The Natick Planning Board held a public hearing this past week regarding the retail-and-maybe-residential development project at 1 South Main St., where ground-level work has finally begun on the site of a 2019 fire that razed a handful of businesses. Cambridge Realty and its partners earlier got town approval for a two-story building with 10 retail units, but now seek the Board’s blessing to modify the special permit issued to add a third floor for 6 apartments.
It’s the first time we’ve seen the team behind “The Block” at a town meeting recorded and posted by Natick Pegasus since last December (they did take part in an online Design Review Board meeting earlier this month, too, in which the DRB was good with the increased height, less certain of the colors and facade on West Central St.). The Block is really back: It even posted a project progress photo on its Instagram account, which has been dormant for 2-plus years.
The tone of the Nov. 8 meeting was supportive. Several Planning Board members voiced their hope for the project to get done if conditions are met and lingering questions get addressed.
“I want you to make sure that in spirit the Planning Board is completely behind you,” and has earlier been supportive of a 3rd floor, said Planning Board Chair Glen Glater. “…We want to work with you to get to the right place. We need to do that within the bylaws of the town. We need to do that within what’s reasonable and feasible. Nobody is against you in this at all…”
While the project team would like to have the option of adding a third floor if they find it would be economically feasible based on whatever conditions the town would put in place, Cambridge Realty’s Stuart Rothman vowed that they have every intention of completing at least the 2-story building and its courtyard if not. The developer’s concerns had to do with whether it would still be allowed to go forth with the 2-story plan under the original special permit even if different conditions, such as placement of a water feed line, are laid out in a modified one.
Rothman numerous times made reference to the differences between orders of condition in the original permit and those raised by the engineering department and others for a possibly modified plan as being “de minimis” (I confess to almost writing that as a single word). In fact, he used that Latin term a handful of times—a point that a Board member picked up on and that a neighboring property owner cited when making clear his displeasure with the possible revised plan. That property owner pointed to the proposed significant increase in structure size from 10,670 sq. ft. to 17,500 sq. ft., including a roof deck for use by residential and retail tenants.
Questions were raised during the hearing about whether parking requirements might change based on the introduction of residential units, and that led to broader discussion on Natick’s parking challenges as more housing is built downtown under the MBTA Communities plan and via other development efforts. The possibility of introducing permitted overnight parking for residents downtown was raised, though in a way that wouldn’t harm downtown businesses. Rothman said The Block plan would be to market the apartments to train users and those without vehicles, though that could be a tough sell given the commuter rail’s limitations.
When asked about where things stand on the project, Rothman said the team has its construction documents and mechanical/electrical/plumbing plan ready for a 2-story structure, and would need 2-3 months to ready updated documents if a 3-story project were to get the go-ahead. “We are busy for the next several months with the site work,” Rothman said, adding there may be a pause due to a shift to a 3rd floor, but also because getting electrical switching materials has proven challenging.
Regardless of the town’s decision about the 3rd story or the developer’s economic analysis of going through with it, Rothman stated: “We are committed to doing the 2 stories and that is going to get done, and I don’t want anybody to leave thinking [the] third story is a requirement for this project to get done. This 2-story project is gonna get done and it will be available by 2025.”
The public hearing on the project has been continued to the Planning Board’s Nov. 29 meeting.