Five weeks after a Special Town Meeting authorized Wakefield to convey land for a joint municipal and private parking garage downtown as part of a proposed assisted-living facility development, an upcoming ballot vote could quash the deal.
A residents’ group seeking to overturn the Town Meeting action successfully petitioned for the town to hold a referendum, set for April 1, the same day as a special election to fill the vacant Fifth Middlesex state Senate seat.
Bob Mitchell, a spokesman for Stop Town Land Giveaway, said the group does not object to an assisted living facility, but believes the project as now proposed is too large for that section of the downtown.
“We’ve got this gem between the downtown and the lake and it still has this New England character to it, and they are going to drop this four- or five-level monstrosity on it,” he said. “It would literally overshadow the downtown and really change the character of it for eternity.”
The group also questions whether the deal is a good one for the town, both in terms of the parking benefits and the finances involved.
But town officials say the project would solve Wakefield’s decades-old need for more downtown parking without posing any burden on taxpayers, as all the town’s cost would be taken from the additional revenues the project would reap. They said the appearance and other details of the project would be addressed in permitting.
“I have every bit of confidence that the voters of Wakefield, once they understand the truth of the issue, will flock to the polls and vote in favor of this wonderful deal being served up on a silver platter to the town of Wakefield,” said Selectman Brian Falvey.
The plan calls for the town to convey an 18,000-square-foot parcel at 344 Main St. to Brightview Senior Living, a firm that seeks to build an assisted living facility on adjacent property now owned by Fraen Corp. The town land is part of a municipal parking area adjacent to two bank parking lots.
Wakefield and the banks would transfer their properties to Brightview under a larger arrangement in which the developer would construct a 198-space garage on the parking lots and other Fraen Corp. land for use by the town, the banks, and the assisted living facility.
In return, the town would allow Brightview to expand by 50 – from 90 to 140 – the number of units in the assisted living facility, to be located on Crescent Street to the rear of Main Street.
Through a 99-year lease and related easement, 75 of the garage spaces would be set aside for the town 24 hours a day. Another 48 spaces would be reserved for the banks, but the town could use them during off hours. The assisted living facility would be allotted the other 75 spaces.
The town would provide Brightview $105,000 annually for 20 years through tax relief, and $25,000 annually for the upkeep of its portion of the garage.
Town Meeting voted 148-32 in favor of the land transfer, and separately voted to authorize the lease and easement and to revise the assisted living district it adopted for the site in 2012. The referendum addresses only the land transfer.
An affiliate of the Shelter Group, Brightview has 27 facilities in eight states, including six in Massachusetts, offering independent and assisted living and Alzheimer’s care.
Brightview’s original plan called for 90 units with underground parking for the assisted living building. The firm shifted to the current plan after town officials proposed adding the shared garage.
Town officials say that the project would generate $3.7 million in new taxes over 20 years. Of that, $2.1 million would go to Brightview in the form of tax relief, for a net gain to the town of $1.6 million – not including $1 million the firm has committed to investing in one-time sewer, drainage, and other improvements.
But Mitchell said those calculations do not take into account the value of the parcel the town would be conveying, which he said is assessed at $413,000 and which might bring as much as $2 million on the market. Also not taken into account, he said, is $500,000 the town would spend on capital and maintenance over 20 years
“We are not generating the tax money even to offset the basic costs of having a building that size – just the infrastructure, police, fire. It’s a financial loss,” Mitchell said.
But Falvey said real estate professionals have said the town land has little value because it lacks frontage. And he said the capital and maintenance expenditures were a prudent investment by the town, and one that would be covered by the net tax revenues received from the development.
Mitchell said his group believes the town’s parking benefit would be minimal, taking into account the loss of the existing lot and Brightview’s need for more parking on Saturdays and other high-visitor times.
But Falvey said if properly laid out, the existing town parking would allow for only about 25 spaces. He said the town is gaining 75 spaces – with another 48 available during non-bank hours, including weekends.
Town Administrator Stephen P. Maio said he is also hopeful voters embrace a plan that has the unanimous support of selectmen, the Finance Committee, and 82 percent of those who voted at the Town Meeting.
“The fact that the town is able to partner . . . with the developer to increase parking in the downtown is an absolute home run,” Maio said.
Brian McGrail, an attorney representing Brightview, said the firm opposes the effort to rescind the Town Meeting vote.
“The town asked them to include the garage,” he said. “They spent time, money, and effort going in this direction and this is the direction they want to continue to go in. They think it is the best thing for them and the best thing for the town.” McGrail said that if the garage plan is defeated, the firm would return to its original plan to develop 90 units without a shared garage.
Selectmen are holding a forum on the plan March 24 at 7 p.m. at Wakefield Memorial High School.