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Suburban developers thinking bigger

Plans mean new revenue, amenities, and concerns

Email|Print| Text size + By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / November 23, 2007

The suburbs of Boston are experiencing a burst of development not seen in years, driven by towns desperate for new tax sources, retailers looking to draw the area's well-off consumers, and builders tapping into unusually huge swaths of land for new housing or corporate offices.

In Westwood alone, a proposed 4.5 million-square-foot office, retail, and condominium development called Westwood Station would be nearly four times the size of Boston's landmark Prudential Tower and promises to dramatically transform the once sleepy dairy community of 12,600 residents, which doesn't even have a downtown.

And that may not be the biggest proposal. In Weymouth and two neighboring towns, a former naval air station is slated to become a veritable city unto itself, with roughly 5 million square feet of residential, retail, and commercial space.

Around the region, at least four dozen medium- and large-size developments are on the drawing boards, under construction, or have recently opened, according to regional planning groups and state environmental review filings. Burlington, Waltham, and other suburbs with reputations as development-friendly are courting projects, as are struggling cities such as Lawrence and Lowell and even towns such as Sharon that often have been averse to major developments.

The new wave of development differs from previous growth periods because of the sheer size of many projects, some billed as "villages" or "lifestyle centers" that combine housing, retail, and offices, and may include a unique draw, such as a luxury movie theater. In the past, development typically came in single steps - a housing project, an office park, or a retail establishment - but developers say today's suburbanites, tired of stop-and-go traffic and office park isolation, want all those features within walking distance.

These new developments come with a delicate trade-off. Some communities are making permitting far easier, occasionally cutting years off the process. In return, developers are providing roads, athletic fields, and other amenities to help offset the strain on local budgets, in addition to the new property tax dollars.

Some homeowners, environmentalists, and a few regional planners warn that the new developments will alter the suburban towns' quality of life, bringing more traffic, higher school costs, and environmental damage. In several cases, projects are being pitched near highway interchanges, next to or on top of crucial aquifers that supply drinking water, or close to a similar project in another town.

"People move to a Westwood because they don't want to be near a downtown Boston, and Westwood will have an urban feel to it. I don't think it will be the same town at all," said John Harding, president of the town's Everett Forbes Neighborhood Association

Pointing to other developments under consideration south of Boston, he said, "How many Talbots do you need?"

In Westwood, the Planning Board approved a special zoning permit Tuesday night to allow for Westwood Station, one of the state's largest suburban developments ever, over the objections of critics who say it would forever alter the character of the town by attracting about 55,000 vehicles a day and some 1,700 new residents. To be built next to the Route 128 commuter rail stop, it would have shops, restaurants, offices, and 1,000 condominiums, as well as hotels and parking garages.

The development would produce an estimated $12.6 million annually in net property tax revenue for Westwood, more than 20 percent of the town's operating budget.

"Communities are desperate for cash these days, and commercial development, in particular, generates strong revenues," said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. "You find some communities eager - some may say too eager - to encourage large-scale commercial developments."

Westwood Station developers Cabot, Cabot & Forbes, Commonfund Realty Inc., and New England Development will spend $60 million on off-site improvements, including new athletic fields at Westwood High School, a second public safety building, and a new MBTA platform. Developers of other Greater Boston projects have promised fire engines, conservation land, and, in at least one case on the South Shore, a school.

In Wayland, a developer has proposed a $140 million shopping, residential, and office project - including a municipal building - on former Raytheon Co. property. In Burlington, meanwhile, Nordblom Co. is planning to recast Northwest Park, a 1950s-era office center, into a bustling, tree-lined center of shops, offices, and housing, while a New York firm intends a similar but smaller redevelopment of the 119-acre Polaroid Corp. site in Waltham.

"Given how tight municipal budgets are, many more communities in 2007 are actively looking to expand their commercial tax bases, more than any time in the last 20 years," said Greg Bialecki, the state's undersecretary of business development.

But business leaders say the uptick is not enough to prop up the state's economy, especially as analysts predict slower-than-anticipated growth through 2011. Completion of the projects could take a decade or longer.

"Compared to other regions of the country, I wouldn't call it a land rush," said David Begelfer, chief executive officer of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Industrial & Office Properties. He later added, "We are a long way from seeing anything from a growth cycle or a building boom."

Developers and towns have targeted aging office and manufacturing complexes along congested Route 128, as well as on pristine land in far-flung suburbs. But some residents are objecting to the changes.

In Waltham, where sleek glass office buildings along Route 128 serve as an icon to suburban commercial success, some residents have been campaigning against overdevelopment, blocking construction of an approximately eight-story building across from the common.

And along the rolling landscape of Sharon, a former lakeside summer resort town where 5,000 acres are in conservation, many residents are outraged that cranberry bogs and a habitat of the endangered Eastern box turtle could be replaced by a 500,000-square-foot shopping and office complex that could draw 19,300 vehicles a day.

Critics also fought six eight-story senior housing buildings, containing 624 units, going up on Rattlesnake Hill, a spot where the endangered black rat snake slithers.

Earlier this month, Neighbors Against Destructive Development lobbied a Special Town Meeting to curtail the growth, but failed to convince voters in Sharon, a bedroom community of 18,000.

"I feel like that guy in Tiananmen Square standing in front of the army tank. I can't fight this," said Paul Lauenstein, a Sharon Planning Board member and self-described environmentalist.

But Walter "Joe" Roach, Board of Selectmen chairman, said homeowners need relief from taxes.

"It won't lower taxes, but it will stabilize taxes so we don't go for overrides as often as we have. If development is done with balance, it's not that bad," said Roach, a retired high school custodian.

Near the proposed Westwood Station, selectmen in neighboring Canton created a website last summer critical of the project, hired a public relations firm, and turned down $1.3 million from the developers for road improvements. Canton officials say a proposed exit for Westwood Station on Interstate 95 at Dedham Street in their town will flood residential streets with traffic, while other vehicles will add to major traffic backups at the decades-old junction of Interstates 95 and 93, also located in Canton.

This month, the selectmen notified Governor Deval Patrick about plans to sue the state, on grounds that Massachusetts officials' recent approval of Westwood Station lacked adequate highway traffic remedies. On Tuesday, the town took the first formal step, filing a notice with state environmental regulators that it intends to appeal.

Adding to the anxiety for Canton and other Westwood Station critics, including some Westwood residents, is a spate of other retail-based projects clustered nearby. New developments have been proposed or recently opened in Dedham, Sharon, Foxborough, and Mansfield, while the traditional enclosed malls, Walpole Mall and South Shore Plaza, are both planning major expansions to compete.

Farther south, an Indian casino could go up in Middleborough.

Many critics question whether small towns like Westwood, where development is overseen by a volunteer planning board and one town planner, has the expertise to review a project equivalent to nearly four Prudential Towers. The boards, the critics say, typically approve a Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, or a small subdivision.

Towns, though, insist projects are being thoroughly reviewed.

"I understand the concern that Westwood Station might be a mini-city and could distract from the character of the town, but we have worked hard to make it a place where Westwood residents will want to come to and be proud to say it's part of Westwood," said Steve Rafsky, chairman of the town's economic development advisory board.

Roughly half the project - including all the retail - would open in two years. The remaining construction would hinge on market demand, an approach developers of some larger projects are taking.

The developers remain bullish.

"Part of the problem in Massachusetts is we are not keeping enough young people here," said Jay Doherty, Cabot, Cabot & Forbes president. "They want more public transportation options and more amenities in their lifestyles. They want more shopping and restaurants than prior generations, and if they can't find it here they will go somewhere else."

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