Mugar site, Google EarthMugar: Most of it is the triangular tract west of
Thorndike Field. / Google Earth

Officials object; land trust expresses disappointment

UPDATED, March 26: The long-dormant Mugar site along Route 2, once considered for a Star Market, and since 2000 protected by Town Meeting votes, is awakening from slumber.

Board of Selectmen logo, Jan. 23, 2013

Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine told selectmen Monday, March 23, that Oaktree Development of Cambridge plans 219 units on seven of its 17 acres with conservation protection for the rest of the tract.

The 40B project would have to be considered by the town's zoning Board of Appeals, not the Redevelopment Board.

Chapdelaine said he expressed "serious concerns" about flooding in a meeting with Oaktree representatives, as did Planning Director Carol Kowalski, contacted the next day.

The president of the Arlington Land Trust, a group that had negotiated unsuccessfully with the Mugar family to protect the land for conservation, expressed disappointment.

Gwendolen G. Noyes, an Oaktree founder and senior vice president of marketing, said March 24 that before the company presents plans, its civil engineer is working on water issues. Knowing the "history and acrimony" over the site, she noted three primary benefits of the company's plan:

-- Fix drainage issues that cause flooding, problems she called "solvable";

-- Making more than 10 acres open space, which she called "a big thing"; and

-- Adding 55 affordable-housing units.

She said Oaktree was talking with the state about direct access to the homes from Route 2.

Oaktree lists the project, called Thorndike Place, on the company website here >> 

Across Route 2, at Belmont Uplands

The triangular parcel is between Route 2, Thorndike Field and such neighborhood streets as Dorothy Road. It is not far from the Minuteman Bikeway, the Alewife MBTA station and the Alewife Reservation, which has been the subject of years of protests. Recently, a permit was approved for the long-stalled Belmont Uplands project.

The proposal, which Chapdelaine said includes 12 townhomes, would have more units than Arlington 360, at the site of the former Symmes Hospital, with 176, Alta Brigham Square, with 116.

Chapter 40B of state law permits developers to bypass local zoning regulation if 25 percent of units are set aside for affordable housing, as Noyes said would the case here.

In a follow-up March 24, Chapdelaine said 40B could make the project difficult to stop, despite town objections.
He said town officials have ways to oppose the proposal, but 40B does allow developers routes around local strictures.

Kowalski said Oaktree had discussion with the town about five years ago, but the town did not express interest in developing the site. She said the town suggested Oaktree consider another site in Arlington, but nothing came of that.

Asked whether town officials made the feelings known March 23 about flooding issues, she said that they did "in no uncertain terms."

Noyes called the meeting "very civil."

Master plan

Arlington's recently approved master plan has this say about the Mugar site

"[It] is the last large, privately owned tract of vacant land in Arlington ... Arlington has been concerned about the Mugar land for many years.

"In 2000, Town Meeting approved funding to purchase the land, but local officials could not reach agreement with the owners, who have proposed several unsuccessful development concepts for the site. The Mugar property has been altered and filled, but a substantial part of the site is wetlands and susceptible to flooding. Recent changes to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) floodplain maps could have an impact on the property’s development potential."

Asked when Oaktree might take its case to the ZBA, Kowalski said, "They are not going to delay."

Noyes was asked the same question and said she did not know when it would be.

The zoning designation for the Mugar site is planned unit development.

She said the Mugars brought in Oaktree into the process "to find a good resolution" to using the property.

Told the town had voted in favor of the Community Preservation Act last November and could use some of the funds protect the land, Noyes said that instead of the town spending millions to buy the property and more to improve it, Oaktree proposes developing the land and protecting 10 acres.

"Mugars paid taxes on it all these years," she said.

Selectmen Chairman Steve Byrne said he thought the issue would be put on the board's agenda "soon." 

Land Trust reports, president responds

The land trust reported in an alert to members March 24 that vehicle access to the site appears to be from Littlejohn Street and Dorothy Road, and from Edith and Burch Streets.

The trust alert says the site lies almost entirely in the 100-year flood plain, is subject to regular and significant flooding and is a critical stormwater buffer for the surrounding and downstream neighborhoods of East Arlington.

A plan of the proposal appears on the developer's website >> 

Responding to questions from YourArlington about earlier attempts to buy the land, Jen Ryan, president on the land trust, wrote March 26:

"During 2000 and 2001, when another development was proposed for the site, Town Meeting instructed the Board of Selectmen and Arlington Land Trust to negotiate with the Mugars 'to acquire by gift or purchase that parcel of property known as the Mugar Site or any interest therein that preserves the conservation, recreational and open space use of the property.'

"The selectmen also invited the Trust for Public Land to assist in negotiation.

"Discussions took place with representatives of the Mugar family, but there was no serious interest in selling the parcel. That development proposal was subsequently withdrawn.

"In the years since, ALT board members have reached out to Mugar management from time to time with little or no response. We are disappointed that the Mugars would pursue another development without reopening a discussion with the town and ALT about conservation options.

"We are certainly supportive of affordable housing. Our position -- consistent with the town -- is that this site isn't suitable for development of any kind and that the best use for the site is conservation."

Infrastructure questions

Chapdelaine was asked March 24:

-- Is our town water/sewer infrastructure prepared to handle 219 units on seven acres, and

-- What would such a development cost the town in future maintenance?

He responded the next day: "Good questions. These are among the issues that we will be analyzing and evaluating as discussions regarding this project move forward.

"At this point, a definitive figure cannot be attached to questions of infrastructure, but it is certainly safe to say that are potential cost impacts to the town that would result from the implementation of such a development."

This report was published Tuesday, March 24, 2015, and updated March 26 with comment from the Arlington Land Trust president.