By Dustin Luca
---- — Today, Lewis Street is home to much of the town’s vehicle fleet and maintenance operations, a pair of massive salt sheds, refueling services and the kind of hustle and bustle you’d expect of a Town Yard charged with serving 33,000 residents and keeping more than 200 miles of roads in good condition.
Town officials envision a better use of the land — multi-story buildings with first-floor retail and restaurants supporting two, three and at times four or five stories of apartments and condos that would target 20- or 30-something working professionals commuting to work from the adjacent commuter rail system.
Annual Town Meeting will vote on what some have said would be the biggest expansion of downtown Andover since its creation.
Approval of the Andover Transit Oriented Development District, articles 30 and 31, would provide officials with a gentleman’s agreement with town voters to relocate the Town Yard and put the 3-acre site on the market for redevelopment, officials have said.
Saying no would send officials a different message altogether. Either way, voting starts on Monday, May 6, at 7 p.m. at the Andover High School field house on Shawsheen Road.
PROS: ZONING WOULD SPUR GROWTH
At its core, the district is considered an overlay. All current zoning for properties within the affected area — business, residential, whatever it may be — would remain intact, but a new use would be added to it, according to Planning Director Paul Materazzo.
“The (ATODD) is currently an overlay district that is seeking to bring three zoning districts into one zoning regulation to provide controls on development,” Materazzo said. “If the town is seeking to see this area expanded and redeveloped, we’re seeking to control how it is developed.
“We’re writing the rules, the music.”
The town’s General Business District — or downtown — encompasses heavy portions of Main, Chestnut, Bartlet, Park and Central streets. Over the span of decades, it has been built to near capacity, and one idea for expanding it has been to spread out and add commercial or mixed-use zoning to neighboring roads.
ATODD would do exactly that, specifically around the so-called “Golden Triangle” formed by North Main, Pearson and Railroad streets, according to Materazzo.
As it stands, a number of residential properties are included in the proposed district. But that doesn’t mean folks on Buxton Court would be kicked out of their homes by Starbucks if the proposed zoning passes.
“You have existing zoning there on your home, and you could live in your home for the next 30 years,” Materazzo said. “It didn’t make any sense to rezone only the town properties, because there (would be) no synergy between the surrounding properties.”
The zoning proposal is “the real opportunity to think about this in a whole different way,” said Ken Buckland, principal of The Cecil Group, commissioned by the town to create the zoning proposal.
“This provides a chance for substantial change to reinforce what the center of Andover is all about,” he said. “I see the end product being something that a lot of other communities would love to have.”
Paul Salafia, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, has watched the town tackle the Town Yard issue for decades. For him, as well as a majority of the town’s Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee, adding the overlay is a positive for the town for a variety of reasons.
But there is one reason that stands far above the rest, he said.
“When you rezone that land, you enhance the value of that land,” he said. “That was the intention of the Board of Selectmen, to make that property as attractive as possible to developers.”
Even at the district’s core, removing the Town Yard would add 3 acres to the town’s tax rolls. New businesses and restaurants would also generate tax revenue, officials have said.
CONS: CONTAMINATION, CONGESTION CREATE CONCERNS
Selectman Mary Lyman, nearly from the beginning, has opposed rezoning the area. While she recognizes the Town Yard is decades overdue for a replacement, she says this isn’t what she envisioned.
Underneath the Town Yard, years of toxic conditions await a cleanup opportunity, she said. Recently, a review of the site determined that cost would more than likely be less than $100,000, but worst-case scenarios could go higher.
If the zoning passes and the Town Yard moves so the area can be redeveloped, those underground conditions all come to the surface — literally, she said.
“The taxpayer has to pay to have that cleaned up to the owner’s satisfaction,” Lyman said. “We can sell it, but we own it in perpetuity.”
Rezoning for mixed use also has an added effect of “adding more housing demand, which can create more school demands,” she said. “We’re already bulging at the seams in many of our schools.”
With recent proposals for rebuilding the Town Yard off-site ranging between $18 million and $21 million, Lyman also characterized the vision of Andover’s next Town Yard as a lavish one with more than the community needs.
“We don’t need to have a Taj Mahal of Town Yards. We need simple building structures that can house the equipment we have,” she said. “The biggest question is, is this the best thing for the taxpayer? I say, `absolutely not.’”