Town rejects retail plan

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / May 24, 2012
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Burlington Town Meeting on Monday turned down a plan by the Gutierrez Co. to locate a Target store and a restaurant on land south of the interchange of routes 3 and 128.

With opponent citing concerns about traffic impacts, Town Meeting voted, 72-39, to reject a zoning change sought by Gutierrez for the development.

The vote came a week after selectmen approved agreements with Burlington-based Gutierrez and the state Department of Transportation that included commitments by the company and the state to carry out at least $3.2 million in improvements to the Middlesex Turnpike in the event the project went forward.

Located just west of the Middlesex Turnpike, the 15.3-acre state-owned site on Wheeler Road is often referred to as “The Canyon” because it was excavated in the 1950s as part of the planned extension of Route 3 into Boston that ended up terminating in Burlington.

Selectman Robert Hogan said fears about the impact a large retail store could have on local traffic in that area was the key issue voiced by opponents at town meeting.

“I think the big box store was the anchor that drove the whole project down,” he said, noting that to many town meeting representatives, the planned improvements to the Middlesex Turnpike “didn’t offset the anticipated increase in traffic.”

Hogan said he had supported the project because “I thought the work on the Middlesex Turnpike was important to the town.” The planned improvements included repaving, the addition of turning lanes, signal system upgrades, and streetscape beautification.

Town administrator Robert E. Mercier said that with the town meeting defeat of the project, the planned improvements to the Middlesex Turnpike will not go forward.

Mercier observed, however, “I know work needs to be done down there,” referring to that section of the turnpike. “We are responsible. If it is not done by private entities or some combination of private entities and the Commonwealth, then it is on our dime at some point.”

The state Department of Transportation declared the property surplus in 2010 and sought requests for proposals from prospective buyers. Gutierrez was awarded the bid and that fall reached an agreement with the state to purchase the land. The company’s plan called for a 165,000-square-foot development that would include the Target store and a restaurant yet to be determined.

The town meeting proposal would have rezoned the site to General Business District. Town officials had said a zoning change was needed since the land was residentially zoned prior to the state acquiring it and would revert to that status if it returns to private ownership.

“We regret that Burlington Town Meeting chose not to support our proposal for the Canyon property,’’ Scott Weiss, managing director of commercial development for Gutierrez, said in a statement Tuesday. “Our plan presented what we believe is the best and only opportunity to bring real traffic relief to a long-neglected stretch of Middlesex Turnpike, and we are disappointed the town decided not to support our proposal.

“We will explore our options for the land, which might include moving forward with the purchase and pursuing an alternative development proposal,’’ Weiss said. “If we do not purchase the parcel, the MassDOT could use it for its own purposes or seek other developers for the parcel.’’

Nolan Glantz, a Precinct 1 town meeting representative, was among those who spoke against the proposal at the meeting.

“I was a little on the fence going in because I think Gutierrez has been a great partner with the town,” he said Tuesday. “They’ve done other projects I’ve supported.” He said Target is also “a great business and I’d love to support them.”

But Glantz said that the traffic mitigation plan put forward by Gutierrez, while commendable, stopped short of what would be needed to address the increased traffic that a big box store would generate.

He said simply upgrading the Middlesex Turnpike was not sufficient when the larger problem was the lack of sufficient access between the southbound side of the Middlesex Turnpike and routes 3 and 128. He said that need would be met by constructing cloverleaf ramps on that side of the road.

Kevin D. Parker, a Precinct 4 representative, spoke on the town meeting floor in favor of the project.

“The traffic to me was not a big enough reason for saying ‘no’ to as much as a million dollars in tax revenue to the town,” Parker said Tuesday. Gutierrez had estimated the project would generate $750,000 to $1 million in new tax revenues.

“I’ve grown up here and lived with the traffic on the Middlesex Turnpike my whole life,” Parker said. “Traffic is just one of those things you kind of deal with. I drive in Boston all the time because I’m going to school there now and it just becomes part of my life.”

Parker said he also saw no reason not to trust the studies provided by Gutierrez that showed the proposed improvements to the Middlesex Turnpike would be effective.

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