Newton City Council approves Northland’s plan for 800 apartments, offices, and retail in Upper Falls
December 3, 2019
By John Hilliard
NEWTON — Northland Investment Corp.’s proposed development in Upper Falls will move forward after city councilors Monday night approved 800 apartments, 180,000 square feet of office space, and 115,000 square feet of retail and community space, in what will become the largest project of its kind in Newton’s history.
In separate votes, the City Council approved a special permit and zoning changes for the project, which will consist of 14 buildings across more than 22 acres at the intersection of Needham and Oak streets.
In each vote, the result was the same: 17 councilors in favor and seven against.
Peter Standish, Northland’s senior vice president, said in a statement that the outcome was “a testament to the exhaustive and collaborative efforts” of city officials and community stakeholders, “all of whom helped to vet and shape this visionary mixed-use master plan.”
“We look forward to proceeding quickly to make this vision a reality,” Standish said.
The project has the support of Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, along with several local civic groups including the environmental organization Green Newton, the pro-affordable housing group Engine 6, the Newton Housing Partnership, the League of Women Voters of Newton, and the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber.
Greg Reibman, the chamber’s president, praised Monday’s council votes in a statement: “I applaud our city leaders and the developer on this collaborative effort, which will bring workforce housing, jobs and economic vitality to our region and new tax revenue to the city.”
But the potential traffic and financial impact of the development has some critics concerned about the effect on Newton and its neighborhoods.
Leon Schwartz, a Newton Highlands resident, said city councilors worked very hard over 14 months to review the proposal, but did not sufficiently address issues with the project. Schwartz is a member of RightSize Newton, a local group that is organizing a voter referendum to overturn the council’s zoning changes for Northland.
“It’s disappointing that while they talk about the impact to the city and the impact to the neighborhoods, they approved it,” Schwartz said in an interview. “And it’s a problem.”
The project was approved with a management plan intended to address traffic issues. Northland agreed to offer a shuttle service to the Newton Highlands MBTA stop, plus money for transportation improvements and other upgrades, including $1.5 million for work at the Countryside Elementary School. About 10 acres of the property will be left as open space.
Northland’s project will feature 800 apartments, including 123 affordable units for residents earning from 50 percent to 80 percent of the area’s median income, which is $79,310 for a single person in Newton and the surrounding communities, according to the city.
Twenty additional units are designated workforce housing for residents earning from 80 percent to 110 percent of the area’s median income.
During deliberations Monday night in the City Council chambers, councilors voted once for needed zoning changes, and again for the special permit.
The results were the same each time, as councilors Lisle Baker, Allan Ciccone Jr., Leonard Gentile, David Kalis, Emily Norton, Christopher Markiewicz, and Greg Schwartz voted to oppose both measures.
The remaining councilors — including Becky Walker Grossman and Jake Auchincloss, who are among the candidates running to succeed US Representative Joseph Kennedy III — voted for the Northland motions.
Before the votes, 20 councilors made individual comments about the project, many praising the development’s inclusion of affordable housing and its other amenities.
Vicki Danberg, a Ward 6 councilor-at-large from Newton Centre, urged her colleagues to vote yes and said the project is needed to help address a regional housing crisis.
“This gives us an opportunity to have housing for our seniors, for our young people, for those of who want to downsize… yes, we will have families with children; these families are the future of Newton,” Danberg said.
Even some councilors who voted against Northland’s proposal, such as Danberg’s fellow Ward 6 councilor-at-large Schwartz, praised aspects of the project, particularly the inclusion of affordable housing.
Schwartz, the head of the council’s Land Use Committee who narrowly lost reelection following a recount, told colleagues the location wasn’t right for such a development because of its impact on the neighborhood.
“It just doesn’t fit on that road network, in that location,” Schwartz said. “I can’t tell you how many times, even at non-peak hours, I have sat in traffic on Needham Street.”
Deb Crossley, a Ward 5 councilor-at-large from Upper Falls who supported Northland’s proposal, said the city is fortunate to be able to consider a project like this.
“This project is virtually in my backyard, it’s in my neighborhood,” Crossley told the council. “And yeah, there are members of our neighborhood who remain opposed to this project. But there are many who are looking forward to it. So, yes in my backyard.”
Kalis, a Ward 8 councilor-at-large from Newton Highlands, told colleagues he was concerned about potential issues like traffic impact and whether the Green Line shuttle will work because of it.
“This [project] oozes uncertainty,” Kalis said. “And that uncertainty, plus its scale, puts our neighborhoods at risk.”
Public comment wasn’t allowed at Monday’s meeting, but nearly 100 spectators watched inside the chambers.
Among them was Rob Gifford, 63, who lives in Newton Centre, wore stickers for Engine 6 and Green Newton. He said the city desperately needs affordable housing, plus the developer is including amenities like the shuttle and open space.
“When you put that all together… it’s a very positive package for the community and a great result,” he said.
Opponents of the project will move ahead with gathering signatures for a voter referendum, said Randy Block, another RightSize Newton member.
They’ll need about 3,200 signatures in 20 days in order to ask the City Council to rescind its vote for Northland’s zoning. If the council does not, the issue would go before voters at the ballot.
Philip Wallas, 72, of Auburndale, said he is concerned about the project’s potential impact, and would support a voter referendum. If successful, it could mean a chance at a compromise between neighbors and Northland, he said.
“From what we saw with the Riverside project, where there was a compromise that was reached, something like that should have happened here,” he said.
Emma Applbaum, 22, of Newtonville said she knows some have hesitations about issues like traffic and the shuttle service, but believes it will be a good project for Newton.
“I think it will bring the right mix of development to us, I understand there are concerns…. but we have to start somewhere,” she said. “On balance, as a whole, it’s a good idea.”