Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Temple Shalom and Tucker Village Proposal – Home Stretch

In less than a week, the Special Town Meeting will take up the zoning overlay article submitted by the Planning Board to permit development of a small commercial center on the Temple property.

One of the arguments offered by opponents states that a commercial development anywhere outside of the current commercial zones will ruin Milton. We will suddenly resemble Randolph, or Braintree, or Quincy. Even as hyperbole, this would be a stretch.

Many Milton residents have expressed their growing frustration with the increasing burden home owners bear for just maintaining the services we enjoy today. I receive many emails from them every override year stating their adamant opposition to any overrides until the town begins a serious attempt to increase commercial revenue.

Milton has one of the lowest shares of real estate value from commercial real estate of any sizeable community in the state. Since 1982, the commercial share of real estate has fallen from 8.6% to 3.9%. The actual revenue from commercial property has declined from 6.2% of total in 1986 to 5.9%. This is despite the fact that we adopted a split tax rate in the interim that taxes commercial property at a much higher rate than residential.

The town’s most recent zoning changes involved the Central Avenue business district, where we essentially re-zoned commercial property to largely residential. Milton is not in danger of rampant commercial development. If anything our profile more and more resembles a rural farming area, or one of the highest income suburbs in the country.

Contrary to the assertions of some, Milton residents have not rejected prudent commercial development. The town DPW Yard is cited as evidence of rejection. But that issue was disposed of by three Selectmen who chose to not even seek proposals on a no obligation basis. The town didn’t get to express its will. Town Meeting never debated or voted on it.

On the other hand, residents did get to express their views on commercial development via a survey conducted by the Planning Board. Almost 700 took part in the lengthy, detailed study.

Among the findings:

53.4% favored permitting businesses compatible with residential use in residential areas. Only 17% said no, the remainder said maybe.

56.6% favored establishing new business zones to expand commercial base, only 18% opposed, the remainder said maybe.

60% favored any new building in new business zones be controlled by the Planning Board under a special permit process.

67% agreed with establishing “neighborhood retail” zoning districts that didn’t have detrimental effects on neighbors.

Anyone wishing to claim this doesn’t represent the views of residents bears the responsibility to produce equally weighty evidence to the contrary. Merely saying “I know better” doesn’t qualify.

In a fallback position, opponents point out that the tax revenue from this project will not solve our fiscal problems, that it is not a “home run”. The logical conclusion of this line of argument is no commercial idea would ever be considered because there is no project that would solve our problems that would also be acceptable to the town. To continue the baseball analogy, we don’t need home runs, we need as many singles and doubles as we can string together. Not just commercial development. But wind turbine projects that will save the town millions. Citizens group efforts like the one that secured $ 500-$600,000 a year for payment in lieu of taxes. Securing grants for solar power to save money at the Council on Aging and the High School.

We need to do whatever we can to help residents, especially those who are struggling to remain in the town. A well designed project that offers numerous benefits to the town needs to be one of the many initiatives undertaken.

To my emailers who have long complained about the lack of commercial development, this is your opportunity. Email or call your Town Meeting Members and let them know your views. A list of all TMMs can be found here:

Other Issues

Much distracting and incorrect information has been circulated in the last week or so. The Milton Times made a serious reporting error that caused some to question whether the traffic issue at the development site could be managed. And opponents of the development delivered a DVD to Town Meeting Members that looks like it was produced a year ago at the very beginning of this process. It wasn’t, but that’s the point.

The Times erroneously reported a conflict between the Planning Boards peer review traffic expert, and the traffic expert hired by the developer. No such conflict exists. In fact, the peer review states:

“HSH has determined that, according to the information presented in the TIA and the response to comments letter, the roadway network possesses the necessary capacity to serve the development without unduly burdening the neighborhood transportation network.”

The opponents’ DVD merely restates all of the dire consequences they’ve been claiming since the very beginning of this process. Watching it you wouldn’t know that two separate traffic experts have concluded that no undue burden will result. You wouldn’t know that the Planning Board is requiring a property value analysis with possible design mitigation if needed. You wouldn’t know that a real estate expert hired by the Planning Board has found the current proposal, and a high density 40B rental housing development as the only possible projects that could obtain funding in this economy. You wouldn’t know that in fact the neighborhood is not opposed to the project, but is in fact split, with many supporting the amenities and neighborhood gathering place Tucker Village will provide.

The traffic study estimates that during the peak hour during the week, 162 additional trips will be made on Blue Hill Avenue, or 2.7 cars per minute. A fraction of this 2.7 cars will become cut through traffic, and this fraction will be spread over 10 or more streets.

We can expect the opponents to attack the Temple and its planning process at Town Meeting. They argue the Temple didn’t involve them early enough and that they didn’t consider all the alternatives. But the Temple’s first order of business was to find out what options made sense and get a consensus of its members. And all the alternatives were considered, including demolishing part of the current Temple, and renovating the remainder with proceeds from low density residential. This didn’t generate enough revenue to renovate the Temple and financing wasn’t unavailable. Also considered was a 40B rental project. This didn’t provide enough money and the extensive parking necessary for this type of development didn’t leave enough parking for the Temple.

But all of this is really no longer relevant. Town Meeting will recognize what the Planning Board recognized. We have a 4 acre lot of land that is in play. The status quo will no longer exist. Either Tucker Village will go forward, or the Temple will sell the land. The real estate expert’s report states that what can attract funding and a developer is a high density, 40B rental project. The Town needs to decide what is best for the Town, and the neighbors need to understand that the alternative will pose many of same issues as Tucker Village. So let’s compare the two likely options and the impacts

Impacts of Likely Uses of Temple Shalom Site

-----------------Tucker Village--------------------------------40B High Density Rental

Traffic-------some increase,high % existing traffic----------some increase, all additional

----------------traffic studies say manageable-------------------peak period AM/school start

----------------peer review of traffic study-----------------------no traffic studies

----------------mitigation funds available--------------------------no mitigation funds

----------------single entrance/exit Blue Hill Ave.--------------possible multiple, side streets

Home Value-------possible limited impact--------------------possible limited impact

-----------------------protection thru permitting proces----------no protection

-----------------------peer reviewed mitigation---------------------no mitigation

Crime---------------not a likely problem----------------------------not a likely problem

Appearance--------strong influence on design, appearance------------very limited control
----------------------materials via permitting process

---------------------preservation of natural features---------------------very limited control

Green Space----30% target of overlay article--------------unknown with very limited control

Buffers------------generous buffers in overlay article-----unknown with very limited control

Taxes--------------approximately $157,000-----------------slightly more, offset by costs to
------------------------------------------------------------town according to Warrant Comm

Benefits to the town----Preservation of Temple Shalom--------------Affordable housing

--------------------------Preservation of Campbell School-------------Minor net tax revenue

------------------------- Retail amenities for west Milton

-------------------------Neighborhood gathering place

-------------------------Jobs for Milton youth

-------------------------Walkable shopping area

-------------------------Infrastructure improvements

-------------------------Tax revenue

-------------------------Funded mitigation with peer review

Over a year’s worth of work by the Planning Board, along with expert reports that rebut the claims of catastrophic impact by opponents, the clear benefits to the town, and the expressed desire of Milton residents for prudent retail commercial development ought to sway Town Meeting members to support the overlay article sponsored by the Planning Board and supported by the Warrant Committee.