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Coalition responds to Mugar site developer's plea

UPDATED, March 7: The following opinion was written by Gwendolen G. Noyes, founder and senior vice president of marketing for Oaktree Development, the company that seeks to build Thorndike Place on the Mugar site near Route 2 in East Arlington. Comments are welcome on this site (see comment window below). They may also be sent to Kimberly Conant, director of marketing at GreenStaxx, at kconant at Scroll down to see a response by the Coalition to Save the Mugar Wetlands.

Mugar site, Google Earth

Despite the Massachusetts Housing Court’s decision in favor of ‘Thorndike Place’ development under the Mass 40B 'safe-harbor' legislation, it was clear from the Zoning Board of Appeals hearing held Nov. 2, 2019, that public opposition to the proposed development of the 17-acre property in East Arlington has not diminished.

The 1.5-percent question was resolved by the court in favor of the property’s development. Pending the ongoing review process, Oaktree remains optimistic that a solution beneficial to the town and the property’s neighbors can be reached. Arlington’s deficit of affordable-housing units could be reduced by as many as 54 units!

Conservation land, housing

Oaktree has sought a respectful dialogue from the beginning with Arlington residents, one that could include the cooperative involvement of town boards and committees. With that, a positive outcome could be achieved through an environmentally responsible development of the property:

  1. a contribution of much-needed publicly accessible conservation land in Arlington along with the preservation of the wetlands, and
  2. the creation of much-needed housing that will be affordable to middle-income wage earners and retirees. This housing is so clearly needed to ensure that Arlington continues to thrive as a town. (Arlington Housing Production Plan, 2016).

We agree with the town’s citizens that the preservation of wetlands is paramount. Under the proposed plan, 11 acres of wetlands would be deeded to the town and preserved in perpetuity -- at zero cost. If the plan is approved, the wetland area would not only be preserved, its full potential as an environmental resource could be realized.

This could be conservation land with restored woodlands and tended paths running though it, and it could provide access to the Route 2 overpass and Cambridge Park/Alewife Office Park. In its current state, the property is tangled with invasive species, is inaccessible for recreation and strewn with trash and illegal dumping. It is a scary, even dangerous campground for the homeless. A cooperative effort between the town and developer should be launched and could vastly transform the area.

Flooding concern

In addition to the wetlands issue, there is the understandable concern raised by East Arlington residents that development of the property may worsen flooding in the neighborhood, currently a significant problem for the area. Our exceptionally qualified BSC civil engineer assures us that by paying strict attention to hydrological issues in accordance with the mandated U.S. FEMA Rules and Regulations regarding storm-water management regulations, whatever is to be built will cause no worsening of basement flooding conditions for those homes.

Compensatory storm-water storage measures, if needed, would be a part of a competently planned and designed site that will undergo extensive reviews by Arlington’s boards and peer reviewers. Development of the area will also bring attention to the state Department of Transportation’s role in needed maintenance of drainage systems relating to Route 2.

Oaktree Development has made sustainability a cornerstone of development during its 40-year history. We have worked on a number of environmentally challenging projects, including the completed Brookside Square in West Concord. Oaktree developed the mixed-use project (74 apartments and 36,000 square feet of commercial space) on a site with a brook that is subject to flooding.

Upon completion, Stephanie Cooper, the state Department of Environmental Protection chief of staff (and former assistant secretary to the state Office of Land & Forest Conservation), lauded the project as “a great example for other suburban and rural communities of how we can build much-needed housing for the 21st century in a way that benefits both economic development and the environment.”

219 units of housing

Besides gaining a tended conservation amenity, the other significant benefit to Arlington that the project would bring is creating 219 units of transit-oriented housing – with 25 percent of those units being affordable to middle-income households. Middle-income is defined as households earning 80 percent of the average median income (Arlington is $65,750 for a three-person household), meaning that teachers, firefighters and office workers would be able to live and work here.

