The Wellesley Planning Board, after receiving at least about a couple dozen letters about a proposal to rezone the Sisters of Charity property next to Centennial Reservation and hearing from about an hour’s worth of residents’ comments during its Feb. 21 meeting, will pick up where it left off at its Feb. 28 meeting.
Board Chair Jim Roberti made that clear from the start of discussion at the Feb. 21 meeting, noting that the board had heard from residents displeased with timing of this week’s hearing during school vacation, that more public discussion would be welcomed (the board needed to schedule its meeting this week for logistical reasons related to the upcoming Town Meeting).
Wellesley Media recording of Feb. 21 Planning Board meeting
Most of those who spoke at the meeting opposed Town Meeting Article 42, sponsored by the Planning Board, though some supported its potential for increasing housing opportunities in town. Others suggested different approaches to dealing with the 14-acre property that included everything from implementing conservation restrictions to consideration of locating an arts center there. Many remarked on how much they appreciate the Sisters of Charity as neighbors.
The Natural Resources Commission, which was meeting at the same time, later submitted a letter to the Planning Board urging it to withdraw the article “until this Commission has explored all the mechanisms available to the Commission for conservation purposes and natural resource protection.”
The article seeks to amend the zoning map to include the Sisters of Charity property within a residential incentive overlay (RIO) district that would allow for additional uses, such as multifamily housing (340 unit maximum), mixed use including up to 10,000 sq. ft. of retail space, assisted/independent senior living (maximum of 150 units), and nursing home/skilled nursing (maximum of 250 beds). Not all of these uses could be done together. Proposed developments would require Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, and other approvals. The property is zoned as an educational district, which allows for educational uses and housing, and that zoning would remain.
The Sisters of Charity’s Krista Thibault read a statement near the start of the hearing to emphasize that the future senior living use of the property, currently used in part to house 54 sisters and ready to accommodate about 68 more upon their retirement, has been a topic of discussion between the order and Planning Department for the past 5 years. The Sisters of Charity has been divesting property for years in planning for the end of the congregation, which hasn’t had a new sister since the 1980s. “We appreciate that the RIO includes development options that are not liked by everyone. However, it does include skilled nursing, assisted and independent elderly living, and that is what we are looking for.” A condition that the sisters are allowed to age in place would be written into any sales agreement, she said.
Nearby resident and attorney Larry Shind, no stranger to the Planning Board, blew through his allotted 3-minute speaker time to lay out reasons why a RIO is not the right zoning solution for this property. If up to 340 units of multifamily housing were developed there, this “would have a devastating impact on the surrounding residential neighborhood and the adjacent Centennial Park, which is the largest parcel of protected open space in the town,” he said.
Shind shared a history of RIO use in town, which he said to date has only been applied for known projects, such as the Waterstone development and the new multifamily housing developments on Weston Road and Linden Street. He also argued that the 125 Oakland Street property doesn’t meet a RIO requirement of truly being nearly a commercial district. Shind asked the board to consider alternatives, such as amending the educational zoning bylaw to include for-profit housing for the elderly or creating a new overlay district tailored to desired uses on this site.
Others, including an across-the-street neighbor, aired concerns about traffic congestion, and 1 resident shared a quantitative analysis complete with charts. Some worried that the wording of the article is too vague.
While neighbor MassBay Community College hasn’t made a public statement about the proposal, a spokesperson tells us the school is watching the matter closely.
Those in favor of the article included members of Building a Better Wellesley, a community group advocating for affordable and attainable housing.
“I am very surprised that we aren’t more open about building housing for people so that we’re more equitable, so that we have a more diverse population. I think The Nines has done a good job of that, and I could see if this is done well and if the ultimate developer follows the rules that this could be a wonderful, wonderful asset for our town,” said Sally Watts.
Resident Andrew Mikula acknowledged that proposed redevelopment of this parcel would naturally be “a contentious issue,” given its location. But he also said it represents “an exciting opportunity” for reuse, citing outdated buildings and inefficient parking designs. Allowed uses under rezoning could benefit all residents, he said.
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