A decision on whether to approve Mayor Ruthanne Fuller’s request for $500,000 to study redevelopment of the Washington Street Corridor will have to wait a couple weeks.
The City Council appeared poised to overwhelmingly approve the funding Monday night, after an amendment to put the request for consulting services out to bid was rejected 17-7. But Ward 4 Councilor at-Large Lenny Gentile chartered action on the proposal, meaning it won’t be acted upon until the council’s next meeting April 2.
Fuller had requested the funds earlier this year in order to hire the Massachusetts-based Principle Group to conduct the study, but several councilors said not putting the project out to bid was fiscally irresponsible.
The Washington Street Corridor has been the focus of the development debate here for several years. Robert Korff, of Mark Development, is poised to redevelop the so-called Orr block in Newtonville with a mixed-use project known as Washington Place. Councilors on Monday said Korff has told them he also has plans to build a total of 940 housing units, split between the property that now houses Whole Foods and towards West Newton at the location of The Barn shoe store.
Gentile, Ward 2 Councilor Emily Norton, Ward 4 Councilor Chris Markiewicz, Ward 5 Councilor John Rice, Ward 8 Councilor Cheryl Lappin, Ward 1 Councilor at-Large Jay Ciccone and Ward 3 Councilor Jim Cote also voted in favor of putting out to bid what would essentially be a rezoning/master plan study of Washington Street, from Newtonville to West Newton.
I was shocked that it was even legal for us to sign a contract for half-a-million dollars without going out to bid,” Norton said. “This isn’t about this particular work, or about a particular project. I agree with what Councilor Gentile said, in that I do not dispute that the Planning Department needs help to get this work done. You can think we should conduct this study, you can want massive development all up and down Washington Street, and still think this particular planning and charrette and zoning work should be put out to bid. This is a meta issue about transparency and governance.”
On Tuesday, Fuller said putting the project out to bid now would delay what is a critical process. Moreover, she said, the Planning Department had throughly vetted the firm and believes it is the only one that can provide the services the city requires.
“This is a really unusual capability and Planning felt it was important to have a Massachusetts firm so they could be here in Newton,” she said. “We have never gotten this work done correctly and it’s unusual to have a group that does real community-based planning.”
Fuller said the Planning Department negotiated the price down with the Principle Group, which originally wanted $750,000 for the project.
“We know pricing,” she said.
Susan Albright, a Ward 2 councilor at-large, said moving ahead with the study must not be delayed.
“We absolutely have to do this now,” she said. “Washington Street is ripe for the picking. We need to make sure what goes there is what the community wants.”
Principle describes itself as “an urban design and development company” that works “at the intersection of planning, design, architecture and real estate development.”