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    The Hilltop cactus sticks with new development

    The Hilltop Steak House may be gone, but the giant cactus that for decades stood outside the iconic Route 1 restaurant will stay potted in place.

    The developer planning to turn the former restaurant into a housing and retail outpost told Saugus officials at a public meeting Tuesday night that the colorful 68-foot cactus sign would be incorporated into the new project.

    “It really is an important marker for the site. It really does represent the history of the site, and our intent is to keep it,” Michael Roberts, senior vice president of Boston development for developer AvalonBay Communities, said in an interview Wednesday.

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    The cactus likely needs new lighting and other renovations, Roberts said. It’s also unclear what the signage on the cactus will eventually read.

    But its survival represents another reprieve for a Route 1 landmark as the quirky commercial stretch of road undergoes a big face lift with several new planned developments. The large orange dinosaur at Route One Miniature Golf & Batting Cages, which was closed last fall, is also expected to be worked into a redevelopment of that property.

    AvalonBay Communities is proposing to keep the giant cactus sign for its new development at the former Hilltop Steak House  in Saugus.
    AvalonBay Communities
    AvalonBay Communities is proposing to keep the giant cactus sign for its new development at the former Hilltop Steak House in Saugus.

    There may not be a lifeboat for every icon, however. Developers recently proposed replacing The Ship Restaurant in Lynnfield, which resembles the vessel its name suggests, with retail buildings.

    AvalonBay, which is based in Virginia but has built apartment complexes around Boston, bought the former Hilltop site last year. It publicly unveiled plans for the site for the first time Tuesday.

    The company wants to build about 24,000 square feet of retail space near the front of the 14-acre site, and 280 residential units in separate buildings toward the back. Roberts said the retail space could fit between three and six retailers, depending on their sizes. The company hopes to find restaurant and coffee shop tenants, because they mix well with housing, Roberts said.

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    “We want to attract a good restaurant as an anchor, both as a nod to the history of the site but also as it relates to the compatibility of the residential and retail,” he said.

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    Tuesday’s presentation marked just the start of the public approval process for the project, and it will still need town approvals. The development does not yet have a name, Roberts said, though a conceptual rendering includes a sign that says “Avalon at Hilltop.” Roberts estimated it would cost about $90 million and employ 200 people in construction jobs and another 200 in permanent retail positions.

    Hilltop closed in 2013 and was demolished in 2015. Some other kitsch at the site — three cow statues — was salvaged and moved to the Market Street retail development in Lynnfield.

    The Hilltop Steakhouse on Route 1 closed in 2013.
    Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/File
    The Hilltop Steakhouse on Route 1 closed in 2013.

    Customers waited for tables at Hilltop Steakhouse in 1978.
    David Rogers/Globe Staff/File
    Customers waited for tables at Hilltop Steakhouse in 1978.

    Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.