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Mar 09, 2020

Could Newton Lead the Way in the Suburbs?

Banker & Tradesman
March 8, 2020


Super Tuesday was full of surprises, both good and bad.  But one of the most intriguing was Newton’s decisive support for Northland’s large Upper Falls development.


Zoning changes to enable the 800-unit, 1.1 million-square-foot office-residential-retail project from Northland Investment Corp. were previously approved by a two-thirds majority of the City Council, but community groups used a quirk in the city’s charter to force a referendum on the council’s decision.


Voters backed the zoning change by a wide margin of 58 percent to 42 percent, defying fears that the city’s deep NIMBY streak would rear its head again.

It would likely be a mistake to read the vote as a full-throated endorsement of any and all new development.  Not only did the development team offer a tantalizing series of concessions and money to improve public infrastructure and mitigate traffic, but their supporters made it clear that Northland – which already owns the land – could well build a Chapter 40B multifamily project on the site if their project was not approved.  In addition, the team was able to form alliances with local YIMBY groups and affordable housing advocates, helping amplify the reality that this project would help chip away at the city’s decades of exclusionary behavior.


This combination of incentives certainly swayed some voters, buttressing a well-capitalized education and get-out-the-vote campaign to ensure the defeat of angry community groups whose sole agenda seems to be preserving the existing order, regardless of manifest problems both large and small.


As unique as the circumstances of any political situation are, however, Northland’s win last week could point the way towards a better type of development in Massachusetts’ suburbs as land use decisions get more and more political.


First, the project took neighbors’ traffic concerns seriously.  From the complicated and expensive, like a shuttle bus system, to the more prosaic and cheap, like shared car seats for kids residents can use when renting a Zipcar, Northland offered a range of mitigation measure designed to reduce its residents’ and visitors’ needs for cars.


Second, the project will be designed at a pedestrian scale, making the place hospitable and encouraging residents to stay on-site for as many of their daily needs as possible.

Third, and most importantly, the project will be located in the middle of a major employment area. Most people in the real estate business already know these areas, with their larger parcels, are much more easy to develop, but many are also ruled by out-of-date, single-use zoning. One of the reasons Massachusetts has some of the country’s worst traffic is because suburbs have made a virtue of excluding even modest densification, driving many workers far away from job centers in order to find homes they can afford to buy or rent.  

Northland’s project need not be suis generis.  let’s hope planners and politicians everywhere take its lesson to heart.


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