The distinctive Sisters of Charity property at 125 Oakland St., set against the backdrop of Centennial Reservation, is the subject of a Wellesley Town Meeting article that’s been making its preliminary rounds through committees and boards. The Advisory Committee was briefed on the article on Feb. 15 (presentation embedded below), and the Planning Board has an agenda item on it for its Feb. 21 meeting.
(Update 2/22/23: See Wellesley Media recording of Feb. 21 meeting, which features an hour-plus hearing during which residents spoke both in favor of and against Article 42. Those in favor spoke of the benefits of possibly increasing the town’s housing stock, while those against raised issues that included increased traffic, environmental impacts, and opportunities for other possible developments, such as an arts center. Another Planning Board hearing will be slated for Feb. 28.)
Article 42, sponsored by the Planning Board, seeks to amend the zoning map to include the 14-acre 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 currently zoned as an educational district, which allows for educational uses and housing, and that zoning would remain.
The property currently is used by the Sisters of Charity as a retirement spot for its members, and is an allowed use on the property under a religious exemption. The order began its work in Halifax, Nova Scotia 175 years ago, and came to Massachusetts in the late 1800s to teach.
Both the nonprofit Marillac Residence residential care facility (76 beds) and nonprofit Elizabeth Seton skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility (84 beds) operate on the land. The sisters who live on the property aren’t getting any younger, and while additional sisters are expected to retire there, the order itself isn’t growing—so the outfit is looking to sell the property with an eye toward the future. The plan would be to keep the care facilities operating through the sisters’ lifetime, which could be another 30-plus years, but give any buyer the opportunity to further develop the site, which they could not do under the current zoning rules.
Passing Article 42 would help out the Sisters of Charity but also align with town goals, including an increase in multifamily housing. Planning Board Chair Jim Roberti said during the Advisory meeting that this was among the sites identified in the town’s Housing Production Plan for this possible purpose. Town Executive Director Meghan Jop said that using a RIO in this area could be an example of where the town is heading. “Instead of just aligning zoning with what we want to see for a project, which has been the Wellesley Way for a little bit, we really need to be thinking forward so that as developers come in they know the rules of the road and how to proceed…” What’s more, private development of the land could reap the town tax revenue—the current use is tax exempt.
The property has some development challenges, including that it’s located next to a wetlands buffer and wetlands, and nearby a neighborhood. Future uses of the property is what has some neighbors concerned, and they’re rallying to speak up at the Planning Board meeting. Advisory Committee members during their briefing by Planning raised numerous questions about what the maximum buildout might look like, noting that Town Meeting is going to want to know that. Without such detail, “you’re going to get an awful lot of pushback,” one member said.
The Friends of Brookside neighborhood group has encouraged those in the area to attend the Planning Board meeting online and reach out the the board with questions or concerns. The group over the weekend submitted a petition signed by 200-plus people to the Planning Board that asks for the article to be withdrawn. It reads in part: “We have not had the appropriate time to understand this complex rezoning proposal occurring in a residential neighborhood and the Town’s largest conservation area. We need to allow time to engage with The Sisters, neighbors, abutters (including Centennial, Mass Bay, and the Country Club), and all town residents in thoughtful dialogue concerning the multi-faceted issues raised by Article 42 for stakeholders. The Public Hearing is also scheduled during School vacation week which is not appropriate.”
If you’d like to see the Planning Board post legal notices on The Swellesley Report, let them know. Some bodies within town government now do this, in addition to posting them on the town website and in print newspapers.
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