347WVN #299: Town Center "not dead yet"
- Apr 29, 2009Dear Wayland Voter,
Wayland's Town Center development was declared as good as dead last weekend, not for the first time. But when developer Chuck Irving met with the Board of Selectmen Monday night April 27, the story was different.
"It's not dead yet," Irving said. But he warned that Twenty Wayland would pursue "parallel paths": continue to seek permits for the project but at the same time look for tenants to occupy the empty 400,000-square-foot office building at the former Raytheon site.
Given the state of the economy, he said, if an office deal works for his investors, that's the path he'll take: "We have to be realistic."
No leases or letters if intent are in hand, Irving said, but an architect is at the Route 20 site working for a potential tenant interested in taking more than half the space.
Irving reminded the selectmen of his earlier warning that if permits for the housing/shopping/office development weren't in hand by February he would look at other options.
An office lease would last at least 10 years, he said, and Twenty Wayland would try to fill the remaining space over time. That would make it unlikely that the idea of the Town Center could be revisited for at least 25 years, Irving added.
Irving was milder than his comments in an April 25 Boston Globe story, which said the project was being dropped because Twenty Wayland "cannot resolve long-running disputes with town officials."
The developers have complained from the beginning that town boards and commissions frustrated them.
"The delays in permitting have dragged us into the worst point in the recession," Irving told the Globe. Project supporters have blamed "a small minority" for the delays, but But Twenty Wayland itself caused some of them.
And the project still faces hurdles with federal and state agencies.
The Board of Selectmen was advised early on to hire a project manager at developer expense to smooth the process, but chose not to.
The selectmen have supported every developer demand since the project was proposed four years ago and squabbled with permitting bodies that disagreed with those demands.
At one point Twenty Wayland said it wouldn't continue unless certain members of boards were replaced. Irving called Planning Board actions "crazy." Then candidates who promised to work on behalf of the project were elected, and an associate member of the Planning Board the developers disapproved of was barred from participating.
Twenty Wayland's tactics were epitomized in the headline of WVN Newsletter #198 of January 18, 2007, "Developer says it's over -- again."
You can see a related 2007 video at:
On Monday night Irving said that Stop & Shop, the only potential tenant Twenty Wayland has identified, remains committed to the project.
Irving's project manager, Frank Dougherty, told the selectmen that the remaining permitting obstacles are the Historic District Commission and the Conservation Commission.
There are 70 unresolved issues with the ConCom, he said, of which a quarter are essential to completing the project. But he acknowledged 10 months of hard work by both parties and added, "I'm confident we can get through this." Twenty Wayland delays are responsible for some of the time the ConCom has considered the project.
Dougherty reserved his harshest criticism for the Historic District Commission, which has a mandate to protect the historic streetscape at the center of Wayland. The Commission voted 5-0 on April 2 to deny approval for widening roads to accommodate anticipated Town Center traffic. Twenty Wayland's application was filed in January, several months after a reminder from the Commission.
Dougherty threatened to sue for damages if that decision stands. The selectmen maintain, on the advice of town counsel, that the Commission lacks the authority to deny the permit.
Dougherty said the town's plan to replace a 40-year-old wastewater treatment plant "is a huge issue for us." Twenty Wayland is entitled contractually to 45,000 gallons a day of capacity, and a new plant can't be built before October, when Twenty Wayland says a big office tenant might move in.
Town Administrator Fred Turkington said that unless the entire building is occupied by then, the full capacity shouldn't be needed.
The seriousness of waste water treatment was known to officials and the developer more than two years ago.
Replacing the plant has been delayed partly because the U.S. Interior Department and a Sudbury environmentalist appealed an Environmental Protection Agency permit. The town is paying for legal representation at the appeal.
Dougherty didn't mention another disagreement that could delay permitting. The deputy regional director of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Eric Worrall, wrote a strong letter on April 10 to Dougherty, accusing him of failing to cooperate with town and other officials to work toward a required sewer connection permit.
"The DEP does not believe it is productive for Twenty Wayland to adopt the position that it has no responsibility to continue to work cooperatively with all aforementioned parties to resolve these issues," Worrall wrote. "It is certainly counterproductive to Twenty Wayland achieving its objective of advancing in its development project."
Selectmen Chairman Michael Tichnor told Irving, "We are hopeful of finding some way to save the Town Center," possibly building it in stages. He cited the loss of new tax revenue, the $3 million "gift" from Twenty Wayland and a site for a new municipal building. Furthermore, he said, a fully reoccupied office building would create commuter traffic jams without bringing developer money to mitigate the traffic.
TIchnor accused unidentified people of "putting up roadblocks" to the project and warned them to "be careful of what you wish for."
Tichnor said new estimates showed $700,000 to $1 million in new tax revenue from the Town Center, but gave no details and didn`t estimate tax revenue from the reoccupied office building.
Earlier in the process an independent appraisal was requested but never done. An independent consultant estimated net revenues of about $450,000 annually above current tax payments. A member of the Finance Committee came up with a higher estimate but refused to disclose her sources.
Revenue estimates are based on a built-out project with 100 condominium units and about 165,000 square feet of commercial space.
The weekend's news coverage included yet again the false assertion that "80 percent of residents" wanted the Town Center. Dougherty and newly elected Selectman Tom Fay repeated it Monday night.
On May 3, 2006 at a special Town Meeting preceded by a huge campaign including full-page newspaper ads, 1752 of 2193 citizens (80 percent) voted for the zoning needed for the Town Center and 441 voted no. The record Town Meeting turnout was 20 percent of registered voters and about 16 percent of residents.
Brian O'Herlihy, who was a selectman when the Town Center was proposed, says he warned one of the developers, Dean Stratouly, in 2003 or 2004 that the process could be long and detailed because of scrutiny on environmental and traffic problems. In an online comment about MetroWest Daily News coverage of the weekend developments, O'Herlihy wrote:
"I told him that he should expect a long process and that the best approach, if he wanted to be successful, was to work collaboratively with all boards and committees in Town. Unfortunately, he and his partners did not heed my advice and the project has taken much longer to permit than it might have taken had they sought to treat all of the volunteers with respect rather than vilify them."
Traffic concerns led to a lawsuit by residents on nearby roads, which has been settled.
Stratouly, who recently sold his interest in the project to Irving, took a last shot in the Saturday Boston Globe story, saying, "Wayland is the most dysfunctional community in Massachusetts...It's incapable of any kind of change."
The selectmen condemned Stratouly's remarks Monday night. Tichnor said they "cast the town in a bad light." This was the selectmen's first notable criticism of the developers.
-- Michael Short
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor