MIDDLESEX - Ever since the busy Boston Regional Medical Center (BRMC) complex across from Spot Pond closed its doors for good nearly 20 years ago now, Stoneham officials eagerly facilitated nearly every effort by Burlington’s Gutierrez Company to redevelop the sprawling commercial site.
But the latest push by the Burlington office park manager to refashion the old hospital site into a life-sciences campus has some town officials questioning whether the municipality has the technical know-how to protect residential abutters from potentially dangerous or high-hazard users from moving into the proposed two-story facility.
Complicating the debate is the broad definition of life sciences, which includes a diverse field of businesses focused on everything from experimentation with viral and microbial pathogens, developing new-age agricultural products, the creation of new high-tech medical devices and “precision” pharmaceuticals, and genetic therapy and vaccine research.
Because some of those uses could technically include the use of chemicals and solvents and the handling of contagious and deadly pathogens, many are worried about the risks of a biosafety mishap or accidental release of hazardous materials.
“My concern is with the facility itself,” Stoneham Select Board member Raymie Parker said during a Planning Board meeting last month. “The Board of Health doesn’t have any statutory regulations in place now with regards to biomedical [uses]. So I’d like to have a conversation about what will be allowed in that building.”
“We’re all newbies in Stoneham with life sciences and I think it would behoove us as a town to have [a consultant] come in to tell us what to do,” later said local resident Ellen McBride, who chairs the community’s Conservation Commission. “I’m not trying to be an alarmist at all. We just need to be smart about this.”
The latest debate in Stoneham occurred in the final days of 2021, when the Gutierrez Company approached Stoneham’s Planning Board for a special permit that would allow the developer to swap out a previously approved 225,000 square foot office building with a 150,000 square foot research and development (R&D) facility.
According to local attorney Charles Houghton, who has represented the Burlington firm ever since the developer purchased the bankrupt medical center back in 1999, if granted the permit, his client would be able to break ground almost immediately on the project due to the scorching hot market demand for life sciences space.
“It’s roughly the same size of the existing hospital, which has not been torn down, but finally would be,” said Houghton, referring to the vacant multi-story hospital building that sits along the historic Fells Reservation parkway by the Melrose and Malden lines.
“What’s been holding this [last project phase] back in the market,” the local lawyer later said of the office building, which was approved for construction back in 2011. “For this kind of R&D, the market is very strong right now. We don’t have a tenant yet, but there’s a lot of interest.”
Indeed, in recent years - and especially after the arrival of COVID-19 - many surrounding communities have similarly witnessed a rising demand for life sciences developments all while the market for traditional Class A office space has soured.
For example, in neighboring Woburn, a Boston developer just obtained permission from the city to convert a massive office park redevelopment of the old Kraft Foods site off of Montvale Avenue right by the Stoneham line into a life sciences campus. When finished, the so-called Vale Project, which also includes a massive housing component, will become the largest private redevelopment in Woburn’s history.
The Gutierrez Company also leases out an R&D campus known as the Burlington BioCenter that was redeveloped back in 2019. Burlington officials are also entertaining a handful of similar life sciences proposals, including a new request from Gutierrez Company officials to allow for a life sciences campus on Corporate Drive by a myriad of newly constructed luxury compartments.
Last month, Stoneham’s Planning Board had plenty of questions about the life sciences industry and whether the R&D redevelopment was suitable for the area.
Notably, besides sitting nearby a backup drinking water reservoir and a giant covered storage tank maintained by the Mass. Water Resource Authority (MWRA), the old BRMC grounds is located in the middle of a 2,575-acre state park known as the Fells Reservation.
The vacant hospital building, once a single 41-acre parcel, has also been subdivided in recent years to allow for a pair of housing redevelopments containing luxury condos and hundreds of apartments.
“We’re not talking about a virology lab, right? Would there be anything pertaining to a [high] biosafety level?” asked Planner Terrence Dolan. “Do you think there would be anything involved with artificial intelligence?”
Scott Weiss, the Gutierrez Company’s vice-president for development, later speculated that one major tenant - potentially a vaccine developer or cancer researcher - would occupy the entire 150,000 square foot building.
Understanding that abutters and town officials alike are worried about experimentation with deadly pathogens or other biohazards, Weiss later explained that his firm is already willing to stipulate that no “high-hazard” users will be allowed to move into the R&D facility.
