PEABODY — Amid opposition from the Emerson Park neighborhood, Hemisphere Development Group LLC has pulled the plug on its plan to redevelop the dilapidated former J.B. Thomas Hospital into 110 senior condominiums.
“Following Wednesday’s neighbor meeting and at the urging of Ward 4 Councilor Edward Charest, we have decided to withdraw our proposal to further evaluate the potential development of this property,” said Al Chow of Hemisphere Development in a press release. “We will continue to look at all of our options for the site over the coming weeks and months.”
Hemisphere, which is based in Boston, said in a statement it was “responsive to community input throughout this process by redesigning the proposal multiple times for a 27% total reduction in unit count since the proposal’s inception in response to community feedback.”
The developer said they had refreshed landscaping and added screening, and touted the project benefits, including $500,000 a year in property tax revenue once it was done. About 16 condos would have been affordable under the city’s inclusionary zoning ordinance.
A few weeks ago, Hemisphere launched a marketing website to tout the project, dubbed Kings Residences. But the website has been replaced with three paragraphs announcing the company was withdrawing its proposal.
A special permit application filed in June was supposed to go to a public hearing by the City Council on Aug. 22, but the developer’s attorney asked for an extension due to representatives of Hemisphere being out of the country at this time.
Hemisphere purchased the former hospital property at 15 King St. in December 2017 for $1.9 million, city records show. The 3.2-acre property used to be the city’s hospital, before it became a privately owned long-term care hospital. The site was last used as the 50-bed Curahealth Boston North Shore long-term care facility, which closed in 2017.
Since it was first pitched in early 2018, the proposal to tear down the hospital and replace it with senior condos has drawn concern and criticism from neighbors worried about parking, traffic, congestion and buildings that would be out of scale with a neighborhood of single- and two-family homes.
Over the course of more than a year, the developer has scaled back the number of senior condos from an initial plan of 150 to 135 to 120 and then 110.
Peabody attorney Athan Vontzalides, who represents Hemisphere, said his clients are willing to work with the neighborhood, but the site plan as designed “certainly does not have neighborhood support.” Neighbors support single and two-family housing, which he said is not economically feasible to build on this property.
Before it was changed, Kings Residences’ marketing website said potential buyers wanted to turn the property into marijuana cultivation facility or a drug and alcohol rehab center.
Vontzalides said he does not know the names of potential buyers, but he had heard the site was being eyed for affordable housing developments under state law Chapter 40B, and for a medical drug and alcohol rehab center. He noted that since the developers had filed for a special permit, state law bars them from submitting a comprehensive permit application under Chapter 40B for one year. Such comprehensive permits, issued by the Zoning Board of Appeals, allow developers to skirt most zoning in exchange for the construction of affordable housing.
So what could Hemisphere do?
“They could sell it, they could develop in a different fashion,” said Ward 4 Councilor Edward Charest, who represents the neighborhood.
He said the neighborhood meeting on Wednesday was contentious, and he understands that people were upset and nervous about the project.
Charest said he also had his concerns about the development, but he has held back so as to be fair to both sides.
“I guess we wait to see what they do,” said Charest, who said he has no idea what the future may hold for the site. “When people ask me, I’ll give them the honest answer, I don’t know.”
Charest also said he had heard of a couple of proposals for the site — a 40B development with 135 three-bedroom units, and a drug rehab facility.
John Salisbury-Rowswell, who is challenging Charest for his council seat, said the developer has a history of submitting plans then withdrawing them, and there is nothing preventing the developer from resubmitting future plans.
“Same pattern, same problem. We still have to be on our toes to see what Hemisphere is going to do next,” Salisbury-Rowswell said.
“I think the community is unified,” he added, “but it remains to be seen if they are listened to.”
Mayor Ted Bettencourt could not be reached for further comment.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.