MIDDLESEX - Still reeling from a series of demoralizing setbacks in recent years due to another unwanted housing project, North Woburn residents needed a win.
Though not quite a David versus Goliath story, dozens of the city’s citizens achieved that victory earlier this fall after convincing a Medford developer to shelve plans for an 89-unit apartment complex on a contaminated property off of Route 28 by the Wilmington line.
According to several city officials, the proposed zoning amendment needed to facilitate the project at 1071 Main St. would have likely garnered the City Council votes needed for approval absent that grassroots campaign.
“I want to thank everyone who came out and make sure you know it’s vitally important to hear from neighbors and residents,” said Ward 1 Councilor Joanne Campbell during a meeting in City Hall in early September. “I believe if we didn’t hear from you, if you weren’t persistent in coming to meeting after meeting, this ordinance would probably [have passed].”
The recent housing development debate revolved around a rezoning initiative filed by Medford-based ND Development principals Dennis Clear and Nelson Olivera, who were hoping to construct a four-story apartment building containing approximately 107,000 square feet of space on the heavily polluted site.
According to Rubin and Rudman attorney Joseph Tarby, who represents ND Development, the approximate 4.5-acre parcel in question contains at least 29 known ‘stockpiles’ of soil that are contaminated with with heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), oil, and construction and demolition debris.
In order to offset the bill associated with remediating those environmental hazards, ND Development officials were asking the City Council to approve an amendment to Woburn’s Upper Main Street Overlay District, which had been established back in 2010 to foster a previous proposal to build 57 luxury condominiums on the land.
As Tarby explained, with the environmental cleannup projected to cost anywhere from $4.5 to $5.3 million, his client was asking to increase the maximum allowable density within the overlay district to allow for an 89-unit housing project - or the equivalent of 20-units per acre.
According to the developer’s consulting team, those extra 30 housing units, which would all be single and two-bedroom apartments, were necessary according to finance the costs associated with the remediation requirements of both the Mass. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“[T]he applicant is planning to perform a remediation of the property in connection to its redevelopment plan. The proposed remediation, which is subject to review by MassDEP and EPA, will include the excavation and off-site transportation and disposal of [those soils],” Tarby noted in a memo submitted to the City Council alongside the the zoning legislation in early August.
“The property itself has a long history of commercial and industrial uses going back to the 1920’s,” later said the local attorney of 1071 Main St., which besides being home to a leather tannery between 1928 and 1957, had according to EPA documents been used as an illegal rubbish transfer station.
An oversaturated housing market
Historically home to some of city’s largest industrial sites and commercial office parks, North Woburn residents have long fought against the encroachment of massive developments into their quiet suburban neighborhoods.
Those fights of the past include contentious and long-running efforts to force the cleanup of the 4.5-acre parcel at 1071 Main St., which was notably once classified by former North Woburn Alderman Richard Corsetti “as the worst looking piece of property along Main Street from the Winchester to Wilmington line.”
Back in 1999, local and respected builder Scott Seaver emerged with plans to cleanup the site by razing a series of commercial buildings and erecting 68 townhouse projects. However, that project got bogged down in an extended legal battle with area landowner and developer Anthony Santullo.
In 2009, after a second push by Seaver to construct a smaller 57-unit housing complex was nixed due to the Great Recession, the City Council established the Upper Main Street Overlay District to foster the developer’s third attempt at redeveloping the site.
However, in the ensuing years, after the old commercial buildings were raised and the extent of the environmental contamination became clear, Seaver walked away from the site for one last time.
Early on during the latest discussions about ND Development’s 89-unit apartment building proposal, some on the City Council appeared to favor the requested zoning change.
However, those opinions quickly changed once North Woburn’s frustrated residents began appearing at meetings en masse to protest the zoning change.
According to former North Woburn Alderman Michael Raymond, who rose to prominence in the city after championing neighborhood efforts decades earlier to clean up a contaminated landfill site, area residents believe the entire city is being oversaturated with new apartment units.
Pointing to ongoing earthworks efforts at the nearby 168-unit “Ledges at Woburn” project, a state-ordered Chapter 40B development that has literally resulted in the creation of a quarry operation across the road from the 1071 Main St. parcel, Raymond insisted the neighborhood was at its breaking point.
“We believe the additional units proposed will suffocate the neighborhood and cause a long-term detriment to the health, safety, and welfare of the residents,” Raymond argued during a City Council meeting last August.
“Directly across the street from this property is the 168-unit Ledges project that residents had shoved down their throat,” the North Woburn Neighborhood Association founder added. “When is enough enough? There are currently nine [recently approved or proposed housing] projects that total 2,140 units between Ward 5 and Ward 6. And more are going up every day.”
Later pointing out that state and federal regulators have already committed to spending around $1.2 million to remove the worst contaminates from 1071 Main St., various other residents contended the city can afford to wait for those same government agencies to finish the job.
According to North Woburn resident Deborah Parlee, with neighbors for more than two years now putting up with blasting and rock crushing activity at the nearby Ledges development, many area residents are understandably skeptical about the latest plans.
“We’re living with a quarry and it’s insane. You have to understand why there is apprehension. It’s just too much,” she told the council during the opening public hearing on the zoning legislation.
In the moments before ND Development representatives formally requested permission to withdraw the zoning legislation last month, various city officials agreed the neighborhood deserved a break.
“I certainly would not want an 89-unit building next to me in my neighborhood. And I wouldn’t want a 57-unit building either, so I hear and feel your pain,” said Councilor At-Large Michael Concannon.
“My concern is getting this land cleaned up though,” Concannon later said. “I guess we’ll have to hope for the best that the feds and state will clean this up to a satisfactory level…It’s a serious condition and it needs to be improved and remediated for the benefit of the neighborhood and the entire city.”