Proposed 32 units beside bikeway faces soil issues

Building A, Downing Square project, October 2016Building A, Downing Square project, October 2016

An estimated 45 people squeezed into a cramped room at a closed nursery school Tuesday, Oct. 25, and raised numerous questions about a proposed development of 34 units of affordable housing in two buildings between Downing Square and the Minuteman Bikeway.

Construction of the housing, in its early stages and facing many steps for approval, would not get underway until spring 2018, at the earliest.

Questions included possible soil contamination at the site, its proximity to existing homes, whether retail is possible and the appropriateness of how proposed building nearest Downing Square fits in with the neighborhood.

Responding to these questions were Pam Hallett, executive director of the nonprofit Housing Corporation of Arlington (HCA), and two representatives of Davis Square Architects, principal Clifford J. Boehmer and associate Paul Warkentin.

Near the beginning of the presentation, Hallett noted that she hoped the project could bring relief to the five-points intersection at Downing Square, which she called "dangerous to children." She said she would look into plans aiming to improve the intersection that have not been put into effect.

What the plan seeks

First, the proposal itself. About an 0.88-acre, odd-shaped parcel, Davis Square showed schematics and drawings of a four-story building across from Peter Pan Superette, and a three-story building along the bikeway -- "moved as far possible from existing homes," Boehmer said. Its southern exposure will be used for solar panels.

The 32 units are to have 23 parking spaces, which Hallett doubts will be fully used. Vehicle access will be off Lowell Street, and planned is a separate path from Lowell to the bikeway. Those involved are in talks with the Arlington Lumber Co. about permitting a ramp from the bikeway to the yard.

A total of 58 bedrooms include five three-bedrooms units and 15 two-bedroom.

Hallett said a waiting list of 1,000 households, an estimated 300 of them in Arlington, will vie through a lottery once the project is much further along.

Hallett was upfront about soil issues, addressing an immediate question: "It is not a Superfund site."

She said the source of the contamination from PCBs and VoCs (volatile organic compounds) is not known, but they have not been traced to the nearby service station.

Hallett said the plan is to "scoop out the worst," truck that away to a disposal site, vent the VoCs and cap the majority of the site, on which the housing would be built. HCA is having GEI, its consultant on on environmental issues, with local offices in Woburn, look into all that is involved.

To be done are borings, "so we know what's under ground," Hallett said. Twenty-foot wells have already been dug.

The housing corporation plans to seek in December a state environmental grant for as much as $400,000 for a project that may need as much as $750,000. It hopes for word by March. Funding for the entire project could require as many as seven lenders.

The next immediate step in the Downing Square process is pursuit of a required special permit. Representatives plan to come before the Redevelopment Board on Monday, Nov. 7.

Neighbors weigh in

Neigboring residents had much to ask and offered numerous comments.

One focus was on the "look" of the building planned closest to Downing Square.

A resident who said he is an architect said the intersection is entry near Mt. Gilboa's historic district and requires a building that better matches the neighborhood's historical character.

Another resident said the design "looks like a sore thumb."

As to the height of the buildings, one resident commented: "I'm losing all of my sky."

Other neighbors were assured that the properties next to the parking lot and other border areas would by shielded with fencing, bushes and trees.

The Davis Square architects took notes about these issues.

A representative of Support Arlington Heights, a group formed this summer, said its survey of what residents would like to see among Heights businesses pointed to a place to gather. Could the 2,000 square feet in the lower part of the building planned across from Peter Pan be used that way?

Hallett said that an HCA project planned for 117 Broadway and to be the subject of a public meeting Thursday, Nov. 3, has ground-floor retail planned, but the Downing Square project is affordable housing only.

Schematic of Downing Square proposal. / Davis Square ArchitectsSchematic of entire Downing Square proposal. / Davis Square Architects

"I don't see it as a good fix," Hallett said, suggesting it would create too much traffic.

Short notice?

One asked why residents had such short notice for the meeting and were not alerted a week earlier. Hallett said those involved had to scramble after errors in plans set for this meeting and the one Nov. 7 had to be corrected, leaving less time for notice.

Another asked how the project will be taxed. Hallett said the nonprofit does pay property taxes -- $186,000 last year. "We believe in being a good neighbor," she said.

Other questions raised were the potential impact on the populkation at Peirce (the expected number of children attending is unclear), the site is in a flood plain (the architects are adjusting for that) and the highest building is at the 40-foot limit zoning allows, making the addition of solar panels an issue (a nod from the architect appeared to mean acknowledgment).

As to the intersection, which Boehmer said is "just like Davis Square," where his company is, Hallett said that early next week, she will look into a traffic study that had recommendations for improvement.

As to the timeline, the best case for completion could be 18 months after a spring 2018 start.

Three files provided by the housing corporation that show the Downing Square plans >> 

Hallett wrote this week to the Arlington List: "For funding purposes, we [the HCA] are combining this site with our site at 117 Broadway and would appreciate your suggestions of a name for the overall project."

117 Broadway plans

HCA logoA subsequent community meeting is set for Thursday, Nov. 3, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., at East Cambridge Saving Bank, at 105 Broadway.

Planned there is a four-story building, with retail on the first floor and three floors of 14 rental units, Hallett wrote.

Here is a link to the Broadway project >>

Hallett says sheet A206 is an incorrect rendering.

Both projects have 100-percent affordable-housing units.

Hallett explained that the larger project can attract more investors. A 48-unit project has a better return typically than a 34- or 14-unit project individually.

It also allows the financing for both to be accomplished in one application process instead of two.

Because all HCA projects have at least five and sometimes seven funding sources, each with its own application, she wrote, combining the projects reduces the number of applications by half. "This gets the projects in the ground faster as well," she wrote.

This announcement was published Monday, Oct. 24, 2016, and updated to a news summary Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016.