To the Editors of The Wellesley News:
The North 40 debate is complex and one about which reasonable minds can differ. I wanted to share my perspective as a real estate developer experienced in public-private partnerships. Beyond my professional background and general concern for property rights, I have no horse in this race — no affiliation with Wellesley College or the town and no intention of bidding on this parcel.
The context of this debate is important — not just the pastoral landscape of North 40 and the Durant Indenture, but the fiscal challenges that are pounding the higher education sector. Financial austerity coupled with stretching to find new sources of revenue is not a story endemic to Wellesley College. For the College to remain competitive and continue recruiting the best and brightest from around the world, isn’t it important to invest in critical campus improvements? I have young daughters and appreciate the challenges ahead to have self-sustaining educational institutions. Therefore, I urge caution with pursuing a fee simple sale of this property. North 40 is a valuable asset and an important part of the campus community. Disposing of it for a one time gain would be unfortunate for an institution whose planning horizon should be measured in centuries rather than years. The alternative of a ground lease doesn’t seem to have received adequate attention. A ground lease would be in the best long-term interest of the institution by retaining fee ownership of a scarce resource which would revert to the College upon expiration of the term and could then be reevaluated. A lease would allow Wellesley College to retain control, impose its own restrictions, and have a voice in the development concept. Furthermore, it could put this property more within reach for conservationists bemoaning their inability to raise funds to acquire the land outright. And this option could still have an immediate impact on campus projects by leveraging the recurring revenue.
As a conscientious developer, I am hard pressed to accept that there isn’t a higher and better use for North 40 than walking trails and a nature retreat. Some permitted uses (i.e. education) could help address pressure points for citizens. One option that merits consideration is the same one contemplated in the mid-80s for an affiliated retirement community. This trend was nascent at that time but has gained momentum as developers strive to accommodate a new generation of retirees. A guiding example is the Vi Retirement Community in Palo Alto, California, where Hyatt entered into a 75-year ground lease with Stanford. An age-restricted community could also help the town satisfy its affordable housing requirement, alleviate concerns about overburdening schools, and raise significant tax revenue. Traffic concerns could be mitigated through proffered conditions such as intersection improvements. Applying the NRP bylaw would allow half the site to remain as open space without impacting the density of a new development — a reasonable compromise.
In addition to a success story, I would like to mention a cautionary tale from California: The San Francisco Armory. I had a horse in that race, and I (along with the citizens of San Francisco) decidedly lost. Developers had struggled for years to conceive of a reuse plan for this abandoned, decaying, yet promising arsenal that resembles a castle and occupies a city block in the Mission District. Each proposal was met with vociferous dissent by “NIMBY” groups and was ultimately denied. After significant time and expense was invested in a visioning process, ground rules were established – as a historically significant structure, neither the façade nor the interior could be altered, and the zoning would remain light industrial. This was a roundabout way of saying that no redevelopment scenario would be acceptable. Shortly thereafter, a surprising rumor spread that someone purchased the building for $14 million. I wondered whether a creative genius had found a productive use under those restrictions, or if a fool had just parted with $14 million? The untoward punchline is that the purchaser also owns an S&M pornography website and could use the dungeon-like setting to make films as a permitted use under the zoning while meeting the unreasonable restrictions imposed by the community. That hardly seemed like a higher and better use than, say, affordable housing, but it did seem like poetic justice — and it teaches a poignant lesson that being uncompromising and irrational can lead to unintended and even less desirable outcomes.
Thomas J. Livelli, Jr.