Petition calls for town to seize land slated for project: Boston MA Globe, 3/18/07

By Robert Preer

Concerned that the developer of the largest building project ever in Holbrook might renege on its plans, some local officials are throwing their support behind a citizen's petition that proposes seizing the Old English Square development site by eminent domain and turning it into town wells and a municipal golf course.

Robert A. Powilatis's petition is scheduled to go before the May 15 Town Meeting. The article has been endorsed by several key officials, who say they fear the developer, Mullins Co. of Braintree, might drastically change the commercial-residential makeup of the $43 million project.

Planned for 78 acres on Union Street between Holbrook Center and the Holbrook/Randolph commuter rail station, the development is slated to have 211 condominium units and 63,000 square feet of commercial space, which would include a fitness club and restaurant. An existing bowling alley would be renovated and stables added for a recreational horse riding attraction, according to Mullins Co.

The developer says its plans for Old English Square have not changed.

In recent months, however, some Holbrook officials have become increasingly concerned the project will be altered to be mostly low-income apartments and little retail. The town is seeking to bolster its small commercial tax base.

"I would love to see the whole thing be some kind of commercial development," said Selectman Richard McGaughey, one of the signers of Powilatis's petition. He said the developer had indicated the retail part of the project was to have been built first, but now is shifting the emphasis to residential.

"I felt they sort of reneged on their promise," McGaughey said.

Other critics of the project have voiced fear that it would cause traffic problems on the already heavily traveled Union Street.

Powilatis, who is an elected member of the Board of Assessors and Housing Authority, was out of town and could not be reached for comment. Other town officials who signed the Town Meeting article include Selectman Paul Currie, Assessor Pamela Holt, Town Clerk Shirley Austin, alternate Planning Board member Rudolph Mosesso, and Town Accountant Cynthia Brennan.

Michael Mullins, president of Mullins Co., denounced the drive to block the project.

"We'd take an enormous loss if this went through. There are still some people in Town Hall who, for whatever reason, don't agree with this project," he said.

Mullins said the development team has not decided the exact sequence of the project and is assessing the market for both retail and residential. He said conditions are generally sluggish now.

"I don't know if the market is ready for the retail. I don't know if it's ready for the housing either," he said.

The first phase of the development would be construction of the fitness club and renovation of the bowling alley, according to Mullins. The condominiums will be a mix of one- and two-bedroom units, he said.

Mullins said his company is committed to building a high-quality, mixed-use project that will enhance the town. "It's a good-looking project. It is going to give the area a face-lift," he said.

Mullins Co. still needs approvals from the Planning Board before it can start construction. While the board has approved the overall concept of the development, conditions on the construction are still the subject of talks between the developer and the board.

Even if Town Meeting approves Powilatis's petition, the town would have to clear many hurdles to acquire the property. The proposal asks the Board of Selectmen to take the property by eminent domain for $1.9 million.

Mullins said the figure is very low, considering the town now assesses its value at $7 million. He indicated the company would wage a legal fight against an eminent domain action.

Selectwoman Katherine Connolly, who has been a critic of Old English Square, nevertheless questioned the petition drive by the other officials.

She said she fears the proposed price tag for the eminent domain taking could give Mullins Co. grounds to challenge its current assessment.

"I don't understand why any official would sign it," Connolly said.

Austin, the town clerk, said she has been a longtime opponent of the Old English Square development. "I would love to see a golf course there," said Austin, who lives near the site.

The state Office for Commonwealth Development has touted the project as an example of "smart growth" because of its proximity to the Old Colony Railroad station. Critics say the development does not qualify as transit-oriented development because it is about a half-mile from the station, which is farther than most people will walk.

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