New life proposed for 60 acre Woburn site

The 60 acre kraft Gelatin site off of Montvale Avenue and running along Interstate 93 has been purchased by a local developer who plans a major upgrade to the site.

Sometimes plans to erect a marvelous gateway cries out to those accustomed to making grand entrances.

About two years ago, when first divulging his vision for the soon-to-be shuttered Atlantic Gelatin plant off of Montvale Avenue by the entryway into Woburn, Mayor Scott Galvin made that exact argument while trying to establish a high-tech, jobs-centered overlay district around the approximate 60-acre parcel by the Stoneham line.

With the near century-long operations at the food manufacturing plant winding down in 2016, city leaders quickly agreed the time had come for some modern-era changes at the Kraft Heinz facility, a hulking sky-blue building which welcomed visitors into Woburn with views of its oft-puffing smokestacks.

What resulted was the establishment of Woburn's Technology and Business Use Overlay District (TBOD), a special zoning district in East Woburn aimed at luring the biotech, advanced manufacturing, nanotechnology, and other high-tech industries to the community.

Earlier this winter that bold vision paid off, as representatives from Boston's Leggat McCall Properties, one of New England's leading commercial real estate developers, announced the purchase of the old plant and acres-upon-acres of surrounding land in neighboring Winchester and Stoneham.

And in recent weeks, Leggat McCall officials followed up on that early March transaction by releasing plans for a 1.8 million square foot redevelopment anchored by five, six-story office buildings with client-tailored retail spaces, a four-story hotel geared towards business customers, 134,400 square feet of laboratory and research and development (R&D) space, and a mix of townhouse and senior living complexes.

"This will be a transformative development for sure," Legatt McCall's Executive Vice President Bill Gause said of the plan in a recent phone interview with Middlesex East. "Over the past 100 years, that property started out as a small gelatin plant and moved to a much larger industrial use. Now, there's certainly an opportunity to provide a more appropriate use."

"We're excited to work with Woburn to bring jobs and utility back to that site. You'll have a new signature front door right along Montvale Avenue," added the real-estate investment and asset specialist, who has managed an estimated $2.5 billion redevelopment portfolio during his 25-year tenure with the Boston firm.

According to Woburn Alderman Darlene Mercer-Bruen, whose Ward 5 district includes the Kraft Foods parcel, she so far fully endorses the master plan being circulated by Leggat McCall.

That initial support is noteworthy, as Alderman Mercer-Bruen, whose East Woburn constituency is in constant conflict with abutting industrial and commercial landowners, has a well-earned reputation of leading campaigns against overly aggressive developers.

But after viewing the Kraft Foods' master plan, which has been dubbed by the new landowner as Montvale Commons, the City Councilor is joining with other city officials in praising the jobs-focused redevelopment concept.

She is particularly pleased with the introduction of a senior housing component, which besides including three, four-story assisted living complexes , also entails the construction of a 100-bed memory care facility.

""You're going to see this coming into Woburn from the highway or if you're heading into Boston, so it has to be high-end," said Mercer-Bruen. "All in all, what I saw is a great start. The assisted living component, I think that's fabulous. There's certainly a need for it, and those types of housing don't generate a lot of traffic."

In early March, about a year-and-a-half after backing out of a previous agreement to purchase the old Atlantic Gelatin plant, Leggat McCall officials announced they had purchased an expansive swath of land that a marketing agent had dubbed "Montvale Hill".

That Montvale Hill parcel involves more than the approximate 57-acre redevelopment being discussed by Woburn officials. In total, the real estate transaction includes some 107-acres of land, with about a half-acre of frontage along I-93 southbound, which extends into neighboring Stoneham and Winchester.

The rough borders of the sprawling site are:

• To the north, the old Altantic Gelatin site off of Hill Street near Montvale Avenue and the I-93 on-ramps;

• To the south, the Forest Street and Marble Street overpass over I-93 by the Winchester and Stoneham line;

• To the west, a boxed-shaped spur of land across from Leland Park with frontage along Washington Street near Ran Drive;

• and in the east, the edges of the I-93 corridor.

According to Gause, it is likely his firm will later pursue secondary developments of the land along Washington Street and in Winchester into single-family subdivisions. Some of the land, particularly by a pond in Woburn and around a Winchester flood plain, will also likely be offered up for free to the communities.

