WOBURN - Urging the petitioner to implement considerable changes to the legislation to satisfy concerned neighbors, the City Council recently granted a Boston developer permission to yank a proposed Showcase Cinemas property rezoning plan.
During their most recent gathering in City Hall, the council voted 7-to-1 in favor of allowing representatives from the Davis Companies to withdraw without prejudice a zoning initiative aimed at establishing a special life sciences overlay district around the National Amusements site by Route 38 and Lowell Street.
The decision allows the commercial developer a chance to revise and reintroduce without penalty the special zoning ordinance, which if passed would facilitate the construction of a life sciences campus on an approximate 26-acre portion of the cinema complex that overlooks I-95.
Had the council instead voted for a withdrawal with prejudice, the petitioner would have been forbidden from reintroducing the overlay district proposal for the next two years.
“I agree there should not be hazardous uses allowed on that site,” said Ward 4 Councilor Joseph Demers, whose district includes the movie theatre site and an adjacent hotel complex off of Middlesex Canal Parkway. “However, there are other uses allowed under life sciences that could be utilized there. I think the petitioner got the message that was sent by neighbors [over the past few weeks].”
Local attorney Joseph Tarby, who is representing the petitioner, announced prior to the recent council meeting that his client was pulling the proposal in order to address a myriad of neighborhood concerns about the proposed redevelopment.
The Rubin and Rudman partner explained that his client now plans on approaching Lowell Street and Central Square area abutters to alleviate fears that the overlay district will result in high-hazard life sciences uses - such as experimentation with dangerous pathogens - within the proposed redevelopment.
According to Tarby, though some firms in the life sciences field do indeed handle deadly viruses and work with toxic chemicals, the industry also includes fairly innocuous uses such as robotics companies and firms researching new cancer drugs and therapies for other debilitating diseases.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about the proposal and life-science uses in general. So we decided we would ask for a request to withdraw to slow the process down and hold an additional neighborhood meeting some time after the New Year to clarify the project,” Tarby explained in an interview with The Daily Times Chronicle prior to the latest council discussion.
Though most councilors favored the pause and credited the petitioner for being willing to talk with neighbors, Ward 1’s Joanne Campbell called upon her colleagues to kill the zoning amendment.
According to Campbell, throughout her tenure on the council, she’s witnessed countless petitioners break promises to limit the scope and scale of developments. In most instances, she recalled, those pledges were broken as soon as the attention on their project began to fade.
“From what I have seen on the council, if we adopt something, a few years later they end up coming back [and asking for the things the promised they wouldn’t do],” she said. “That’s why I think the life sciences isn’t the right fit here.”
Ward 5 Councilor Darlene Mercer-Bruen, whose East Woburn district has often been the victim of such foot-in-the-door tactics, agreed that local officials had reason to be skeptical of the developer’s promise to work closely with neighbors.
However, with the neighborhood’s ward councilor backing the withdrawal request and working closely with both sides to broker a compromise, Mercer-Bruen was willing to defer to Demers’ judgement.
“I know he’s working very hard to find something that will work over there. If some watered down version of what we’re already seen ends up coming forward, I’ll say no. But if something comes forward that doesn’t lead to a high-hazard use, then I absolutely will keep an open mind,” said the Ward 5 councilor.
“I do agree with Councilor Campbell up until the point [where she’s advocating] for not supporting the motion to withdraw without prejudice,” later commented Ward 3 Alderman Jeffery Dillon. “I always feel like there should be an opportunity to at least discuss what’s on the table and keep an open mind as to what could go there.”
The Davis Companies, which manages a myriad of biotech and research and development (R&D) facilities in Boston, Cambridge and Watertown, has agreed to purchase an approximate 26-acre portion of the National Amusements site, which overlooks I-95.
The zoning petition, filed late this fall by representatives at company subsidiary TDC Development Group, aims to allow bioscience and R&D uses around that parcel, which consists of a rarely used overflow parking lot on the Lowell Street side of the cinema complex.
During a previous public hearing on the so-called Life Sciences and Mixed-Use Business Overlay District (LBOD) petition, Davis Companies vice president for development Kristopher Yetman detailed preliminary plasn to construct two multi-story buildings containing around 200,000 square feet on the site.