It was clear early on during the Natick Select Board’s March 8 discussion (see Natick Pegasus recording about 20 minutes in) about proposals to develop 5 Auburn St., that a decision would not be made that night after several Board members said they needed more time to digest “late breaking” information in the form of answers to their questions from legal counsel. But a proposal selection could be made on March 15, when the Board will mainly focus its meeting on this topic.
The Board needs to make a decision regarding the current proposals by April 12, but it also could not make a call and issue another request for proposals.
Board Chair Paul Joseph acknowledged at the start of the nearly hour-long discussion that the Board had been receiving on a daily basis more emails than it got during the South Natick Dam drama last year. More than 100 emails had been received in the past week, both from supporters of using the 2.8-acre 5 Auburn St. to allow for more affordable housing and from neighbors who fear that a big development at the site of a now-vacant school building would result in traffic, parking, and other unwelcome changes to this neighborhood “rich in historic charm” (Disclosure: We don’t live far from there, and in fact received a letter this weekend encouraging neighbors to reach out to the Select Board in support of the least intense development).
The Board since fall has been mulling 4 proposals to develop the property, and has conducted in-depth interviews in recent weeks with the applicants.
Fall Annual Town Meeting voted in 2021 to authorize the Select Board to sell or otherwise transfer (“dispose of”) the property at 5 Auburn St., which as we heard during Auburn Street RFP Committee meetings might look nice on the outside but needs lots of work inside to make it usable for most purposes (including Americans with Disability Act compliance). It hasn’t been free for the town to maintain the building. The proposal selection criteria for the Select Board does include the extent to which a proposal preserves the existing structure and the open space along Eliot Street.
Changes to the property, which sits on a dead-end road less than a half mile from the South Natick Dam park, would mark another big transition in this part of town in light of the Select Board’s decision to remove the spillway (aka, waterfall).
During the March 8 meeting, Board member Michael Hickey said he was “a little shellshocked” to hear that fellow members might not be ready to make a decision given the thorough process that has taken place to date. The RFP process reflected the community’s wants for the space, and the submissions largely responded to those, he said. “If anyone’s waiting around in the public or on this board or anywhere else for the perfect project that checks every possible box, it doesn’t exist,” he said, noting that an RFP process some dozen years ago generated no proposals.
Board member Bruce Evans said he was finding it very challenging to reconcile “two very important and almost diametrically opposed items”—what’s appropriate for abutters and the need for more affordable housing in town.
The town is in various approval stages with projects that would provide more affordable housing, such as Stonegate’s redevelopment of the St. Patrick’s property, but there’s a desire to go further.
Board member Kathryn Coughlin analyzed the potential for any of the projects to generate tax revenue that would support their residents or users. She also made site visits to both the neighborhood to see the current traffic backups for herself and to sites of projects from 1 of the applicants. Coughlin ticked off a list of deficiencies in each of the proposals, none of which are “slam dunks” to approve, though she said this wouldn’t preclude her from making a conclusion at the next meeting.
The 5 Auburn St. property presents a rare opportunity for the town to support affordable housing development at property it currently owns, said Ganesh Ramachandran, chair of the Natick Affordable Housing Trust Fund Board, in a separate phone interview. “They don’t make land anymore,” he said.
Some towns have proactively funded affordable housing units and Natick hasn’t really done that over the last 40 years, except for a couple on Bacon Street, Ramachandran said (the town has, however, made efforts to support private developments). While the Housing Trust Fund made its own proposal for 5 Auburn St., Ramachandran said he’d like to see the Board go with a Metro West Collaborative Development proposal for 30-plus rental units that the fund would contribute $600K to, and that the applicant could fund through a mix of federal, state, and other monies that it has shown skills at navigating and securing.
Some in town support more affordable housing wherever possible, regardless of possible negative impacts to current neighbors. The town has found itself in a crunch for affordable and low-income housing in part due to zoning restrictions that Natick is now reexamining, including along parts of Rte. 135 from the Framingham line and past Natick Center.
“The town has arrived at this point of lack of affordability not only because of economic factors, but also community factors, and so we are all sort of inheriting that reality right now,” Board Chair Joseph said. “This board’s going to make the best decision given the information and the process we’ve gone through…”