Winchester recently made a bit of local history when it held a special election back in June to overturn a vote of Town Meeting. Something like that last happened 70 or 80 years ago and it involved a "movie house" that residents supported but the Board of Selectmen did not (even though the town voted to approve it, the "movie house' never came to Winchester).
This time, residents overturned a Town Meeting vote dealing with the Waterfield parking lot (adjacent to the Winchester Center Commuter Rail Station). Town Meeting originally authorized the Select Board to sell, lease or otherwise convey the land to Civico, a developer who proposed a 60-unit residential building with public parking spaces. They also offered the town $1M for the land (with the net profit to the town being $500,000).
In return, the town offered a 99-year lease.
The main "get" for the town, though, would have been an addition to its affordable housing stock, as all 60 units would have counted towards the town's Subsidized Housing Index. Currently, Winchester finds itself well below the state-mandated percentage of affordable units (10 percent). However, thanks to the passage of a Housing Production Plan, it can avoid 40B projects by creating a certain number of affordable units each year.
As of now, the town remains in what is known as "safe harbor" meaning it created the necessary 40 units to avoid unwanted 40B projects. That runs out next March, so the town must create 40 more or it will lose "safe harbor" and developers could come in with large-scale proposed 40B developments.
The town looked to develop this land known as the Waterfield lot for some time (it serves as a parking lot for the commuter rail station and housed the Chamber of Commerce building). The town issued both an RFQ (Request for Qualifications) and an RFP (Request for Proposals) last year. It received nine responses to the RFQ: Civico/Traggorth Companies, Diamond Finacori, Just-A-Start, Manzo, MPZ Development/Catstone Communities, NOAH, and WinnDevelopment. Mary McKenna, former Planning Board member, didn’t submit a full response to the RFQ but did submit a letter offering some ideas.
Some of the qualities the town sought in a development partner included experience with mix-used housing, financial ability to complete the project, local experience, i.e. has the developer worked in Winchester before, local partnerships, i.e. does the developer have any local connections, design and planning, and environmental sustainability.
Mariano Goluboff, Select Board Chair at the time, called the property "a key to the town center," adding the process should move forward.
Amy Shapiro, then a Select Board member, said, "t’s encouraging to see the number of qualified developments.”
For the RFP process, Francis Goyes from MassHousing, along with Jennifer Goldson from JM Goldson, and members of the town’s Working Group - Town Manager Lisa Wong, Select Board members Michael Bettencourt and Jacqueline Welch, Planning Board member Heather Hannon, Historical Commission Chair Jack LeManager, Housing Partnership Board members John Suhrbier and Marty Lee Jones, resident Jamie Devol, Town Planner Brian Szekely, Town Engineer Beth Rudolph, and Special Project Manager Meg White - all contributed. Six developers responded and five moved on to the interview phase to include Civico, NOAH, Pennrose, Winn, and Waterfield Preservation which is actually three teams combined into one: Diamond Sicori, POAH and Urban Spaces.
The town planner broke down some of what each development team offered in their proposal:
Civico offered 40 affordable units out of 60 total (66 percent), 45 private and 40 public parking spaces and a building height of 40-48 feet.
NOAH offered 32 affordable units out of 55 (58 percent), 29 private and 24 public parking spaces and a building height of 58 feet.
Pennrose offered 27 affordable units out of 54 (50 percent), 43 private and nine public parking spaces and a building height of 62 feet.
Winn offered 25 affordable units out of 65 (38 percent), 53 total parking spaces and a building height of 65 feet.
Waterfield Preservation offered 31 affordable units out of 60 (52 percent), 60 total parking spaces (they said they’re open to discussion on breakdown) and a building height of 53 feet.
The public spaces would be used for the Winchester Center Commuter Rail Station, which the Waterfield lot abuts. All the plans also show the removal of the Chamber of Commerce building.
Wong called all five plans and their developers “very qualified.” When the town manager, town planner and town engineer compared each plan, they all scored relatively high. Each plan would also cost between $15M (Pennrose) and $28M (Civico).
In the end, the Select Board chose the Civico deal and negotiated a 99-year lease with the developer. The board brought it to Town Meeting this past May for approval and received it, 118-46, meeting the required two-thirds majority needed to pass (after much discussion it should be noted). However, some Town Meeting members on the losing side of the argument decided to petition for a special election to overturn the vote.
Thanks to the town's charter, the group needed signatures for three percent of town voters and managed to receive 630 in addition to the required 485. Once they received the necessary amount, the question of whether to back the Land Development Agreement with Civico went to the voters who said no with 2,681 voting against and 2,608 voting in the affirmative.
Now, to appease the voters, Winchester will go back to the drawing board, so to speak, and attempt to renegotiate with Civico. The town convened a Waterfield Task Force to assist in the process. They will meet several times over the next few weeks and eventually offer a recommendation to the Select Board, town manager and negotiating team. The task force consists of Paul Manganaro, representing the "no" camp, Stephanie Zaremba, representing the "yes" camp, Bill Cummings, Patrick Fortin, and Soumya Ganapathy.
In the next few months, the town hopes to have another deal it can bring to fall Town Meeting which convenes on Monday, Nov. 1. If the town and Civico can't reach a new deal, the town may have to reach out to its second choice, Pennrose, or reissue the RFP and start the process all over again.