It didn’t look good for Stuart Rothman’s proposed pop-up hamlet at 1 South Main Street—the site where a fire burned down businesses in summer of 2019—following the Feb. 17 Natick Planning Board meeting. A 3-2 vote for the project wasn’t good enough for approval due to a special permit being involved, and a report after the meeting indicated Rothman had informed the town that he had had enough of the seemingly endless process.
But the Planning Board had kept an item about reviewing its decision about a site plan review and special permits on its March 3 agenda, and indeed Rothman and team returned to the virtual table. Unlike other parts of the hearing, this time it took minutes rather than hours to get things done.
Board member Peter Nottonson, who was among the two members voting against the decision at the prior meeting, said he had had a change of heart and made a motion to reconsider the previous vote. This time, the vote went 5-0, and the decision was approved.
Nottonson still believes the project has flaws, but he said that the developer made quite clear that he wasn’t going to accept further revision.
“If the present project is not accepted by the Planning Board, the site will likely remain empty for the foreseeable future. I want this critical site to have something, not nothing,” he said.
The 5,342 sq. ft. development is envisioned as consisting of modular 500 sq. ft. pop-up spaces for artists and other small business owners, with a courtyard nestled inside. Construction should start this year, but it’s unclear when it will be ready to open. Earlier plans for the site involved mixed use for residential and business tenants, but parking requirements put the kibosh on that.
In between the last Planning Board meeting and this one, town personnel, including Director of Community & Economic Development James Freas and Department of Public Works leaders, got to work addressing lingering concerns about the safety of sidewalks around where the development would rise. Indeed, sloping of some of the sidewalks was unacceptable by town standards, and the town has come up with a plan to remedy this as part of its upcoming construction season and in conjunction with the developer.
Before this hearing concluded, board members reflected on the process, and how things almost fell apart. Board member Andy Meyer says he can’t ever remember getting so many emails, texts, and phone calls from the public about a project, with one takeaway being that people felt the town was getting bullied by a developer who displayed strong emotions during meetings. Meyer chocked up the drama more to “justifiable frustration,” though said he hopes to see fewer displays in the future, and urged fellow board members to do a better job of communicating with one another in a transparent way.
“The board didn’t cave in because of pressure from the developer,” he said. “The board came to a good decision with the developer in a bumpy process. There’s a big difference.”