Planning Board Ponders “Too Big” Proposal

Aired October 6, 2022.

During the third (and final) public hearing regarding the potential construction project located at 557 Highland Avenue, residents once again shared their concerns about the plans with the planning board.

reported by Yuxiao Yuan
At a public hearing on Monday, October 3rd, developer Bulfinch presented minor modifications to the proposed construction of two office and lab buildings, and one garage at 557 Highland Avenue. For residents who persistently opposed the scale of the project, the redesign was far from appealing. In addition, residents raised another concern about the safety of bio labs, which Bulfinch intends to have in the future.

This was the third and the last public hearing on the project, and since the first meeting in June residents have been calling for a much smaller scale, which would bring less traffic into the neighborhood. They would like a floor Area Ratio, or FAR, that is no more than 1.0.

Under the zoning bylaw, the FAR that is allowed by right on this parcel is 0.7, but applicants can apply for a Special Permit through the planning board for a maximum of 1.35 FAR. Bulfinch started with a 1.31 FAR and proposed reducing it to 1.25 at the meeting in September. The floor area ratio is derived by dividing the total floor area of the building by the total area of the parcel. Many residents had also pointed out in June, that because the zoning regulation that applies to the site excludes a parking garage in the floor area, the five-story garage included in the proposed development significantly increases the FAR in reality.

“Most of us in this room did not know that FAR did not include the parking garage,”testified Needham resident Joan Schockett. “It just seemed totally beyond anything that we ever, ever imagined when we came to this point.”

At the October 3rd meeting, Bulfinch proposed an updated 1.21 FAR by creating some top floor setbacks and notches on the building along Highland Avenue. These changes reduced the project scale by 15,000 square feet, which is about a three percent decrease from the previous plan. And, once again, residents did not embrace this minor adjustment.

Robert Dangel countered, “We just reiterate that we need to find some compromise and get to a smaller FAR than even what is proposed right now. I think that’s what’s responsible for this community.”

Henry Ragin took it further, challenging, “How much are we going to sell Special permits for? What makes it special? The mass of it doesn’t make it special.”

“I would personally like to see the FAR is reduced,”said Ben Daniels. “Something along the 1.0 FAR. I’m realistic enough to know that, you know, everyone has to make compromises, but if we can maybe make some sort of compromise to get the size down a little bit, get the traffic down a little bit, think about how to mitigate the traffic, because I think that’s really not been really addressed in it.”

Another major concern centered around the safety of bio labs, because Bulfinch has the intention to lease to a life-science research company. If granted the special permit, the labs on the site would be limited to Bio Safety Level 1 or 2. At the meeting in June, the environmental consultant hired by Bulfinch said within levels 1 and 2, researchers may work with biological materials such as human blood, salmonella, or E. coli bacteria that only pose low or no risk to the public.

“Absolutely no airborne pathogen, or any pathogens that can be spread via the inhalation route, are worked on in these labs.”

Under the Needham biotechnology registration regulation, all biotech companies seeking to operate in town must first register with the Board of Health, so local health and safety related officials can better assess and monitor potential risks posed by flammable chemicals and hazardous materials by following the National Institute of Health guidelines. But many felt the current regulations and human resources were not capable of ensuring the safety of the community.

Charlie Popkin stated, “You have not addressed, or demonstrated Needham’s understanding of what it takes to have a life-sciences facility of this nature in our town, and what goes into (and needs to go into) the monitoring, management, and enforcement to make it safe.”

Natalie Ho read from a prepared statement. “Who will be reviewing the purpose of the company and the specific technology being employed? The types of biological vectors and the hosts that will be used, the genes that will be altered? Who will be reviewing the floor plans, medical surveillance programs, subcontract for waste removal, pest control, instrument validation, ventilation, and be able to discuss all the required local, state and federal permits being sought or amended?”

The Planning Board voted to close the hearing but are open to further clarifications from the Board of Health regarding regulations and requirements for the operation of bio labs. The board will need to make a decision on this application in 90 days.

This story ran as part of the Needham Channel News, a weekly newscast airing on The Needham Channel every Thursday at 7:30pm. The Needham Channel News can be found on the Community Channel: Comcast 9, Astound 15 and Verizon 29. Most Thursdays it also can be viewed on our HD Channel on Verizon 2129, Astound 613 and streaming on this site.
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