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After asking the developer to significantly change his proposal for a mixed-use structure that he hopes can replace the abandoned, vacant Atwood House, the Arlington Redevelopment Board voted Monday, July 1, to continue the permit hearing that began on that date.

Many who were present were more concerned that a large tree on the property not be uprooted. So, before deciding the tree’s fate, the board also asked property owner Geoffrey Noyes to work with the Arlington tree warden to assess its health.

Despite past efforts to preserve the historic, dilapidated building, none of the eight residents who spoke, out of the dozen-plus who attended, opposed its removal. Instead, the concern was to save a Scotch pine tree, described as over 100 years old, on the same property. A recent petition drive advocates for the same goal.

At the start of the 100-minute meeting, architect Andres Rojas sketched the project’s contours. At the parcel's address, 821 Mass. Ave., between CVS and First Baptist Church, the proposed three-story building would have three rental units, each with three bedrooms, a side deck and a roof patio, plus one or two office spaces on the ground floor and a basement for storage. Rojas called the design “light, airy.”

Board perceives insufficient information

Though board members appeared generally in favor of the project, they asked for more documentation before making a decision, including an assessment of the feasibility of solar panels, a stormwater management plan, photos of existing conditions and a computer rendering of how the project might look.

Eugene Benson put it bluntly, saying of the missing details, “I was very surprised to see all of this checked off but finding very little [in the way of backup material] actually provided with the application.”

He also called into question whether the proposed offices on the ground floor would actually find tenants. “One of the things that you need to look at is if there’s actually a market for these or whether there’s too much of it already in the immediate neighborhood, because the last thing I think we want to do is approve a building where offices sit vacant for a long time,” he said.

In addition, Arlington’s zoning bylaws may require the building to include solar panels, according to member Shaina Korman-Houston, yet the proposed roof is described only as “solar-ready.” To avoid including the green energy source, she noted, a developer needs to demonstrate that solar panels would be too difficult to install.

Board member Kin Lau suggested a more inviting facade and front yard to help create and maintain a vibrant, active streetscape in a part of town where many people typically walk, shop and congregate.

Residents rally 'round Scotch Pine

Despite previous calls over several years to save the historic Atwood House, residents at the most recent ARB meeting were most concerned with saving a Scotch pine that they estimate to be more than 100 years old. 

Susan Stamps, a member of the town’s tree committee, said, “We have to have more green space. We have to have more trees. We cannot keep sacrificing them to redevelopment.” She pointed out the huge tree absorbs carbon emitted from traffic on Mass. Ave. On top of that, removing the tree’s root system could reduce how much stormwater the area can absorb, she said.

Marina Popova, Town Meeting member and 20-year town resident told the board of her recent published plea in defense of the tree. She said she had garnered some 300 signatures in support in only four days, having created the petition June 28.

“How many 100-year-old trees do we actually have in Arlington? I don’t think it’s that many,” she said. “Preserving this tree is like preserving our history -- preserving the history of Arlington.”

Another speaker who claimed to be a lifelong resident echoed the sentiment, pointing out the area’s history stretches back to the Revolutionary War Battle of Menotomy, the name of the town in the 18th century. She said, “I’m a townie. I have my mother, who is also a townie. She’s almost as old as the tree.” She wondered how the tree possibly could be commemorated if it could not be saved; Korman-Houston suggested installing a bench made of its wood.

Rojas said that an arborist his firm had hired called the tree unhealthy -- an assessment some board members agreed with. Before considering how to adjust the design to protect the tree, members said they wanted to hear from the town tree warden about its long-term viability.

The continuation of the hearing is scheduled for Sept. 24.

Preservation previously sought

The current mixed-use proposal has come a long way from plans made over the last 20 years. Residents had hailed Noyes’s commitment to instead preserve and renovate the house as recently as 2019, though it was not a stance he maintained for much longer after that.

According to local historian Richard Duffy in an article three years ago, the house at one point was to have become the “centerpiece” of a residential development in the early 2000s

 A nearby car dealership planned to expand onto its property and move the historic structure to another part of town.

“Then Hodgdon-Noyes Buick went out of business in 2008,” Duffy said at that time. “An integral part of the CVS redevelopment of the automobile dealership site was the preservation and rehabilitation of the Atwood House, and numerous commitments were made in the special permit hearing process on behalf of Noyes Realty to preserve the house as part of the application package.”

Background on the parcel at issue
The Dr. Charles A. Atwood House as it looked in 1915./  Arlington Historical SocietyThe Atwood house in July 2021 after the stop-work order was sent. 


Noyes and his project are before the ARB after earlier facing fines and a moratorium on demolition in August 2021.

After years watching it sit vacant and with the proposal for affordable housing units going nowhere, Noyes began to illegally demolish the building in July 2021. The Arlington Historical Commission ordered the house preserved in August 2021, delaying its removal by one year; and, because of the attempts at unlawful removal, the moratorium was extended to two years.

The company, which owns both the long-vacant house and a nearby building housing a CVS drugstore, recently discovered that it could not build two retail spaces as originally hoped. This is because the lease with CVS does not allow other retail in such close proximity, according to the Town of Arlington’s director of planning and community development, Claire Ricker, who spoke briefly at a previous ARB meeting.

June 16, 2024: With hotel still first choice, developer weighs scenarios for long-delayed project

This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Jacob Posner was published Wednesday, July 3, 2024.