The developer of an apartment building on Plank Street wants the Planning Board to modify a condition that requires his building to reserve 6,000 square feet on the ground floor for office space.
Brian Navarro of Greylock Property Group told the board at a meeting last week that “office space in an apartment building is not something most tenants want. You don’t see a doctor’s office on the ground floor of an apartment building anymore.”
He wants to add six ground-floor apartments to the 52 being built on two upper floors. There are three studios and the rest have one bedroom each.
Although the board hopes to present an answer in October, Planning Director Tony Fields said it requires some research.
“This project is technically under an older version of the bylaw so the question is do you even have the authority to vote to allow this to convert and eliminate the mixed-use project,” Fields explained. “I have to look at how the affected bylaw is worded so we can see what parameters are really in play here.”
The building is framed and interior work is ongoing. It was originally intended as an office building and part of the overall development now known as Taylor Pond apartments, which front Middlesex Turnpike. An earlier amendment permitted mixed-use, with apartments above the ground floor.
Navarro has earmarked 13 apartments as affordable and offered to add three more of the additional six. When member Steve Hagan proposed that all six of the ground-floor units meet the state standards as affordable, Navarro readily agreed.
Atty. Pamela Brown, representing the developer, said that outreach to prospective office renters, through a broker and with signage has been going on for more than a year.
“The office market is extremely difficult,” she said. “It has become impossible to rent the space, and it is expected to be that way for the foreseeable future.”
She said the building could still be fitted with “office amenities” such as a gym, bicycle storage room, and a mail room.
“The challenge is to avoid vacant space that can’t be occupied, to have a vibrant community, and not to have an empty first floor,” she told the board. Navarro said prospective tenants “have lots of options today and the vacancy rate is around 45-50 percent, subleases included.”
Hagan pointed to the demand for affordable housing, saying, “That would be a better use of this space. I don’t believe any commercial ones are going to work out over the next three years.” Member Todd Crowley said he agreed.
Board Chair Chris Gittins acknowledged that “we need to be advocating for mixed-use developments.” But with the condition of the market, “I don’t see much benefit to preserving that last 6,000 square feet as commercial space. I see a real need for middle-income affordable units.” But he added that he is still considering the options.
The other members, Jacinda Barbehenn and Amy Lloyd, advocated seeking other kinds of tenants. “Maybe before we permit it for more housing, we could potentially find some other uses that might benefit people who live and work there,” said Barbehenn. “This might be an ideal site for a child-care center for people who work in the area.”
“We should try to keep it commercial and they can come back after it’s built in a couple of years,” Barbehenn said. “Best practices today in town planning are to not concentrate commercial uses in one space and residential in the other, but to have opportunities to have micro-business closer to where you live. This is a perfect opportunity for that area and to cut down on the number of trips that people are making. We need to give it a chance.”
Lloyd said that although “traditional retail” would be unlikely, perhaps individualized office space for remote workers would succeed. She added, “I would be in favor of maintaining that space for something that can be converted in the future.”
Navarro said retailers wouldn’t consider space that’s not visible from the street; “it just doesn’t have any kind of presence.” Fields added that the applicable bylaw doesn’t include retail use.
Navarro also didn’t think a child-care center would flourish in that ground floor area, especially since there is no outside play space. Fields noted that a child-care facility is exempt from zoning under state law.
Barbehenn also suggested fewer ground-floor residential units with more bedrooms to accommodate families, and Navarro said that would be a possibility.