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Builders: 43D zones send business-friendly message

WORCESTER BUSINESS JOURNAL – When Normandy Real Estate Partners bought an office building at 15 Pleasant St. Connector in Framingham this spring, there were a number of things that made the deal attractive.

Justin Krebs, a principal of the New Jersey-based company, said it helped that the vacancy rate in the town is relatively low and that the building has an appealing location just off the Massachusetts Turnpike.

But also, Krebs said, the firm knew that Framingham was joining a number of its neighbors in moving to adopt the Massachusetts law known as 43D.

According to the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, 11 MetroWest commmunities have designated 43D zones.

Referred to as the state’s local expedited permitting law, 43D lets communities voluntarily designate certain sites for streamlined development permits. Within those sites, all relevant boards must rule on permit applications within 180 days. Cities and towns that adopt the rules must also offer a single point of contact to coordinate required permits and ensure that the decision-making process is transparent.

Pro-Business Attitude

To Normandy, the fact that town officials were pushing for 43D — which voters ended up passing at Town Meeting in May — represented the community’s pro-development attitude.

“It was one of the very key ‘check-the-boxes’ that made us very comfortable that it was a good investment,” Krebs said. “It’s good to know that you’re generally going to have a supportive host community.”

Town Manager Bob Halpin said that’s exactly what Framingham has been trying to let developers know.

“We’re clearly messaging a stepped-up effort to be more responsive to business permitting,” he said. “We’re sending a message that we’re open for business.”

That’s something Halpin wants businesses to understand about the town in general, but it’s especially vital for the three specific areas the town has designated as 43D zones — the Technology Park and 9/90 Crossing on the western side of town just south of Route 9 and the area around retailer TJX’s corporate campus on Cochituate Road and Speen Street. The town has already invested in improving water and sewer service in those areas, and they’re places where traffic is unlikely to bother many residents. The locations are also home to companies, including TJX and biotech giant Genzyme, that town officials would like to see expand locally.

Jim Hanrahan, a real estate attorney with Bowditch and Dewey, said it will take a while for Framingham to set up the mechanisms to implement 43D, including designating a single point-person for permitting issues, but he said his clients are already reacting positively.

“I think it does signal that this is a different philosophy in town,” he said. “Framingham, I think somewhat unfairly, has been seen as permitting-unfriendly.”

A Piece Of The Recovery

Hanrahan said that, based on his own firm’s experience, development is picking up in MetroWest.

“For the last three years most of what we were doing… was trying to keep permits valid, not advancing new projects,” he said. “Over the last nine months that’s changed markedly.”

And he said it makes sense for Framingham to push to attract some of that growing surge of development.

“They’ve got a lot of competition,” he said. “Marlborough’s been very aggressive in trying to attract business.”

In fact, Hanrahan said many communities are getting aggressive in using tools like 43D, as well as tax increment financing agreements, or TIFs, to lure development. According to the state, between its adoption in 2006 and last year, 82 municipalities adopted 43D zoning for 168 different sites.

Tim Cummings, executive director of the Marlborough Economic Development Corp., said the city does indeed work hard to position itself as business-friendly. He said 43D has helped, in part because when Marlborough adopted it in 2007 it came with state funds to market the community. That money is no longer available, and Cummings said the 180-day deadline isn’t a big deal in Marlborough because its boards generally make permitting decisions for all projects considerable faster than that, but he said 43D still has value.

“It’s a good program to help the private sector understand where growth should occur, which is often a question that is unanswered and leaves the private sector a little befuddled,” he said.

As for any competition between communities, Cummings said he likes the thought that Framingham is learning from Marlborough’s success, but he doesn’t see that town’s polices as any sort of threat.

“I love the idea that Framingham is pursuing the 43D program because at the end of the day, whether Framingham expands or whether the city of Marlborough expands, what we recognize is a rising tide lifts all boats,” he said.

Cummings said when he attends industry conferences he points not just to his own city but to the entire MetroWest region as an attractive place to do business. And, he said, as businesses are seeing increased stability in the economy, it’s a good time for the region to be putting itself out there.

“I think companies are starting to now contemplate expansion where before they were unsure of whether they wanted to take the risk,” he said.

Repurposing A Unique Building

As one of those businesses moving forward with new projects, Normandy found the MetroWest region is a likely spot to attract its own clients — often high-tech businesses that want an attractive space for their employees to work.

Normandy’s 95,000-square-foot, five-story building in Framingham, which it bought earlier this year for $5.5 million, has a uniquely top-heavy shape, with a metal and glass exterior and a brass and mahogany interior. Genzyme vacated the building in 2012.

Normandy is gutting the inside and rebuilding it into high-end, LEED-certified office space, specifically tailored for a lead tenant, Krebs said.

That means signing on a tenant before starting a significant construction project, and it means that if there were any hiccups or delays in permitting it could mean serious problems — perhaps the loss of the tenant.

It’s not unusual, Krebs said, for permitting in some communities to take more than 180 days — even a year or more is far from unheard of. He said 43D helps by both guaranteeing the timeline and by providing transparency in the process and letting developers know up front what the community needs from them and what kind of mitigation may be required. He said that’s especially important because the bodies that make decisions about development—planning boards, conservation boards and zoning boards of appeals—are made up of elected officials who could be voted out in the middle of the process.

“You could be dealing with a whole new population,” he said.

To Halpin, getting rid of that uncertainty for developers like Normandy is a key step to reaping some of the growth that seems to be coming to MetroWest.

“I think the whole region is a growth region,” he said, “And certainly we want to make sure we’re as aggressive as anybody else.”

This story originally appeared here.