MIDDLESEX - The transformation of Reading Center into a smart-growth district continued earlier this month after town officials approved a much downscaled redevelopment of the old Reading Chronicle property off Main Street.
At the outset of this month, Reading’s Community Planning and Development Commission (CPDC) okayed the demolition of the historic 4,600 square foot building at 531 Main St. by the corner of Chaplin Avenue.
The unanimous CPDC vote, which capped off nearly eight-months of deliberations over the state-encouraged “40R” proposal, marks the third smart growth approval for the downtown area since 2017.
Local developer Saverio Fulciniti, representing Middleton-based ownership group ACG RE Reading LLC, has through local attorney Chris Latham outlined plans to erect a new three-story building with seven two-bedroom apartments and a small Main Street commercial suite on the Reading Center site.
Facing Main Street, the commercial component will comprise approximately 600 square feet of space. Though a tenant has not yet been identified, the development team says a retailer or restauranteur is most likely to move there.
Parking will be located in garage that is built into the hilly terrain of Chaplin Avenue. By using the small .13-acre lot’s topography to their advantage, development designers intend to create the impression for Main Street observers that the edifice is just two-stories high.
The final plan okayed by town officials earlier this month stands in stark contrast to an original proposal to construct a four-story structure containing 19 dwelling units and standing nearly 57-feet tall.
As Latham explained to CPDC members earlier this month, after town officials and downtown abutters last summer rattled off a host of concerns about the initial plan, which would have also included more than 1,000 square feet of commercial space and a fully mechanized parking garage, his client has made significant concessions.
“Obviously, there’s been some pretty significant changes since the last time we were before this board,” said the local lawyer.
After facing criticism from abutters about building aesthetics and potential traffic and parking issues, the Middletown ownership group had introduced a compromised version last November that included only 12 housing units.
However, CPDC representatives, feeling the development would still dwarf neighboring properties in being one of the tallest buildings in the downtown area, again asked for the developer to go back to the drawing board. Several concerns were also raised with the mechanized “City Lift” garage system, which would have automatically stacked cars into undersized parking spaces after residents pulled into a bay area off of Chaplin Avenue.
“The building height is now dropped so it’s in compliance with the zoning bylaw,” Latham explained during a virtual hearing in early February. “It’s actually below the 45-feet that’s allowed for a multi-family with a commercial use on the first floor.”
“The number of units have also dropped down to seven. We’re still maintaining a commercial space with 603 square feet,” the development team spokesman continued. “The ‘City Lift’ parking system has been removed [and the garage has been] reverted to nine parking spaces.”
Long the home of a Middlesex East sister publication, the new project will be dubbed, “The Chronicle” in a nod towards the property’s historical use as the headquarters for the town’s newspaper-of-record.
Dating back to 1932, the stucco building, which at 4,600 square feet occupies much of the overall 5,600 square foot lot, had also once served as an auto dealership. The family-run newspaper chain, which acquired the property in 1967, sold the Reading Center property back in August of 2018 for $599,000.
The site is now owned by a real-estate holding company managed by Middleton resident and electrical contractor Antonio Grieco, according to records maintained by Reading’s assessor’s office and Secretary of State William Galvin.
In an economic development initiative first unveiled by former Governor Mitt Romney back in 2004, special smart-growth or 40R zoning districts like the one created by Reading Center aim to cluster denser housing projects near downtown areas and public transportation hubs.
To encourage that building trend, state officials will contribute roughly $75,000 to towns that establish a 40R district, while other financial incentives - such as a one-time $3,000 per unit payment - are hinged upon the future creation of new housing in the zones.
Proponents of smart-growth districts say the special overlay zones when utilized properly cut-back on urban sprawl, reduce local traffic by placing residents near restaurants, grocers, and other retailers, and tend to attract young professionals and first-time homebuyers. Supporters say the zones also promote public transportation, because MBTA bus routes and commuter rails across the state tend to stop right in community centers.
To date 40R petitions approved by Reading's CPCD include the Postmark Square project off of Haven Street. As the name suggests, the redevelopment replaces an old post office with a new four-story building.
Standing 64-feet tall and containing 8,500 square feet of ground-level retail space, the Postmark Square complex will be topped by 50 condominiums.
Reading has also okayed the redevelopment of the old EMARC building off of Gould Street, where a new four-story building, containing 3,500 square feet of ground-level commercial space and 55 apartments, is planned.