WOBURN - A Boston-based developer recently proposed the creation of a new overlay district to facilitate the conversion of a Showcase Cinema parking lot into a research and life sciences campus.
During a council meeting earlier this week in City Hall, local attorney Joseph Tarby, representing high-tech office park manager the Davis Companies, explained his client has negotiated a deal with National Amusements to buy 25.6-acres of land from the movie theatre complex off of Route 38 by the 128 rotary.
Eyeing the site as perfect for new bio-tech and advanced manufacturing uses, the proposed zoning amendment would establish a new Life Sciences and Business Mixed-Use Overlay District (LBOD) around the parcel.
Showcase Cinemas, facing competition from streaming services and new home-rental viewing options , has over the past decade moved towards providing better amenities where consumers are treated to oversized reclining seats in less crowded viewing rooms. As a result, the Woburn theater has reduced its overall capacity, leaving much of its parking areas empty.
According to proponents of the proposed sale, the overflow parking area in question has not been used or needed by Showcase Cinemas for years now.
“My client has entered into an agreement with National Amusements to purchase approximately 25.6 acres of land adjacent to the cinema,” said Tarby, referring to a large overflow parking lot situated on the Lowell Street side of the movie theatre complex.
“We met with city officials for at least 10 years trying to find an appropriate use for this particular property,” later said Tarby, referencing National Amusements’ years-long push to sell off a portion of its land holdings. “This is a [potential future] use where the [office buildings] are no more than two-stories tall and there is minimal traffic compared to the alternative uses on that site.”
Ultimately, the City Council, whose members had little to say about the legislation after the recent presentation, continued the public hearing on the zoning amendment until Dec. 7. The matter was also referred to the council’s Ordinance Committee for further study.
According to Kristopher Yetman, the petitioner’s vice president for development, if the overlay district initiative passes, his firm intends to construct two life sciences buildings containing approximately 200,000 square feet on the land.
He estimated somewhere between 400 and 450 new high-paying jobs would be created at the site, which would presumably include somewhere around four major tenants tenants.
“These spaces currently have average salaries of around $191,000, and Woburn is well-positioned to capitalize on this industry,” said Yetman, who suggested that new economy employers in the bio-tech, robotics, and advanced manufacturing sectors are increasingly moving to suburbs outside of their traditional Boston and Cambridge hubs.
Based upon initial estimates from the petitioner, the new development would generate somewhere $2.5 million in taxes. Currently, the city receives the equivalent of $66,000 in annual real-estate tax income from the current parking lot use, Yetman claimed.
According to Tarby, the proposed overlay district will include several critical protections for area abutters, such as a requirement a 70-foot buffer or no-disturb zone be established on any lot line that borders a residential district.
The size of the new office parks within the LBOD district would be capped at 40-feet in height, while a developer must be in possession of at least 20-acres of land to take advantage of the overlay zoning provisions.
Tarby also stressed that all developers filing for LBOD special permit would be prohibited from including any hospital, car sales, extended care, or residential component within their redevelopment plan.
According to Tarby, by-right uses within the LBOD would include office buildings containing less than 25,000 square, solar farms, and below-grade parking structures. Meanwhile, office parks over 25,000 square feet, bio science and advanced manufacturing uses, and accessory storage and accessory retail development components will require a special permit from the City Council.
During the recent public hearing, Ward 1’s Joanne Campbell was the sole councilor to render an opinion on the proposed overlay district.
Though not speaking on the merits of a life sciences redevelopment in the area, Campbell made clear that she would not support any zoning change that allowed such uses by establishing a new overlay district.
The Ward 1 councilor believes that city is becoming too reliant on the creation of new overlay districts, which usually allow a privileged few landowners to move ahead with developments that would otherwise be forbidden within the underlying zoning district.
“I don’t think it should be looked at as an overlay district. It will then be used in other places across the city,” she said.
The Showcase Cinemas property is currently situated within Woburn’s business interstate zoning district.