“There are multiple levels of regulations and oversight at the state and federal level. You can’t just show up one day [as a tenant] and start up with anthrax production,” Weiss assured the town officials. “Plus the building itself would be built differently for that kind of higher-level research, so it wouldn’t even be constructed to allow for a biosafety Level 4 [user],” the vice president for development added.
Though wary and approaching the proposal with some healthy skepticism, members of the Stoneham Planning Board have pointed out that the conversion to an R&D development does come with some benefits over a traditional office park, including a significantly reduced traffic profile.
“I think the concept is good. Traffic-wise, it doesn’t seem too heavy. But there are a lot of moving parts here,” said Dolan. “This is our first time putting our toe in the the life science waters. The last thing I want to do is ram through an approval.”
A contentious history
Though willing to work with the town, the Gutierrez Company, which has been waiting for decades to develop the hospital site, is also apprehensive about the project being over-regulated by the municipality. Specifically, according to Houghton, if the town was to block the issuance of permits until a final tenant is identified, his client may have a tough time inking a lease agreement.
“Basically, Gutierrez over the years paid [hundreds of thousands of dollars] in mitigation fees for the apartment complex and various other improvements over there,” the local lawyer reminded the town officials.
“It’s our desire to have a project that’s ready to go. Most of the companies in this field, they already have a long process to go through for validation from the state and federal government [so they don’t want to risk being further delayed by a local permitting process],” Weiss later said.
Houghton and other Gutierrez Company officials have been trying to facilitate the redevelopment of the former BRMC building since around 2000, but plans for the site have been repeatedly stymied by state environmental officials and the continuous filing of lawsuits by neighboring communities and Fells Reservation advocates.
The original form of the mixed-use development dates back to 2005, after the Gutierrez Company gave up on its initial plan to construct a 914,000 square foot office park on the sprawling 41-acre property on Woodland Road across from Spot Pond.
At that time, the commercial real-estate manager announced it had teamed up with Colorado’s Simpson Housing to design a mixed-use development consisting of 250,000 square feet of commercial space and 550 housing units.
The town's Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), which handled the public hearing process because the project included a "friendly" Chapter 40B or affordable-housing component, downsized the project to 225,000 square feet of office space and 450 dwelling units.
However, two years later in 2007, the development team found itself back in front of the ZBA after being ordered by the state's Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA) to reduce the size of the project to decrease traffic and other project-related impacts.
Town officials okayed those modifications, which slashed the housing unit count to 405 units.
Years later, with the BRMC plans still bogged down by subsequent EOEEA rulings, the Burlington firm changed tactics entirely and sought to work directly with leaders at the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), the agency charged with overseeing the historic Fells Reservation parkways.
What resulted in 2009 was a jointly agreed upon traffic modification plan, in which the developer, rather than spending millions to increase the traffic capacity on the double-laned DCR roadways, would turn to "traffic calming" measures to deter commuters from using the parkway.
However, despite finding a new ally through the DCR process, which resulted in a $1.8 million payment to the state agency to institute the "calming measures", the Langwood Commons project continued to be hindered by court filings initiated by environmental advocates at the Melrose-based Friends of the Fells organization and other project opponents.
Towards the close of 2009, the Gutierrez Company announced it had found another state partner in the quasi-public Mass. Water Resource Authority (MWRA), which asked the developer for six-acres of land in order to construct a 20-million gallon underground water tank.
In exchange for the land sale, the developer convinced MWRA officials to secure a written opinion from the EOEEA that the transaction would satisfy the environmental agency's requests for a reduced-scope development. As such, no further traffic modifications would be required, besides those already agreed upon with DCR.
Town officials were outraged to learn about the resulting MWRA sale, which shaved 95 housing units off the Langwood Commons proposal and permanently removed six-acres of prime commercial real-estate from Stoneham's tax rolls.
However, in 2010, again in the hopes to facilitate the development, town officials sanctioned a zoning change that created a special medical/office/residential zoning district at the BRMC site, where 310 market rate apartments and 225,000 square feet of office space were permitted.
In exchange for the zoning modification, the Gutierrez Company paid the Town of Stoneham $401,000 in mitigation money, while at least $500,000 in one-time building fees have also been since collected.
The Burlington firm settled the last outstanding lawsuit with project opponents in 2016, when an abutting medical condominium association was advised it might be financially liable for violating a previous settlement agreement. At the time, the developer had estimated it had amassed some $5.3 million in losses due to construction delays.