Once viewed as the epicenter of the country's economic engine, many now describe old railway sites like those scattered around Woburn's South End as attractive nuisances featuring nothing more than decrepit buildings and warehouses.
In Woburn, city officials say the decades-ago loss of a Boston & Maine Railroad line spur has left behind a myriad of underutilized industrial properties that are so polluted, landowners are too scared to even consider redeveloping them.
During the railroad's heyday, that same cluster of industrial sites, running along Main Street from the vicinity of St. Charles School to the Winchester border, helped feed raw materials and thousands of commuting workers into the city's booming manufacturing sector.
While most of those old factories and tanneries are now relegated to history books, local leaders like Ward 2 Alderman Richard Gately say the old railway sites can still serve a vibrant economic purpose. All that's needed to create that spark, according to Gately and former Woburn Alderman Mark Gaffney, is a little encouragement through a new zoning incentive being dubbed the Railway Overlay District (ROD).
"This area is in my ward and that area down there has been pretty dilapidated for years and years. It's time for a change," said Gately, after legislation was introduced last summer to allow dense multi-family housing projects in the area. "You'll notice the railroad bed is all overgrown. This is the perfect spot to demolish all those buildings, and make that site more pleasing to the eye."
Under the proposed zoning legislation, the new ROD regs could be utilized by any industrial landowner whose property is larger than 2 acres and abuts the abandoned railroad line between Green and High Streets.
The density of new housing projects would be capped at 25 units per acre, and those pitching residential redevelopment under the ROD regulations would be allowed to construct buildings as tall as four-stories (or 49-feet).
Parking requirements would depend upon the type of housing unit being proposed, but at a minimum, at least 1.5 parking spaces must be provided for each apartment. Petitioners proposing two-bedroom apartments would be required to furnish at least two parking spaces for each unit.
Already, at least two area landlords, the owners of a 2.17-acre lot at 8-10 Green St., have emerged to say they are eager to take advantage of the zoning measure. Presently, the land, which sits in close proximity to the St. Charles School off of Main Street, is home to seven single-story warehouses.
With all of the existing structures in various states of disrepair, the newest of those buildings dates back to 1969, according to city records. Under redevelopment plans first circulated last August, the antiquated industrial use would be replaced by a four-story apartment building containing 54 dwelling units.
Worse than what exists?
Dating back to 1844, according to local historians, the old Boston & Maine Railroad tracks off of Main Street once handled both freight and passenger trains traveling into Woburn Center and Horn Pond from Winchester.
The line, with stops in neighboring Wilmington and Stoneham, included multiple branches that forked off a main connection between Boston and Lowell. Portions of the railway remained in use until sometime in the early 1980's, when the MBTA halted commuter rail services that ran from Boston into Woburn Center.
In the ensuing decades, as state and federal officials like those at the Environmental Protection Agency enacted strict standards for remediating polluted industrial sites, area landowners found themselves unwilling to pursue any redevelopment that could trigger such a costly cleanup mandate.
Though few have questioned the larger aims of the ROD legislation, area abutters, especially those living in traditional single-family neighborhoods around the old railroad line, have insisted the economic development incentive will prove ruinous.
Opponents of the zoning measure, emerging in force to protest the zoning measure last summer, say the ROD will drastically alter the character of the South End side of Woburn's downtown area by allowing some of the densest housing projects in the entire community.
Besides sanctioning as many as 25 housing units per acre — which exceeds an citywide density cap of 20 units per acre that was instituted in 2018 — the legislation also allows 50-foot tall buildings that would dwarf most other structures in the area.
"From what I see in here, we're still heading in the wrong direction. We're up to 25 units per acre. There are areas in the city, like the Commerce Way overlay, where it's only 20 units per acre," remarked area resident Kenneth Lee during a public hearing last month. "My concerns have all along been about the height of the buildings being allowed. It's just too high for the neighborhood. Why would we allow for 49 feet in a residential area?"
Since area abutters like Lee joined to protest the ROD, city leaders like Mayor Scott Galvin and members of the local Planning Board have joined that chorus. In fact, last October, after the City Council brushed aside concerns raised by detractors, the Planning Board warned the ROD regulations could spark a wave of overdevelopment that extended far beyond the target area.
According to the planners, legislation proponents were ignoring the fact that a neighboring overlay district by a future bikeway — also along Main Street and the abandoned railroad — presently caps housing developments at seven units per acre.
Given that both overlay districts contained similar industrial uses, the advisory board worried those nearby landowners would soon be fighting for the rights to erect similar large-scale housing projects.
"Whatever the council votes on, that will decide how this area of the city looks for the next 50 years. I caution the people making the final decision that they should not be making [major zoning changes] based upon one [redevelopment plan]," said Planning Board Chair David Edmonds.
The mayor, later joined with the Planning Board in urging the aldermen to reconsider. However, late last month, during the City Council's last meeting of 2019, the city officials sanctioned the zoning legislation without any major changes.
In response, Galvin, in a decision communicated to the City Council a little over a week ago, exercised his veto powers in an attempt to block the ROD regulations from being enacted.
"Of greatest concern is the fact that the ROD rezoning will likely set a precedent for similar, future rezoning petitions and Council votes for the industrially-zoned lots in the 50 acres just south of the proposed ROD district between Green Street and the Winchester town line," the mayor noted in his Dec. 27 decision.
The City Council, which likely has the two-thirds majority needed to overturn Galvin's veto, is expected to address the matter this week.
Those who favor the zoning change insist that landowners, on the hook for expensive contamination cleanup costs, will only be willing to overlook those liabilities if allowed to build denser housing developments that promise larger financial returns.
"We're trying to cleanup up an area that's laid dormant for years…I understand the concerns of neighbors, because it does feel dense and high," said Alderman At Large Michael Concannon last month. "But when all is said and done, I do believe this will be an improvement for the area."