However, no concrete plans have been prepared.

"They could be developed as single-family residential, and there are parcels in Winchester that could be single-family. The Stoneham piece is landlocked and fairly insignificant," he commented.

TBOD district

According to Murtha Culina attorney Joseph Tarby, who is representing Legatt McCall Properties as it navigates through the local permitting process, his client is presently petitioning Woburn officials to formally include the main Kraft Foods parcel, which contains the old 396,522 square foot manufacturing plant, in the TBOD district.

That petition also seeks to add two other adjoining parcels, which are much smaller in scale when compared to the main 57-acre campus, into the overlay zone. Upon obtaining that approval, which required the submission of the master plan, the petitioners will then begin the more-involved process of okaying each layer of the development.

"The master plan is a conceptual document that shows what the plans are right now. That's not the process to approve [the entire project]," emphasized Tarby, who practices law from Murtha Cullina's Woburn office. "We still will have to come back and obtains special permit or site plan approvals. Those steps would be in phases."

When established back in Aug. of 2016, Galvin and the City Council insisted the Kraft Foods site was ripe for the types of high-tech and new age industry growth that have revolutionized surrounding communities like Burlington and Cambridge.

However, with commercial landlords across the state competing for those business clients, local officials acknowledged housing and retail components would be necessary components for any high-end office tenant.

At the time of those talks, Gause and other Leggat McCall officials, who had entered into a purchase-and-sales agreement for the Kraft Foods parcel, urged the city to expand the scope and scale of those intended accessory housing and retail uses.

“We’re not looking to create a regional housing center up there. We want to make that clear,” responded Galvin, when he first unveiled his iteration of the TBOD legislation. “The ordinance we came up with is a mixed-use [zoning district] with the primary focus being to create jobs. We’re not looking to create a housing or retail zone. We have plenty of other areas that can cater [to those needs].”

In a compromise, the City Council did adjust upwards some of the caps. Key parameters of the resulting TBOD are as follows:

• By-right residential developments are capped at 150 units (112 apartments and 28 townhouses);

• By-right restaurant uses are limited to 60,000 square feet, with only one such establishment being allowed to exceed 10,000 square feet and none being permitted that exceed 20,000 square feet;

• Fitness centers are allowed by-right, but only when proposed as an accessory use for an office or manufacturing business;

• Retail uses by special permit are limited to 250,000 square feet, and only two big tenants (no more than one grocery store) will be allowed to occupy larger spaces between 20,000 and 50,000 square feet;

• Housing projects containing more than 150 units are allowed by special permit, but no complex may exceed a 300-unit cap.

According to Tarby and Gause, the Montvale Commons plan was prepared after Leggat McCall staff painstakingly considered the wishes of city officials who sought to ensure the secondary development components were made to increase the appeal of the office park and R&D workplaces.

"We completely changed the commercial component of the site. It's really for anybody looking for a corporate headquarters in the Route 128 market," explained Gause, who mentioned life sciences firm MilliporeSigma, Keurig and Green Mountain Coffee, and work-gear retailer Wolverine Boots as the types of varied corporate tenants that would be suitable for the new development.

"We sat through all those TBOD hearings. We had asked for 250,000 square feet of retail, so you can see this plan has been scaled back dramatically," said Tarby, noting the proposal now calls for just 83,000 square feet of retail space. "We're talking about amenity specific retail. You'll see coffee shops or a bakery. We're talking about spaces that are built to suit the office buildings."

The Legatt McCall vision for the Kraft Foods site mirrors the marketing descriptions utilized by a team of real estate professionals hired to represent Kraft Heinz in the land sale. The sale was facilitated on behalf of Kraft Heinz by New York real estate advisor Newmark Knight Frank Capital Markets (NFK) and brokers from Chicago headquartered Cushman & Wakefield, and those consultants labeled the 107-acre parcel as ideally situated just outside of Boston in a booming market for laboratory and R&D spaces.

"Montvale Hill is situated within a strong trade area featuring major employers such as Keurig, Nokia, Oracle, and Raytheon," remarked John Taylor, NFK's executive managing director. "The property also enjoys excellent positioning just minutes from one of the country's strongest office/lab markets in Cambridge as well as the Seaport."

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