Rte. 138 hotel proposal picks up steam, eyes ZBA approval

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More than a full year after unveiling their plans for a new Best Western hotel on Route 138, a local development group is starting to make some steady progress toward an approval following a string of productive summer hearings with local boards.

On July 12, the Canton Planning Board voted 3-2 to issue a favorable recommendation for the project, which also includes plans for a used car dealership/repair garage and collision center on the same 4.5-acre parcel. Most recently, on July 27, representatives for the applicant, Titanium Group LLC, met with the Zoning Board of Appeals and were told that the board was “really close” to a decision and that it could come as soon as August 24.

A Best Western Plus could be coming to Route 138 in Canton.

A Best Western Plus could be coming to Route 138 in Canton.

According to acting ZBA Chairman Greg Pando, the latest site plans are a dramatic improvement over the original set that they had reviewed a year ago and they were hoping to “put this [matter] to bed” at their next hearing. Pando did, however, request that the applicant first obtain some kind of letter of intent or commitment from Best Western, and the applicant agreed, insisting that the national hotel chain is all-in on the project and this location in particular.

“[Best Western has] committed to this for a year now,” said Paul Schneiders, attorney for the developer. “They are definitely committed to the site and are enthusiastic about the site.”

The property in question, which is located at 925 Turnpike Street directly behind Prestige Car Wash & Gas, has been the subject of numerous failed development attempts over the years, including a regional headquarters for General Motors, a warehouse facility, a multi-purpose “sports bubble,” and a basketball facility proposed by former Boston Celtic Dana Barros that is now being built just a few miles south on Route 138 in Stoughton. In each of these prior instances, Schneiders said the applicant received the necessary approvals but encountered financial obstacles. This time, however, he said both his client and the hotel operator are sufficiently motivated and have the resources to make it work.

Current plans call for the hotel to be constructed on the north side of the property and the automotive facility on the south side towards the rear of the site. The hotel would likely be an extended stay model and would consist of 100 rooms in a four-story structure with a restaurant on the main floor.

In addition to site plan approval from the ZBA, the project would require two variances for the hotel — one for building height and one for lot size — along with a handful of special permits and waivers. For building height, Schneiders said they would need an additional three feet beyond the 40-foot maximum in order to accommodate the restaurant, which requires higher ceilings. As for lot size, current town bylaws require a minimum of 10 acres for the construction of a hotel, although multiple members of both the planning and zoning boards suggested that that requirement is outdated and could even be amended in the near future.

Pando, for instance, noted that the entire lodging industry has changed and that most hotels constructed today have far fewer rooms than the ones that were built 10 or 20 years ago. Schneiders also noted that the 4.5-acre site compares favorably with Canton’s other two hotels — Homewood Suites and the soon-to-be-constructed Hilton Garden Inn — which both garnered town meeting approval despite lot sizes of 2.27 and 3.15 acres, respectively.

During the Planning Board’s review of the project, some members did voice concerns with the amount of zoning relief requested while others expressed skepticism over the proposed motor vehicle repair facility, noting that it seemed incompatible with a hotel use and could potentially disrupt the guests’ experience. However, both the applicant and a representative from Best Western insisted that it is actually quite common for a hotel to be built near an adjacent commercial building and that convenience and amenities matter most to guests in today’s market.

What’s more, according to Tom Giuliano, Best Western’s North American director for development, the greater Boston area is one of the hottest hotel markets in the country, with demand currently exceeding supply by an estimated 3 to 4 percent.

“We see it to be a very viable project for both the developer and for us,” an enthusiastic Giuliano told the Planning Board at a late June hearing, adding, “The least of our concerns is the success of this project.”

Despite both Schneiders’ and Giuliano’s assurances, one Planning Board member, newcomer David McCarthy, remained wholly unconvinced, noting that he had recently spoken to commercial developers and leasing agents who do business on Route 138 and that none of them could vouch for the reported high demand for hotel rooms in the area. “I personally have significant concerns over the idea that we’re putting a third hotel in town when we haven’t even opened the second one,” he said.

McCarthy, who ultimately voted no to the site plan recommendation along with fellow newcomer Patricia McDermott, also expressed serious reservations with the extended stay component of the proposed hotel, which he said has a tendency to function as a residential option during challenging economic times.

Pando raised a similar concern at the conclusion of the July 27 ZBA hearing, telling the applicant that he wanted to see the hotel remain “business-oriented” and not become a long-term housing option for needy families. At the same time, Pando acknowledged that it was a sensitive topic and stressed that he did not want either himself or the board to “appear to be opposed to helping people.”

Schneiders, in response, said that “extended stay” for some guests could mean a month or more, such as a family where the breadwinners are between jobs; however, he said there is no way to draw distinctions between specific guests without “trampling into discrimination”— a point that Pando firmly acknowledged.

Ronen Drory, one of the principals of the Titanium Group and a longtime Canton resident, said he did not envision a family using the hotel as a home for the simple fact that it would be cost-prohibitive to do so. He added that the Titanium Group, which also owns Prestige Car Wash & Gas, intend to be a hands-on operator of the site and would personally address any issues that may arise. “More than anything, we want to do it right,” said Drory.

Schneiders said the project, if approved, would also generate substantially more revenue for the town — an estimated $550,000 annually compared to just $10,000 today — while producing minimal impact on municipal services.

Schneiders further noted that the project has the support of the police and fire chiefs as well Selectmen Chairman John Connolly, who wrote an enthusiastic letter of endorsement in which he hailed it as a “win-win” for the town.

The zoning board plans to continue and possibly wrap up the matter at its next hearing on Thursday, August 24. The applicant is hoping to have a representative from Best Western at the meeting to answer any outstanding questions. Once all deliberations have concluded, the board will vote separately on the site plan and the requested zoning relief.

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