On Monday, residents were given a glimpse of what an important section of Manchester’s Limited Commercial District (LCD) might look like if residents voted this fall to adopt new zoning bylaws aimed at better monetizing the town’s last significant commercial district.
The forum was the third in a series hosted by the Planning Board, which has been exploring development options for the LCD, located at Upper School Street on the other side of Route 128 and before the Manchester Essex woods. The 67 attendees were introduced to a possible wellness district featuring an expanded Manchester Athletic Club, recreational fields, medical services, a hotel, residential townhouses, and an assisted living complex.
The LCD was identified in the Manchester Master Plan as a key strategy for strengthening much needed tax revenue for the town. In January 2019, the town started its planning. A multi-board team determined that the Massachusetts “40R” zoning bylaw (called the “Smart Growth Overlay” district), with its integrated commercial/residential zoning approach, could be the answer. Since then, the town has enlisted consultants, surveyed residents, hosted forums, and met with the district’s landowners.
In all, the LCD is nearly 760 acres. Planning Board member Gary Russell explained that nearly 400 acres are already permanently protected as conservation land. The focus area is a familiar, already developed portion of the LCD, and includes a medical building off School Street, the town’s composting facility, the Manchester Athletic Club (MAC), and the Brady Industrial Park.
Monday’s goal was to share specific ideas—drawn from private landowners in the LCD—exploring “blue sky” ideas and what they might accrue to the town. The 40R Smart Growth Overlay zoning would have to pass at a special Town Meeting this fall. If passed, the town would benefit from significant state incentive payments and gain points on state infrastructure grants. In return, the town would have to work within state density guidelines and a mandate that at least 51 percent of any development be residential. The rest can be commercial.)
The highlight of the meeting was Anthony Simboli, owner of the MAC, which operates on a 50-acre parcel of land that abuts the 10-acre Brady Industrial Park, the medical building and Route 128. Simboli said he wants to better utilize his land, his team has studied the Master Plan and believes his ideas work with future needs of the town.
“This is one of the last pieces of land that the town can look to generate tax revenue,” he said. “(The town) needs to seriously consider what’s in the short- and long-term best interests, and I’m willing to listen to all sides of the discussion.”
The Master Plan, developed over nearly fouryears and adopted in 2019, cited increasing resident tax pressure in the face of two big factors: unavoidable big-ticket capital improvements and infrastructure projects. When surveyed last year about the LCD last year, residents said they wanted development of the area to complement, not compete with, downtown businesses. They also wanted an increase in health and wellness services, including assisted living options for elderly residents.
Simboli brought designs that addressed many of these. His wide-spanning concept for a “lifestyle community” included an enhanced MAC, recreation and sports fields, wellness and physical therapy, and a hotel to service the club’s nationally recognized competitive tennis program, which draws visitors from far away. A portion of the hotel’s rooms would be extended stay. There was also an integrated assisted living facility concept, adult daycare, senior center, workforce housing, and residential housing (including some age-restricted housing). This concept was preliminary, and illustrative, he said. Based on zoning, his design specifics would evolve.
Some say 40R is too heavy handed for Manchester, and would drive unwanted density. Others say it’s a powerful way to give the town much needed control to diversify housing types to meet demographic changes in Manchester’s resident population, which is aging fast. They also say higher density can be a tool to maximize open space in the LCD by restricting development to a tight footprint.
Town Assessor Virginia “Ginny” Thompson said Monday the Simboli’s ideas would increase annual tax revenue by more than $1.5 million per year. But, she warned, that’s an estimate, a very conservative one.
Is the 40R approach the only way to unlock value from the LCD? No, say officials, but it’s worth exploring carefully. That said, Russell said success in the LCD—whatever its form—will require changes in Manchester’s existing bylaws, including “lighter handed” approaches, such as adjusting setbacks, easing height restrictions and building size, looking at parking standards, or allowing mixed use development.
All of these will be the subject of continued educational public meetings like this week in the seven months between now and a vote by residents at Town Meeting.