The plan for the Roux Institute campus – a graduate-level program to be run by Northeastern University – made its first official appearance before the Planning Board last week.
And during the June 14 meeting, some members of the board expressed major concerns about the ownership of the former B&M Baked Beans property.
Planning Board Member David Silk raised the first concerns about who the land belongs to because the developers are seeking an institutional overlay zone.
Silk said the city is essentially being asked to grant the overlay to the nonprofit developers, the Falmouth-based Initiative for Digital Engineering and Life Sciences, not an institution.
Although Chuck Hewett, executive director of IDEALS, said the plan is to eventually transfer ownership to Northeastern, Silk said he was uncomfortable granting the request when they have no idea when that would happen.
“I have trouble saying a nonprofit development corporation can receive an IOZ,” Silk said, adding that it would be more acceptable to rezone the parcel in phases as IDEALS goes along, and “if and when Northeastern becomes the owner,” they could revisit the IOZ conversation.
Hewett said the “sole goal” of IDEALS is to create a campus that would support the Roux Institute. Part of the philanthropic gift from David Roux and his wife Barbara, Maine residents whose $100 million donation set this all up, was that this property would eventually be transferred to Northeastern.
“The when is up to Northeastern,” he said.
Hewett said the Roux family doesn’t control the Roux Institute, but they do control IDEALS. He said the timing of the transfer depends on how successful IDEALS is at raising more funding from other donors, how much additional funding they need, how much debt they have to take on, and when Northeastern feels comfortable taking the title.
Mary Costigan, the permitting attorney for IDEALS, said the nonprofit is the current property owner and will be developing the property through a series of ground leases – agreements where a tenant is permitted to develop property over a period of time, after which the land and all the improvements made are turned over to the property owner. One of the ground lessees is Northeastern, which will eventually become the final property owner. (An IDEALS representative said the other potential ground lessees haven’t been identified.)
An institutional overlay zone creates a special zone or district over another zone. According to a staff presentation at the June 14 meeting, it is a mechanism employed to outline future development, and has two major proponents: a regulatory framework and an institutional development plan, or IDP.
An IDP is similar to a city’s comprehensive plan, and the regulatory framework is similar to its zoning code.
Other members of the Planning Board, including Vice Chair Brandon Mazer, said they do think an IOZ is the right tool in this case, although Mazer said he has concerns about the precedent the board might set regarding “who or what is the institution and how it qualifies.”
“Why don’t we know how long these ground leases are going to last?” he asked.
Costigan said from a legal perspective, Northeastern doesn’t have to own the property immediately.
“IDEALS owns the property currently,” she said. “They have no other purpose other than to develop the campus for the institution.”
Board members said the project is most similar to the redevelopment of the Maine Medical Center campus, which is the only other IOZ in the city.
A major difference, however, is that in Maine Med’s case the hospital as an institution owns the property and sought the overlay zone. In Roux’s case, the developer is applying for the IOZ and promising to eventually turn the property over to the institution (Northeastern).
The Roux campus has also been compared to the Thompson’s Point development and the University of Southern Maine campus redesign. But Kevin Kraft, deputy director of planning and urban development, said there are differences.
Thompson’s Point has a master development plan that is a regulatory tool for a long-phase project with particular parameters and requirements.
“What that does is it ensures future site plans are integrated and work together,” he said.
The USM project is unique, Kraft said, because while the university is allowed to have an IOZ as an institution, it chose not to because there is already a separate overlay for the campus.
“It’s a zoning district that is specific to USM,” he said. “It allows some additional uses above and beyond their base zoning.”