The building at 100-110 West St. has been empty since 2018/ Credit: Needham Observer

The hulking structure at 100-110 West St. that has been vacant since early 2018 is now being considered for multifamily housing, which also could lead to its demolition.

The possibility that more housing-friendly zoning language may emerge from the town’s MBTA Communities Act compliance process has elevated the prospects for the development of multifamily housing at the former Carter building in the heart of Needham Heights.

The property was discussed at length during the April 18 meeting of the Housing Needham Working Group (HONE) when the committee was completing the drafts of its zoning recommendations to bring the town into compliance with the MBTA law’s requirements.

“I was contacted by the folks that represent 100 West St.,” Lee Newman, head of the town planning department, said during a discussion of dimensional requirements in the zoning for the parcel — a 4.3-acre site that spreads across multiple zoning districts.

Welltower, a publicly traded real estate investment trust that has owned the property since 2002, operating it mainly as a healthcare or assisted living facility for seniors, now appears to be considering alternative uses. 

“They’ve approached me because they have concerns about those parameters in terms of what their development profile looks like for that building,” said Newman, who has been contacted more than once by Goulston & Storrs, the Boston law firm representing the trust. “They’re going to write a memo articulating the change they’d like to see.”

In February, Goulston attorney and Needham resident Timothy Sullivan sent a lengthy letter to HONE to “offer comments concerning the property’s potential to assist in this compliance effort.”

In that letter, Sullivan offered a list of recommendations he described as “necessary to support a redevelopment of the property in light of the extensive costs of demolishing the existing structure (which is antiquated and designed for a different use) and rebuilding a first-class multifamily building.”

The nearly 200,000-square-foot, three-story property is located in the Avery Square Business zoning district. According to HONE’s current descriptions, that district has 72 existing housing units and zoning capacity for 77. 

The changes HONE is proposing would increase that capacity to 187 units. It is not clear how or if the changes Sullivan is requesting would change that capacity.

“I have no relationship with (Welltower), so I don’t know what their plans are or what their thinking might be,” said Heidi Frail, co-chair of the HONE committee and a member of the Select Board.

A project stuck in reverse

Carter Mill 1, 1910/ Credit: Courtesy Needham History Center & Museum

The venerable property with extensive frontage on Highland Avenue traces its history back to 1864 as the first mill location of the William Carter Company, a manufacturer of children’s clothing. That original structure was torn down in the 1950s when the site was converted to the company’s headquarters.

The brick building functioned in that capacity until 1990 when the family sold the company and the site was converted to a nursing home/assisted living facility.

The building has been vacant since February 2018, when assisted living and skilled nursing facilities operated by Kindred Healthcare ceased operations. The subsequent six years have seen a series of failed attempts to find the right combination of zoning and business plans to revitalize the site.

Welltower has an approved special permit in hand to go forward with a 155-unit facility with 72 independent living apartment units, 55 assisted living units and 28 memory care units. Those plans were abandoned in late 2022, and Welltower requested and received a one-year extension of the permit in April 2023.

Welltower’s development partner at the time, Balfour Senior Living, cited limitations in the building’s structural capacity to support the proposed operating plan as one of the reasons for not going forward.

The special permit expires in June, and Planning Board Chair Adam Block said Welltower has not requested a second extension.

“From what I’ve observed through the HONE process, I believe Welltower is pursuing a fully independent, multifamily housing site,” said Block.

That pursuit would seem to require the mother of all teardowns, a prospect that Frail expects would be met with some resistance.

“A large part of our original conversation was the question of whether that building could be considered historic, as well as what kind of shape it was in given that it’s been unoccupied for so many years now,” said Frail. “I personally have seen animals in the building so I have to say that I can’t imagine it’s habitable. I also understand that the way it’s configured is basically for single-room occupancy, and that’s just not appropriate for apartments.”

As for the site’s historic merits, Gloria Greis of the Needham History Center & Museum said, “Though the site has tons of history, it is not an historic building per se.” She added that it has no protections or bylaw restrictions preventing demolition or alteration.

“Some wanted to see if the building could be preserved, but I think the HONE committee doesn’t have the expertise that would be required for an assessment of that nature,” said Frail.

The current building itself is a teardown, having been built in 1955. The original factory had been built in 1864. Ironically Carter chose the site under the Civil War era equivalent of “transit oriented development,” the principle of centering development around high quality train systems, which is at the core of the MBTA law. 

Greis noted the mill was built on that site to take advantage of the adjacent train track for deliveries and shipping — the same track location used by the commuter rail today.

The HONE committee is expected to address the issue at its meeting this evening at 7 p.m. at 500 Dedham Ave.

 Save as PDF

Click here to go Home