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Peabody City Hall in the dark about J.B. Thomas Hospital plans

There are plans to raze the shuttered hospital at 15 King Street in Peabody with a 135-unit over-55 community. (Spenser R. Hasak)

PEABODY Plans to transform the shuttered J.B. Thomas Hospital into an over-55 condominium community have been shrouded in secrecy.

But Ward 4 City Councilor Edward R. Charest, the only city official who has been in touch with the development team, said he’s been assured the project is on track.

Hemisphere Development Group LLC bought the two- and three-story brick campus one year ago for the bargain price of $1.9 million from Curahealth Property LLC.

The healthcare company paid $4.1 million for the 77,932-square-foot property two years ago and operated the 50-bed facility for one year before they closed, citing a decline in admissions and Medicare enrollments.  

But City Hall has had trouble getting answers from the new owner.

Curt Bellavance, the city’s community development director, said the China-based developers, who have an office at the Prudential Center, have not returned his calls or emails.

“Honestly, we have no idea what’s going on,” he said.

Bellavance said he last talked with them in February when the development team held a hearing to inform neighbors about their plans.

At the City Hall session, four dozen neighbors complained the project would exacerbate traffic and parking problems on the already congested street.

Charest said he contacted the new owners soon after they bought the hospital because the facility is a few streets away from his home. Since then, he has had a cordial relationship with Hemisphere Development’s CEO and has spoken to him as recently as three weeks ago.

Following last winter’s hearing, Charest said the company agreed to reduce the project from 135 to 120 units. He said they have been cooperative and want to build a project that fits the neighborhood and has community support.

The revised plan includes a building no higher than 40 feet tall, with one- and two-bedroom units starting at $400,000 for seniors. Hemisphere Development has also promised to landscape the property and make it a showcase, he added.

“Traffic and parking have been raised by worried neighbors because the new use would be different from the nursing home, which was very quiet and did not add to the congestion,” Charest said. “But I live nearby and I will work to make sure everyone is happy.”

The reason Hemisphere Development has failed to return calls, he said, is the difference in cultures.

“In China, construction projects are quite different,” Charest said. “It’s quick and they don’t have to deal with the city, neighbors and zoning regulations. I think they found all the interest quite eye opening and that has delayed this project.”

Charest deals with the CEO who frequently travels between China and Boston, he said, but he wasn’t sure of his full name.

He said the company is new to the U.S. and recently purchased two buildings in Boston, a fact that has caused the company to divert their attention from Peabody.

Last spring, Hemisphere Development paid $23 million for a 54,450-square-foot building in the Financial District, and a 10,540 square-foot property in the Theater District.

For those redevelopment projects, the developers will have to deal with a much more complicated and stricter approval process managed by the Boston Planning & Development Agency, formerly known as the Boston Redevelopment Authority, under the direction of Mayor Marty Walsh.

Repeated calls to Hemisphere Development went unanswered.

The company was incorporated with the state Secretary of State’s office last year. Its only listed employee is Kai Zhao of Weston.

Greg Clark, of Alexandra Properties, the original co-developer who answered questions at the public meeting last winter, said he is no longer part of the project.

“We parted ways and my understanding is the residential project was put on hold,” he said.

Charest said he has been impressed with the developer. He praised them for allowing the Peabody Police Department’s SWAT team to use the King Street building for training.

“That was a clear signal to me that they want Peabody to be safer,” he said. “They are committed to doing this project right and work with the community.”

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