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Forever 128

Some stalled projects move forward, others stay mired

Green space in the suburbs is at a premium, and even Route 128 is hurtling toward the day when you won’t be able to squeeze one more car or truck into its traffic-jammed lanes.

But one thing we apparently will never run out of is stalled developments that spend years — sometimes decades — spinning their wheels.

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Yes, these are the grand projects with bold names that get endlessly debated and where a sign of progress is the award, after years of hearings and legal battles, of some arcane local permit. When it comes to actual construction — as in bulldozers, dump trucks, and workers in hard hats — work is always going to start next spring or fall or some other future date, but never now. Yet, we have seen some remarkable progress in the past year.

Long a hideous scar along Route 16 on the Wellesley-Newton line, the old Grossman’s site has been replaced with a handsome building with medical offices and retail space, and an upscale assisted-living complex, Waterstone at Wellesley.

On the Newton-Brookline border, New England Development is turning the once bedraggled Omni Foods site on Route 9 into Chestnut Hill Square.

And in Waltham, right alongside Route 128/Interstate 95, developer Sam Park has crews starting the hard work of blasting away rock and ledge on the old Polaroid campus to make way for an office and commercial project.

But for every project that moves forward, there are others stuck in limbo.

“When you are in the development business, you have to be very patient,” said Ted Tye, managing partner of National Development in Newton.

“It does take a long time to do even what should be the easiest and best projects around here,” he said.

The Grossman’s site is an example of this principle. The now-bustling property was home for roughly two decades to an empty and increasingly decrepit former Grossman’s lumber store and weed-infested parking lot.

The ramshackle display appeared destined to become a permanent Wellesley oddity, mired down by litigation, wary neighbors, and competing development claims, before National Development rode to the rescue in 2007.

“That site sat for almost 20 years,” Tye recalled. “People looked at us a little bit as a savior coming in to do something that was productive. That area is really a village, and there is nothing worse than having an empty, rotting building in the middle.”

Likewise, grand plans to build a mega hotel, office, and retail complex on the old Polaroid property looked doomed after a high-flying New York developer lost the project to foreclosure in the recession.

But then along came Boston-based developer Park, who won approval from Waltham officials for a slimmed-down version of the plan. He’s now in the middle of a monumental reengineering project that involves relocating power lines and blasting away ledge.

The jury is out on other long-delayed projects.

Wellesley Square has been stuck with a hole in the ground for years now, after a developer knocked down the old Wellesley Inn while pledging to replace it with $1 million-plus condos. It even had a nice, fancy name seemingly more appropriate for a downtown Boston condo tower than Wellesley: The Durant.

Then the real estate market collapsed. And the only thing to be built so far is a big white fence to help block the now rather un-Wellesley-like view.

But with the permit set to run out early this year, a new investor has popped up with plans for a larger number of smaller units.

The new proposal calls for 30 condos, including five subsidized units, compared with the original plan for 19 larger — 2,500 square feet — market-rate condos and two affordable units, notes Meghan Jop, Wellesley’s planning director.

“We are just starting to vet this,” Jop said.

The new investor, Jordan Warshaw, is also planning a major shift in the look of the building, with wood construction instead of steel and concrete. There are also plans to scrap a previously proposed brick facade, she said.

A new group of developers has also taken over the floundering Westwood Station project, after the previous developer, Cabot, Cabot and Forbes, lost the decade-old project through foreclosure.

Taking a page from Sam Park’s playbook, the developers, which include Tye’s National Development and New England Development, also based in Newton, are crafting plans for a smaller, leaner version of the multibillion-dollar project. The main attractions are a proposed Wegmans grocery and a Target department store, Tye said.

The tea leaves are a bit harder to read over in Belmont, where O’Neill Properties Group has been sitting on plans to build hundreds of market-rate and subsidized apartments near a nature preserve that includes a forest of silver maples.

The Pennsylvania-based builder has persevered through court challenges by local opponents, but has yet to push ahead and begin construction on a project that, in one form or another, has spanned more than a decade.

So why do we have so many big projects that seem to be stuck in endless permitting battles?

Boston’s upscale suburbs can be tough places to build — expectations are high and the permitting process can be akin to running a medieval gantlet for a builder with big plans, developers say.

Each town calls the shots and wants to put its unique stamp on whatever is built, Tye notes. That can take time.

And while all that seemingly endless talking and debating is going on, the economic tides can suddenly head out, leaving a beached whale of a plan.

“We have 351 cities and towns with a lot of local autonomy,” he said of Massachusetts. “It can be a notoriously difficult place to develop.”

Scott Van Voorhis can be reached at sbvanvoorhis@hotmail.com.
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