Pausing in Malden

Malden officials are eager to settle on the future use of the Malden Hospital site after years of debating one site proposal after another. But there is a very good reason for city leaders, from Mayor Gary Christenson down to ward City Councilors, to not rush into a decision.

The 18-month-long citywide moratorium on multi-unit residential housing construction expired less than a month ago. Extended twice, the moratorium acted like a giant “pause” button prompting city officials and developers to step back and examine Malden’s housing stock, its new and older developments, and housing market trends.

It is a bold step indeed for a community the size of Malden to not simply tap but slam the brakes on large-scale residential development. Big projects mean big property tax dollars flowing into cities and elected officials in another community might have easily balked at a moratorium.

Malden isn’t that timid when it comes to charting a course for its future. Downtown’s major revamping, including the relocation of two major municipal buildings, is proof city leaders and residents are willing to take bold steps to improve the city.

Selecting a new use for the 18.5 acres of hospital land is also a big step but planning for any future use of the site should proceed cautiously. Malden Hospital is an institution very familiar to older and middle-aged Malden residents and its nostalgic importance is easily dismissed.

Christenson is probably correct when he says the bid by the Fellsmere Housing Group for the hospital site is ” … worthy of review and public discussion.” Fellsmere’s plan summarizes a $100 million investment in residential housing with $500,000 in planned area improvements.

Fellsmere’s interest in the site is no surprise: The group made a bid for an extensive residential construction proposal at the hospital site in 2015, which would have included more than 200 units. That proposal drew little community support and was ultimately rejected by the Malden Planning Board. But speculation around the city following the rejection centered on Fellsmere coming up with another development proposal once the moratorium ended, since it holds a signed purchase-and-sale agreement with the hospital site’s owners, Hallmark Health.

Fellsmere’s plan may well be the best use of the Malden Hospital site. But the city is wise to proceed slowly on reviewing the plan. The moratorium is still fresh in the minds of city officials and developers. Its ramifications for Malden and the lessons learned from imposing it should be reviewed, analyzed and prioritized by city officials with the aim of fine-tuning or, if warranted, reshaping development policy in Malden.

A citywide meeting to discuss lessons learned from the moratorium is a good first step. Only after the public and anyone else concerned weighs in on the moratorium should the city proceed with looking at development proposals, beginning with Fellsmere’s.

Preliminary discussions on Fellsmere’s proposal clearly identifies a host of complex concerns that must be settled if the development is to proceed. The number of owner-occupied units proposed for the project is one concern.

A Malden Hospital Site Committee meeting this month identified traffic concerns associated with the site and an emphasis by neighbors and the site’s value as open space. Finally, Malden Hospital’s future isn’t just a Malden issue: The site is surrounded by Medford neighborhoods and its future use has ramifications for residents in those neighborhoods.

Malden leaders have a bold vision for their city but they would be well-served by proceeding deliberately on discussing Malden Hospital’s future.

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