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Latest plan for Wenham mansion: elder housing

James Mullen

A rear view of Penguin Hall, an Essex Street estate in Wenham being considered for development.

WENHAM - At various times throughout its 83-year existence, Penguin Hall has served as a private residence, a novitiate for the Archdiocese of Boston, a corporate training center, home to an insurance agency, and - most recently - the offices of Mullen Advertising. But the stately mansion has been vacant since 2009, when the advertising agency moved to downtown Boston.

The building got its name from the two bronze penguins that stand sentry at the property’s courtyard. They were a gift from Admiral Richard Byrd, the famed Antarctic explorer who was a friend of the property’s original owner, Ruby Boyer Miller.

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Now, if ad company founder James Mullen, who has owned the property since 1987, and his partners are able to fulfill their latest business goal, the 50 acres on Essex Street in Wenham will become home to up to 238 age-restricted condominiums.

The project could bring as much as $1.5 million annually in property taxes, according to town officials, in a community where the average single-family homeowner pays nearly $9,500.

A public hearing on the development has been scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Town Hall.

“I’m aware that the elder community is growing by about 6 to 8 percent a year,’’ said Mullen, who lives in Manchester-by-the-Sea. “There have been few if any of these retirement homes built in the last three years. So there’s going to be a significant demand.’’

The plans have progressed, in fits and starts, over the last three years.

The economic meltdown delayed the project, as it did to many other real estate proposals in recent years. But that also allowed Mullen and Chris Wise, the developer, to fine-tune their plans. The project has been through several iterations, including a continuing-care retirement community in its earliest stages, to its current state: independent condominium living for those age 55 and older.

Wise has built six similar properties on Cape Cod under his corporate banner, Wise Living, and is planning a seventh.

“I build independent living and believe in equity choice and control, and believe in weaving the resources within the community into our properties,’’ Wise said. “In my experience, 70, 80 percent of our residents have lived within a 5-mile radius for more than 20 years. So, all of the fabric they’re used to within their community stays and gets integrated into the property.’’

The fate of the Wenham project lies with a May 5 Town Meeting vote. Because of the density of the project, it would require residents to approve zoning changes to create an independent living overlay district. The builders also would need a special permit.

Wise said the project’s first phase calls for 150 units to be built in the main complex surrounding Penguin Hall. The average size of the condos would be 1,400 square feet, but some would be as small as 800 square feet, and some as large as 1,800 square feet, he said.

Prices would start at $350,000 and go up to $700,000 to $800,000, depending on the size, he said. If there is sufficient demand, the second phase would add 88 units in clusters that the developers are calling manor houses.

“This is a project that has about three years of history on it, and has been discussed in certain variations on a theme,’’ said Town Administrator Jeff Chelgren, who is leaving Wenham next month to become town administrator in Marblehead. “So the public is very well aware of it, and generally we feel that the public is very supportive of it.

“It’s one of those beautiful estate properties that everybody just loves. Jim has been a great steward of the property, and we have great faith in what Jim brings forward.’’

Age-restricted projects are often coveted because they bring in property-tax revenues while involving limited demand for municipal services, specifically schools, since their residents typically don’t have school-age children.

Molly Martins, who chairs the Wenham Board of Selectmen, said that a rough estimate of tax revenue from the project is about $1.5 million annually.

After a meeting Tuesday that involved the Planning Board, Board of Selectmen, and developers, Martins said town officials and residents will not close their eyes to the potential pitfalls.

“There are definitely going to be questions at Town Meeting,’’ she said.

Martins said town officials will need to further assess how the complex would affect traffic (the developer has commissioned a report), and police, fire, and ambulance calls.

“This is a wonderful project for the town,’’ she said. “At the same time, the town is taking seriously the impact on town services and stretched resources.’’

The project also could benefit the town’s effort to reach the state-mandated 10 percent threshold for affordable housing in its residential stock; the figure provides local officials with greater control over Chapter 40B developments.

According to the state Department of Housing and Community Development, 8.3 percent of Wenham’s housing stock met affordable standards as of last June.

Martins said the developer has agreed to designate 10 percent (24 units) of the Penguin Hall units as affordable, to be offered to income-eligible buyers for about $200,000, or made available as rental property. However, the developers have indicated they prefer the option offered by the Planning Board to sell all of the Penguin Hall units at market rates, and build the equivalent of 15 percent of the proposed total 238 units - 36 - as affordable housing at another location in town.

To prove the viability of the concept, Mullen and Wise, with the town’s encouragement, have begun accepting $1,000 refundable deposits on units. The goal is to receive 100 deposits before the Town Meeting vote. As of last week, they had received 47 deposits.

Harriet Davis, a former member of the Board of Selectmen, called the proposed project “a fine idea on the face of it,’’ but sees some significant hurdles.

“This is not a done deal,’’ she said. “I think it’s going to be a bit of a sell for Town Meeting.’’

In addition to concerns about the pressure on town services, Davis said, finding a location in Wenham for a 36-unit affordable housing project would be a challenge.

She also noted that the town has had difficulty marketing affordable housing units.

“People are not pounding down Route 1A for affordable housing,’’ Davis said.

“The taxes are too high, and I’m not sure they view it as the right milieu,’’ she said.

Globe correspondent David Rattigan contributed to this report. Maureen Mullen may be reached at mullen_maureen@ yahoo.com.
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