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MBTA air rights in Waverley Square

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MBTA air rights eyed for 5-story complex

By Caroline Louise Cole, Globe Correspondent, 2/12/2004

State and local officials say a five-story retail and housing complex could be built on a deck that would cover Belmont's Waverley Square commuter rail station on Trapelo Road and extend over tracks to the north of the station on land adjacent to the Belmont Car Wash. The complex could include up to 170 apartments.

But whether the MBTA's latest "transit-oriented development" proposal will come to fruition depends in large measure on the sentiments of local officials, adjacent property owners, and neighbors, said officials close to the project.

Any development over the tracks -- which are below ground level, in an open-air tunnel at the station -- would require a zoning change, said Belmont senior planner Timothy Higgins.

Higgins said Belmont officials are enthusiastic enough about the idea of allowing the MBTA to build over the tracks in Waverley Square to have hired a planning consultant, who is working on a conceptual design to present to Belmont's annual Town Meeting this spring. He said the town's Planning Board is hoping to ask Town Meeting for the zoning changes that would be needed for the proposal.

"The Planning Board will be heavily involved in this process and I anticipate we will be holding at least one public hearing, if not a series," he said.

Will Brownsberger, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, praised the concept and the efforts the Planning Board is making to include town residents early in the planning process.

"I like it because I think it is an important and interesting idea," he said. "We are in just the beginning stages and I am confident the Planning Board will keep the neighborhood involved in the process.

State and local officials have been eyeing the so-called air rights above the land owned by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority in Waverley Square as part of the Romney administration's "smart growth" initiative. That initiative is intended to encourage housing and retail development near existing transportation centers, according to Douglas Foy, director of the state Office for Commonwealth Development.

Foy said what the governor finds intriguing about these developments in general is that they "create walkable neighborhoods, which reduce the overall dependence on the automobile," providing both environmental and transportation benefits.

"These types of developments can reinforce the kinds of towns and neighborhoods we all want," Foy said.

Land owned by the MBTA is an obvious place to start since the developments would be literally right on top of existing transit hubs, said Dennis DiZoglio, the MBTA planner who is overseeing transit-oriented development proposals in 26 communities.

"Many visionary planners have been suggesting these types of development for a while," DiZoglio said. "Such a development works two ways for us. They allow us to exploit our vast real estate holdings to provide a new source of revenues for the T while at the same time help us create more riders."

DiZoglio said state planners are well aware, though, that the density factor that such projects demand in order to be profitable could prove to be turn-off in many suburban neighorhoods like Belmont's Waverley Square.

In order to win local consensus, DiZoglio said, the MBTA has been working closely with local officials in order to figure out what type of developments will work in their communities and what to avoid, he said.

"The T could just put out a request for proposals to the development community and see what we get, but we thought since this type of development is new and unique, we would do better to develop a vision of what each community would like to see and then go forward and request a proposal around that," DiZoglio said. "The T itself would not be the developer."

The ultimate pricing of any development rights would be based on what type of development each parcel could support, he added.

For the Waverley Square station plan, the town has hired the Cecil Group, a planning group based in Boston, to analyze whether Waverley Square could support such a development and to do a preliminary drawing of what the development over the Waverley T station would look like, Higgins said.

Steve Cecil said the preliminary five-story structure his firm has come up with includes a housing, commercial, and retail component. It would be built on a deck over the tracks and station area and boasts a ground-level parking garage with stores on the first level and then housing above.

"We are trying for a design that is in keeping with a New England village," Cecil said. "We need to balance both Belmont's sensitivity to density while at the same time make it economically feasible to build. What we have determined is that a project with a reasonable scale for the neighborhood could support itself."

Cecil said his research suggests that the strongest market demand is for residential apartments and that the development could support up to 170 units. The parking garage would be big enough to serve regular commuters, the development's new residents, and the proposed retail stores.

Like DiZoglio, Cecil cautioned that the development will work only if the MBTA is able to gain the support of local officials and private property owners, noting that the town's recently commissioned Trapelo Road Corridor Study endorsed development on the station property.

"This concept is an opportunity which has occurred to a lot of people over the years, but if it was easy to do, it would have been done already," he said. "We haven't identified a reason why it couldn't happen, but it can't be done by a single party."

From The Boston Globe

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