Design guidance offered for precedent-setting mixed-use plan

UPDATED, June 18: The first mixed-use development proposed for Mass. Ave. must reshape its design before returning to the Redevelopment Board, possibly July 17.

Proposed commercial-residential building at 887 Mass. Ave., next to Mystic Wine.Proposed commercial-residential building at 887 Mass Ave, next to Mystic Wine. / Michael Aveni rendering

The fenced-in white building with the red X on it next to Mystic Wine Shoppe, a former gas station termed "derelict" by an attorney for the developer, has been closed since 1995, and it will stay that way until the board sees changes. 

"This is a very important site," said member Andrew West, citing its corner location facing Arlington High School. "It's as important as any downtown Mass. Ave. location that I can think of."

West, whose day job is vice president at Elkus Manfredi Architects, pulled out his own design sketch to show the proponents what he has in mind.

"Think about it as more symmetrical," he said. "You're setting a precedent ... in representing the aspirations of the town .... This doesn't feel like a building on Mass. Ave.," adding it feels as if it were designed piecemeal. He referred to the Rand project underway in Porter Square, a slide of which the proponents had shown.

"This is not a solid building .... it doesn't feel strong enough .... You could handle corners much better.

"On Mass. Ave., you see street-friendly, dignified buildings .... [This proposal] looks like it could be off Mass. Ave."

Design ideas, parking

West's specific suggestions included not letting "that big eyebrow come [first-floor overhang] out at all. Let it have awnings signs."

He asked to raise the building by four feet to "get a more gracious storefront."

As for how to top the outcroppings, he said, "Don't make it a bunch of little hats .... You see them everywhere, along Rt. 2."

West was responding to a presentation from attorney Robert Annese, speaking for developer John Carney and attorney Deborah Nowell, and the developer's architect, Michael A. Aveni. All have strong Arlington connections.

Aveni said he did not disagree with these comments.

What is planned

Planned is a three-story development with three commercial units on the ground floor and two, two-bedroom units each on the second and third floors.

The lot approaches 6,200 square feet. Of that, first-floor space would encompass 2,077 square feet. Two second-floor units would cover 1,393 square feet; the remaining two would cover 1,490 square feet.

Annese said other potential developers have walked away from the site at 887 Mass. Ave., saying they "couldn't do something economically viable." This developer, he said, is "prepared to spend the money .... They live in town; they own homes here."

To build, Annese said the developers need relief from B2A zoning requirements governing parking and other issues. He said a market analysis concludes the project needs six spaces for four housing units to succeed economically.

Under the plan, 600 square feet of impervious asphalt would be replaced with landscaping, and a Mass. Ave. curb cut would be removed, so that traffic would emerge only from Schouler Court.

A bicycle rack would be added, "even though we don't have to," Annese said.

Aveni showed slides of the plan, saying a full basement would house mechanicals. The six parking spaces in the rear, beside the closed Arlington Litho space, would be the same size, except for one closest to Schouler (18 feet). As to the design, he said he tried to "make it a little contemporary."

Other issues

That is not yet the right look for Chair Andrew Bunnell and West. While expressing appreciation about replacing an eyesore, other board members had these concerns:

Kin Lau suggested cutting the building footprint three to four feet to increase space for parking on the west side.

Dave Watson asked to decrease the number of parking spaces from six to four, or one per unit.

He touted the location as one for those who want to live without cars, noting nearby restaurants, stores, a drugstore, buses and the bikeway. He also called wave bike rack "awful" and suggested seeking an alternative.

Annese predicted potential potential residential customer lacking parking "will have noses out of joint."

Public comments

Among members of the public commenting, Eric Faiola, an owner of Mystic Wine, said he feared pressure on his parking spots from tenants' guests of the proposed project.

He said he has deeded spots, for use early in the day, to Jacqui Maurer, the owner of Upbeat Cycling, the incoming spin studio at 6 Schouler Court.

Aveni assured Faiola there would be no intention to park in Mystic spaces.

Asked whether Stop & Shop might provide some parking at night, after it closes, Nowell said she has found it hard to get an answers from management there.

Maurer asked about the duration of construction. Aveni estimated eight to nine months.

Residents of Schouler Court said the plan might make their homes feel "tucked in." One called the proposed building is "towering" and does not match the character of her historical house.

The site at 887 Mass. Ave. has had a gas station or a garage since 1924, according to town records. Former stations include those operated by Jenny and Citgo.

Watson asked whether the site has been assessed for environmental hazards, and Annese said, "Yes, it has. We're OK." He said vapor barriers would protect the site.

A 4-0 vote, with Eugene Benson absent, continued the hearing.

Dec. 28, 2016: FRESH SPIN: Upbeat Cycling coming to long-closed print site

This news summary was published Saturday, June 17, 2017, and updated June 18.

NOTE: A Red X on a building usually means that its condition is too dangerous to inhabit. Town Fire Chief Bob Jefferson has said that the strucrture will be demolished at some point.

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