Developer once again files plans for controversial housing development behind Braintree’s South Shore Plaza

The Boston Globe

ZOM Living has filed new plans to develop 325 apartments on a nearly nine-acre chunk of land behind Braintree’s South Shore Plaza. David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe

It has been two years since a national housing developer set its sights on a slice of the parking lots behind Braintree’s South Shore Plaza, the region’s largest mall, to build a huge new apartment complex.

What followed was one of the ugliest battles over a proposed housing development around here in recent memory. It was called a “monster”, residents packed public meetings to berate town officials, the mayor stepped in, and eventually, the developer, ZOM Living, walked away.

Less than a year later, ZOM is back and ready to try again.

The developer on Friday filed new plans with the town to develop 325 apartments on the nearly nine-acre chunk of land behind the plaza, in hopes of fulfilling their vision of transforming the mall — Braintree’s largest taxpayer — into a bustling mixed-use complex like other reimagined malls across the region. The politics in town have changed over the last year, and ZOM’s project is different now.

So they hope this time, things will be different.

“I’ve had a few people look at me like I’m crazy for trying this again,” said ZOM managing director Jim Dunlop. “The simple reason is that we view this property as the nexus of the South Shore, next to a huge regional shopping center that could be even more successful with housing. I don’t know how you argue with that.”

ZOM’s return is the latest in a saga that could define Braintree’s future. The town is staring down an $18 million budget shortfall after years of stagnant economic development, and has resisted new development in recent years. Transforming the plaza could offer a big boost, some town officials say, and help chart a course for the future.

And then there is the housing shortage, which is gradually changing the historically middle class town into just another Greater Boston suburb that too few people can afford. The median-priced home in Braintree sold for $730,000 in May, according to the Warren Group, a real estate analytics group. An influx of more than 300 new units could offer some relief.

“We cannot be passing up on economic development opportunities that make this much sense,” said Town Councilor Elizabeth Maglio. “We’re talking about building housing on empty parking lots next to the mall, which is our biggest source of commercial tax revenue. This is a golden opportunity that we can’t mess up again.”

This time around, ZOM’s project has a few key differences. One is that Charles Kokoros is no longer Braintree’s mayor. Kokoros fiercely opposed the project and stonewalled early efforts to conduct studies and meet with town officials; he lost his reelection bid in November. The new mayor, Erin Joyce, has taken an early focus on economic development and balancing the town’s budget, and has been supportive of the idea of housing at the mall.

It is also not the same project. The $140 million complex ZOM proposed this week has 200 fewer units than the original plans, which envisioned 500 units spread across two five-story buildings. This proposal envisions one four-story building with more green space and a tall landscaped berm to shield it from the nearby neighborhood.

Those changes, said Dunlop, are an effort to address concerns residents raised at a series of raucous public meetings last year.

What hasn’t changed, Dunlop said, is the huge economic potential at the mall. Those acres of underused parking lots represent an opportunity to bring the Plaza back to life, much as new housing has done at shopping centers in Natick and Hanover. As Dunlop puts it, new residents could patronize the retailers, and more retailers could open thanks to the boost in foot traffic.

“I cannot think of a better place to put housing,” said Frank Marinelli, a local land-use attorney who is representing the ZOM project. “This is exactly the kind of project the town needs, at a time when the town really needs it, and in a location that could use the boost.”

Of course, none of those changes are likely to entirely offset the fierce opposition that stopped the project last year, when you couldn’t walk a block in Braintree without seeing a yard sign urging the town to “stop the monster project.” One prominent opponent likened new housing to arsenic, and another suggested that pedophiles would move into the new building because it would have been near an elementary school.

Kelly Moore, president of the North Braintree Civic Association, the resident group that led the opposition last year, signaled that his group would oppose the new version, too.

The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again but expect a different result,” Moore said. “That’s what ZOM is doing.”

From left, Liz Page, Kelly Moore, and Justine Huang of the North Braintree Civic Association conducted a rancorous campaign last year against a proposed housing project at Braintree’s South Shore Plaza. JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF

But — in large part because of the ZOM debacle last year — momentum in town seems to be moving in a different direction these days, said Maglio.

“I think people were embarrassed about the way Braintree looked, and the message we sent as a town,” she said. “Residents are starting to realize that we need to grow to succeed.”

The other dynamic driving that shift is the town’s massive budget deficit, which Joyce, the new mayor, says has been driven by a resistance to growth. Without new development, tax revenues have stagnated and failed to keep up with the town’s growing budget. Last week, residents overwhelmingly approved an $8 million property tax hike to reduce the scale of impending layoffs at Braintree Public Schools and the public works department.

The override will eliminate roughly half of the deficit, and Joyce says economic development is the best way to fill the rest of the gap. ZOM estimates the plaza project would net the town roughly $550,000 in tax revenue annually.

Joyce says she’s supportive of housing at the plaza, though she has stopped short of throwing her full support behind this specific plan by ZOM. She hopes a robust, more measured community process will ease the concerns of residents who protested last time around.

“This is an opportunity to engage as a community and produce a new housing project that we can be proud of and make up for some of the mistakes we made last time,” Joyce said. “I hope we can come together.

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