Wellington air rights ready for launch

An MBTA Orange Line train arrives at Wellington station. As demand for housing and life sciences space grows, Medford officials are tapping into a potential development site long overlooked.

A looming $8 million budget shortfall has been a wake-up call for Medford officials about the need to broaden the tax base through real estate development.

City officials are exploring long-neglected opportunities to expand the business base, starting with air rights development rights to 28 acres at the MBTA’s Wellington Station. The city will issue a request for information to private developers at the end of the summer.

Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn said the city will seek projects with a large housing component, as well as retail and other commercial space.

“It could almost be a small town in itself. We certainly want to play a role when it comes to the affordable housing crisis,” she said. “We see it as a destination where no one even needs a car to get around.”

Elected in 2019, Lungo-Koehn said Medford was trying to shed its reputation as a tough place to do business for property developers. The administration is negotiating with developers for three long-running apartment projects that would total more than 1,000 units. City hall departments that oversee planning, housing production and economic development have been brought together to improve communication channels. And a pending master plan could lead to the first citywide rezoning since the 1960s.

The search for additional property tax revenue comes amid a heated budget debate between Lungo-Koehn and the city council’s progressive majority elected in 2021. The mayor offered a $3 million 2½ million waiver in November , while advisers argued for a $12 million increase. .

Station Landing, a public transport pioneer

Medford has held the air rights to Wellington Station property since the 1970s, under legislation sponsored by former mayor and state representative John McGlynn. No projects were ever completed on the air rights section, but the over one million square foot mixed-use development of Station Landing was built from 2006-2020 by National Development on 16 acres just outside east of the MBTA station, connected to public transit by a long covered pedestrian bridge.

A preliminary planning document says the city will offer a “priority development site” spanning nearly 11 acres of parking lots on the east side of the MBTA lanes near the Malden River, and another 17-acre site above. above the railway maintenance and storage facility.

The development of air rights in Wellington would be the most dramatic example ever offered to implement the goals of Massachusetts’ Housing Choice Act, which requires MBTA communities to allow multi-family zoning near transit stops.

“It’s a complicated site,” said Sarah Barnat, multifamily developer and former executive director of the Urban Land Institute in Boston/New England. “But the MBTA has a limited amount of land around transit, so it’s really up to cities and towns to concentrate around transit nodes and get denser proportionately.”

Medford officials are seeking proposals for a 28-acre air rights development site that covers both car parks and the train storage yard at the MBTA’s Wellington Orange Line station. Photo by Steve Adams | Banking and merchant staff

Active Yard Offers Challenges

City officials have not released details on the amount of potential development sought for the property.

Developer John Preotle has seen several waves of economic and real estate cycles wash over the Wellington region as lead developer of the River’s Edge project, which includes a 230,000 square foot office building and two apartment complexes totaling 504 completed units over the past decade. at the Malden River.

Preotle said the 10-acre parking lot is the most desirable part of the MBTA property. The 18-acre west parcel includes active MBTA repair, maintenance and storage facilities, complicating construction schedules and increasing project costs.

“You can build a lot on 10 acres if it makes economic sense,” Preotle said. “Can you take the air rights [on the west parcel] and transfer them and build more on the other side? I don’t know those answers, and maybe they’re still figuring it out.

The MBTA did not return a request for comment. Lungo-Koehn said agency staff objected to some elements of the RFI, without naming details, and the two sides remained at odds on some details. The project would require close coordination to avoid disruption to MBTA operations, such as lane closures associated with a pair of Massachusetts Turnpike air-rights projects in the Fenway and Back Bay.

“We don’t think [the MBTA response] is enough, so we’re moving forward with a full RFI and seeing what interest there is, with the T and the public, to find the best use of this location,” Lungo-Koehn said.

Trade corridors could be rezoned

Development opportunities in Medford have been limited by outdated zoning codes, which require developers to obtain variances or zoning changes for in-demand uses such as life sciences and housing. A full plan will be released this summer, potentially leading to the first citywide rezoning since the 1960s.

Cambridge Agency-based consultants Landscape + Planning will publish the draft plan this month, including recommendations for the rezoning of Mystic Valley Parkway and Mystic Avenue. Both corridors are occupied by low-density commercial and industrial uses, but have been in demand by multi-family housing developers in recent years.

RISE Together recently won approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals for a lab building near Wellington Circle. Image courtesy of Cube3 Architects

More recently, the life sciences are beginning to make inroads. Boston-based RISE Together this month received approval from the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals to demolish the Bertucci restaurant at 4054 Mystic Valley Parkway for an 8-story, 250,000-square-foot life sciences building .

In the Hillside neighborhood near Tufts University, Cummings Properties and Elizabeth Grady Properties are proposing to rezone 200 and 222 Boston Ave. for additional offices and life science spaces.

New contacts for promoters at City Hall

After defeating incumbent Mayor Stephanie Muccini Burke in 2019, Lungo-Koehn revamped the city departments most closely tied to development and land use. Changes included the creation of a new planning, development and sustainability office, and the hiring of the city’s first director of economic development, Viktor Schrader, in 2021.

“One of the reasons I ran was that our business tax base was steadily shrinking, and the only things actually built were luxury housing and I saw a big problem there,” said Lungo-Koehn, a former city ​​councillor.

Negotiations with three developers could accelerate housing production. Over 1,000 units are offered under Chapter 40B, the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Act. But the ZBA invoked a “safe harbor” provision in 2020, arguing that the city has met the minimum 1.5% area dedicated to affordable housing and no longer needs to consider proposals under the law.

This decision is currently being reviewed by the Massachusetts Court of Housing Appeals. In the meantime, the administration has negotiated with the three developers changes to their proposals that could move them forward, Lungo-Koehn said. Projects include the redevelopment of a self-service storage facility on the Fellsway by The Davis Cos., a former MassDOT sign on Mystic Avenue by Combined Properties, and a property occupied by Gold’s Gym on Mystic Valley Parkway by Mill Creek Residential.

Steve Adams

Mill Creek Residential recently reduced its proposal from 400 to 350 units, redesigned the facade and added ground-floor retail, prompting the ZBA to resume its review of the project.

Schrader, who previously served as economic development manager for suburban Chicago, said officials also want to make it easier for small multi-family development companies in Medford to build neighborhood-scale projects and give them more guidance in the authorization process.

“We’re very active and we want people to know that’s the case,” he said.

City Council Vice President Zac Bears, who has been a strong advocate for the extra spending, said it was a step in the right direction.

“It’s been helpful to work with specific people like RISE Together, but there’s not much one person can do to have these conversations. While it’s an improvement, it’s still a bottleneck,” he said.