November 2, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald
In 1999, in one of the most contentious debates ever to face Belmont, making recent dust-ups over the sale of liquor licenses and the design of our town green look like pillow fights, Belmont’s Town Meeting voted to approve a comprehensive development package for property that McLean Hospital had proposed to sell for housing development. As part of the compromise that Town Meeting ultimately approved, various stakeholders received something to advance their particular interests. Substantial land was preserved as open space. Property was set aside for an affordable housing development. High-end condominiums were to be constructed on some land. And land for a new cemetery was provided to the town. All of those projects have since come to fruition.
Another part of the McLean compromise, however, has grown stale over the years. It deserves to be re-opened. One parcel of the McLean land was zoned exclusively to allow a continuing care facility for over-55 persons. The property was bought by the American Retirement Corporation, which ultimately received a permit to build a “community” with nearly 500 living units (350 independent living, 136 assisted living). After ARC received its permit, construction costs skyrocketed and the market for continuing care facilities collapsed. The project was eventually abandoned. The land has gone unused ever since.
The need for additional life-cycle housing in Belmont continues unabated. Aging Belmont residents continue to leave town when they find they no longer need a bigger home. Perhaps they can no longer physically take care of a single family home with multiple bedrooms (along with the accompanying yard). Perhaps they simply no longer want to do so. There is, however, no place in town for these seniors to move when they decide to downsize their living space. And they leave.
All the while, the McLean property sits vacant.
And the McLean senior housing property will continue to sit vacant because the zoning decision that was made twenty years ago limiting its use to a continuing care facility is out-of-date. The world has changed since that zoning decision was made. Efforts today focus on maintaining independent living for our aging residents rather than on moving our seniors into large-scale continuing care facilities.
Help is available. The Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston, along with others such as the Boston Society of Architects and KPM (a nationally-recognized public accounting and business consulting firm), sponsors an annual competition that develops proposals for places just like the vacant McLean property. The FHLB matches graduate design students from area universities both with mentors from academia and with design and financial professionals in the Boston area. In its 18th year, the competition develops proposals, including both design and financing, that address a local sponsor’s needs and desires while offering ways in which such proposals can be practically implemented in the real world. Graduate students from at least two area universities must be on each team. Participating schools range from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, to Boston University, Tufts University, the Boston Architectural College, Wentworth Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, and the MIT School of Architecture and Planning.
Belmont has both the need for additional life-cycle housing for the aged and a location that, at least in 1999, was seen as appropriate to help address that need. Given that the FHLB competition provides precisely the type of help Belmont could use, it would make sense for Belmont to ask to be a local sponsor in the FHLB initiative. The real question, of course, is whether Belmont is willing to revisit its 20-year old zoning decision restricting the use of the vacant McLean property given that the rationale for that restriction has long-since expired.