They seemed to pop up out of nowhere.
In recent months, as the silhouettes of two wood-framed buildings overlooking Stoneham's Spot Pond and the historic Fells Reservation slowly climbed skyward, whispers picked up around town about what was happening around the long-vacant Boston Regional Medical Center (BRMC) parcel off of Woodland Road.
With many completely unaware any development was planned for the area, many others had long given up on seeing any major building activity on the 40-plus acre site that was last used in 1999 as a 167-bed hospital.
Ever since the medical facility was shuttered in 1999 and purchased a year later, Burlington's Gutierrez Company, a real estate management firm that mostly specializes in first-class office park developments, has been repeatedly stymied in its attempts to revitalize the sprawling property.
But according to Sterling Hill Stoneham, a company marketing luxury condos within the new three-story structures now standing on a smaller BRMC subdivision, change is finally coming to the area.
The pair of new buildings contain a total of 49 for-sale housing units that range in size from 1,400 to 1,8000 square feet. They are quickly being sold to buyers for the "upper $400,000s" range, according to the development group.
And very soon, those luxury dwellings will be accompanied by a nearby apartment complex, containing a total of 310 units, that is planned for a nine-acre swath of land carved out of former hospital grounds.
A last component of the project entails a reuse of the old hospital building, which will be converted into glass-plated office park managed by the Gutierrez Company. The Burlington firm has not yet announced a timeline for that 225,000 square foot redevelopment.
Earlier this month, Stoneham's Board of Selectmen, mirroring a decision weeks earlier by the town's Planning Board, reaffirmed the validity of building permits issued to Colorado-based Simpson Housing for the apartment project titled Langwood Commons.
Simpson Housing has been eyeing the development since 2005, when it teamed up with the Gutierrez Company to pitch its original Langwood Commons project, a long-since modified and reduced plan to build 550 housing units and 250,000 square foot office park at the site.
According to local attorney Steven Cicatelli, representing the out-of-state developer, his clients were attempting to broker a deal with a new business partner to finance the rental housing complex, and attorneys for that unnamed entity unearthed a potential contradiction in Stoneham's zoning code that could jeopardize the permits.
The town's building inspector, as well as Town Counsel Robert Galvin, tried to assure the petitioners, who have paid the municipality more than $1 million in mitigation and impact fees, that such an extraordinary layer of extra approvals is unnecessary.
But given the lengthy history surrounding the BRMC redevelopment, which for over a decade languished in regulatory proceedings and legal challenges, Simpson Housing and its new partner weren't taking any risks.
Building permits have in fact been issued," the Main Street lawyer stated during the initial Planning Board deliberations in late December. "However, counsel for my client, in the course of doing an additional review for the purpose of equity partners coming in, discovered a conflict in [our zoning code]."
"In an overabundance of caution, what we're requesting is this special permit be granted, so in the future, there won't be any concerns about the validity of the building permits that have been issued," added Cicatelli.
A contentious history
The overly cautious approach by Simpson Housing stems from the contentious history surrounding the BRMC redevelopment, which has been the subject of numerous lawsuits and environmental challenges ever since the Gutierrez Company purchased the land situated by the Melrose, Malden, and Medford lines.
In 2000, the Burlington firm ran into its first roadblock after unveiling plans to erect a 914,000 square foot office park on the land, which is surrounded by the 2,575-acre Fells Reservation and accessed by the Fells Parkway, a network of historic roadways cutting through the forested parkland.
With that office park repeatedly blocked by state environmental officials, who noted the written objections of a record-setting number of opponents that numbered in the thousands, the Gutierrez Company in 2005 gave up on that proposal.
Shortly thereafter, the Burlington firm announced it was teaming up with 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 on the Fells Reservation Parkways 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 network of state-owned roadways.
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 DCR roadways, would turn to "traffic calming" measures to deter motorists from using the parkways.
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 the environmental advocacy group the Friends of the Fells 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 stated 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.
In previous rulings, state EOEEA officials, in pushing for a smaller development footprint, had specifically mentioned a possible partnership with the MWRA, which had been actively searching for land to build the tank.
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 now proposed.
In exchange for the zoning modification, the Gutierrez Company paid the Town of Stoneham $401,000 in mitigation money, while $500,000 in one-time building fees have also been since collected.
The Gutierrez Company and Simpson Housing disposed of the last known lawsuit involving the Langwood Commons project around two years ago, when an abutting medical condominium association was advised it might be financially liable for violating a previous settlement agreement.
At the time, the business partners estimated they had amassed some $5.3 million in loses due to construction delays that had been caused by legal challenges, including those filed by the doctors group.