According to the town’s own 2016 Housing Production Plan, Arlington needs to add several hundred additional units of housing by 2020 – this year! – to meet “the needs of an aging population, the town’s significant number of family households, smaller households and households earning a range of incomes.” [As noted by the state, there is still a significant deficit of registered affordable-housing units in Arlington. By 2020, according to the plan, demographic changes and projections suggest an additional 300-plus affordable units will be needed to meet demand.

As builders, we believe that housing is the only appropriate use for the developable portion of the site, something the town has previously considered. In 2009 and 2010, the town approached the owners with a plan that included housing on the site, and applied for a wetlands protection grant that would award funding for conservation of approximately 11 acres of the Mugar’s open space – with the town contributing $2.5 million toward the wetland purchase.

The town worked cooperatively with the Mugars to generate a plan that included construction of townhouses and apartments on the property. The award of wetland protection funding to Arlington did not come through, however, so the project was abandoned. Again, as stated, in the current proposal, the land not built upon – both wetland and upland – would be deeded to the town as conservation land, at no cost.

Earlier traffic study

An earlier-commissioned traffic study has determined that the proposed project “adds a barely perceptible increase to an already admittedly bad traffic condition”; there is an updating of the current and projected traffic situation that will be completed after the site-plan review.

In sum, there are a myriad of benefits that will be realized if the town and developers are willing to work cooperatively to create a true win-win for all concerned. And while many of the concerns of the people of Arlington are understandable, in the balance, those concerns will be mitigated, a publicly available conservation amenity will be created, and significant housing benefits will be realized.

We encourage anyone in Arlington to follow the project to receive updates and participate in constructive dialogue: Thorndike Place

Response from Coalition

On behalf of the Coalition to Save the Mugar Wetlands this statement is in response to Gwendolyn Noyes’ piece regarding Oaktree Development and the Mugar Property in East Arlington.

Many Arlington residents have attempted to create a dialogue with Oaktree Development regarding its planned construction on the Mugar wetlands. Oaktree has ignored those requests, as well as our rationale for protesting the development -- the same environmental and economic reasons that have successfully led to the preservation of wetlands throughout the country.

Oaktree’s end-run around of wetland laws by incorporating 40B housing into the development makes it clear that they have no interest in rational discussion about the myriad ways in which their construction, and subsequent destruction, of a critical environmental zone is a clear act against public interest.

2 arguments

Gwen Noyes makes two arguments in favor of a project that benefits the developers and harms our town. The first is that the project will create “much-needed publicly accessible conservation land ... along with the preservation of the wetlands.” Wetlands do their work by filtering water through layers of organic matter. They need to be undisturbed to work their best. As well, the wildlife we want to support does not benefit from conservation land being built on and used for recreation. Flora and fauna need places hidden from humans to flourish.

Noyes’ second argument is that affordable housing for “middle-income wage earners and retirees” is a town goal, one that will increase livability. We do support affordable housing in Arlington.

The financial impact of this project will likely negate the benefits that well-planned housing offers. Studies show that traffic (and therefore pollution and accidents) will increase, and flooding will increase. Noyes even offers that “Development of the area will also bring attention to the state Department of Transportation’s role in needed maintenance of drainage systems relating to Route 2,” ignoring that this development will greatly increase the costs of addressing drainage and stormwater management issues.

Noyes’ recommendations require substantial amelioration to make them feasible. This in itself is an indication of the economic, environmental and civic toll this project would place on Arlington. Oaktree is not interested in dialogue, they are interested in their finances. If Oaktree truly wants dialogue, let’s see Gwen Noyes come to the table to discuss creative options that do not damage our town.

Dec. 11, 2020: Protested Mugar property appeal opens; hearing extended to April

This viewpoint was published Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, and updated March 7, to include coalition's view.

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Kimberly Conant (website) on Thursday, 05 March 2020 18:03
Project Website

Thank you for posting the article. We would like to encourage any comments about the project on our website:
It's important to us to hear from residents, and to answer any questions you may have.

Thank you, Kimberky Conant, Oaktree Development

Thank you for posting the article. We would like to encourage any comments about the project on our website: It's important to us to hear from residents, and to answer any questions you may have. Thank you, Kimberky Conant, Oaktree Development
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