Latest Wellesley 40B meeting: Talk of stiff arms, BIll Belichick & ejections

Delanson Circle, WellesleyThe team behind the proposed 90-unit Delanson Circle housing development in Wellesley emphasized at a Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) meeting this past Thursday the lengths it is going to in order to make the 40B project attractive to those who will live there and those who already live in the neighborhood. But dozens of neighbors, organized as the College Heights Association, said the 5-story project (includes underground garage with 1.1 parking spaces per housing unit) will need to change a great deal to be welcomed by them.

The sounds of the ZBA meeting were recorded and can be heard on Wellesley Public Media. You can get a feel for the proposed design in the project application shared in September.

The proposed Wellesley Crossing project off of Linden Street gained public awareness over the summer and recently secured a key approval from the quasi-public Massachusetts Housing Partnership, which specified that “the site of the proposed Project is an appropriate location for residential development.” The development team now seeks a Comprehensive Permit from the ZBA so that it can build its project, which includes 18 affordable units, under flexible zoning rules allowed by the Massachusetts 40B statute that encourages affordable housing production.

Development manager Victor Sheen (cited experience mainly in residential and affordable housing, dropped I.M. Pei‘s name and MIT chops) and architect Dartagnan Brown of Embarc did most of the talking for the project team, whose development would replace 5 existing homes (61K square feet) that sit across from the Wellesley Square train station parking lot.  Sheen referred to a smaller Brookline project of his that was approved earlier this year without appeals in a more commercial district just before Brookline got a 1-year reprieve from 40Bs. As with the Brookline project, which started at 6 stories and shrank to 4.5 stories, Sheen’s team has already revised its Delanson Circle project once to knock off a story and a handful of units.

“We’re not one to stiff arm [editor’s note: see GIF below] the neighborhood or the various consultants or boards…what we like to do is work cooperatively with the town” on projects that work for neighborhoods and are financially sound, Sheen said. He noted attention the team will pay to traffic, landscaping and environmental issues.

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Architect Brown gave more of an overview of the project itself, and stressed that this presentation was really the start of a 180-day process that would involve neighborhood input. “When we went through the one on Harvard Street in Brookline we personally spent a lot of time working with all the abutters so that we could understand everybody’s concern and we truly molded the building to reflect the input that we got from abutters,” he said. This involved visiting abutters and checking out the possible impact of shadows that would be cast by the new building. The goal, he said, is to get through the zoning process with the support of neighbors as the team gets more familiar with the area (a mention of the Pinkberry store no longer in Linden Square shows that the team isn’t totally familiar with the area).

Among other things, the development team aims to take advantage of Delanson Circle’s steepness by building its Wellesley project in such a way that the structure won’t tower over surrounding homes, including Capes and other houses not of the McMansion variety. A minimum of 20-to-25-foot setbacks are envisioned to give residents space and allow for landscaping, Brown said. “Around half the site will be open space and landscaped area,” he said.

College Heights rises up

Neighbors who spoke, representing a newly formed group of 40-plus residents calling themselves the College Heights Association and that has hired legal counsel, thanked the development team’s reps for their presentation, but expressed their remaining concerns about the project’s impact on their neighborhood’s character, traffic, safety and more. They stressed that they are supportive of Wellesley’s effort to create a Housing Production Plan for affordable housing in Wellesley, and of the economic, social and ethnic diversity that affordable housing likely will bring.

“We are for affordable housing on Delanson Circle if it’s done right. We are, however, against the current proposal in the form in which it’s been presented,” said Lewis Collins, who has lived in town for about 20 years and whose home is a couple hundred feet from the proposed project.

“Mr. Sheen, I appreciate your comment at the beginning of the meeting that you didn’t want to stiff arm the neighbors, but I’ve got to tell you that your initial proposal of 95 units sure felt like a stiff arm to a lot of the neighbors,” Collins said. “The re-proposal reduced to 90 units felt like a stiff arm, too. I imagine [New England Patriots Coach] Bill Belichick would be proud and sign you tomorrow… so you know, not off to a great start.”

Fellow neighbor MaryJane Kubler started off by trying to familiarize the developers with College Heights, which she described as a quirky neighborhood consisting of an eclectic collection of homes, including those that have been around for 100 years or more. Then she went on to outline neighbors’ top concerns, saying she was thankful that Mr. Sheen was there to hear about them directly. “The size, scale and density of the proposed project is materially incongruous with the surrounding neighborhood,” she said.

Emergency vehicle access is a concern, as is the potential environmental impact of the project on stormwater and sewage, she said. Traffic and pedestrian safety are huge issues, and Kubler said the group really wants a comprehensive and independent study to take place during weekday hours when commuter and school-related traffic peaks. On a personal note, Kubler mentioned she doesn’t drive and might be the most experienced pedestrian in town, and has seen that “the traffic volume and regulation is already approaching a near crisis.”

Anne Marie Towle, another neighbor, aired her worries about loss of a nice view and invasion of privacy, as well as noise that will likely come from the project’s community area. She sparked an outburst of applause from attendees when she showed how her 2,300 square foot Cape would fit into the proposed building about 57 times. That resulted in a stern warning from the ZBA chairman, who threatened ejection of anyone who spoke without permission going forward.

Stay tuned for the next ZBA meeting in Jan. 18, with stormwater and traffic issues likely on the agenda.

MORE: Wellesley’s affordable housing challenge (video)