Update (3/21/23): The Select Board has added an item to its 3/22 agenda for “Reconsideration of 5 Auburn Street RFP Deliberation and Vote.”
In the latest emotional decision for the Natick Select Board, members voted 3-2 in favor of a plan by a non-profit developer to build 32 units of “deeply affordable rental housing for families” on a dead-end road in South Natick that abuts the Charles River. The former school property at 5 Auburn St., is owned by the town, which had no immediate use for it and was tired of paying for its upkeep (See Natick Pegasus recording of the nearly 4-hour March 15 meeting below.)
Affordable housing advocates in town urged the board to go with this plan for 5 Auburn St., from the Metro West Collaborative Development, which offered $100 for the property and will get a $600K infusion from the Natick Affordable Housing Trust to help bring the development to fruition. Select Board members Bruce Evans, Rich Sidney, and Kathryn Coughlin voted in favor of this plan after the board went proposal-by-proposal, criteria-by-criteria during the meeting to arrive at a decision.
Sidney said at 1 point during deliberations that “Based on everything I’ve seen about Metro West Collaborative, it can be done in a way that is not harmful, or exceedingly harmful, to the neighborhood. And that it will fit in the area.”
Those opposed to the plan, including abutters, fear this project will create traffic and parking problems (not that the former school there didn’t generate some of that). They favored a plan by Trask, which offered $2M for the property and proposed divvying the land into 3 lots—1 where the existing structure stands that includes 3 units in the main building and 2 in the gym, then 2 of which would house duplexes. Board members Paul Joseph and Michael Hickey voted for this plan.
Hickey in a rare presentation of prepared remarks, said he felt strongly that the board should make a decision at this point, and that the Trask pitch best met the criteria laid out by the town. The Metro West proposal would work better at another location, he said. “This is not about affordable housing, it’s about making a sound decision in the best interest of the town as a whole,” he said.
The board weighed 4 proposals on criteria set out in the request for proposals, which was issued last year. This criteria included quality and quantity of reference projects, proposed re-use of the property, and the ability to deliver on the plan.
Evans spoke in favor of the proposal by Metro West, which he said has shown a strong track record with past projects and relationships with key partners. Given the town’s lack of land on which to build, and the challenges involved in rezoning, he sees 5 Auburn St., as a unique opportunity for Natick. “We make a lot of noise as Select Board people and politicians about affordable housing and diversity, equity and inclusion. Well, if we’re really sincere about this and want to make it more than words on a sign running for Town Meeting or Select Board, we really need to walk the walk…,” he said.
In response to a question from Coughlin regarding the true number of affordable units in town, Town Administrator Jamie Errickson explained that while the town’s subsidized housing inventory (SHI) is measured at being around 1,500 units, the number of truly affordable units is closer to 800 due to the way SHI is calculated (units within some developments with affordable housing can all be counted as affordable for these purposes). Overall, about 5%-6% of the town’s housing units could be considered truly affordable.
Coughlin dug into town salary data to get a sense of how many town employees might qualify to live in the sort of affordable units a Metro West development would include, and found at least 1,000 in a handful of big departments who might fit. Both the town and local employers have cited the challenges of hiring people when they can’t afford to live in or near Natick.
Not that he had a vote, but when asked, Errickson said he would favor the Trask proposal, not that he didn’t see all 4 proposals having merits. The lack of nearby amenities and public transportation in South Natick would be a challenge he would want to see addressed as part of the Metro West plan (there is pizza, coffee, and sometimes ice cream in the small neighborhood center, but no grocery store, for example).
Board Chair Paul Joseph said the decision had been “weighing on me greatly,” balancing the concerns of neighbors vs. those of affordable housing advocates across town. He emphasized that adding affordable housing at 5 Auburn St., isn’t going to solve larger process and zoning issues in town that have brought us to this point. “My hope is coming through this process we’re all going to be redoubled in terms of our commitment to looking at the systemic challenges we have in Natick to doing the right thing.”
Next up for the board: Entering into a development agreement with the Metro West Collaborative.
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John Kaufman says
Kudos to the town select persons who voted for the affordable housing project in South Natick… it is about time housing projects with affordability in mind be built in all corners of Natick…