By Greg Reibman
Newton voters will decide on March 3 if Northland Investment Corporation can build its previously-approved 23 acre mixed use development at the corner of Needham and Oak Streets.
But more than just this forward-thinking project is at stake.
What’s actually at stake is the future of economic development in Newton and across our region.
Yes, Tuesday's referendum is that important.
Northland spent more than three years presenting, modifying and negotiating its project. They attended literally hundreds of community meetings, followed by 16 public hearings and funded multiple traffic studies, environmental impact reports and design reviews.
After listening to community input, the company reduced the project from 2 million to 1.1 million square feet. They offered to fund free electric shuttle buses every ten minutes to Newton Highlands. They agreed to a $10 million package of community benefits, including money to renovate Countryside Elementary School, fund traffic mitigation and water and sewer infrastructure. They increased the open space to ten acres, including a splash park and playground that were specifically requested by neighbors. They introduced cutting edge environmental standards. They reduced residential parking spaces and pushed all the parking underground. They agreed to spend $1.5 million undergrounding utility lines.
Supporters have praised Northland’s thoughtful design and transportation mitigation plan. They were excited to be adding much-needed workforce housing (including 140 permanently affordable units) along with 180,000 square feet of brick and beam office space and 115,000 square feet of retail, including subsidized rent for mom and pop merchants. They laud the addition of a “senior friendly” apartment building and the use of ground-breaking passive house technology. And the chamber is especially enthusiastic about the economic benefits, amenities and vibrancy we believe this development will bring to the Needham Street corridor, Newton and the region.
Now imagine earning all that support and still losing your project because a boisterous anti-development group -- which refused your repeated invitations to meet with you -- launched a ballot drive that would torpedo your project.
Yes, that’s correct: Over three years, Right Size Newton, the opposition group behind the referendum, never once sat down with Northland to say what size project they felt was “the right size.”
So now it all comes down to March 3. If Northland’s project is rejected on Super Tuesday, we won’t just lose a well-thought out, thoroughly-vetted, sustainable, project. Newton’s reputation as a great place to do business takes a hit too.
Think about it. Why would any other developer or investor ever choose to do build here? Who would want to invest all that time and expense going through a vigorous land use process only to have it overturned by opponents who never even had the courtesy to meet with you?
This could have a devastating impact on economic development in Newton for a generation.
Meanwhile, what would happen to all those asphalt acres between Needham Street and Newton Upper Falls if the “no” vote prevails?
Northland will have to make a tough decision as to what they should do with their investment. One possible route would be to build housing under the state’s 40B affordable law, which allows developers to bypass zoning laws in communities like Newton, where less than ten percent of the housing stock meets the affordable standard.
Under 40B, Northland could build more than 1,900 apartments, instead of the proposed 800.
But all the amenities that the city council so carefully negotiated – the free shuttles, open space, money and millions in mitigation and green infrastructure -- would be lost.Yes, we could still get a lot of needed housing -- and that’s a big plus -- but only with greater traffic, poorer design and fewer sustainable benefits.
And every other developer witnessing what just happened to Northland would likely follow the 40B path elsewhere in Newton because 40Bs can’t be overturned by referendum.
Communities do better when the developers and municipal leaders work collaboratively to address their housing needs and meet their 40B threshold (as Needham has done) because it allows opportunities to negotiate the kinds of benefits Northland has offered.
That’s why there’s much more at stake than just Northland’s wonderful project.
I hope you will join the chamber and the broad coalition of housing advocates, environmentalists and other civic groups who are working hard to deliver a resounding “Yes for Newton’s Future” on March 3.
For more information about this project watch this video from a recent chamber-sponsored event.