatre complex, and as many as 20 new retail stores.
"We generally appreciate all the time and effort each and every one of you put into this," said Burlington attorney Mark Vaughan on behalf of the South Carolina developer, which has regional offices in Boston. "We're excited about being able to move forward. I think these conditions give the city ample assurance that traffic will be looked at after occupancy to make sure everything functions properly."
The council attached nine conditions to the special permit, the most significant of which deal with traffic mitigation. Those stipulations include the following commitments from EDENs, which purchased the mall property for $44 million in the summer of 2017:
• The developer will ensure Mishawum Road's network of traffic lights tie into a series of so-called "adaptive" signal controls along Washington Street, where the high-tech equipment can adjust light cycles based upon real-world conditions;
• The developer will post a $150,000 bond, which will be used to pay for any improvements called for as a result of two road safety audits by Mishawum Road's main site entrance and the roadway's intersection with Commerce Way;
• Setting aside $50,000 for any recommended changes, the developer will also conduct a post project-occupancy traffic study that analyzes potential vehicular flow issues along Mishawum Road;
• The petitioner will be temporarily prohibited, for a duration of four-months after occupancy of the redevelopment, from asking the city for permission to allow residential traffic to utilize a rear access road along the back of the site by Commerce Way;
• All trucking traffic will utilize the site's Commerce Way driveways;
• The proponent will also conduct a parking demand study within a year after occupancy to ensure existing lots are sufficient for residents and guests.
The City Council decision authorizes the special permit under new 40R or Smart Growth Overlay District (SGOD) regulations promulgated by local officials at the outset of 2019.
Work on the Woburn Village undertaking, which will result in the demolition of the 244,000 square foot indoor mall that was first erected in 1984, began in Jan. of 2018 when Mayor Scott Galvin labeled the East Woburn commercial site as perfect for a 40R or transit-oriented smart growth development.
Resident-only driveway dilemma
Since EDENs submitted the Woburn Village application earlier this winter, the bulk of the council's deliberations have centered around traffic mitigation. The final meeting on the petition proved no exception to that trend, as EDENs LLC officials, in a last-minute tweak to its proposed traffic circulation plan, asked for permission to allow apartment residents to enter and exit the 300 Mishawum Road site through a rear access road to Commece Way.
That second Commerce Way driveway, to flow behind the existing Market Basket store and three other new anchor-tenant retail sites to Commerce Way, has been designed to handle trucking traffic heading to the supermarket and new tenants DSW Shoe, Homesense, and TJ Maxx and Homegoods.
That proposed driveway is separate from another main Commerce Way access point from the Woburn Village site that will flow along the frontage of the new Market Basket strip mall. The access way, which already exists, is being widened to create three exit lanes — including a new exclusive left turning lane. The single-lane entrance point at that same Commerce Way driveway will remain unchanged.
Ultimately, the aldermen, concerned about how to control access and turning movements to apartment residents and loading dock traffic, refused the last-minute modification — which had been discussed on various occasions since February.
According to EDENs officials, they could restrict traffic along that secondary rear Commerce Way access road by constructing an apartment building gate, which would be activated by an electronic key pass.
In doing so, exiting residents heading towards I-95 southbound could avoid Mishawum Road entirely, thereby removing vehicles from the road during rush hour. The applicant, addressing concerns about exiting traffic turning queue backups, also proposed erecting signage to restrict left-hand turns onto Commerce Way — towards Anderson Transportation Center and I-93.
The petitioner also insisted the rear apartment connection would fix potential site circulation problems by the main Commerce Way entrance. A city-retained traffic consultant, VHB's Robert Nagi, had previously identified potential queuing problems by that driveway during peak hours.
During the most recent gathering, Nagi conceded the last-minute modification could improve rush-hour traffic around the entire site. However, since EDENs had not submitted a formal plan to show how the road would be striped and the types of signage that would be erected to block left-hand turns out of the site, the VHB engineer was unable to confirm that hunch.
"There are areas back there that are almost 80-feet wide for tractor-trailers to turn around. I don't want to make that activity sound like an industrial site, but without a plan to show how traffic would be managed, I'm uncomfortable saying that's a great plan," said Nagi.
In light of those sentiments, Ward 5 Alderman Darlene Mercer-Bruen, whose district includes the Woburn Mall parcel, led efforts to block that access request. Joining with Mercer-Bruen to oppose the traffic circulation revision, Alderman at-large Robert Ferullo insisted the police department would be unable to enforce any of the proposed turning restrictions.
"We've been down this road before. Putting all these signs and stripes in will make it incumbent upon the police department to enforce the rules. They aren't enforceable. All the signs and stripes in the world aren't going to make a difference."
"This is a huge development. We need to see how this traffic works. We're talking about waiting [four months] here. I don't understand why it's such a sticking point," Mercer-Bruen later said.
Though Ward 1 Alderman Joanne Campbell and Ward 7 Alderman Edward Tedesco both supported the developer's changes to the rear Commerce Way driveway patterns, the council ultimately voted unanimously in favor of instituted a four-month moratorium on the request.
After that deadline had elapsed, EDENs LLC, based off of information obtained in its post-occupancy traffic studies, can petition the city for a special permit modification.