Condo plans expand for controversial lot

February 8, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH


Courtesy Photo
The site of the former nursing home on Brookley Road stands vacant.

STONYBROOK—Long-stalled plans for a condominium complex at 101 Brookley Road recently ballooned from 29 to about 50 units, once again raising fears in a neighborhood that has battled and negotiated with developers over the site for more than a decade.

The changes appear to have surprised residents who worked for years on a memorandum of understanding (MOU)—a legal agreement—with the developers to lessen neighborhood concerns, especially about density and traffic.

“I was kind of astounded,” said abutting resident Joyce Perkit, noting the MOU had been “signed, sealed and delivered.”

The changes essentially put the project—which received city approval at least a year ago—back to square one. Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) spokesperson Jessica Shumaker said that any material changes to the plans require the developers to re-file and go through a public process again—“especially if they’re changing 29 to 50 units. That’s a big change.”

It appears that no new plans have been filed yet.

The Brookley Road site is owned by a limited liability corporation (LLC) based at the large Boston real estate firm the Mayo Group. John McGrail, the head of the Mayo Group, is listed as the LLC’s principal in property records.

For years, Roslindale developer Gary Martell was a partner in the LLC and its public face in the neighborhood. The Stonybrook Neighborhood Association (SNA) negotiated the MOU with him in a process that dragged out for years.

Responding to neighborhood concerns, Martell ultimately proposed a mini-neighborhood on the site consisting of 29 condo units in 16 townhouse-style buildings with built-in garages.

In 2006, Martell cleared the site, including demolishing a long-abandoned former nursing home. But then the project mysteriously stalled, leaving a large, fenced-in vacant lot.

According to Perkit and other sources, Mayo Group development head Edward O’Donnell informed neighbors last fall that Martell is now out of the picture. O’Donnell is a former BRA official who led the public review of a previous plan for the site years ago.

In recent months, O’Donnell circulated new plans showing about 50 units in four large buildings, with all of the parking in surface lots.

O’Donnell, Martell and SNA head Maureen Monks did not return Gazette phone calls for this article.

Perkit said O’Donnell has cited economic pressure as the reason for the changes in the plan.

“They’re claiming the size and price of the units [in the Martell plans] would not go in today’s market,” she said.

According to the North Shore newspaper the Daily Item, the Mayo Group last fall sought a similar expansion of a condo project in Lynn. Citing the mortgage crisis, low consumer confidence and rising construction costs, the Mayo Group wanted to boost its project from 32 to 49 units, according to the Daily Item report.

Whatever the economics, Perkit said, neighborhood character and agreements still should be respected.

“It wasn’t ideal by any means, but the neighborhood accepted it because it addressed so many of the neighborhood concerns,” she said of the 29-unit Martell plan.

O’Donnell has said the MOU will be respected in terms of such provision as handicapped-accessible units and funding for nearby parkland, Perkit said, adding that the core restrictions on density and parking are being ignored.

“They’re saying that market conditions have changed…but I don’t think that’s a reason to do something that will impact us in a bad way. It’s not a justification,” she said. “I think that the community feels that they’ve thrown out the MOU.”

“A lot of developers think that if there’s an empty lot, everybody would prefer to have something [built] instead of a trash-strewn empty lot,” she said. “[But] it doesn’t mean, as a neighborhood, you can just put something there and it will be better.”

Years of controversy

The current proposal is similar to a version shot down by the neighborhood a decade ago in a controversy that was partly responsible for the formation of the SNA.

In 1997, O’Donnell was an upper-level BRA official responsible for reviewing the Brookley Road proposal then on the table, which called for 48 units in three large buildings. At the time, he pointed out in a public meeting that the proposed project was out of scale with the street.

“The change in density is a departure from the neighborhood,” the Gazette quoted O’Donnell as saying at the time. “You only have to drive down Brookley Road and see one- and two-family houses. There is very little there that represents large-scale residential development.”

While the former Forest Hills Nursing Home on the site had no fans, development plans have always run into neighborhood opposition and apparent financial challenges.

In the early 1990s, a developer proposed a major housing project that was rejected by city planners. The developer successfully sued the city over the decision and received court approval to build 54 units. But the project never materialized.

The 1997 proposal by a Brookline developer claimed the court decision permitted a high number of units as well as nearly 80 parking spaces. But neighborhood opposition—including a petition and a public protest—led to a final proposal of 36 units and 55 parking spaces.

The developer said at the time that nine condo units had been pre-sold. But, in what became a pattern for the site, negotiations with the neighborhood over plan details dragged on for at least a year. The project eventually died.

By 2001, the property was bought by a Callaghan McCarthy. Martell entered the picture as the public face and the main hands-on developer. He took up the 36-unit proposal. But after months of neighborhood negotiations—and reportedly a falling-out with McCarthy over the length of the process—he dropped the plan.

In 2002, the McGrail-headed LLC bought the property and Martell was on board again. After about two years of negotiations, Martell settled on the 29-unit plan. But it took another two years for the MOU to be finalized amid neighborhood complaints that Martell was violating some MOU provisions already in place.