Waltham officials will soon begin looking into how the city manages and encourages economic development, after some residents have grown concerned about project delays, storefront vacancies, missed development opportunities, and crime, said City Councilor Thomas Stanley.
Stanley, who also represents Waltham in the state Legislature and is running for mayor next year, has introduced a council resolution to investigate how the city can more efficiently consider development proposals and develop an economic plan. He said he hopes to make concrete changes in the coming year.
“It’s clear that Waltham lacks a vision and has communication and planning issues, and it’s hurting our future,” said Stanley.
Waltham Mayor Jeannette McCarthy said that there are often measures she cannot control when it comes to finishing development projects, such as dealing with state authorities or having requests denied by the City Council. She said she believes Waltham is moving in the right direction.
“The departments have been working together and have accomplished a lot day to day, and my individual accomplishments are based on the departments,” said McCarthy, who last week announced that she is reconsidering an earlier decision not to seek reelection near year. “It’s not just about me.
“As far as the criticism from one councilor, that councilor is running for mayor,” McCarthy said. “That’s a continued criticism from the day I took the job in 2004.”
Councilors are also drafting a request for proposals to hire a planning specialist to help modernize the city’s zoning laws, which have become outdated and unwieldy with too many amendments, according to Councilor Robert Logan.
Zoning “shouldn’t be as difficult and complex as it is now — I think a lot of people find it very daunting,” Logan said, noting that the city’s complicated bylaws could deter potential projects in Waltham.
The resolution to discuss the zoning regulations has been referred to a council committee, where it will be taken up soon, Logan said.
Another measure, proposed by Councilor Joe Vizard in November, is aimed at speeding up lengthy council meetings; it was drafted after several sessions carried on into the early hours of the next day. The proposal, which calls for starting council meetings earlier and limiting the amount of time councilors can speak, is expected to be brought before the full council soon, Logan said.
Stanley said his resolution for sharpening the city’s economic vision already has the support of a majority of the council, and he expects it to be referred to the Economic and Community Development Committee, where development professionals will be invited to outline how other communities handle the issue.
“We want to see the ideas that other people have had, and then see what we can take from that,” he said. “There have been constant complaints that it takes too long to get things moved through Waltham’s government.”
Stanley cited a few major projects that have taken years to complete, such as approving space for shops and restaurants in vacancies at 200 Moody St. nearly three years after developers submitted plans. The property has a city easement running through it, and discussions over what to do about the easement bogged down the project.
He also said logistical planning issues held up the commercial development at the former Polaroid site.
‘We want to see the ideas that other people have had, and then see what we can take from that. ’THOMAS STANLEY, Waltham city councilor, on hearings for his proposal to revamp the city’s development policies
“If the city moved quicker, we would have avoided the family squabble that erupted last summer,” he said, referring to a construction halt that resulted from internal power struggles at the Market Basket company. “In one instance, it took 15 months or so to get a permit to move a water main. It’s just too long.”
However, McCarthy said the work was done on time, noting that state authorities had to approve measures to move utility lines.
“There was no delay whatsoever,” she said. “The NStar lines needed moving first, which required state-level regulation, and then they needed to relocate’’ the sewer easement, “but we expedited that.”
Stanley also pointed to vacant city-owned properties, such as the Banks School on South Street, which was declared surplus in 2005.
The city debated how to reuse the property before finally settling on converting it into housing for the elderly, he said.
“The Banks School is going on nine years now where it’s been vacant,” Stanley said. “The mayor has said the city will be lucky to break even, and that’s a travesty.”
McCarthy previously told the Globe that the city originally used about $1 million to turn the top floor of the three-story building into seven condominium units, but had to stop the entire renovation project in recent years “because the city didn’t have the money.”
She said last week that councilors voted not to fund the completion of the condominium project during the down economy, when contractors could have finished it for less money than they will now charge.
Waltham city councilors gave the OK to McCarthy a year ago to use $3.5 million in municipal bonds to convert the rest of the building into 24 condominiums for the elderly.
“Making back the money will be determined by the sales prices,” McCarthy said, noting that the city has hired a real estate company. “I’m not going to speculate one way or the other.”
Stanley said he also hopes to encourage revitalizing the downtown by rebuilding some of the crumbling structures there, and modifying zoning to encourage investors to build mixed-use developments.
“There’s a lot that can be done,” he said.Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.