By GAYLA CAWLEY
SWAMPSCOTT — Town officials are moving forward with a proposal from Groom Construction to redevelop the shuttered former Swampscott Middle School on Greenwood Avenue.
On Wednesday night, the Board of Selectmen unanimously approved a proposal from Salem-based Groom Construction, which had submitted two concepts. The town will now enter into negotiations with the company.
The first concept, for 28 apartments or condominiums, adhered to the zoning approved at Town Meeting last spring. In lieu of not offering any affordable housing, Groom would contribute $150,000 to the town’s affordable housing trust. The second concept was for a 60-unit Chapter 40B affordable housing project, with 25 percent of the apartments or condominiums allocated as affordable.
Groom submitted a response to the most recent Request for Proposals issued by the town. It gave developers an option to submit a plan that conformed to the zoning approved at Town Meeting last spring for a single structure with 28 units on the site that had to adhere to an affordable housing component, or for a Chapter 40B affordable housing project. Developers also had the option to present proposals for both options.
The selectmen approved the proposal with the 28-unit building as the primary, and the 60-unit 40B project as an alternative, if there was litigation from the neighbors for the primary concept, according to Naomi Dreeben, chairwoman of the board of selectmen.
“I would very much like to proceed with the 28-unit building,” said Dreeben. “As much as I want to see more affordable housing in the town, I think 60 units and a larger building is not something I would like in that location. I would like to see it smaller.”
Neighbors have expressed concern that a 28-unit structure would be out of character with the existing neighborhood. They, along with other residents with an interest in the project, filed a citizen’s petition for Town Meeting in May, hoping to reuse the building. Citizens of Swampscott for Adaptive Reuse, want to privately fund $60,000 for a feasibility study to investigate all possible uses for the site. Residents urged the selectmen to delay their vote on the proposal before the article could be voted on.
“A vote tonight is going to strip, in my opinion, it will strip the Town Meeting members’ right, as a legislative body, to vote on a pending matter,” said Benjamin Agoes, an abutter.
Agoes said the “soul of Swampscott is going to be decided by what ultimately sits on the top of Greenwood Avenue,” and the town’s civic pride, commitment to its Master Plan and respect for zoning bylaws was at stake.
“I’d like to see that (building) serve some public purpose,” said Richard Frenkel, who filed the citizen’s petition. “It’s a personal preference, but that’s the way I feel about it.”
Agoes questioned why the selectmen were representing Groom versus “the people,” with other residents in attendance saying it was blackmail.
“I’ve heard that numerous times,” said Dreeben. “We’re elected officials. We are charged with doing what we believe is in the best interest of the town, and the town is a whole entire town. We understand that our town has numerous neighborhoods and that people in different neighborhoods have different interests and priorities. And so, it is on our shoulders to look at the full picture of the town and take a balanced approach to development and preservation. And so, we must make that decision.
“That is what we must do and I have worked very hard to mitigate the negative impact of what I thought was too big a development without enough consideration for neighbors originally. But for arguing about whether you individually or 20 people are the people, versus the 14,000 people who live in the town, that’s not an argument I’m going to enter into.”
Laura Spathanas, board vice-chair, said the selectmen’s job is to honor Town Meeting votes, and “we haven’t done that.”
“This has been a long process,” Spathanas said. “I feel like it has not been rushed … We’ve tried to listen to everybody’s wants in the town … We are going to honor the Town Meeting vote. I agree that the smaller unit is something that would fit up there.”
The proposal price from Groom is $1.2 million. Director of community development Peter Kane said the company requested that they be credited for costs associated with the demolition and abatement costs, which Groom estimated around that $1.2 million figure. He said the town has not agreed to that request, which will be part of negotiations.
In January, the selectmen decided to act upon the advice of Town Counsel and issue another RFP with both options. The board had been slated to either approve or deny a proposal from Groom Construction to convert the former middle school into 28 luxury apartments or condominiums, with three garage outbuildings on site.
Selectman Peter Spellios said at the time that Town Counsel recommended reissuing the RFP because the neighbors had been clear that they were intending to again bring litigation against the town if it went forward with Groom’s proposal. A 40B project, in which 25 percent of units would have to be affordable, would give the town protection against a potential spot zoning lawsuit from neighbors, as it is exempt from zoning, and therefore, harder to appeal, he said.
The board decided to table the proposal from Groom, leaving the option open for them to respond to the new RFP. The town is already in the midst of pending litigation with Groom, which originally won approval for a 41-unit condominium project on the site in 2012. That suit has to be settled before the town can proceed with the sale of the property.
The lawsuit stemmed from an initial zoning change approved at Town Meeting, which allowed for a multi-family unit on the parcel. That was overturned in Massachusetts Land Court after neighbors filed suit in 2014, and zoning reverted back to single-family housing.
Selectman Donald Hause said the town was trying to prevent the possibility of a much more dense 40B development than the one proposed. If there is no legal settlement and Groom wins the lawsuit, the company could proceed with the 28 units zoning allows or build a much larger 40B project, where the town would not have the same control.
Gayla Cawley can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.