John Matheson is tired of what he sees when he looks at the old Malden Hospital site. He blames its longtime owner, Hallmark Health, for the sprawling mess.
“Hallmark created that blight,” said Matheson, a city councilor who represents residents of Malden’s West End, on the Medford line. “And now, they are forcing the neighbors to live next to a dangerous blight until they become so frustrated that they give Hallmark the right to determine their zoning.”
Hallmark closed the hospital in 1999, and the last offices in what had become an ambulatory medical center inside the 330,000-square foot building emptied in 2004. Despite more than a decade’s worth of efforts to redevelop the site, it remains a massive, vacant structure surrounded by a sea of asphalt and encroaching trees.
In 2013, Malden ordered Hallmark to make repairs to the structure, including upgrades to the sprinkler and fire alarm systems. Hallmark balked, saying the building was safe, and sued the city.
In March, a jury determined Hallmark did not have to complete the repairs. The city will not appeal, Mayor Gary Christenson said.
“Our goal is to try and find a project to redevelop that site that is going to benefit the city of Malden and the residents there, because we plan on being there and being part of that community,” said Charles Whipple, Hallmark Health’s executive vice president. “We’re not just going to sell it to the highest bidder.”
Hallmark has entered into a purchase-and-sale agreement with developer Tony Green’s Fellsmere Housing Group to redevelop the 17.6-acre site. The plan calls for 18 single-family cottages lining one side of Hospital Road, while 72 condominiums and 224 apartments would be located in the old hospital’s footprint.
According to Green, seven acres would remain wooded, with hiking trails created and maintained by the developer. Two acres abutting Fellsmere Park would be turned over to Malden. He estimated the project, which would cost more than $100 million to build, could generate $1.2 million per year in revenue for the city government. But he needs a hearing to propose changing the lot’s zoning.
“We would love the opportunity to make that pitch,” Green said. “It’s not a guarantee to be successful, but it’s an opportunity to be heard and let the people of Malden express their opinion.
“I don’t think anybody would be proud of what that site would look like if it were actually built at the density it’s zoned for. That would create many more school kids than our proposal.”
For Matheson, the issue is clear. Since the hospital site reverted to single-family zoning when it became vacant, there’s no need for the city to change the zoning to accommodate a larger project.
He supports a plan that came from the neighborhood group Friends of Fellsmere Heights, which calls for Malden and Medford to buy and conserve much of the property, with the rest used to build single-family homes.
“We have an opportunity to tap into public dollars that are expressly dedicated to open space in order to fund some of the land for the public benefit on that site between Malden and Medford,” Matheson said.
Christenson, however, said the developer’s proposal is a better fit for the city, provided that Green continues to address neighborhood concerns.
“The Friends of Fellsmere Heights proposal would require active city participation, which, if you watched the past few budget cycles, we are not in a position to be able to do that,” Christenson said. “The Fellsmere Housing Group has the capacity to do what it is they want to do, and in some ways, what we want them to do.”
Even the neighbors are divided.
“There are some people who don’t want anything up there, and there are some who are happy with the development. There’s no consensus, that’s for sure,” said Candace Julyan, a retired restorative justice practitioner who lives two blocks from the old hospital and has mediated several disputes in Malden.
Julyan said she met with Green and thought the developer was someone who would listen to her concerns.
“He is proposing to give the city a fairly big chunk of land, of what from my perspective is the best location, because it has views of Boston,” she said.
Bob Doolittle, a semi-retired spiritual leader and a member of the Friends of Fellsmere Heights, supports converting the property to single-family homes with a large conservation area.
That would maintain the location’s public-minded history, he said.
“That piece of land was donated to the city, and the hospital was built by donations from people in Malden,” he said. “It’s an over 100-year legacy of use for the public, and people feel that. A lot of people were born there or had family who worked there or died there.”Roberto Scalese can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.