‘Lifestyle Centers’ catching on but housing density concerns abound

It's the big developer's swanky and upscale response to the public's sudden and unanticipated revulsion to both indoor malls and taking up residence within sprawling, gated communities situated in the middle of nowhere.

Labeling the design concept as a "lifestyle center", property management companies have breathed new life into empty shopping plazas and underutilized industrial properties all across Massachusetts.

And though some consider the shift to an outdoor market experience ironic, since the hulking forms of indoor malls were in their heyday blamed for destroying the very downtown neighborhoods the lifestyle centers now try to emulate, city and state leaders have embraced the development model for well over a decade now.

But particularly as of late, as citizens scramble to keep abreast of the frantic pace of new construction taking place in Boston proper and beyond, some community leaders have challenged whether the scorching demand for new rental housing is restricting the scope of such lifestyle centers.

In Woburn, members of the City Council say proposals for dense apartment complexes can too easily be thinly disguised as "mixed-use" redevelopments by including disproportionate retail and commercial elements. To discourage that trend, the majority of the City Council last March enthusiastically signed on as co-sponsors of legislation that instituted a citywide cap on the density of housing projects.

This summer, after consulting with the city's Planning Board, the council enacted a 20-unit per acre ceiling for all future housing projects proposed for all of Woburn — with the exception of parcels situated within special overlay districts.

"It's the hottest thing right now. That's what's anchoring all development," Woburn Alderman Michael Anderson said, who co-authored the legislation with Alderman Edward Tedesco and input from City Council President Richard Haggerty. Last spring Anderson said of the housing construction boom. "I don't want canyons of apartments. That might be great for today, but 30 years from now, they won't any longer be state-of-the-art, and I think there will be problems."

A newer model

In the immediate region, few lifestyle center projects have attracted more attention recently than Lynnfield's MarketStreet development off of I-95.

Now considered a hotspot, the first phase of the mixed-use project was completed in 2014, when a host of retailers and new restaurants opened up within an outdoor market, which is anchored by a "center green" meant to mimic a town common space for public events like ice skating during the winter.

The Lynnfield destination has since expanded to include 180 apartments, senior living units, and a 15,000 square foot office building. Meanwhile, more restaurants and nightlife entertainment attractions like King's Entertainment and a paint bar have moved to the 80-acre property, which was once the site of the Colonial Golf Course.

Burlington, long envied for its uncanny ability to attract big employers and developers its way, has also seen similar projects take shape within its borders. Anchored by a center green, Burlington's 3rd Avenue, designed to look like a downtown zone along a wide boulevard, also opened in 2014 and includes posh restaurants, a Kings bowling attraction, and hundreds of luxury apartments with rents as high as $3,700 a month.

This past summer, Burlington town officials embraced another lifestyle center development being pitched by Simon Property Group, the operator of the 1.3 million square foot Burlington Mall. The project, driven by the recent closure of the popular mall's 100,000 square foot Sears store, will include 35,000 square feet of retail, an outdoor space, and a blend of housing.

Next door in Woburn, city officials are similarly eyeing a major redevelopment of its indoor mall off of Mishawum Road. New Woburn Mall owner Edens LLC, a South Carolina developer which purchased the 23-acre site off of I-95 for some $44 million, has been meeting with local leaders like Mayor Scott Galvin for well over a year to consider the future of the shopping complex, which dates back to 1984.

Just last week, Galvin, who has touted the East Woburn site's proximity to Anderson Regional Transportation Center and an old Mishawum Road commuter rail stop, circulated plans to create a special smart-growth overlay district around the property.

The state-sanctioned zoning label, also referred to as a transit-oriented development, could result in the city's receipt of as much as $1.5 million in state incentive payments, not to mention the creation of coveted affordable housing inventory.

"As you know, the city has been studying the possibility of creating such a district for the better part of a year," wrote Galvin in a memo to the Woburn City Council. "The new owners of the Woburn Mall site are anxious to redevelop it into a mix of housing and retail uses, and have agreed to work with the city to create a new smart growth zoning district…to maximize the extent of public benefit to Woburn residents."

The right mix

While the Woburn Mall overlay district has been crafted after months of planning, the City Council's efforts to control the scope of future housing was largely driven by the initial debate over how to shape that project.

Initial proponents of the density restrictions were particularly concerned about protecting Woburn's Commerce Way Corridor Overlay District (CWCOD), a special zoning initiative enacted in 2009 to encourage mixed-use developments with a heavy emphasis on high-end office and retail components.

The Woburn Mall property, though not part of the overlay, sits on East Woburn's gateway into the CWCOD, which extends to Presidential Way and Anderson Regional Transportation Center by I-93 and the Wilmington line.

For well over a decade, city leaders have described the entire Commerce Way corridor as the last expansive stretch of underutilized land in the city, and as such, local officials painfully crafted the CWCOD regulations after months of consultations with area landowners and members of the Planning Board.

Largely ignored for nearly a decade, the City Council found itself last summer quickly approving two housing-dense redevelopments within the target area, where some 500 new apartments are to be erected at 200 Presidential Way and the former Fitzgerald Tile site.

According to Alderman Anderson, while he has no issue with those projects, he became worried that other developers would follow suit, a trend which according to his calculations would result in some 9,900 new housing units being built in the area.

Earlier this spring, other city officials like Planning Board member James Callahan agreed those concerns were well-founded, as in his opinion, the wood-framed complexes recently pitched for the Commerce Way area paled in comparison to the Raytheon building and similar developments that preceded it.

"Take a look at that [Fitzgerald Tile] building that's going to be developed. If you look up Presidential Way, you have first class office space. And this [new six-story] structure doesn't compare," said Callahan. "If you want residential there, you have to make sure you're not putting in something that's going to depreciate your neighbor's [investments]."

Because the city's initial 20-unit per acre density cap excluded overlay districts like the CWCOD, Anderson joined with Ward 7 Alderman Edward Tedesco in late June to sponsor companion legislation aimed at protecting the integrity of the CWCOD.

The new initiative would cap at 25-units per acre any redevelopment within the CWCOD that solely entails housing. However, that ceiling would be lifted to a higher 35-to-40 unit per acre threshold, if the majority of a development plan involves commercial uses.

Earlier this month, the Planning Board unanimously recommended passage of the newest housing controls.

Under the proposal, builders seeking to erect cluster-housing complexes with a density exceeding ordinance's standard 25-unit per acre threshold must include a larger commercial component within the larger development plan.

Specifically, the legislation lifts the density ceiling to a higher 35-to-40 unit per acre ceiling, should the overall development plan concentrate on commercial uses. The guidelines are as follows:

• The 35-unit per acre cap would apply for any plans which include other uses that make up 60 percent of the total net floor area in the entire development;

• The 40-unit ceiling would be triggered for any plans which include other uses that make up 65 percent of the total net floor area in the entire development.

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