MIDDLESEX - Considered a way to gauge the reaction of municipal officials and civic groups, plenty of builders test the waters by floating out redevelopment concept plans.
But when a Boston developer dipped its toes into the waters by the scenic shorefronts of Wakefield's Lake Quannapowitt, the firm's hypothetical housing project caught waves of cold splash back from guarded neighbors and residents.
Last month, Wakefield Town Council Chairman Edward Dombrowski confirmed rumors that Boston's Cabot, Cabot, & Forbes had recently pitched to a local advocacy group a 600-unit apartment and condominium redevelopment for the old Comvese Technology property at the head of Lake Quannapowitt by Route 128.
"This is the crown jewel of our town," said Dombrowski of Lake Quannapowitt, which even during the frigid winter months, draws scores of walkers and recreational users to the sidewalks and parkland spaces that wrap around its shores. "Mr. Maio and I raised all the issues that were obvious to us, so they're thinking early about things like traffic, project density, and building heights."
Though understanding the public outcry, Dombrowski and Town Administrator Stephen Maio, who had met days earlier with the current landowner to investigate growing rumors about the housing project, also repeatedly reminded an apprehensive public that no formal plans have been submitted.
Perhaps more importantly, Maio was clear to stress one set of very pertinent facts: The Boston developer neither owns the 29-acres of land in question nor has come to any formal terms to acquire it.
"They don't even have anything under agreement, so this could really be nothing," later quipped Maio.
Under concept plans shown to area abutters and members of the non-profit Friends of Lake Quannapowittt group this winter, Cabot, Cabot, & Forbes is exploring a redevelopment of the sprawling Comverse Technology building that sits between the body of water and Route 128 by the Reading line.
Initial renderings included two proposed six-story apartment complexes and a five-story condominium building. A garage would wrap around all three of the housing structures, while nearly 1,000 parking spaces would be provided.
In total, up to 600 multi-family dwelling units were proposed.
According to Dombrowski and other Town Council members, in the weeks after those two private meetings, they had been inundated with calls from upset constituents.
"This property is not under agreement. So we have to keep that in mind," said Dombrowski. "But in light of the concerns people have raised, it's important to have a baseline understanding of what they're thinking…I see this as an opportunity for us as a town to encourage public outreach [from developers]."
"I've heard from folks in neighborhoods that would be highly impacted. [One person] called me screaming and yelling about it," later recounted Town Councilor Ann McGonigle Santos. "They should have involved the neighborhoods that would be most drastically impacted by this."
According to records from Wakefield's assessors office, the 29-acre parcel in question, situated at 200 Quannapowitt Way, was purchased a little over two years ago by Waterstone Wakefield LLC for $15 million.
An offshoot of Needham's Waterstone Properties, whose portfolio mostly consists of medical and retail land holdings, the landowner approached Wakefield's Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) in the fall of 2019 for permission to convert the 250,000 square foot building into a marquee biotechnology and life sciences center.
As part of the pitch, the developer proposed installing a new glass-panelled facade into the concrete office park, which dates back to 1958. The real-estate management company is still listing that redevelopment, dubbed Waterstone Place, as available for leasing.
Comverse Network Systems, an umbrella corporation of multinational telecommunications firm Comverse Technology, was the last major company to operate out of the Lake Quannapowitt office buildings.
Much of the corporation's holdings unraveled during a financial scandal in 2006 and the subsequent financial crisis of 2008, and the multinational business was ultimately spun off to other firms beginning in 2012.
Any proposal to convert the property into housing would have to head back before Wakefield's Zoning Board of Appeals.