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Written by Henry Schwan for the MetroWest Daily News (February 13, 2020)

Photo credit:  MetroWest Daily News Staff Photo / Henry Schwan

NATICK – A developer plans to tear down the former St. Patrick’s School, which has sat vacant for at least five years on East Central Street near downtown, and replace it with a mixed-use development that includes a restaurant, housing and an underground parking garage.

Selectmen unanimously approved a development agreement Monday night.

“Nothing is approved,” board Chairman Michael Hickey said in stressing that the agreement does not represent a final decision. Several layers of additional local and state approval are also necessary.

Developer Stonegate Group, LLC, in Natick plans to build up to 54 rental units, 25% classified as affordable.

Stonegate President Dean Calivas laid out the details – one building on East Central Street that includes ground-level retail and 46 rental units above on an undetermined number of floors; plus, four two-family town homes located behind the building.

Stonegate bought the former school, and three lots – 4 and 6 Lincoln St. and 5 Wilson St. – in 2015 for $3.4 million from the Archdiocese of Boston. All four parcels total 1.8 acres, and will encompass the project.

One motivation for the project, Hickey said, is to maintain Natick’s total housing stock at 10% affordable. The town is just over the threshold, and adding more affordable units should help guarantee Natick stays there after the 2020 U.S. census is complete. Because all units would be rentals, all would count toward the town’s affordable housing stock, said James Freas, Natick’s director of Community and Economic Development.

Communities below the 10% mark are susceptible to hostile 40B projects that allow a developer to bypass some local regulations to build projects bigger than a community wants.

The Stonegate project is a so-called “friendly 40B,” which gives the town more influence over the project’s outcome, Hickey said.

Calivas said 20% of the affordable units are available to families who earn 30-50% of the Area Median Income, which is the middle number of all incomes for a given area. The rest of the affordable units are for those that earn 80% of the AMI.

To facilitate the project, selectmen will sponsor two articles at Town Meeting in April. Both must pass to move the project forward.

One extends the downtown mixed-use zone to include land for the Stonegate project. Currently, the 1.8 acres are zoned residential.

The second article grants a liquor license to the site, which is necessary to put a restaurant on the ground floor.

Even with Town Meeting approval, Calivas said there are other hurdles to clear, including approval from the state Attorney General’s Office, final qualification as a 40B project and clearance from the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals.

Calivas hopes to break ground in the spring of 2021, and said a community meeting on Feb. 25 will solicit community feedback. A time and location haven’t been determined.

Natick’s 2030 Master Plan, developed by the town, calls for a vibrant downtown that includes more housing, with shops and restaurants within walking distance. According to Hickey, projects like the one planned by Stonegate fit the bill.

“We’re responding to what the community says it wants,” Hickey said.

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