19-35 River Street

19-35 River Street off Cross Street in Winchester is set to be redeveloped with a 147 apartments as part of a multi-family 40B project.

Another day, another 40B project in Winchester. Last month, the town held a public hearing with the Zoning Board of Appeals for a proposed project at 19-35 River St. (off Cross Street near the Woburn line). A couple of days before that, the Select Board weighed in with some concerns of their own.

Although the town completed a Housing Production Plan last year (in October) with the goal of reducing the number of 40B projects, the town is only saved from said projects by creating affordable housing units.

The plan states the town must create .5 percent new affordable units over one year to qualify for what is known as “Safe Harbor” status. Safe Harbor would prevent developers from skirting zoning laws with 40B projects.

Currently, Mass General Law says that each community must have 10 percent of its available housing units deemed affordable to those making 80 percent of the area median income. While many towns haven’t yet reached that threshold, Winchester happens to be far below. As of June, less than two percent of units are tagged as affordable (though that number would increase to slightly more than three percent if the developer of the project on Cambridge Street wins a court ruling against the neighbors appealing it).

The developer of the project on River Street, SLV River Street LLC, proposes to construct a single, four- and five-story multifamily residential building containing approximately 147 apartment units and 221 surface level parking spaces. It would replace two existing brick veneer clad buildings on the property, a light industrial structure and a warehouse built in 1956 and 1959, respectively. The structures combine with extensive site paving to cover more than 70 percent of the combine site area.

The massing and exterior aesthetic of the building is conceptually reflective of a series of mill buildings, an architectural typography that is common to the region and, the developer says, contextually appropriate for a river side site with a history of light industrial use.

25 percent of the units (37) will be listed as affordable (all 40B projects must have at least 25 percent of the units deemed affordable to qualify under the 40B law) should the project gain the approval of the ZBA.

In the Project Eligibility Letter sent to the developer by MassHousing, they write that they performed an on-site inspection of the site, which local boards and officials were invited to attend, and reviewed pertinent information. They also note Town Manager Lisa Wong submitted a letter regarding the application back in April summarizing general comments from municipal staff and officials.

As usual, certain groups favor the plan while others don’t. MassHousing received a letter from Winchester’s Housing Partnership Board unanimously recommending approval for the project noting that “it is one of a small number of locations in Winchester having a high potential for this type of development.”

While the board did note potential concerns relating to traffic, architecture and finances, “they believe these concerns can be effectively addressed as part of a subsequent Comprehensive Permit public hearing process.”

Other boards, including the Select Board and Planning Board, have issue with certain aspects of the project. Even the state outlined some of its own problems, such as the project’s height, density, traffic, and environmental impacts.

Accordingly, Winchester requested the following specific concerns be addressed by the ZBA:

• Visual impacts on the neighborhood, particularly to the west

• Possible contamination given the site’s history of industrial use

• The need for traffic mitigation according to a recent study conducted for Cross Street

• Interest for alternative transportation options such as bike racks, car sharing and shuttle services

• Possible pedestrian deficiencies due to a lack of sidewalks on River Street between the site and Cross Street

• Potential for flooding due to a portion of the site lying in the floodplain and the need for the Conservation Commission to review under the Wetlands Protection Act

• Potential for inadequate water and sewer systems on the site

• Need for green infrastructure due to the amount of impervious surface

• Potential noise impacts for abutting neighbors possibly created by large gatherings on the proposed roof terraces

At its first meeting (the next one is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m. at Winchester High School), the ZBA heard from the developer’s traffic coordinator who assured the town that while the project would add some cars to the roadway, it wouldn’t be a significant amount.

The traffic engineer, Jeffrey Dirk, admitted the project could add two more cars per hour to the area, but noted it’s already congested.

“There are delays, there are backups, there is queuing at those intersections,” he told the ZBA during their first hearing back in September.

Dirk mentioned the poor grades the intersections received from the state and said his client’s project can’t make them any worse.

“Whether we’re built or not built, those F intersections are going to occur,” he stated.

Even though under the 40B law the developer isn’t required to fix any roadway issues, the traffic engineer stressed his client is going above and beyond what’s required by law.

“We’re willing to do more than our fair share,” Dirk acknowledged, adding he would work with the town’s consultant on mitigation and other initiatives.

The project plans to add 800 more cars per day to Cross Street, which already boasts 12,600 per day.

The developer himself, Geoff Engler, told the board he didn’t plan to sell the project once it’s finished.

“This project is very much my own,” he said, suggesting the site could be more than what it is now.

He called the site an eyesore for the town and proposed his development could spruce it up.

“We have every motivation to make sure this is an exceptional project, something the town can be proud of, something the residents of the town and Massachusetts will want to live in,” he stressed.

As for the building itself, architect Dartanian Brown said he could keep the building about a foot lower than the tallest structures on Wendell and Kirk streets. It will also comply with state regulations regarding flooding, as some of the property lies within the floodplain. The developer said he would provide extra flood storage and install a green roof that will gather the draining water.

For residents, many were concerned with the number of units the developer proposed. One resident, Robert Baum, said he struggled with the density of the project, suggesting it’s too big, too much and not even necessary. He added if the project goes forward that it should be on a scale where it’s in accordance with the neighborhood.

Engler responded by pointing out construction costs and other factors meant the project needs all 147 units for it to be worthwhile.

Project Eligibility Letter

When the town responded to the state’s Project Eligibility Letter, it submitted a variety of resident comments to MassHousing stemming from a public information session held on April 11 at Winchester High School. MassHousing stated they received more than one dozen emails from concerned residents regarding the size and scale of the project and requesting the developer consider the visual impact of the building, mitigate traffic increases, address pedestrian safety, and consider the impact of area flooding.

After taking all the comments into account, MassHousing determined “the project appears generally eligible under the requirements of the program, subject to final review of eligibility and to final approval under the Comprehensive Permit Rules.”

MassHousing also wrote that the developer must address some issues in its application to the ZBA based on the comments they received from the town, such as:

• Complying with state and federal environmental laws, regulations and standards applicable to existing conditions and to the proposed use related to building construction, stormwater management, wastewater collection and treatment, and hazardous waste safety

• Addressing concerns relative to height and density, impact on the character of the surrounding neighborhood and fully describing these proposed measures

• Retaining and enhancing existing vegetative borders at the site boundaries through landscaping and plantings

• Providing and responding to data assessing the capacity of River Street to meet the future demand, improve traffic flow and safety at the intersection of Cross Street and to explore ways to mitigate the impact of traffic on the surrounding development

• Engaging with fire officials to review the plans, ensure adequate emergency vehicle access and addressing other public safety concerns

• Providing detailed information relative to proposed water and sewer use, potential impacts on existing capacity and appropriate mitigation

After a recent Select Board meeting, Wong submitted a letter to the ZBA outlining the board’s main issues which include traffic, size and density, a portion of the project lying in the floodplain, impact on water and sewer, architecture, and financial feasibility.

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