Slim Board Margin Backs Swapping Office for Residential Units on Plank Street

October 31, 2023
The developer of 100 Plank St., originally slotted as a mixed-use development with office space on the first floor, wants to replace the intended office space with more residential housing units. Staff Image

The Planning Board, by a 3-2 margin, favors an amendment to a special permit that will allow additional residential units in a building under construction at 100 Plank St. The owner will present a final proposal at an upcoming meeting, and approval is expected.

The address is in an industrial mixed-use district with the most recent special permit requiring 6,000 feet for office use on the first floor.

However, the developer, Greylock Partners, says it has been unable to market the office space and is seeking an amendment to allow as many as six dwelling units. The building now has 52 studio and one-bedroom apartments.

Attorney Pamela Brown, representing the owner, told the board that the building originally was part of the adjacent Taylor Pond mixed-use development. The retail component of that apartment complex, which fronts on Middlesex Turnpike, also turned out to be unmarketable.

“What we have been doing for several years is trying to shoehorn office and retail, things that sounded good,” she said. “But over and over again there’s just not the visibility and the traffic to support these uses. And the office market has been declining for some time.”

She presented three options for the first floor: six one-bedroom units; two two-bedroom units, and one with three bedrooms; or five one-bedroom units plus about 725 square feet designated for in-house office use. A majority of the board indicated support for the third scenario in an effort to keep the waiver of the original office space requirement legal.

Board members were concerned that any amendment would not be consistent with zoning. 

“There is an enormous filing history on this site,” said Catherine Perry, Assistant Planning Director. “There have been so many changes and so many concessions. A housing-only development has never been allowed in this location.”

Members Jacinda Barbehenn and Amy Lloyd opposed any amendment. “I think we should focus on the original intent and it was mixed use,” Barbehenn said. “I would like to see them try a good-faith effort, then come back to us.” 

Market conditions can change, she added. “We are not a reaction board responding to short-term business needs. We need to take a consistent line about what the vision is for our town – a more vibrant mixed-use capacity. We should keep aiming for that even if it seems like a struggle in the short term.”

Lloyd, acknowledging the challenge of securing non-residential tenants, said that “if those are made into apartments, they will never be available to be anything else. With some other usage, people living there could have better ways to live rather than in a residential desert.”

She also said, “This project has received so many waivers – I’m not willing to go any further.” Office space may be in low demand, she said, but “many people are working from home and many of them need working space.”

Member Todd Crowley replied that “to me, it’s more important to look at the conditions today. I don’t think that’s a ripe area for businesses. Things have changed and the housing need is much greater now.” He added that the building on Plank Street doesn’t offer the visibility required for business success.

“The area already has a lot of residential,” he said. “And adding to the affordable housing stock is a good thing. I feel there are a lot of positives. We are trying to do the right thing for the town if we can find wiggle room with the bylaw.”

The additional units will all meet the state definition of affordable, growing the number from the current 13 to 18, Brown said, scattered throughout the structure.

Member Steve Hagan agreed, pointing out that the board has been grappling with a state law requiring acreage allowing multi-family housing by right. That law was passed because “we need more housing,” he said.

Chris Gittins, board chair, said that since they can’t eliminate the entire commercial component, he can support the single in-house office unit. “I see the need for housing so I would be supportive of an option which includes additional housing that has to be allowable within the existing bylaw.” He added that regarding actual mixed-use, “that ship sailed a long time ago.”

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