BY PAUL LEIGHTON
---- — BEVERLY — Despite the strong objections of neighbors, the City Council last night approved a controversial rezoning on Brimbal Avenue that could reshape that area of the city for years to come.
Councilors voted 7-2 in favor of the proposal, which will lead to a land swap between the state and a private developer that will likely trigger the development of a $20 million shopping plaza and a potential $25 million traffic project.
As councilors explained their votes, mostly by reading from prepared statements, about half of the 150 people in the audience at Beverly High School held up signs that read “Please Vote Not To Re-Zone.”
“I understand your concerns,” Councilor Scott Dullea said. “But the thing I kept coming back to is, this (shopping center) development is going to happen regardless of how we vote tonight. A ‘yes’ vote allows us to have safer streets.”
“No” votes by four councilors would have defeated the rezoning. But City Council President Paul Guanci and Ward 5 Councilor Don Martin, whose ward includes much of the affected area, were the only ones to vote against it, drawing applause from the crowd.
Guanci said he has spoken with hundreds of residents in the last few weeks about the project, an indication of the passion it has generated. He blasted what he called “belligerent, classless” comments on Facebook, saying, “I take things like that personal.”
Guanci said he decided to vote no because he thinks the number of cars generated by the shopping center will be “double or triple” what a traffic engineer has estimated.
“North Beverly will become even more of an island than it already is,” Guanci said.
Guanci said it was only the second time in his 10 years on the City Council that he has disagreed with Mayor Bill Scanlon on an issue. Scanlon, who has been working on the Brimbal Avenue project for almost a decade, is not running for re-election.
“This project is not going away,” Guanci said. “We just need to slow it down and pass it along to whoever the next mayor will be.”
But most of the councilors said the shopping plaza, which could include a Whole Foods Market, would be built anyway on adjacent land currently owned by the developer, CEA Group of Cambridge, and already zoned to allow a plaza.
The state has asked CEA Group to swap land so the state can move the connector road, which Scanlon said must be done in order for the $25 million in traffic improvements, which would be done in two phases, to proceed.
Councilors said a “no” vote would still allow the plaza to be built but would deny the city traffic improvements that will be paid for mostly by the state.
“It’s not about giving a red light or a green light to the developer,” Councilor Scott Houseman said. “I think that land will be developed either way, and there will be more traffic either way. Do we want more traffic with our current intersections or with new intersections?”
“It may not be perfect,” Councilor Jason Silva said, “but it is the best chance at addressing” both traffic needs and economic development.
The vote capped an intense six-week period when a project that has long been considered by the city suddenly came into focus for residents in the area who will be most affected by it.
For the second time, the City Council moved its meeting to the high school auditorium to accommodate a large crowd.
Even councilors who voted in favor of the rezoning said the process should have been more transparent and open to the public.
“We all agree it was not done perfectly,” said Wes Slate, the Ward 2 councilor who is running for mayor against Mike Cahill.
Cahill, the former council president, was in the audience last night. He has also expressed support for the Brimbal Avenue project.
Guanci noted that the state’s public hearing on the project was held on a Friday morning at 10 when few people could attend, including him.
Councilor Brett Schetzsle encouraged residents to stay involved as the project moves along. The plans for a shopping plaza, when they are filed, would need to be approved by the Planning Board.
Martin filed an order requesting the formation of a Brimbal Avenue Citizen Advisory Committee.
“One area where the council has failed is listening to the residents most closely affected by this project,” he said.
Councilor Jim Latter said he favors the project because the city needs new development to generate tax revenue to pay for a new middle school, public safety and public works upgrades, and pension and healthcare liabilities.
The second phase of the Brimbal Avenue project, which includes a bridge over Route 128, is designed to open up land to development that Scanlon has said will bring in much-needed revenue.
“If we don’t support development of this scale in this area, where would we support it?” Latter said. “And if we don’t support this kind of new growth, we have to be prepared to live with the consequences of city budgets without this kind of new growth revenue.”
Ward 1 Councilor Maureen Troubetaris, who has been on the council for 22 years, compared this vote to the one she made in favor of building the Stop & Shop on Elliott Street, over the objections of many in her ward.
“I know I voted correctly because everyone in this audience benefited with the revenue it created,” she said.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.