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Officials Tweak Zoning Rules to Encourage Development

June 29, 2014 : The Boston Globe, by Kathy McCabe

SOMERVILLE – On a humid morning, about 20 private real estate developers walked through Union Square, the future home of an MBTA Green Line station.

As they stood in the warm sun, George Proakis, the city’s planning director, described new zoning that will spell out rules for housing and business development in Somerville.

“Our zoning hasn’t been updated since 1990,” Proakis said near the proposed Green Line stop off Somerville Avenue. “It was pretty convoluted. What we’ve tried to do is make it clearer, and easier to understand.”

Union Square was the final stop on a six-city tour of potential new housing sites near public transportation that was organized by the state’s top economic development officials and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

“The communities of Metro North are saying they’re open for business,” Marty Jones, president and chief executive of MassDevelopment, the state’s real estate and finance authority, said during a lunchtime gathering at the Independent restaurant in Union Square.

Developers got a glimpse of millions of dollars in new housing projects underway in Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Melrose, Revere, and Somerville. “We’re not asking you to be a pioneer,” Greg Bialecki, the state’s secretary of Housing and Community Development, told the gathering. “There is a proven track record here.”

According to data provided by the MAPC, building permits for new housing from 2011 to 2013 included 610 in Chelsea; 608 in Everett; 31 in Malden; 149 in Melrose, and 38 in Revere. No data was available for Somerville.

In Everett, the old Charleston Chew factory is being turned into 325 luxury apartments called the Batch Yard. On Revere Beach, Waterfront Square will bring apartments, a hotel, restaurants, and shops just a few steps from an MBTA Wonderland station.

Malden Square is poised for an extreme makeover, once City Hall and the police station are torn down and replaced by 245 apartments and retail space by Jefferson Apartment Group of McLean, Va.

Melrose has adopted zoning to encourage assisted living, multifamily, and other new housing options in an area stretching from Main Street to the Highlands commuter rail station.

“The zoning we had there was very restrictive,” Mayor Robert J. Dolan said in an interview after the tour. “But now there will be a much broader mix allowed there. … This isn’t just about revenue-building. It’s about community-building.”

Dolan said the city hopes to capitalize on its three commuter rail stations – Cedar Park, the Highlands, and Wyoming Hill – along with its restaurants and shops to lure new development.

“We have an incredible quality of life with our restaurants, the arts, and access to the train,” he said. “Developers should consider investing in these properties.”

In Chelsea, the Everett Avenue Urban Renewal District was spotlighted in the city that was still glowing from winning an All-American City award on June 15 from the National Civic League.

The award, which Chelsea also received in 1998, recognizes 10 cities for civic achievement in a number of areas, including housing and public health.

City Manager Jay Ash said the all-American designation “underscores the great things happening in our community.”

Chelsea and other old urban centers outside Boston have much to offer, he said.

“We have this parochial view that once the Boston line stops, that nothing else can happen, but in fact, there is just so much more that can happen. … We have to open up the eyes of the development community and let them know that everything you want is located here,” Ash said.

Bialecki cited the cooperation among the leaders of the six cities, which he said is essential for the state to promote new economic growth.

“It’s awfully difficult for us to accomplish anything meaningful on our own in state government,” Bialecki said. “For us, one of the exciting things about working with you is that we see that everybody’s on the same page. I think that's really among the many other assets of this region.”

Jones urged developers to take a close look at the region’s natural assets.

“There are great places to take a sandwich and sit outside,” she said. “We’ve got parks in these different neighborhoods. There are benches to sit on. A lot of these places have access to the water. That’s a huge asset.”

Sandi Silk, vice president of Jefferson Apartment Group, said proximity to the river was a key draw to a proposed new development in Everett.

“It’s really designed around the riverfront,” Silk said. “We have 30 acres within 10 minutes from Boston. If the river wasn’t there for our Everett project, we wouldn’t be there.” She declined to disclose specifics of the development plan.

Silk also said Jefferson was drawn to Malden for the MBTA’s Orange Line stop in the city center.

At least one developer was impressed by the offerings.

“Every one of these communities is a special place,” said Bart Mitchell, president and chief executive officer of Community Builders Inc. in Boston. “In Melrose, you've got the commuter train. In Malden Center, you’re never far from the Orange Line. Somerville has the developing Green Line. These are all places we would love to build housing.”

© Copyright 2014 The Boston Globe.