A three-year effort to convert the old Carter’s building at 100-110 West St. to a residential senior care facility has gone dormant.
The process has been effectively stalled for months, with the Planning Board distressed by the lack of independent living and affordable housing elements in the plan proposed by the developer, WELL Balfour.
A zoning change passed at the October 2020 Town Meeting was designed to encourage a project that included both of those elements while also providing economic stimulus for the Needham Heights area. WELL Balfour representatives, however, have repeatedly said the inclusion of affordable housing makes the project financially unfeasible.
A road to nowhere
When the Carter family sold the children’s clothing company in 1990, the brick edifice that had served as the company’s headquarters entered a new phase as a healthcare facility. Welltower, a publicly traded real estate investment trust that invests in healthcare infrastructure, purchased the property in 2002.
Kindred Healthcare operated assisted living and skilled nursing facilities known as Avery Manor and Avery Crossing until ceasing operations in February 2018. The building has since sat empty.
In the spring of 2020, Welltower partnered with Norwood-based LCB Senior Living on plans to operate a facility providing independent living, assisted living and memory-care units, a plan which required Town Meeting to approve zoning changes.
Here’s a timeline of what happened – or didn’t happen – since that plan was proposed.
At the recommendation of the Planning Board, Town Meeting creates the Avery Square Overlay District (ASOD) to facilitate LCB’s plans.
The ASOD is designed to create “opportunities for housing primarily serving individuals 55 years old or older, who wish to live in independent apartments and/or who may need to live in Assisted Living and/or Alzheimer’s/Memory Loss facilities” and also “to promote a vibrant, walkable area within the ASOD.”
The Planning Board votes unanimously to approve a special permit for a 155-unit facility including 72 independent living apartment units, 55 regular assisted living units and 28 assisted living units. Nine of the 72 independent living apartment units are required to be affordable.
Welltower informs the town that LCB is no longer involved in the project and will be replaced as operator by Balfour Senior Living. Also, the plan no longer includes independent living units. The loss of independent living means there will be no affordable housing component to the plan.
The Select Board drafts a “Memorandum of Agreement” between the town and WELL Balfour. In return for the Select Board’s support of the project, WELL Balfour would pay $1.9 million to be used to support multiple town goals such as the Affordable Housing Trust, Quiet Zone safety infrastructure improvements at the MBTA Commuter Rail West Street grade crossing, other local transportation safety initiatives, improvements to the Needham Heights Common, and/or for “any other lawful purpose in the discretion of the Town.” It remains a draft.
Stripped of independent living and affordable units, the plan runs into a great deal of opposition from Planning Board members and town residents at a Sept. 20 public hearing.
WELL Balfour then seeks multiple continuances of future public hearings before returning in December with a plan that restores nine of the independent living units, none of which would be affordable. When that plan draws a lukewarm response, WELL Balfour seeks further delay in February. The Planning Board votes to allow the applicant to withdraw the application without prejudice.
Planning Board Chair Adam Block said the last formal communication the board received from WELL Balfour was in March, when the company asked the Planning Board to extend the existing permit’s expiration to June 24, 2024. That request was approved at the Planning Board’s April 4 meeting.
And since that approval, it’s been crickets. There is only speculation about what might come next — Welltower could once again change operators; Welltower could act on the permit it has in its pocket and proceed with the original plan; Welltower could sell the property and the permit would go with it; or Welltower could just continue to sit on the property, hoping the town eventually concludes that a flawed project is preferable to the building continuing to remain vacant.
WELL Balfour representatives declined to comment for this article.