By Seth Daniel
For the Transcript
The former Governor Winthrop Nursing Home on Pleasant Street used to be a place where people went as their life was winding down.
Now, new owners of the property are looking to spring a new life into the building, provided they can win an upcoming zoning designation and corral the support of the neighbors in the predominantly residential area.
The old nursing home was forcibly shut down in 2006 and has remained dormant since that time.
A few years ago, a realty trust controlled by Louie and Rita Roberto – owners of Spinnelli’s Function Halls and Bakery – bought the building and they are now looking to develop housing on the site.
At issue is what kind and how much housing.
Already, the property has had two hearings before the Planning Board and that board has decided not to make any recommendations. That leaves the owners to pursue the zoning change.
Winthrop Attorney Richard Lynds said that the owners are looking to zone their property under the Special Development Overlay District (SDOD), a zoning designation established in 2006 to help redevelop dormant, non-residential properties.
Currently, the nursing home has a special zoning designation, but that all goes away once any new development breaks ground. That would leave the actual zoning for the area as Residential A, meaning that three two-families could be built there or perhaps four single-families.
The property contains just about 32,000 square feet of land.
Lynds said that he believes the Town created the SDOD exactly for properties like the old nursing home. However, the potential also exists for a drawn out fight such as happened at the old Winthrop Hospital and Dalrymple School.
“The fact remains that there is an existing non-residential structure there and that’s precisely what the SDOD is for, places like the Dalrymple School, the hospital and the Governor Winthrop Nursing Home,” he said. “These are properties that are obsolete and not used for their original purpose and qualify for the SDOD designation…It’s almost as if the designation was written for the Governor Winthrop.”
And, according to the zoning code, his estimation is right.
The Winthrop Zoning Code for SDOD’s indicates that it is to encourage re-development or new construction projects on old, dormant, non-residential buildings. The idea is to prevent old schools, hospitals, nursing homes and commercial buildings from falling into disrepair and becoming blighted.
Whether the old nursing home is blight to the neighborhood would be up for interpretation.
Currently, there isn’t much happening there and there hasn’t been much happening there for years. Neighbors may appreciate that and may have come to enjoy the serenity of dormancy.
However, Lynds said that leaving such buildings in a state of dormancy for long periods of time do not speak well of a community, and could become a major problem down the road.
“From a resident standpoint, having vacant buildings in our Town is not necessarily the best use for the Town,” he said, noting that he lives nearby on Cottage Park Road. “To encourage investment is a good thing for the Town provided that it complies with the bylaws of the Town.”
At this point, the discussion on the property is very narrow, confined only to the zoning change. A meeting of the Town Council on March 1st at 7:30 p.m. will take up that narrow discussion.
However, the elephant in the room during that hearing will be what the ultimate development plans are for the site.
Lynds said it’s kind of hard right now to discuss detailed plans because it’s putting the cart before the horse. Without the zoning, the project is very much in limbo. If the zoning change is allowed, then they can get down to really discussing and designing the project.
Lynds said they have floated the idea of 16 townhouse-style units on the site, but that is in no way set in stone. Much of that uncertainty is what has brought some hesitation.
“That’s been the controversy here,” he said. “In order to get discussion started, the development needs to get the zoning change…Whether the ultimate plan is 16 units will be up to the Planning Board and the developer. There are set guidelines and we have to meet those guidelines to get a Special Permit. At that time we’ll get in there and start discussing what the idea might look like. Where it finishes is anybody’s guess.”
Lynds said that it is important to keep an open mind about the project and that the developers have a proven track record of working with neighbors on good projects.
“The Robertos have a track record in doing positive projects and have done quite a few projects that have turned out well,” he said. “They took over the development at 910 Saratoga St. and turned it into a very nice project…Some of the resistance we’re hearing [on this project] is because of the unknown.”
The Robertos purchased the property in 2009 from a Georgia-based healthcare company for $1.11 million.