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The Josiah Smith Tavern and Old Library: Finally, a Level Playing Field?

The Town Meeting on December 2nd hit the reset button for a level playing field for alternative proposals for the reuse of the Old Library and the Josiah Smith Tavern.  Voters soundly defeated a zoning by-law amendment, notwithstanding its many commendable provisions because it was widely seen as abetting unwanted commercial development of those landmark properties.  Voters then overwhelmingly passed two articles placed on the meeting’s warrant by citizens’ petitions, which urged, respectively, turning the Old Library into an art center and launching a “do over” of a Request for Proposals (RFP) process so that such town-oriented and public uses, like an art center, can be considered.  The two petition articles had been opposed by the Selectmen. 

At the Selectmen’s meeting a week later, Kamran Zahedi, real estate developer Urbanica’s principal, withdrew his firm’s $22,000 offer to convert those properties into privately owned luxury condos, a bed and breakfast inn and a restaurant.  And his withdrawal meant Urbanica would forgo the Selectmen’s enticement of an excessive but not-yet voted $4.1 million Community Preservation Act (CPA) grant.  That grant would have been funded largely by the relentlessly assessed but otherwise stagnant 3% CPA surcharges on our annual property tax bills. For a triple play, Zahedi also terminated a year-old letter of intent whereby the Selectmen had bestowed “exclusive preferred developer” status on Urbanica.

What was now left for the Selectmen to do?  Apparently, it was to toss this greasy ball of trouble to a newly formed Working Group with a charge to gin up fresh recommendations.  Also tossed to the Working Group was the fate of any further consulting work by the Cecil Group, which had been advising the Selectmen on this project.

This, by the way, was where things stood four years ago in January 2010, when volunteer Weston residents serving on the Josiah Smith Tavern/Old Library (JST/OL) Committee reported on what needed to be done to the Old Library to make its conversion to town-oriented uses, among other choices, feasible.  Evidently this report was not to the Selectmen’s liking because they let the committee’s tenure expire.  They turned instead to the Cecil Group to lead the way, for a fee, to a solution that—as one Selectman later pronounced at several public meetings—would get the Josiah Smith Tavern as well as the Old Library “off the Town’s back.”

The Cecil Group began with so-called “charettes”—that is a fancy French word for brainstorming sessions, as a means of evaluating community preferences, which reaffirmed strong interest in retaining town ownership of and public access to these buildings.  The Cecil Group then managed a RFP that yielded a solitary response—namely, Urbanica’s bid, which mostly ignored those charette findings.

At the risk of upsetting squeamish residents who think pointing out botched jobs is somehow uncivil discourse, we should note the Selectmen did not vote to declare the Old Library as surplus property until this past April 22nd, several months after they had chosen Urbanica as the winner of the Cecil Group’s RFP process.  This was no insignificant oversight.  In a manual published by the state’s Inspector General, a declaration of surplus property is prominently labeled as “Step 1” in order to comply with state law.  A similar declaration for the Josiah Smith Tavern is also required but has yet to be made.

To borrow a phrase of recent political notoriety, what difference does this make?  Well, such a declaration at the start gives public notice of what town property is available for sale or rent.  If this had been done, then perhaps the Selectmen would have faced alternative proposals that might have offered something other than a conversion of the Old Library into privately owned luxury condos.  Some of those alternatives are described in the Inspector General’s handbook, which highlights qualifying uses that serve a public purpose.

With growing support in Weston for town-oriented reuses such as heritage and art centers and performance venues as well as affordable housing, the Working Group should heed the message of the December 2 Town Meeting by recommending to the Selectmen that an honest and level playing field is needed for new proposals.  That way there will be a better chance that whatever solution a new RFP eventually puts before voters can be readily recognized as enhancing the vitality of our town center and preserving as much as possible the public’s long-standing access to these historic and architecturally significant buildings.

Bill Sandalls, Wood Ridge Circle
Ed Coburn January 06, 2014 at 04:26 PM
Bill -- Thank you for the summary of where we are to date. Your characterization of the declaration of surplus property as "no insignificant oversight" is off base however. First, the vote to designate the buildings is only a legal step required to be taken before ownership of the buildings can be transferred, so while it is important the timing is not. And, second, it was not overlooked. It is a technicality that needs to be accomplished before owernship is transferred. There is no need or reason to do it far in advance of any such transfer. The language of the Request for Proposal (RFP) makes it unambiguous that these buildings are not required for municipal purposes and were therefore "surplus" so your suggestion that making such a declaration earlier may have encouraged additional proposals has no basis in fact.
Ed Coburn January 06, 2014 at 04:36 PM
You do not indicate which Selectman you believe made the statement about "getting these buildings off our back" and as far as I know, it could have been any of us. Paying to maintain and operate two buildings which are not used by the town and minimally used by the community does not make sense. Finding a use for them -- whether by the town, nonprofit, or private parties in accordance with state procurement law and with the preservation interests of the town -- would seem to be a way of getting these buildings off our back. I think most residents would say that's a good thing.

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