Next phase of Baker development hangs on resident vote

Residents of the Baker Square Condominium complex in Lower Mills have until September 14 to vote on an agreement that could mark a decisive turn in a long-awaited construction of new housing units in presently-empty buildings on the historic chocolate factory footprint. Residents are asked to decide on an agreement between Winn Development Company, which own the rights to develop a vacant building in the Baker complex, and the Baker Square Condominium Association's Board of Trustees that would allow Winn to extend the project's deadline for completion into October of 2008 in exchange for paying $250,000 to the condo association.

Winn officials and condo association trustees are pleased with the agreement and anxious to put the dilatory project back in motion. But several Baker residents not on the board have voiced concerns with the deal and are wary that Winn is hoping the association will use the funds to finance projects that should have been completed through Winn's own construction efforts.

The revamped project could begin as early as this fall, said Larry Curtis, a managing partner at Winn, and will differ in some ways from the development that residents had previously agreed upon.

"The building will include 61 units that will be rented for the first five years, and probably sold as condos after that," said Curtis. The original plan called for all new units to be sold as condos. A letter from Trustees to Baker residents also indicated that 18 townhouse units included in the original plan were also likely to be excluded for financial reasons.

Winn had reached a previous agreement with residents of the 98-unit Baker compound to begin construction in 2004, but a softening condo market and a stalled historic tax credit application derailed the Boston developer's ability to finance the project. It gained momentum again this summer when the state Legislature overrode a veto by Governor Mitt Romney and raised the amount of historic tax credits available annually from $15 million to $50 million. That made room for Winn's Baker development to secure $5.5 million in tax credits and prompted the developer to re-open negotiations with the condo association. Following a community meeting on July 25, Winn reached an agreement to pay $250,000 to the association, contingent on 85 percent of the development's 90-plus condo owners voting to extend the project deadline.

The funds, said David Colton, chairman of the board of trustees, would be used to finance a number of maintenance projects that have arisen as a result of the delayed renovations to the historic Baker Mill building, and to improve security on the compound.

"We needed to repair the roof on the mill building and do some other capital work," said Colton. The other part will go towards security improvements. And about $100,000 will go into our reserves."

But Joe Clark, who has owned a Baker Square condo for seven years, said that he was frustrated with the way the association has spent money on maintenance in the past and suspected that the association was being pushed into completing projects for which Winn should be held financially responsible.

"The association has said they want to move the guard shack, but the contractor had already committed to moving that stuff," said Clark. "It seems that they might be giving us money up front and saying 'Here, you take care of it,' instead of having a professional contractor handle it."

Another Baker resident, who asked to remain anonymous, said that even after attending several community meetings between Winn developers and Baker residents he was frustrated with the delayed status of the project.

"I want to vote yes to give them an extension to get the project done, because I really do feel like we're so close," he said. "Reading between the lines, I fear that the developer wants to recoup his losses and move on, and I worry that the condo board won't be able to spend the money they're offering us properly."

Curtis said that the new plan and timeline would reflect the interests of both his company and Baker residents, pointing out that the agreement had been made after careful negotiations with the board of trustees and input from the entire Baker community.

"We've worked with the existing Baker residents over the last several years in an active discussion to cover their requests, and one of those was to cover the capital needs of the existing project," said Curtis. Many residents would have rather seen all the new units sold as condos and the development begin right from the beginning, but I believe the new plan will be good for residents and for the neighborhood."

While Clark says he has not made a final decision on which way he will vote, and reiterated his concern that the association was being asked to shoulder responsibility that had originally been assigned to the Winn.

"I'm leaning more towards a voting no, because I think the contractor has more to offer," said Clark.