Developers head back to drawing board after Wellesley Select Board rejects condo plan

While not formally voting, the Wellesley Select Board still sent a clear message at its meeting last week that it wouldn’t support a proposed multifamily housing project at the intersection of Rte. 9 and Cliff Road in its current form. The 489 Worcester St. developers were seeking to go the 40R smart-growth zoning route for their project, and required Select Board buy-in.

The developers over the past year had made the rounds at Wellesley boards and committees—and with the public—seeking support for a condo complex that initially would have included 69 units, and was down to 40 by last week. They’d bought three properties, which together would have supported the project in a district now zoned for single-family residences.

Developer Victor Sheen, in a follow-up call with us this week, said his team is heading “back to the drawing board,” talking to consultants about what to do. “I don’t have a plan or strategy to discuss at this point,” he said. The developers had initially leaned toward a residential incentive overlay district zoning approach in early meetings with the Planning Board.

“Things didn’t line up for one reason or another, and we move on,” said Sheen, who was involved early on with the Terrazza condo complex on Linden Street and remains involved in the Bristol condo development on Weston Road. “We understood there was risk going into this, and we were hoping for a different result, but it didn’t happen this time.”

Presentations on the developer’s 489 Worcester St. website have been wiped and the site now states “A new project is in the works”; the town’s webpage on this proposed project is now a dead link (here’s the archived page).

Sheen said the neighborhood made clear it wasn’t ready for such a project, even though the proposal was transit-oriented, not far from the Wellesley Hills commuter rail. He said the emerging MBTA Communities plan, under which cities and towns such as Wellesley that are along public transportation routes need to zone for nearby multifamily housing, promotes such housing in commercial areas. Communities like Wellesley are trying “to solve a housing issue for which there is no easy answer,” Sheen said referring to the missing middle and workforce housing that pricing-wise falls somewhere in between affordable housing as defined by the state and market rates that so many can’t afford.

Select Board meeting

During the standing-room-only Jan. 9 Select Board meeting at the Tolles Parsons Center (see Wellesley Media recording), Chair Tom Ulfelder set the stage by stressing that if this project were to go ahead under 40R zoning, that this would be a long and structured process involving both town and state approvals. What’s more, the town would need to decide what if any local zoning changes might need to be made to accommodate the plan. The only 40R in town is the Wellesley Park development at Rte. 9 & Rte. 95. Ulfelder said the Board would take no vote on the plan until spring but was obligated to give town staff some sense of where it stood given that going through a 40R process takes enormous staff resources.

Developer Sheen was given the opportunity to share an update on the proposal, followed by questions and deliberation by the Board, and concluding with comments from the public. The Board had last been formally briefed in May.

Sheen described the 489 Worcester St. proposal, known early on as the 8 Cliff Rd. project, as being geared toward young families as well as older down-sizers. The nearly 4-acre property currently contains three single-family homes. Sheen outlined changes to the plan since the last time his team briefed the Select Board, including a shift of the main entrance/exit to Rte. 9 instead of Cliff Road, defining more open space, pledging not to blast ledge, and relocating the underground garage away from Cliff. The centerpiece of the development would be an all-electric manor house containing the condos, including 9 affordable ones priced according to a state formula, and screened via trees from nearby homes.

Developers can benefit from the 40R approach Sheen’s team was seeking in that Town Meeting needs to approve zoning changes by a simple majority rather than a two-thirds vote, as is the case with most zoning bylaw amendments. Sheen cited numerous benefits to the town, including payments from the state, property and excise taxes, plus permit fees, which add up on big projects (well, on small ones too for that matter). The town would also get more control over the project in some ways.

489 Worcester St.


Select Board member Ann-Mara Lanza started off the Board’s questions with a couple inspired by issues raised by neighbors concerned about the project (some residents have united their voices through the Neighbors for Better Planning group). These questions focused on roadway access to the site and condo pricing, including units possibly priced for those who work in town. Lanza said she understood her peers’ pushback about the proposal and wouldn’t fight where the rest of the board was going on this, but added she would have liked to see something other than single-family homes on the property, which could now be an option for the developers.

“I think if we could come up with a plan for workforce housing in this town we would be the model for the entire state, because nobody has come up with that,” she said. “And a 40R would give us a chance to do that, but we go where we go…”

Lanza later in the meeting also raised a couple of philosophical questions, such as what people really mean when they say they want to preserve town character, and why those who live in multifamily housing necessarily need to be in more commercial districts rather than those with trees, lawns, and gardens. Such questions will no doubt reemerge as the town launches a new housing study in an effort to think more strategically about the town’s housing needs.

Following Lanza’s questions to Sheen about pricing, Ulfelder doubled down on the topic. After some back and forth, Sheen said 2-bedroom units might be about $2M, affordable units around $300K, and workforce units somewhere in between a possibility based on further discussions. Interest rates and more would factor into the actual market rate and other pricing based on what happens over the next couple of years, he said. “The pricing is all driven by the market, we’re all subject to that. We don’t have a magic wand to say this unit is priced low or high,” Sheen said, adding that comparisons between the pricing for units in this proposed development vs. those expected to open this year on Linden Street and Weston Road isn’t that simple.

Ulfelder expressed frustration with the entire process leading up to last week’s meeting and 40R request. “I think what you did is you had a particular project and design in mind and you engaged with some members of the community to tell them why they should agree with that project,” he said. “That’s very different from what I would like to have seen, which is to engage with the community to determine whether there was a mutually agreeable project of some design that could have gone on this particular land.” Ulfelder said the community didn’t begrudge the developer wanting to deliver an economically feasible project, but did take exception to an “excessive drive toward high profitability.”

Select Board member Lise Olney acknowledged some of the changes that the developers made to their proposal over time in response to local government and community input. But she said “40Rs is really intended to create a pathway for a special project that substantially advances the town’s priorities as we saw with Wellesley Office Park, and given the downsides of this project… I just don’t think it meets that same threshold.” Olney added that she was hoping to have had a formal Planning Board recommendation in hand by then

(The Planning Board met with the developers in November during a public meeting, and at that time, some members of the Board supported the plan, and others had remaining questions.)

In acknowledging “this parcel will not remain as it is,” Collette Aufranc said the 489 Worcester St., proposal does check off a few of her boxes for ideal multifamily housing, including inclusionary (affordable) housing and being transit-oriented. But it’s more of a downsizing option for the very wealthy and doesn’t currently include workforce housing, she said. Aufranc also had outstanding questions about infrastructure and environmental issues.

The project raised the broader question of when the Select Board should engage in 40Rs, Aufranc said, as this zoning method does offer pros and cons for the town. In this case, without a 40R in place, alternative uses of the land could well involve more tree removal and blasting, she acknowledged.

Beth Sullivan Woods said “This board has done a lot of work on housing…” and gotten to the point where at least the state believes it has enough affordable housing. Wellesley’s emerging MBTA Communities plan, which Town Meeting will get a crack at this spring, focuses on density in commercial districts, she said. Woods said she appreciated the developer’s efforts to solve traffic and other issues, but still wasn’t convinced this single-family neighborhood was the right place for such housing density.

During the MBTA Communities planning, the town “determined that density belongs in those areas right now that are commercially zoned. For me, this project does not meet the criteria, it’s not smart growth for me,” she said.

The Select Board won’t get much of breather from controversial development proposals in residential neighborhoods. Up next is the proposed assisted living and memory care facility at 200 Pond Rd., which would be located in Natick, but requires Wellesley’s zoning approval to provide access via a driveway in Wellesley. That’s on the Tuesday, Jan. 16 Select Board agenda.

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