Can a community have too much housing?
With an apartment-complex building boom showing few signs of cooling down, Woburn officials recently tried to put the freeze on new multi-family construction along the city's busy Commerce Way corridor to have just that conversation.
According to Mayor Scott Galvin, who months ago convinced the City Council to swiftly enact zoning controls on new housing starts along the major traffic corridor, the economic development target zone is already slated to see at least 800 new apartments coming online in the coming years.
And with two major landlords taking preemptive action earlier this year to preserve their housing development rights under Woburn's old zoning regulations for the area, it's increasingly likely that even more housing is coming.
"What we're starting to see is a lot of stand-alone residential. Over the past two years alone, we've probably permitted 800 resident units down there. We'd like to hit the pause button," the mayor told the City Council in early January, when new curbs were placed on housing projects within the community's decade-old Commerce Way Corridor Overlay District (CWCOD).
Beginning just past the old Woburn Mall parcel by Mishawum Road and extending all the way to the vicinity of the Wilmington line, the Commerce Way corridor meanders through a vast expanse of underutilized commercial and industrial parcels that run parallel to I-93.
About a decade ago, after months of joint talks between Woburn's aldermen and Planning Board members, the City Council established the CWCOD with the hopes of luring major employers and high-end retailers to the industrial district.
The area in question had for decades been considered by major developers as off-limits due to its association with the federal superfund site known as the IndustriPlex, some 250-acres of land where chemical companies and other industrial enterprises dumped hazardous waste for close to a century.
However, with the worst sections of the pollution plume capped and under the watchful eye of federal regulators from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), that stigma has largely lifted.
When city leaders established the CWCOD in 2007, they believed investors would be especially attracted to Commerce Way's close proximity to both I-93 and I-95, as well as a major public transportation hub in the nearby Anderson Regional Transportation Center.
Envisioning true mixed-use developments would result, the City Council included multi-family housing as allowable by special permit in the CWCOD. At the time, proponents of that use argued developers would want to erect luxury housing in true lifestyle center projects that mostly consisted of Class A office space and high-end retailers.
But according to the mayor and critics like City Council President Michael Anderson, area landlords thus far have mostly pitched apartment-centric redevelopments with accessory retail spaces.
"We're not opposed to residential development," the mayor stressed during conversations with the City Council. "[B]ut when the [CWCOD] ordinance was created, my vision was that it would [lead to] responsible mixed-use developments with a healthy mix of retail, office, and housing."
After significantly scaling back the CWCOD's per-acre density thresholds for new housing from 25 to 10 units earlier this year, the City Council earlier this month established a special committee to consider whether those housing controls should be again relaxed. In addition to the new density rules, at least 25 percent of new housing units — or 2.5 times more than previously required — will have to be slated as affordable or Chapter 40B eligible inventory.
Those concerned about the tougher standards include Alderman At-Large Michael Concannon, who besides being a major critic of Woburn's affordable housing ordinance, also worries the new CWCOD controls will stifle new growth.
"This is a big change to a 10-year-old ordinance that we've been using for a while now," the Alderman At-Large remarked earlier this year.
Ever greater curb appeal
The city's review of the CWCOD regulations is coming at a key time for the area, especially with the Woburn Village redevelopment of the old Woburn Mall site breaking ground right by the southern gateway into the East Woburn corridor.
The revitalization of the old mall property, which dated back to 1984, entails the construction of a new lifestyle center with an outdoor market feel that's similar to Lynnfield's MarketStreet and Burlington's 3rd Avenue sites.
Besides including a 10-screen movie cinema complex and a new strip mall featuring old mall anchor tenants like T.J. Maxx and DSW Shoes, as many as 20 other retail establishments will be moving to the 23-acre property. In addition, two six-story apartment buildings with 350 housing units are planned for the Woburn Village site.
Simultaneously, state transportation officials are finalizing design documents for the projected $16.4 million New Boston Street bridge project, which will re-establish a pivotal connection between an isolated cluster of industrial businesses in North Woburn by Merrimac Street and the northern edge of the CCWOD.
Noting the Wilmington side of New Boston Street is home to 370 businesses that employ more than 5,000 people, state planners with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) forecasted in a 2018 study that the bridge project is likely to trigger a new wave of business investments.
According to state transportation officials, the new Boston Street bridge project will bring huge benefits to both Wilmington and Woburn by relieving severe traffic congestion from the industrial district. In particular, the new outlet onto Commerce Way will give New Boston Street commuters an easy connection to I-93 and access to public transportation options at Anderson Regional Transportation Center.