New England looks to naval base conversion

After lagging behind much of the nation for a dozen years, New England is finally starting to show strong interest in traditional neighborhood developments (TNDs), town centers, new urban brownfield developments, and transit-oriented communities.

The biggest new urban proposal now making its way through the approval process in New England calls for developing a community for several thousand residents on the 1,386 acres formerly occupied by the South Weymouth Naval Air Station, 16 miles south of downtown Boston.

LNR Property Corp. is seeking authorization from several government entities so that the company can develop 2,855 housing units and up to two million square feet of commercial, biotech, and retail space at the closed military base, which stretches across parts of three towns. South Shore Tri-Town Development Corp., the public agency overseeing the base conversion, selected LNR as master developer in late 2002, but the project has since suffered delays because of concern about how many schoolchildren there may be, how much traffic the development would generate, and other matters. “That’s a big, big piece of land with a lot of potential, but it’s a classic case of the surrounding communities, Weymouth, Rockland, and Abington, not wanting anything done on it,” Boston Globe reporter Anthony Flint told New Urban News. “They’d like it to be one big park.”

The CNU New England Chapter, which officially formed last August, sent Providence, Rhode Island, architect Bill Dennis to a “peer review” meeting in January to help improve the new urban elements of the plan. LNR and its master planner, San Francisco-based SMWM, accepted some of the suggestions, Dennis told a New England New Urbanism conference April 1 in Boston. The street layout has been changed to a more varied and “cranky” network of streets, like those typically found in New England towns, Dennis said. The project’s planners have struggled to find an effective layout for South Weymouth’s “village center,” which the LNR website says is “designed to capture a Main Street experience.”

Strong example

The peer review praised the overall project as “a strong example of redevelopment planning based on smart growth goals, such as a mixture of uses, concentrated development, preservation of open space, and encouragement of walking and biking.” The review recommended adding an “on-site transit system” aimed at cutting automotive trips within the site by 50 percent. It also suggested “better integrating the proposed housing, employment, and transportation system (including pedestrian and bicycle connections)” with the neighborhoods that already surround the base.

Although the plan is becoming increasingly refined, the built result “could be good or it could be bad; it depends on how it’s brought into three dimensions,” Dennis said. Darlene Gallant, a planner for Daylor Consulting Group in Braintree, Mass., said a committee that includes her firm has written “a hybrid form-based code” for the development. The code, now awaiting adoption by the towns, would strongly shape development in some areas, but would leave others free of form-based regulations. Construction is expected to take 12 years.

The Navy, impatient at the slow-moving public approval process, has threatened to dispose of the site through an auction if an agreement has not been made final by mid-summer. Nonetheless, Jeremy Crockford, spokesperson for LNR, said, “We’re confident that we can do the project. There’s widespread agreement that this is a good plan.” Tri-Town has said that roughly two-thirds of the site will be dedicated to recreation and open space. Shuttles would connect the village center to a commuter rail station.

Another project being watched by CNU New England is South Village, a low-density, 334-unit TND proposed in South Burlington, Vermont. The developer, Retrovest Companies, hired Looney Ricks Kiss to design the community with varied housing, including cottages, larger detached houses, townhouses, and apartments. Some locations may have a conventional home in front and a barn-like home in back, said Rick Chellman of TND Engineering, who worked on the street system.

More than 100 of the development’s 226 acres would remain as open space, including a “sustainable” farm that the Intervale Foundation of Burlington would establish and manage on 35 acres. The farm would supply fresh produce to buyers in the Burlington area and would include a nursery growing plants indigenous to the region. The Gailer School, a private secondary school in Shelburne, is expected to move into the first of South Village’s three neighborhoods, which will have a community building (perhaps attached to the school), a green, and about 156 housing units. A density bonus from the city allowed the developer to add 66 units of “workforce” and affordable housing.

A “Stormwater Treatment Train” would collect runoff in ecologically designed swales and send it through native grasslands, woodlands, and wetlands for natural purification. Retrovest hopes that all the needed government approvals will be in hand this fall, allowing construction to begin in late 2006. For more information, see www.southvillage.com.

Other New England projects include:

• Redevelopment of a 55-acre former wire mill complex in Redding, Connecticut, as a $300 million mixed-use project. Steve Soler, president of Georgetown Land Development Co., says his company hopes to get a permit for the project’s waste water system in June, allowing construction to begin this summer. He anticipates applying for $200 million of tax-exempt “green bonds,” available to projects with exemplary environmental and energy performance. The project includes 416 housing units and 350,000 square feet of commercial space.

• Blue Back Square, a $170 million mixed-use development planned by Street-Works LLC. The project would double the size of Connecticut’s West Hartford Center. A court recently dismissed opponents’ lawsuits. Unless a citizens’ group succeeds in forcing a referendum on the town’s agreement with the developers, construction is expected to begin this summer, finishing in 2007.

• Storrs Center, a town center to be built next to the University of Connecticut main campus in Storrs. “We’re working on a zoning ordinance and a special design district,” said Macon Toledano of Leyland Alliance in Tuxedo, New York, the developer. The nonprofit Mansfield Downtown Partnership is now working to line up financing for $20 million of road improvements and structured parking, the public portion of the $165 million project.

• Mashpee Commons in Mashpee, Massachusetts. In the past several months, 24 additional apartments were built above ground-floor stores; 7,000 square feet of office space were constructed atop other stores; and three live-work units were completed, bringing the number of housing units in the shopping center to 40. Vice President John Renz hopes to start construction of seven more live-work units this fall.

• Madison Landing, a 42-acre, 127-unit project that Leyland Alliance expects to start in Madison, Connecticut. The project is awaiting approval, anticipated this fall, for a community waste water system. u