April 3, 2017

New projects transforming Marlborough into well-rounded city

PHOTOS/EDD Cote
The Hyatt Place hotel, under construction at the Apex Center of New England, is among the leading projects looking to diversify Marlborough's developments and provide new taxes for further economic revitalization. It, along with a Fairfield Inn & Suites at the Apex Center, will be the city's 10th and 11th hotels.

For shoppers and diners, Marlborough was long caught in the shadow between Worcester and Shrewsbury to the west and Framingham and Natick to the east.

Now, Marlborough is coming into its own in a serious way, by moving in a new direction from what put it on the map. Spurred by millions in hotel tax collections and efforts by city officials to create a more well-rounded city, Marlborough is moving on from being a haven for major employers – GE Healthcare Life Sciences, TJX Cos. and Boston Scientific, to name just three – through new retail, residential and visitor developments.

The Apex project

The most ambitious of these new efforts came about almost by happenstance: the 475,000-square-foot Apex Center of New England being built on 43 acres on the western edge of Marlborough, what has been something of a dead zone in the Route 20 corridor.

The $160-million Apex Center will have two hotels – a Fairfield Inn & Suites and a Hyatt Place – the later of which is already topped off at the west end of the site. A number of restaurants have signed on, including a Friendly's, Evviva Cucina, Qdoba, Starbucks and the latest location of the 110 Grill chain.

Construction started last month on 114,000 square feet of office space. In all, 95 percent is leased, and the first tenants are set to open this fall.

"The center will serve the residents of the MetroWest community and beyond, as well as the millions of annual visitors to nearby sporting facilities," said Robert Walker, principal of Westford developer RA Ventures, the developer of the project. "The Apex Entertainment Center aims to be the go-to destination for families, teens and adults."

Apex was something of a fluke, Marlborough Mayor Arthur Vigeant said. He initially reached out to Walker pitching an idea for a white-cloth restaurant for executives to take clients.

What resulted was far more than a new restaurant. "He came back to me a few weeks later with this project," Vigeant said.

Residences, driven by hotel taxes

The high number of hotel rooms has allowed Marlborough to broaden its economy. A hotel tax surcharge put in place in 2011 brought in money – including $2.4 million just last year – funneled to economic development efforts, including the creation of the Marlborough Economic Development Corp.

The corporation, in turn, has helped draw new downtown developments after a 2014 rezoning to encourage denser, mixed-use projects.

"A lot of people thought it would be 10 years until you saw a project in the ground," said Meredith Harris, MEDC executive director. "But here we are a few years later."

Site work is starting on a 32-unit development at 165 Main St., and two other projects around the corner on South Bolton Street have been proposed. They'll join two developments west of Interstate 495 – Avalon Marlborough and Talia Apartments – that added more than 500 residential units.

The speedy response by residential developers – more than 900 units approved by the city in five years – led the City Council in February to put a six-month moratorium in place for new housing projects to give the city a chance to first study existing demand and what effect additional housing could have on city services.

"We're not looking to change, to be a big city," Vigeant said.

Bringing in more visitors

Given the role hotel taxes play in Marlborough's plans, the city hopes new developments bring in more visitors.

The New England Sports Center – the ice rink complex that draws both local sports teams and national tournaments – is expanding, adding two new full-size rinks, a smaller rink and additional common space for families. The facility attracts more than 1 million visitors a year and expects that number to rise by 20 to 30 percent with the expansion, General Manager Wes Tuttle said.

Attractions like the sports center and its positioning between Worcester and Boston resulted in Marlborough having the highest concentration of hotels in the state outside Boston, Vigeant said.

"It's not just us. It's the hotels, the restaurants, the ease of getting around in the community," Tuttle said. "All those things make it all work. They all tie together really, really nicely."

The iconic development

In the meantime, the Walker Building – the former high school – at 255 Main St. downtown is being considered for residential or mixed-use purposes, a hotel or a municipal office. The city-owned building, the oldest parts of which date to 1897, has been used only on a limited basis for city and nonprofit offices.

A MEDC study released in January identified those potential uses but said the building's configuration is a poor fit for traditional office and retail uses.

Redevelopment for office use would cost an estimated $13 million, while residential, hotel or a mixture of residential and some retail use would cost around $15 million, MEDC said.

"It's the most iconic piece of downtown," Harris said.

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