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Digging out of the downturn

At a long-vacant site in the heart of Wellesley Square, a developer thinks the rising demand for luxury condos will lift his suburban project

Noanet Group president Jordan Warshaw at the site of his 30-unit condominium project, which is taking the place of the Wellesley Inn.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Noanet Group president Jordan Warshaw at the site of his 30-unit condominium project, which is taking the place of the Wellesley Inn.

A local developer is making a $35 million bet that the suburbs are ready for Boston-style condominiums slated to sell for an average of nearly $2 million.

The Noannet Group LLC recently launched construction on a 30-unit, urban-style luxury condo project at what for years has been a fenced-off hole in the ground in the heart of Wellesley Square.

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The Belclare Wellesley development is being revived as stalled projects across the area have finally made way for gleaming new residential and retail complexes.

In Arlington, the old Symmes Hospital site is now home to the Arlington 360 apartment complex, playing up its views of the Boston skyline, while the shuttered Omni Foods store on Route 9 in Newton has been replaced by Chestnut Hill Square, with a Wegmans supermarket on the way.

Meanwhile, the abandoned Grossman’s store on Route 16 near the Wellesley-Newton line is long gone, replaced by upscale senior-living units, and even the sprawling Polaroid property alongside Interstate 95 in Waltham is showing signs of life.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Developer Jordan Warshaw with a model of the Belclare, his 30-unit luxury condo project at the site of the old Wellesley Inn on Washington Street.

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The first phase of 1265 Main Street LLC’s 280,000-square-foot mixed-use project is expected to open for business on the former Polaroid site later this year, according to Mayor Jeannette McCarthy. Work is moving ahead on a Marshalls store, a Market Basket grocery, and a chain restaurant, Jake n Joe’s Sports Grille, she said.

Stuck since 2005 with one of the area’s most prominent stalled projects, Wellesley’s top municipal official said he is pleased that construction has finally begun again on the old Wellesley Inn site, with the new Belclare Wellesley set to open its doors next year.

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“We are delighted to see what appears to be a very positive project moving forward in what has been a big hole in the middle of our center,” said Hans Larsen, the town’s executive director.

The Noannet Group’s project comes after a series of notable misfires by other builders, who tried and largely failed to generate interest among suburban empty nesters for expensive, urban-style condos.

Jordan Warshaw, principal of the Noannet Group and a veteran downtown Boston condo developer, believes a rising real estate market and some key tweaks in design and pricing will make the new Belclare a success where similar proposals and projects have struggled.

He said there are already some hopeful signs for the Wellesley complex, with half of the market-rate units already presold, and his company in serious negotiations with potential buyers for another 25 percent.

“We are offering a significant discount on what an equivalent size would cost in the Back Bay or in the downtown area,” Warshaw said. “It offers a real lifestyle alternative to empty nesters who don’t want to move downtown.”

Still, similar urban-style condos have been rolled out before in suburban settings, only to flop.

The previous developer of the Wellesley Center site, Spaulding & Slye, spent more than seven years trying to drum up interest in plans for a project called the Durant, and had only a hole in the ground to show for its efforts.

A few miles away, the developer of Nouvelle at Natick, a condo tower built next to the Natick Mall on Route 9, auctioned off more than 50 high-end units in 2009, during the depths of the financial crisis. One penthouse suite sold for $626,000, more than $1 million less than its original listing price.

But Warshaw contends that Noannet has found the winning formula with its Belclare proposal.

First, Noannet took a look at the previous proposal and decided the units were too big and too expensive, even in a town like Wellesley, where the median price of a home now tops $1 million.

The new project will be offering 25 luxury units with an average size of 1,900 square feet, compared with the Durant plan, which called for 19 significantly larger units, averaging around 2,500 square feet. The Belclare will also have five units set aside as affordable housing, to be sold at subsidized prices for income-eligible buyers.

The development’s market-rate units range in price from $1.4 million to $3.2 million, with the average nearly $2 million.

They are still pretty generously sized, and include a den and a laundry room, according to the developer, and some will have a sizable backyard. The Belclare Wellesley’s amenities will include a fitness center with a sauna, garage parking, and space set aside for shops and restaurants.

Smaller units, in turn, have given Noannet the freedom to lower the price range of its condos, Warshaw said.

Prices under the old Durant proposal were to have started at roughly $2 million and gone up from there. By contrast, most of the units at the Belclare will be priced under $2 million, he said.

“I didn’t feel comfortable taking over a project where we need to average $2.5 million a home,” Warshaw said.

There have been tweaks to the design as well, with white clapboards replacing the more urban, brick-and-steel design of the Durant proposal.

The timing this time around is also better.

The previous proposal got caught up in the real estate market downturn, while the Belclare is taking shape at a time when prices are rising and demand is strong.

The median price of a single-family home in Wellesley hit $1,065,000 in November, up nearly 19 percent from the year before, while the median condo price hit $644,500, for a 16 percent jump, the Warren Group reports.

“Rising prices mean it’s easier for local homeowners to sell now and downsize to a condo in a project like Belclare,” said Tom Skahen, a partner with PrimeTime Communities in Littleton, which helps developers market their properties.

Meanwhile, luxury condos are in short supply in Boston, driving up prices and generating interest in suburban alternatives.

“We are in a market right now where supply is so tight,” Skahen said. “People are getting priced out of Boston.”

The response from buyers has been positive, Warshaw said, noting that all of the initial interest has been coming from empty nesters in Wellesley and neighboring communities looking for smaller quarters but who don’t want to leave the area.

“Plenty of people want to move downtown but others feel very close to the community where they raised their kids and where they have spent their lives,’’ he said, “but there really hasn’t been enough of an option for them.”

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