Planning Board Reacts Negatively to Conversion Proposal at 100 Plank Street

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

Vince O’Neill, owner of 100 Plank Street located just off of Middlesex Turnpike, came before the Planning Board on Wednesday night to gauge reaction to his plan to replace one commercial building with two residential buildings containing 48 apartments.  Four of these apartments would be what he called “work/live” units. O’Neill said that there is a growing market for work/live spaces because more people are working from home.

The building’s design includes commercial space on the ground floor for businesses that would provide services for residents, such as a dry cleaning drop-off kiosk.

In the spring, O’Neill came before the Planning Board with a somewhat different plan for the site that did not include commercial square footage or work-live units. According to the minutes of the May 1st meeting, that plan did not meet with favor.

“I don’t want to lead you down a garden path,” said Planning Board member Lisa Mustapich when O’Neill asked for reactions to his revisions, “but I’m not sold on adding more apartments over there. If we keep on converting commercial to residential, we’re going to turn into a bedroom community with no business to support it. I’m really concerned about that.”

Other concerns included the impact on town services, especially the potential of adding children to an already burgeoning school-age population. Members also referred to comments from participants in the Comprehensive Plan update that illustrate a strong desire to “bring business back to Bedford,” largely to rebalance the tax base toward the commercial side, where it had been until recently. Middlesex Turnpike is zoned for “mixed use,” but there is concern that if it continues to skew toward residential, businesses may not want to locate in the middle of what they consider a residential area.

“I see it as a supply and demand issue,” said O’Neill. “It’s about supply control [of commercial property]. Bedford is a spill-over market. If Waltham gets full, they go to Burlington and when Burlington gets full, it spills into Bedford. Bedford has ranged from 20-30% vacant forever….The whole metro-Boston area is over-supplied. Now, a lot of the buildings are antiquated and you can throw them out the window, but the idea is that jobs have not beencreated to keep up with the amount of space that’s been added….Controlling your supply will actually help your tax-base [because fewer buildings will be empty and asking for a commercial tax abatement.]”

“Right now apartments are hot and they’re financeable,” he added. “These things go in waves…. The Middlesex Turnpike is coming together as a work/live environment. There’s the Boardroom, the day care, Bamboo, and the other restaurants over there.You have a lot of the mixed use that you’ve sought…. It takes time to achieve, sometimes a decade or two. You couldn’t get a sandwich around there five years ago. Now there are five or six places.”

Chairman Jon Silver thanked O’Neill for an informative, high-level dialog about the current trends in the real estate, but also spoke about the need for the Board to seek balance.

“We have a timeline horizon issue and you have a financeability issue. You need to get it financed and the thing you can get financed now is ‘residential.’ We as a Board have to look at the long term, which is, how do we even things out? How do we create this mixed use that we want so that we can…get people to create retail and office and residential and get the three sectors working together when, in the short run, all people want to build is residential.”

O’Neill made the point that in order to attract business, cost of living and availability of housing are high priorities. “Financing is driven by demand and demand for residential is high,” he said. “We follow where the market goes and where the money goes.”

Planning Director Garber added that the rental market is robust because people are not buying in a down economy.

“This may be good economically,” said Silver, “but my question is whether this is building the Bedford we want to have.”

Garber concurred, saying that the Planning Board “is the steward and the guardian of the future of land use. But,” he added, “I think if we could get a better balance of commercial and residential in this project, the Board might be able to give a cautious green light.”

O’Neill and the Planning Office agreed to work on the plan together and bring itbefore the Planning Board once again for their input.

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