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Overseas team hopes to turn vacant J.B. Thomas Hospital into an over-55 community in Peabody

Developers of the former J.B Thomas Hospital hope by reducing their over-55 condominium project to 110 units, the neighborhood will support it. (Rendering courtesy of Hemisphere Development Group)

PEABODY — An overseas development team hopes its fourth attempt to turn the vacant J.B. Thomas Hospital into an over-55 community will win city and neighborhood support.

Hemisphere Development Group, a Chinese company with an office in Boston, has reintroduced King’s Residence. The revised project would include 110 one- and two-bedroom condominiums for seniors starting at $400,000. 

Hemisphere Development bought the two- and three-story brick campus on King Street in 2017 for $1.9 million from Curahealth Property LLC. They operated the 50-bed facility for a year before they closed, citing a decline in admissions and Medicare enrollments. 

But nearly two years later, the company is still trying to get the right number of units to win backing for the plan. The developer first proposed 150 units, then 135 and 120. 

Under the latest proposal, the 112-year-old hospital would be demolished and replaced with three, four-story wood frame and concrete buildings and parking for 238 cars. 

In its application for a special permit, Hemisphere is seeking to change the zoning to allow multifamily housing.

Mayor Edward Bettencourt Jr. said the senior development on the three-acre site may not be the perfect project for King Street. But he likes that the new owner has reduced the number of units by 27 percent since its inception to accommodate residents. 

“I am pleased the number of units has gone down,” he said. “I’ve heard from a number of residents who have valid concerns about traffic. But this is a plan that can work for that section of the city.”

Doing nothing, he said, will result in the building continuing to deteriorate or worse. 

“The buyer made a significant investment to buy the property and has vowed to clean it up, which could cost up to $2 million,” Bettencourt said. “I’ve always been concerned about the building sitting there for years as an eyesore.”

The other fear the mayor expressed was a potential Chapter 40B project. Under state rules, communities that lack sufficient affordable homes and apartments among its housing stock are vulnerable to developers who can avoid local zoning’s height and density limits. Peabody’s affordable inventory is at 9.3 percent, the threshold is 10 percent. 

“That kind of development would not fit the neighborhood,” Bettencourt said. “While they haven’t said they would go the 40B route, they have the right to and we are trying to work with them.” 

But one neighbor, who said he can see the hospital from his home, said 100-plus units is still too big and is out of step with the tight-knit neighborhood. 

“No one is trying to be unreasonable, but it’s still basically the same project,” said John Salisbury, who lives on Emerson  Street. 

He said many neighbors prefer the zoning remain the same which allows for single- and multi-family homes. 

“The hospital building is out of character with the neighborhood, but it’s there,” Salisbury said. “They want to build something much bigger, more spread out and more intrusive to the neighborhood, and that’s not OK.”

City Councilor-at-Large Anne Manning Martin agrees.

“The neighbors are furious,” she said. “This project is being forced down everyone’s throat in the middle of summer. Let’s keep the neighborhood residential.” 

Ward 4 City Councilor Edward Charest, whose district includes the property, has been supportive of the project. He could not be reached for comment. 

Athan Vontzalides, Hemisphere’s Peabody attorney, said given the cost to buy the property of nearly $2 million, another $1 million to demolish it, an unknown amount for cleanup if asbestos is found, the project is not economically feasible with fewer than 110 units.  

“My client has been approached by several developers who want to do a 40B project at the site, but they have declined,” he said. “The bottom line is that it’s impossible to do development anywhere without opposition.” 

A public hearing is set for Thursday, Aug. 22 at City Hall and the council could vote on the project that night.

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