Getting Smart in Swampscott

At one point during a Jan. 17 presentation at the Swampscott Senior Center on zoning changes proposed under the collective name of Smart Growth, someone yelled out, “We don’t want to be another Chelsea.”

The outburst continued to echo after a meeting that saw a hired planning consultant and Town Administrator Sean Fitzgerald express optimism about Smart Growth and a packed room of residents expressing pessimism.

Regarded by state officials as a development stimulator, the Smart Growth Overlay District Act allows for the development of dense residential and mixed-use projects near transit stations and town centers.

Residents attending the presentation listened as planning consultant Jennifer Goldson outlined how Smart Growth could be applied to a swath of Swampscott encompassing the train station next to the commuter rail tracks; Lally’s Garage on Essex Street, and Pine, Burrill and New Ocean streets.

Goldson and town officials described Smart Growth as a tool for getting certain types of development built. But the “Chelsea” comment suggests town residents may not be ready to take Smart Growth out of the tool box and put it to work.

The neighborhoods identified last Thursday as potential Smart Growth candidates have their share of problems. The train station is an architectural treasure overdue for sprucing up. Lally’s is a prime example of a business operating cheek by jowl next to residences and parking is tight along Pine and Burrill streets.

But the residents who packed the senior center don’t necessarily want to take a sledgehammer to neighborhoods that may only need a few blows from a carpenter’s hammer to be rendered more liveable.

Resident Danielle Phillips summed up the general mood during the presentation when she said, “I’m still undecided on how I feel about this.”

Fitzgerald takes the long view on Smart Growth: “I want to take properties and make them even more valuable.” That goal, interestingly enough, is what Chelsea managed to achieve with several of its older neighborhoods by encouraging development and getting hotels built in the city. Chelsea benefited from Smart Growth and achieved Fitzgerald’s objective on a much broader scale than a small town like Swampscott can achieve.

The reality is Smarth Growth probably lies in the eye of the beholder. For Swampscott, it might mean making changes to encourage the opening of a couple new pubs or coffee shops. But it may stop well short of allowing a multi-story residential building to be built.

Last Thursday’s meeting was the second town discussion on Smart Growth and more town residents are encouraged to attend subsequent discussions when they are scheduled.

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