By Adam Swift
Following a lengthy meeting on Tuesday night, the Planning Board recommended approval of the special permit for the public-private Veterans’ Home in Chelsea redevelopment project.
The recommendation comes with a host of conditions, including one which will have to be reviewed by the city solicitor before the Zoning Board of Appeals takes up the recommendation for a vote on the special permit at its November meeting.
The project will also be back before the Planning Board in November for a potential site plan review vote.
During the more than two hour public hearing, board members, residents, and city officials raised concerns about the project.
Many of those concerns revolved around the level of services to the veterans who currently live on the campus, the amount of green space on the campus, parking, traffic, and the configuration of Crescent Avenue.
City Council President Leo Robinson suggested that the city enter into a three-way contract with Pennrose, the developer of the campus and the state.
The Planning Board worked the condition into its approval, but city land use planner John DePriest and several other Planning Board members questioned the legal authority of the condition.
DePriest said he would have the city solicitor review the condition, and if it passed muster, it would be included in the recommendation to the ZBA, and if it did not, it would not be included.
There will be 241 units throughout the redeveloped property, and Pennrose representatives stated that all 121 veterans currently living on site will be able to remain on the property during construction and will have a place in one of the newly updated units.
Veterans will have 100 percent preference for the affordable units at the redeveloped Veterans’ Home, according to Karmen Cheung, a senior developer for Pennrose.
There will be centralized social services provided onsite provided by Soldier On, a private nonprofit organization that provides veterans services at similar locations, according to Pennrose.
Pennrose is preserving all nine buildings that are on the current Soldiers’ Home site, with the only scheduled demolition set for the one-story incinerator building.
The new construction for the project includes 18 units of townhouses, a two-story cafe and community building, and a new building on the east parcel at the corner of Hillside and Crest Avenue.
The project is proposed to be in phases, with the first phase being Sargent, the Laundry Building, the connector building, Williams, and the victory garden.
The priority for the first phase was to renovate the existing buildings that are mostly vacant, so that there would be fewer existing residents as possible moved.
The second phase will consist of the Adams building and the East Parcel, the third phase will be the Sullivan building and the townhouses, and the final phase will be the headquarters building, the power plant, and the Keville Building.
The overall parking plan calls for the creation of a parking deck with 119 off-street parking spots, and the creation of a parking district along Crest Avenue and Hillside which will provide 78 on-street parking spaces for Veterans’ Home residents.
During the initial ZBA meeting earlier this month, as well as at the Planning Board hearing Tuesday night, several city residents and officials raised concerns about the level of services that will be provided to the existing veterans on the site once the transition is made to Pennrose. One of the main areas of concern has been the worry that the existing veterans on the campus will not receive the three meals per day that they currently receive.
Planning Board member Mimi Rancatore, who added the condition about the three-way contract suggested by Robinson, said the condition would help ensure veterans would still get the same level of service they now receive.
At the beginning of the hearing, Robert Engell, the executive director of housing for the state’s Executive Office of Veterans Affairs and the acting superintendent of the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home spoke in favor of the project.
“We do believe it will be both transformational for our campus and supportive of our current resident veterans, as well as future generations of veterans who will be more comfortable in their own affordable housing units,” said Engell. “The Commonwealth does remain committed to serving our veterans and Chelsea and across the Commonwealth. The Community Living Center that just opened last week and this project are two leading developments that we are using to better meet the needs of veterans today and in the future.”
Engell said that all the veterans who currently live on the campus will have a place on the campus throughout construction and once the new space is developed.
The Executive Office of Veterans Affair will continue to work closely with Pennrose, and perform annual reviews to make sure the development is meeting the needs of the entire veterans population, Engell said.
Eleanor Street resident and District 2 City Council candidate Constantinos Boussios said he has concerns about the project both for veterans and the community at large.
Boussios said he has heard from veterans concerned that they will not be getting three meals per day, making it harder for older and disabled veterans to live on the campus. He also questioned the plans presented by Pennrose, noting that there were no concrete plans in writing about the services for veterans.
Boussios also raised concerns about the potential loss of green space when the east parcel is developed.
District 3 Councilor Norieliz DeJesus said she wanted to make sure there was plenty of outreach to the community about the project once construction starts, pointing to the disruptions to residents during the Central Avenue housing project.
Several other residents raised concerns about stormwater management, traffic, speeding on Summit Avenue, the location of a proposed playground on the property, and tree bump outs on Crescent Avenue and how it could impact snow plowing and street sweeping, as well as the veterans meals and services.
There was also a statement from City Council candidate Roberto Jimenez Rivera raising concerns about the veterans services.
“I would hope, having heard from us and the members of the community and the City Council president, that this is something of great importance and value to everyone here,” Planning Board member Sharlene McLean said at the end of the meeting about the commitment to maintain the level of services and the three meals per day to the veterans who currently live on the campus.
Other conditions included in the Planning Board recommendation for approval included design review, a landscape maintenance plan, a stormwater management plan, a construction management plan, and the application to the Traffic and Parking Commission for the veterans’ parking district proposal.