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Written by Brian Benson for the MetroWest Daily News, originally published on 4/23/16

NATICK – A local developer is considering a mix of housing and shops for land along Route 135 between Lincoln and Wilson Streets that could transform a Natick Center block.

Representatives of Natick-based Stonegate Group, which has the property under agreement, presented to the Planning Board Wednesday a preliminary concept to tear down the former 45 East Central St. Catholic school building on site and build housing and shops.

Architect Jim Alexander said project officials are considering one-and two-bedroom units that would appeal to people over 55 and young professionals.

The developer is considering potentially 50 to 70 housing units.

Parking would be underneath the development.  The developer also plans to take cues from the neighborhood in designing a project, which could include a courtyard that fits well with open space on neighboring properties, Alexander said.

Planners offered mixed feelings on the potential subject, with some worrying about density and others praising elements such as underground parking. Proponents would need to get Town Meeting to approve a zoning change.

“I liked everything I saw tonight.  I appreciate that there’s a lot of sensitivity to the neighbors,” Planning Board member Andrew Meyer said.  “Something like this gives us an opportunity to really work collaboratively.”

Board member Julian Munnich wondered why town officials would want to increase the amount of housing allowed on the site.

“Density is a tough sell on a corridor that is already jammed,” he said.

Cathi Collins, who lives on Walkup Court off East Central Street, said East Central is “already a traffic nightmare.”

She worried the development could add traffic and put pressure on municipal services such as schools and public safety departments.

Planning Board Chairwoman Terri Evans said she would like some element of the school building preserved.  She said she also worries about extending downtown zoning that allows a mixed use development too far from the core downtown.  That could take away from the compact, walk-able downtown the town has strived to achieve.

Alexander said project officials looked at saving the school but found it unfeasible to convert the large building to another use.

Board member Peter Nottonson said he is “very enthusiastic about the concept presented here” and looks forward to seeing further progression in designing a project.