By Greg Reibman
I come with good news. But also, potentially, some disturbing news.
Last night, the Newton City Council approved Northland's proposed mixed-use project, 17-7.
This project -- the result of more than three years of discussions and tough negotiations between city leaders, neighbors, civic groups, housing advocates, environmentalists and the developer -- is a game changer for our region.
It will transform 23 drab acres of old parking lots, an outdated shopping plaza and industrial buildings into desperately needed homes, amenity-rich office space and eight new parks. It will bring new vitality to Needham Street and beyond; bringing new business, new jobs and new tax revenue here.
Project highlights include:
- 800 desperately-needed apartments, 140 of them affordable, the most ever created in Newton by a single development.
- 180,000 square feet of brick and beam office space for small and mid-sized companies.
- 10 acres of new public gathering and open spaces, including eight new parks and new connections to the Upper Falls Greenway.
- A "mobility hub" with free to all public electric shuttle service to the Newton Highlands T station every 10 minutes (plus free T passes for residents) along with car-share and bike-share infrastructure.
- A strict, accountable and comprehensive plan designed to mitigate traffic; plus millions in mitigation funds to explore enhancing bike and pedestrian connections to the MBTA and Needham Crossing.
- $1.5 million to renovate a nearby elementary school.
- A cutting-edge sustainability program, including three ground-breaking Passive House-certified residential buildings that will surpass anything in the state.
- Subsidized retail space dedicated to non-formula, locally-owned merchants.
- Significant new commercial tax revenue, which can help pay for upgrades to our roads, sidewalks, schools and other public infrastructure.
I applaud Mayor Fuller, our city councilors and the developer on this collaborative effort. In the end, they've agreed to a project that meets the goals of Newton's Economic Development Strategy and the Needham Street Vision Plan. They've crafted a project that will be good for Newton and our region.
Now for the disturbing news.
In spite of last night's 17-7 vote from the City Council and endorsements from the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber, Green Newton, Engine 6 and a diverse coalition of other community and environmental groups, this project may still never break ground.
That's because a neighborhood group called Right Sized Newton has threatened a petition drive to overturn last night's zoning vote at a special election, possibly this spring. Right Size leaders say they will begin collecting the needed 3,000 signatures starting this morning.
This threatened petition drive is remarkably short-sighted. It undermines years of thoughtful negotiations. Northland's transportation plan, economic impact and every other aspect of this project has been thoroughly and thoughtfully vetted by independent peer reviewers.
This is an outstanding project and a rare opportunity for Newton.
But faced with months of delays and the prospect of losing a low-turnout ballot referendum, Northland could instead to turn to the state's 40B housing law, which would still generate much-needed housing for our region but result in the loss of many millions of dollars in traffic mitigation, free shuttles, parks, school building funds and other community give-backs that Northland and the city have thoughtfully negotiated.