In a world of diminished local news reporting, trying to keep up with the latest developments about developments can be challenging. Often the only reliable source of news are the various meeting minutes and live streams. And when it comes to minutes, hands down Srdj Nedeljkovic’s reports from the Newton Highlands Area Council are the most compete and details.
Here’s Srdj’s draft minutes from the Newton Highlands Neighborhood Area Council meeting with Northland from March 7, which provide an overview of the changes Northland plans to present the the Land Use Committee on Tuesday March 12.
Northland Development on Needham Street Alan Schlesinger, on behalf of the developer, gave a presentation on proposed revisions to the Northland development on Needham Street. Also present representing Northland were Peter Standish (Senior Vice President of Development), Kent Gonzales (Vice President of Development), and Dan Bernard (Business Development Officer).
Mr. Schlesinger provided a preview of what the members of City Council will be presented at the Land Use Committee meeting next week. He will be discussing a proposed redesign of the site based on input from consultants, Newton officials, and public comments. Mr. Schlesinger noted that the Northland site is a 22-acre site off of Needham Street, with 1200 ft adjacent to the old railway bed. The site includes parts of the South Meadow Brook and a culvert under Tower Road, with the waterway flowing down to the Charles River.
The site will have automobile access several points. One access point will connect to Tower Road. There will be access from a new Charlemont Street 4 way intersection. There will be an entrance from Needham Street onto a new Main Street within the project. There will also be an entrance on Oak Street. The center of the development will focus on a Village Green. The old Mill building will remain as an office building. Everything else currently on the site will be demolished. Other than the Mill building, the project will consist of residential housing units on upper floors and commercial properties will be on the ground floor of some of the buildings. A mobility center will be created off of Needham Street for bus transportation.
Mr. Schlesinger pointed out that extensive feedback about the original proposal was received from community members and city staff. Initially, Building 6 of the project was a 5 story above ground parking garage with apartments on the outside. Northland received feedback that the bulk of the building was too much. The new proposal divides the original building footprint and eliminates the 5-story above ground parking garage.
The original proposal was for 822 residential units, of which 123 were planned as affordable units. The lining of buildings was retail and commercial for a total of 180,000 SF of retail space. Current zoning required 3400 parking spaces for development of this scope. Northland asked for a waiver to reduce the number of parking spaces to 1950. Mr. Schlesinger pointed out recent planning opinion that less parking is preferable to having an oversupply of parking. The current zoning ordinance requires 2 parking spaces per dwelling unit. However, the new development is being programmed to have1 parking space per dwelling unit for a total of 800 parking spaces, with the remaining 1150 parking spaces allocated to support commercial uses.
Northland received feedback from several city councilors who wanted fewer parking spaces. There is a concern that an oversupply of parking spaces may attract more driving to the site.
Some Upper Falls residents, however, remain concerned that more parking is needed on site, and they are concerned about spill-over parking into Upper Falls. Another revision to the original plan was to move a “community building” closer to Oak Street from its original location near Tower Road so that it is closer to the Upper Falls village center. RKG, an economic development consultant, provided an assessment that this project could support 100,000 SF of local retail. In order to fill 180K SF of retail, Northland would have needed to have a more regional attraction and more regional tenants, which would induce more traffic. By reducing commercial space from about 185,000 SF to 115,000 SF, this shrinks some of the buildings, reduces traffic generation, and will lead to reduced tax revenue.
The new proposal reacts to a number of comments from city officials and constituents. Building 6 has been broken into 3 buildings with a new interior courtyard. Building 5 has been divided into 3 smaller buildings with an interior courtyard. All the parking on the site that was in above- ground structures has been placed underground. The total parking count went from 1950 to 1550 spaces. The amount of parking is being reduced because the retail portion of the site has been reduced from 185K SF to 115 K SF, which allowed the removal of 200 parking spaces, with further reduction enabled by implementation of a robust parking management plan.
In the new proposal, the Village Green is being enlarged. A roadway around the green is being eliminated. There will be laneways designed for interior courtyards for residential buildings. Retail will be focused on Main Street and an Unnamed Street. Also, the mobility hub for the site will be placed in the middle of a building fronting Needham Street. This building will also have commercial uses on Needham Street. Building 4 was reduced in size, which allowed an increased in the size of the Village Green. A park adjacent to the Mill building will be widened by 10 feet to 73 feet. The community building has been relocated to be closer to the Community Park, just at the backside of the Depot Restaurant. The South Meadow Brook Stream will be day-lighted near the Mill Building, which will have a water feature.
There will be two levels of parking underground, and all parking will be removed from the above grade buildings. Residential tenants will be required to pay for their parking. Transportation demand incentives will be developed to make every effort to reduce single car driving. There will be 2 hour parking available for retail customers. Mr. Schlesinger described the transportation plan for the site. Northland is proposing 4 shuttle routes: one to Newton Corner, a second route to Needham to the commuter rail station, a third route to Cambridge, and a fourth route that will go to the Boston seaport district. It is hoped that residents will move to the Northland site knowing that they may take shuttle buses into town. The project will support the ability to share parking between office, retail, and residential users.
A parking management plan will be developed. The site will not have park and ride, and will not allow all-day parking. The shuttle system will not be free. The plans indicate that there will be a shuttle that will stop at the Newton Highlands T station. The fare for these bus routes will be set so that enough people will find it attractive to take the bus. It is expected that some of the future Northland residents will travel to work in Cambridge and Somerville. The shuttle bus service will be operated by the 128 Business Council. Overall, there are trends to utilize more transit services. All buildings on the site except for the existing Mill building will have residential units above ground floor retail, with retail along Main Street and the Unnamed Road. Building 8 is being considered for some form of “affinity housing” for older individuals. It is important for older adults to feel welcome throughout the Northland site, and not to be segregated by age. In the “affinity housing” building, there may be additional architectural variety. There may be different color schemes in Building 8 that make this environment more attractive for older people. All of the buildings along Needham Street will have ground floor commercial.
