Questions Raised About Land Swap for Riverview Flats Development

In October, plans were announced for Riverview Flats, a project to redevelop the old Unity High School property into riverfront condominiums and a mixed use building with retail and office space. To make their vision a reality, developers want an additional seven feet of land in front of the property’s former bus garage and have proposed a land swap with the city to get it.

While City of Lowell councilmembers seem enthusiastic about the plan, not all Parks & Recreation Commission members are convinced that the proposed land swap is in the city’s best interest. The two groups discussed the matter in a special joint meeting held last night at City Hall.

Proposal Would Swap Strip of Land for Adjacent Property

Developers would like to obtain the yellow strip of park land in front of the building in exchange for the blue square of land.

Developers Todd Schaal and Jerry Zandstra say getting an additional seven feet of frontage by the bus garage is a key part of their project. Currently, the property they own has a five foot strip of land in front of the bus garage. With the additional seven feet, they could create 10 foot patios for the proposed condominiums and have two feet of landscaping.

The city owns the seven foot strip the developers would like to acquire. However, that property is designated as park land and was obtained by the city using grant money from the Department of Natural Resources. If the city were to sell the land, they could have to repay the grant money to the DNR.

However, the DNR does allow for the park land to be swapped for another parcel. The developers have proposed obtaining a seven foot strip of land running from High Street to King Street in exchange for a square of land next to the bus garage. The total area of the strip of land is approximately 1,800 square feet while the property the city would receive in exchange is roughly 3,300 square feet.

Commission Members Propose Different Swap

Perry Beachum, chair of the Parks & Recreation Commission, said he wasn’t opposed to trading the seven foot strip of land in front of the bus garage, but he wasn’t sure the property being offered was in the best interest of the city. While some people had suggested putting a splash pad there, he didn’t think condominium owners would want one so close to their homes.

Instead, Beachum thought a better trade would be to give developers the strip of land and vacate High Street in exchange for a parcel of land which is adjacent to the library. This exchange would ensure there will be plenty of room for vehicles and trailers to access the boat launch while also resolving the issue of underground wires on the property. Lowell Area Schools, which previously owned the property, allowed Lowell Light & Power to placed underground wires without a formal easement. Those wires would need to be moved, at significant cost, if the developers wished to build there.

“My concern is that we are a steward for that property,” said commission member Paula Mierendorf. She added that, like Beachum, she wanted to ensure people were able to access the boat launch.

Mierendorf asked Schaal, who was in attendance, if the developers would consider such a swap. Schaal, who appeared to take umbrage at the suggestion, said they may want to develop the parcel next to the library at a later date. “I think [our proposal] is a very reasonable request, and it’s more than generous,” he said.

“So you’re saying no, that’s not an option,” Mierendorf asked.

“No, not at all,” Schaal confirmed.

Issue to Come Back to Parks & Recreation Commission

Ultimately, it was stated that a swap for the parcel near the library wouldn’t meet DNR requirements and couldn’t be considered for the requested strip of land. Beachum then asked what would happen to the square of land the city received. Schaal said the developers would be willing to tear up the asphalt and landscape the property to the city’s specifications.

Still, some Parks & Recreation Commission members were skeptical of that offer. Beachum said he would like to see some sort of rendering of what that landscaping would look like before the swap. While Schaal offered a “blank check” in terms of what the city could request, Beachum thought it would be best to get a dollar amount in writing to ensure both the city and developers were on the same page.

Beyond that, Beachum questioned if the land swap was in the best interest of the city. “In my mind, that seven feet [in front of the bus garage] is very, very valuable,” Beachum said. “I don’t see trading that property being advantageous for the city.”

As currently proposed, the new park space the city receives would enhance the Riverview Flats property so it would be in the developers’ best interest to remove the current asphalt and landscape the area. Schaal indicated that the developers would discuss vacating High Street at a future date, but if the land swap has already occurred, the city will have lost any leverage they might have in that discussion.

“Let’s be clear,” Mierendorf said. “They aren’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. They are going to make a ton of money.”

City Manager Mike Burns noted the Lowell City Council can make any decision they see fit in this matter. However, it is customary to get a recommendation from the Parks & Recreation Commission prior to making a change to the parks master plan. Burns said he expected to bring the matter to the commission for further consideration during their January meeting.

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