Selectmen delay decision on Special Permit again – to get feedback from the Planning Board on feasibility of two six-story buildings vs. three four-story buildings.
The Wong family’s plans to build two six-story buildings – one of them housing a new Kowloon Restaurant on the Route 1 North land where the current restaurant now sits – has the backing of Fire Chief Michael C. Newbury. Chief Newbury has already given a formal endorsement to selectmen backing the proposal as significantly safer than the alternative – three four-story buildings. The way Newbury views it, two taller buildings reinforced with steel and concrete would be in the best interests of the town instead three shorter buildings made of wood and more susceptible to potential fire and safety problems that could put residents at risk.
“I don’t understand how we justify voting against the fire chief,” Selectman Jeffrey Cicolini told colleagues at Tuesday night’s meeting of the Board of Selectmen during the latest continuation of the hearing on the Wong family’s request for a Special Permit (S-2).
Cicolini and Board of Selectmen Chair Anthony Cogliano, Sr. and Selectman Corinne Riley all support the Wong family’s request for a variance that would allow the proposed buildings to exceed four stories and 55 feet in height that town zoning currently allows within the Route 1 Business Highway Sustainable Zoning District (BHSD). But it requires a four-fifths vote for the board to issue an S-2 permit.
Selectman Michael Serino has vehemently opposed the project on grounds that allowing the building to surpass the allowable height would set a bad precedent for development on Route 1. He even opposes the shorter buildings because he believes the project is too dense for the location where it would be built.
The board’s Vice Chair, Debra Panetta, could help or hinder the project, depending upon whether she casts the decisive fourth vote for the permit – or joins Serino as an opponent. Telling colleagues that she’s basically still on the fence about the Special Permit and doesn’t want to have the project postponed for two years by voting against the permit, Panetta requested her third continuance of the hearing in recent weeks. “My issue is that I would personally like to hear from the Planning Board and what they have to say,” Panetta said at Tuesday night’s meeting.
“If they come back ‘yes,’ I’m a yes,” she said.
At that point, Selectman Cicolini asked his colleagues to continue the hearing to the March 22 meeting as a professional courtesy to Panetta. In the meantime, the Planning Board would offer their informal opinions at one of their meetings before March 22. “Voting ‘No’ to this tonight would be a disservice to the town,” Cicolini said.
“I really think this project is going to be a homerun for the town,” he said.
Selectmen voted 3-1 to meet informally with the Planning Board, town engineer and the developer, with selectmen being able to ask Planning Board members questions. Cicolini, Riley and Panetta voted for the motion. Serino abstained and Cogliano opposed the motion and said emphatically that there should be no more delays of the project even if it meant a negative vote for the variance.
“I don’t understand how that works at all. The whole thing makes zero sense,” Cogliano said of the latest continuance.
“We’ll be here six months from now,” he said.
Serino didn’t like the idea of holding an informal informational session during a Planning Board meeting. “To put it on the Planning Board like that, I don’t think it’s fair,” Serino said.
Cicolini didn’t understand Serino’s position on the Planning Board meeting. “No matter what, you’re not going to support this project,” Cicolini said.
Riley called the choice between the two taller buildings and the three shorter ones “a no-brainer.” “I’d rather have Selectman Panetta get more information,” Riley said.
“If it’s going to make her more comfortable with the project, that’s good,” she said.
Town Manager Scott C. Crabtree said he understands why there is some apprehension on how to proceed with S-2 permit hearing. “I think part of the concerns and challenges – Saugus is very unique where the height variance is before the Board of Selectmen,” Crabtree said. “Originally, it was before the Board of Appeals … now you’re being asked to vote on the height variance,” he said.
Eventually, the project’s plans would go before the Planning Board, which would consider setting conditions for the project and determining what the best plan is for the town.
Cicolini stressed that even if selectmen approve the height variance, “it does not give them the right to build 220 units.”
At that point, Cogliano chimed in: “If we deny the variance, they can go to the Planning Board and build two- and three-bedroom units…Whether we vote for it or not, they’re going to build it.”
Precinct 4 Town Meeting Member William Leuci said he opposes granting the height variance to the developer. “I don’t want to see Saugus become a city,” Leuci said.
“I don’t want to see Revere and Chelsea brought to Saugus. We have a great town,” he said.
Cogliano asked Leuci to put himself in the shoes of the residents, who wholeheartedly support the variance. “If you were an abutter to this project, would you want it 85 feet back or 50 feet back?” Cogliano asked.
Under plans to build two six-story buildings, the project would set back 85 feet from the abutting neighborhood. But by going with three four-story buildings, the project would come within 50 feet of the neighborhood, according to the developer.
“Myself, I’d say keep two buildings,” Leuci said.
Cogliano said it is clear that a height variance would be the best overall approach of the project. “I think it’s our job to do what’s best for the neighborhood. In this case, we’re doing what the neighbors want,” he said.
But Leuci responded, asking selectmen to “keep our town a town.”
Cicolini repeatedly pointed out the advantages of two six-story buildings: 220 one-bedroom apartments instead of two- and three-bedroom apartments, a less dense project that would have a greater setback from the neighbor, fewer cars, no children; therefore, less of an impact on the town’s education system and resources. “This decision, to me, is as easy as it gets,” Cicolini said.
Bobby Wong, one of the owners of the Kowloon Restaurant, made an appeal for support from selectmen. “We’re only asking for 12 feet,” Wong said.
“I know there are going to be changes on Route 1. We can’t hold it back. My family has been here 72 years. Our reputation has always been to do the right thing for the community,” he said. “We love Saugus. … We’re staying. We will continue giving back to Saugus. We’re going to be selling shares to my employees.”
Cogliano told Wong that “you went out of your way to get the neighbors on board. You went above and beyond.”
The first floor of both buildings would include commercial tenant space. Floors 2 through 6 would have one-bedroom luxury apartments, according to Michael McKeown, architect of the Manchester, N.H. firm, Dennis Mires, P.A., The Architects. In addition, the proposed project includes 220 apartment units in the two buildings, he said, noting that one building would have 130 units and the smaller building would have 90 units. The new restaurant would have 320 seats, and the project also includes 15,000 square feet of retail space. There are 352 parking spaces, according to a certified plot plan provided by the developer.