Blight plan moves forward in Cumberland

Blight plan moves forward in Cumberland

The Ann & Hope Mill is one of eight properties of townwide significance targeted for revitalization through proposed Planned Unit Development zoning. (Breeze photo by Ethan Shorey)
Planning Board recommends plan to rejuvenate eight underutilized properties

CUMBERLAND – Eight underutilized properties in Cumberland, including three historic mills, would be rejuvenated under a proposed initiative that includes creating a new zoning designation.

Town officials are proposing a package of comprehensive plan amendments that would identify the eight properties and place them in a Planned Unit Development (PUD) zone.

The Planning Board last Wednesday, Nov. 29, approved recommending the Town Council pass the comprehensive plan changes. The council will likely take the matter up in January.

David Westcott, the planning consultant hired by the town to work on the plan, said these properties meet the state’s unusual definition of “blight,” but that simply means they’re underutilized, he said, and could be returning a great deal more revenue to the community. Existing zoning restrictions make redevelopment or reuse a challenge, he said.

The eight properties are:

• Naushon Mill, a 3.52-acre site on Meeting Street;

• Berkeley Mill, a 5.6-acre property on Martin Street;

• Ann & Hope Mill, a 13.84-acre property on Ann & Hope Way;

• Lonsdale Mill building, a 1-acre property on Ann & Hope Way;

• Mendon Gateway, a 1.82-acre site at 20 Ann & Hope Way;

• The National Grid property, a 73-acre site at 1595 Mendon Road;

• The McLaughlin and Moran property, an 8.3-acre property at 60 Nate Whipple Highway;

• And Ashton Park Way, a 3-acre property on Ashton Park Way.

Each of the properties would have different requirements based on needs related to marketing them. Owners would have to get approval from town planners, but the process would be easier than getting a zoning variance, as required now.

Jonathan Stevens, director of planning and community development for the town, said the planned new zoning designation would be limited to the eight properties. It was designed to strengthen the local tax base by removing barriers to redevelopment, bringing new jobs and protecting the property owners’ assets.

The Planning Board’s recommendation in favor of the PUD overlay zoning last week was not of a finished product, said Stevens, as the specifics of the new zoning rules would be fleshed out with input from property owners.

The changes bring flexibility on restrictions, he said, but would still need planning approval. The goal is to avoid having the owners come before the Planning Board again and again for each minor change to their property.

Owners of each property qualifying for the PUD zoning designation would be allowed to negotiate on standard regulatory requirements, while still complying with state law, said Stevens. The types of uses allowed in buildings is one example of the planned flexibility.

Mayor Bill Murray told the Planning Board that he and his team met with several of the property owners as they formed the framework for the new zoning designation. Business growth is stagnant in many areas, and the PUD would help bring new revenue and commercial growth by targeting a few select properties.

The town isn’t opening “Pandora’s box” as some have suggested, Murray said.

The amendments give landowners “a better shot at doing something” with their properties, he said. A full picture on the plan would form as it moves forward, he said.

Westcott told the Planning Board that state zoning law was originally developed to have separate manufacturing, residential and commercial space. That was fine at a time when the spindles were going at Ann & Hope, he said, but modern redevelopment and land use requires mixing uses.

The advantage of a PUD is “it’s both a zone and a process,” said Westcott. It doesn’t mandate that landowners do anything, but it allows them to come to the Planning Board for such proposals as mixing uses within a structure.

PUD zones often allow creative give-and-take between the town and developers on such initiatives as improved infrastructure and bicycle and pedestrian amenities, said Westcott.

Planning Board member Harry MacDonald said he wants the plan to succeed, but said he’d be concerned about the town and developers entering into some “freewheeling negotiation” on parking setbacks and other requirements.

Westcott responded that the board could be specific in a finalized version of the PUD on what is or isn’t allowed. The changes would simply allow the town to approve such modern practices as sharing parking spaces between uses, meaning a developer wouldn’t be required to put in enough parking for every use on his or her property if companies on the property need the spaces at different times and on different days. That ability to share parking can “make or break” a project, he said.

Board member Kenneth Bush expressed strong concern about new traffic that would inevitably come with increased use on these eight properties.

“It seems we could be increasing traffic tremendously,” he said, noting the traffic problem the town already has.

On the National Grid property, for example, the acreage would allow some 548 residential units off Mendon Road, he said.

Westcott acknowledged that that many units would be “theoretically” possible, but everything would still be subject to traffic studies. He said traffic should be “right up there” on board members’ list of criteria.

Board members responded that they’ve never seen traffic studies predicting a major problem if the development happens.

Stevens noted that he’s not even sure strictly residential uses could be used under the PUD.

Westcott said he’s hopeful that the state will have some recommendations in its traffic circulation plan for how to address some of Cumberland’s traffic problems.

Sam Chase, who owns Ann & Hope with his family and has about 150,000 square feet of the 450,000-square-foot complex available to rent, said no amount of new traffic would bring Ann & Hope back to the traffic it had 25 or 30 years ago. The PUD is “not the answer,” he said, “but it’s a shot of adrenaline.

Scott Partington, representing the owners of the Berkeley Mill, said he hoped any finalized PUD would be comprehensive enough to address all needs. The Berkeley Mill is about two-thirds full now, but could still benefit from being in the PUD.

Partington said the owners want to be a “team player,” so they agreed to be part of the group of eight in the PUD, but the specific areas the mill could benefit from are on flexibility of use and parking. The biggest concern, he said, is that the owners might have to come back again and again for permission to put something such as office space next to a retail operation.

Stevens said the owners’ perspectives are very important in streamlining the final product. Owners know the “impediments and opportunities for their properties,” he said.

Bill Gately, owner of the Naushon Mill, said his property is also seeing progress, but he likes the idea of the PUD. The mixed-use project was approved about a year ago, he said, but there are no shovels in the ground yet because he’s waiting on a variety of tax credits.

Gately is planning about 75 residential units on the second floor. Three or so tenants, including a print shop, gym and wholesale gym equipment company have moved in.

Gately said he supports the initiative by town officials. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” he said, and Cumberland could benefit greatly from promoting more development of these properties.