The heights of the buildings will reflect a pyramidal structure. There will be 3 story buildings along Upper Falls. The Needham Street buildings will be 4 stories. In the middle, there will be a 7-story building, which will be 96 feet high. This will allow for varied roofing design. Although the overall umber of units has been reduced to 800 units, 123 of them are still projected to be affordable units.
Mr. Schlesinger pointed out that Northland has had conversations with TripAdvisor about merging their two shuttle services. All of the D line shuttle buses are projected to run to the Highlands. It is unlikely that shuttles will go to the Eliot T station. Some shuttles may go to Newton Centre.
A discussion ensued about elimination of surface parking around the Village Green. A question was posed if reducing on street parking near the Village Green would have an adverse effect on vitality of the Green. Northland has decided to remove parking around the Village Green in this version of the site plan.
A question was posed about if the developer could provide 25% of the units as affordable housing. Concerns were also voiced about the impacts a project of this scope might have on city services. A concern was expressed about the new version of the plan generating less commercial tax revenue. However, there will be 115K SF of retail, which is 1.5x more retail than what is on the site now. Overall, the project is expected to generate $1.2 million net dollars into the city’s finances. The school overcrowding issue in Newton is being addressed by enlarging existing
schools. The School Department is in the process of requesting funding for an enlarged Countryside school. The school is projected to expand to have space for 525 students.
Councilor Noel commented that this is a big project and that we are all trying to understand how this project benefits Newton. Many councilors support there being more density of development in certain parts of the city. The Northland project is consistent with the city’s commitment to increase housing supply, in line with environmental goals. As far as transportation planning is concerned, a number of options might be experimented with to see what works best. Councilor Noel noted a number of ways that the Northland project can serve the goals of the city, including helping address the housing crisis that is going on.
Mr. Schlesinger pointed that Northland owns 22 acres of land where 1.5 million SF of office space can be placed by right. This type of development would require 4500 parking spaces. No mitigation would be required. Currently, the site is paved and causing a heat island effect. There is a brook now on the site that is polluted. The site currently lacks control of water quality and
run-off from the site drains into the Charles River. The proposed Northland development will plant 9 acres of the site with greenery and will remove much of the heat island effect and create a sustainability plan. In Newton, this site will become a destination. It is likely that market rates for rent will be high. At Avalon, the current rents are approximately $3000 to $3500 for a 2- bedroom unit.
At the Northland site, there will be 123 families who will have subsidized housing and who will pay 30% of their income for rent. The developer cannot include more affordable housing in the project based on the expected budget. Mr. Schlesinger stated that the project will create benefits to the City such as a new private transit system, new housing, the ability for people to work and live in the same place, 1400 jobs, and economic development.
Councilor Rice commented that this is a very large project on a large footprint. However, there will be a significant input from City Council as the final plans are developed. The current plan for the site is in evolution, and there will likely be more changes to the plans before final approval. Councilor Rice pointed out that Newton’s population is rising towards the 90K
threshold that it once had at its peak.
Bob Burke expressed concerns about the transportation plan for the site. He noted that the Riverside project will create pressure on transportation, as will the Northland project. However, no improvements are being planned for the Green line, which has not changed for many years. Bob asked how this project will be coordinated with other development projects in terms of
transportation impacts. Nathaniel Lichtin asked about MBTA Green line capacity issues. Ms. Schlesinger noted that the Northland shuttle buses will provide options for transit away from the Green line. The shuttles will provide an alternative to taking the Green line to downtown Boston and to Cambridge and the Seaport.
A discussion ensued about the merits of improving the overall public transit system, the MBTA, rather than investing in a private transit system that does not provide broad access as the MBTA. Concerns were expressed about the utility of infrequent bus service to various locations that may not match current travel patterns. Srdjan Nedeljkovic pointed out how an extension of the Route 60 bus that runs along Route 9 to Chestnut Hill to the Needham Street corridor would allow forimproved access from this part of Newton to the center of Boston and be available to all people
along the route. It was noted that the new revised Northland plans will result in a reduction of commercial space that will reduce net gain of tax revenues to the city. Further discussion ensued about the roadway exit from the site to Oak Street. Many Upper Falls residents do not want an entrance from Northland to Oak Street at all. However, Mr. Schlesinger pointed out that an exit is necessary to Oak Street to reduce traffic congestion on Needham Street and at the intersection of Oak and Christina Streets. Mr. Schlesinger noted that the overall volume of traffic to Upper Falls will not be affected by the entrance at Oak Street. Regarding cut-through traffic, there will be multiple turns on the Oak Street access road with raised platforms to control speed and to reduce desirability of the Oak Street access route.
Nathaniel Lichtin noted that the proposed Northland shuttle buses will run on the same route as the Route 59 bus. He questioned how this will be coordinated with the MBTA system in terms of schedules and timing. Mr. Schlesinger pointed out that the shuttle bus service is intended to supplement existing service on the Route 59 bus.
Councilor Rice noted that when the Green line shuts down, the Highlands turns into a big bus stop due to all the buses that are put in service to replace the trains. There will be difficulty with the Northland shuttles if they are added into the bus queue on those dates that the Green line is not in service. Mr. Schlesinger noted that the frequency of Northland’s shuttle service has no been determined, but that these may run as a commuter shuttle. Mr. Schlesinger noted that some individuals may take the shuttle bus to Newtonville in order to take commuter rail into Boston.
At around 8:45 pm, after opportunity for questions and comments, the Northland proponents