Council Denies Zoning Change for Property with Church Near Belmont St.

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A Google Earth image of the former Belmont Baptist Church. Developers sought a zoning change to allow for the building to be preserved and to develop other parts of the property.

A majority of the City Council could not be convinced that the zoning should be changed for a parcel with a former church on Templeton Parkway. The change would have protected the building from being torn down, but also could allow a range of uses from education to restaurant or commercial, as well as housing.

The proposal to create a Religious/School Building Overlay District at 126-134 Templeton Parkway, a property next to Belmont Street that includes the former Belmont Baptist Church building.

Assistant City Manager Steve Magoon said the zoning amendment would not change the underlying zoning of a two-family district, but would preserve the building that dates back to the 1920s, and would also expand the allowable uses. The developers from Eaglebrook Capital brought forward the proposed change, and when they presented to the Planning Board had preliminary plans that included five townhouses near Belmont Street, and said they would rehabilitate the church with hopes of having a preschool move in, however they had no firm plans for that space.

Similarly to when the zoning change came before the Planning Board, a vast majority of residents living near the property opposed the proposal at the Council meeting. Some said they were concerned about the traffic and noise, and others said there is nothing in the zoning requiring the church to be used as a preschool. Some other allowable uses are commercial, including restaurants, bars, or a liquor store.

Those who supported the change said they want to see more housing for the area, and the plan brought forward included some more housing.

District A Councilor Nicole Gardner, whose district includes the property, the proposal was a complicated one as she weighed her decision. She said the idea of preserving a church that needs a lot of work, and adding more housing had an appeal, but then her opinion shifted when she saw the use of the church was not settled.

“On one hand I like the idea of preserving that church and I certainly like the idea of more housing — I would like it to be more dense since the City, I think, is in need of it, and for the region,” Gardner said. “The plan that the developer shared with me doesn’t address how the church would be used, turned into usable space or for what goes there. And for that reason and given the long implications of having zoning change I am not comfortable voting for this.” 

She asked how many two family homes could be built on the property if the zoning change is not allowed. Magoon estimated that it could be subdivided into four or five parcels, resulting in eight to 10 units in two family houses.

While the Council talked about the proposal for the land that the developers had shared at the Planning Board, they were voting on the zoning change, not on a particular proposal, noted Councilor Caroline Bays.

“When doing zoning amendments we are speaking about a particular place, even if we had an idea what developers had planned, at any point that developer could do something else as long as it is within the parameters of the zoning,” she said. “So, I think we really need to be looking at the zoning for that space, if it makes sense. What we are voting on is the zoning. For me it has benefits especially for density of housing. To me that makes sense — I should be voting for that.”

Councilor John Gannon said that two other former churches in town have been preserved by being redeveloped, the former First Baptist Church at Mt. Auburn and Common streets, and the former St. Theresa’s Church at Mt. Auburn and School streets. Magoon said that the First Baptist property had a similar overlay to the proposal, while St. Theresa’s was done without it.

The value of the property would increase significantly if the zoning was changed. Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli said that if that was going to happen, there should be a clear benefit for the City. He noted that the developers had a clear plan for the housing in the proposed project, but nothing concrete for the church.

“This is a prime opportunity for people without cars to live right on a bus route with shopping and restaurants nearby, but that is not what the developer presented, and I know we are not here to vote on a specific proposal but if want to come and ask us to double the value of the property we want to know what’s in it for us, the public,” Piccirilli said.

The Council has had a few requests for zoning overlays over the years, said Council President Mark Sideris, and some got approved but the project never came to fruition. Two examples were assisted living centers proposed to go at the former Parker School on Watertown Street and the former Super 8 motel between North Beacon and Arsenal streets at Irving Street.

“The successful ones had a plan. This particular one has nothing on the church side,” Sideris said. “I understand we want to preserve it, I understand we all want additional housing opportunities but in my mind there are too many questions here. I don’t think this is a well thought out request. … I am not really comfortable allowing this to move forward.”

The Council voted 6-3 against approving the zoning overlay, with Bays, Lisa Feltner and Tony Palomba voting yes.

One thought on “Council Denies Zoning Change for Property with Church Near Belmont St.

  1. Watertown, the new Somerville.
    Every nook and cranny packed with buildings. No openness,
    It’s all about the Benjamins.
    I’ve heard talk of spending large amounts to purchase land in remote and little visited areas yet an area in a location that could benefit everyone is not even noticed.
    This spot would be another great location for many play activities. The Maker space in the church building for one. Another is preserving the open space for outdoor activities.
    I wish I had more free time to have more input but, like many, I am always on the edge of survival.

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