What's Up With Kmart?
BY ANDONI ZERVOGLOS '22
Until two years ago when the nationwide chain began closing its locations’ doors, the Acton Kmart was a town fixture. Last year, the local hub of after-school activity was officially shuttered and closed, remaining dormant ever since. While Kmart’s fate is sealed, what will come next is undecided, and recent stirrings in town meetings have yet again piqued public interest in the lot’s future.
To predict the lot’s future, one must first understand its past owners. The lot currently belongs to Stop and Shop, and the owners once rented the land to Kmart. They are now looking to sell because they have been paying high taxes for unused property. In the search for potential buyers, many names have surfaced. One client, an investment group focused on hotels and car dealerships, was close to striking a deal. However, the pandemic forced them to rescind their offer. Recently, Ocean State Job Lot, a discount store chain, expressed interest, but they backed out as well. A few companies looking to build affordable housing were interested as well. Normally, companies can easily build affordable housing due to the 40B statute, which requires towns to price twenty to twenty-five percent of local housing affordably. If the amount of reasonably priced housing in a town falls too low, a company can make a fast, easily approved deal to occupy new spaces.
We sat down with Dean Charter, the Vice-Chair on the Acton Select Board, to understand more about affordable housing construction in Acton. Mr. Charter explained that Acton is in a “safe harbor,” meaning the amount of affordable housing in Acton is greater than the required percentage. Therefore, the town has leverage over what they want to build. Still, the Select Board ultimately has the power to choose and approve any project that Stop and Shop submits.
As long as the project adheres to zoning laws, approving a project only has to pass through the Select Board and the planning department. Otherwise, deciding on a project requires a two-thirds vote at Town Meeting. Zoning laws are town laws that establish regulations on construction in certain areas. In Acton, one example of a zoning law is the restriction of constructing buildings over three stories tall at Kelly's Corner. As such, housing developers will not build houses at Kelly’s Corner since they want to make the most housing on the smallest amount of land but cannot build high-rise buildings.
Although the Select Board and planning department influence what is built, many citizens of Acton share concerns that they have almost no say in the lot’s future. For that reason, a citizen-led article requested that the town purchase the Kmart land in June 2019 to build it up for community use, such as a town center. In the end, that movement was defeated in a town meeting. The land costs six million dollars, and constructing modifications as well as keeping the establishment running would cost Acton additional tax money, putting the town at a loss. Moreover, Mr. Charter has asked residents what they would want in a community center, but there was no clear plan or decisive route of action and reaching a consensus on the lot’s use could take years. While Mr. Charter and the other decision-makers agreed that a community center would bring the town together, they were dissuaded by the initial cost and the lack of a concrete plan.
Without a community center as a viable option, there were only a couple of choices left: housing or commercial property. A recent proposal from a company called National Development seeks to build rentable senior housing units on the lot. National Development also wants to build two rentable buildings at the front of the lot, which meets a lot of criteria that would characterize a project in this area. The town would still generate revenue from the land, and there would be no other costs that the Acton would have to cede. Another large selling point is the growth of the town's senior population. Mr. Charter has previously advocated for senior housing in town and believes that now is the time. With Acton’s senior population going up, these buildings would be in an accessible and familiar location for seniors. The proposal also coincides with the town's plans for the Kelly's Corner project. If the National Development plan is approved, the town could see significant changes within two and a half years. Most importantly, the two rentable buildings in the front of the lot would satisfy people looking for more retail in the area.
The Kmart lot is a beautiful piece of land bursting with possibility. The property can be easily reoccupied for a variety of purposes due to its size. While it is nothing more than a parking lot that takes up space in its current underdeveloped state, with the National Development news bubbling, Acton looks to the horizon for decisive action to be taken on the lot in the near future.